Monday, March 31, 2014

Interview with a Vampire (The Vampire Chronicles #1) by Anne Rice

Louis has a story to tell – centuries of life as a vampire that he recounts to a very surprised and very curious human.

Over the centuries he has experienced many things – tragedies, drama, bitter losses and terrible, guilty confessions and he lays it all out to one mortal listener, along with the lessons he has learned along the way. Perhaps in some vague hope that they will be heeded.

The writing is often incredibly beautiful and classically gothic. The descriptions are full and evocative, the settings are clear and powerful and presented in exquisite detail. The story, recounted as Louis recalls it – is still heavy with emotion that permeates every scene. In fact, the format of Louis recording his memories further helps underscore how Louis grew, what he learned and how he became what he is now. Simply seeing the vampire Louis is now, recounting his experiences, and contrasting him with the vampire he was, the vampire he describes, is a powerful literary tool. We see his cold detachment against the heavy, powerful emotion of his youth and it’s an unlabelled exposition throughout the whole book

This book also covers a lot of philosophy and fascinating questions that naturally arise when you consider immortal vampires – issues that are so often brushed over in vampire stories. What does it mean to be immortal? How does an immortal, ancient being adapt to the ever changing world? When you consider that our own parents and grandparents are often quite bemused by the latest technology, how much worse must it be for someone from the 17th century? What toll must it take on them to see a world that they must constantly struggle to understand?

And there’s the nature of morality. What is evil, what is not – especially when you are a being driven to kill? Does the definition of evil change? Is there a moral murder? Is there a less evil murder? Or is everyone just deluding themselves?

And there’s Claudia – a fascinating character and concept. The girl who can never grow up, the woman forever trapped as a child and in turn being a woman in a twisted family, blighted by love and hate in equal measure.

I also love the ending twist about the simple truth about how people will react to vampirisim no matter how it is described.

These are some really fascinating concepts that lend themselves to some real depth.

And the book goes into that depth. We have a lot of deep discussions and debates about these questions and more – including about what truly makes a vampire a vampire and what makes their immortality worthwhile. The topics are revisited over and over with extra nuances and new lines of enquiry and revelation as the characters learn more, meet overs and grow steadily, bringing new life and thoughts to old debates.

The problem with that is that ye gods it can be long winded. When a debate goes on for pages you risk is becoming dull. When you return to the same debate again – and again – at the same length then no matter how fascinating the topic is, there’s a severe risk of boring the reader. Especially when, to these long moral debates, we add that super gothic descriptive scene setting which risks being over-written in and of itself. Then to that we add the format – Louis recounting a story with all the interjections that implies (and far more detail than anyone remember events would be able to recount) which could also drag down a story. And yet further, to that, we add that Louis de Pont Du Lac is the supreme lord and master of the Musty Vampire. By all that is angsty, this vampire can whine at epic levels and for incredible length. It’s quite possible that my long exposure to the genre has left me with so very little patience for epic whines, especially since Louis did it first – but his moping did become rather tiresome at times.

Put all this together and you have an interesting format, beautiful descriptions, lots of philosophy and morality and other wonderfully excellent nuggets presented in a fashion that is, at best, extremely ponderous and, at worst, agonisingly slow to read. The book is about 350 pages long. It felt longer. So very much longer.

In terms of inclusion… well we have a few POC especially in Louis’s early years, but they’re pretty much nameless slaves. Acknowledged as intelligent and aware and with their own culture – but nameless slaves nevertheless.

And there’s a knotty question of whether Louis and Lestat and Armand are bisexual. In this book I come up with the answer of… possibly? The problem is everyone throws around the word “love” in an awfully casual manner, without any sense of that meaning in a romantic sense or a partnership of lovers. In fact, the word “lover” is thrown around with a similar lack of sexual or romantic nature. Both of these may be an interesting historical quirk and reference to the era the vampires are from since “love” was certainly thrown around in a platonic sense much more in the past (before the dreaded terror of being thought of as gay crushed so much expression of platonic affection). None of them seem to be particularly sexual beings, beauty is described in an aesthetic sense more than any kind of sensuality. Indeed, the only character who is ever described in anything approaching a sensual or sexual way is… Claudia. Who has the body of a 5 year old (and, yes, it was creepy). In the end I’m left with the impression of it being heavily implied but with a heavy dollop of plausible deniability if you wanted to assert everyone as completely straight – or completely asexual for that matter. Or you can assert that Louis was a creepy creepy paedophile and probably find a few passages backing that as well.

I couldn’t finish this review without acknowledging the importance of this book. Yes we now are positively saturated by angsty, sexy vampires and Urban Fantasy of all forms. A book with a sympathetic vampire seems ridiculously common place. But this, in 1976, was either the first or one of the first (or possibly the first popular one that took the concept and made it widespread). Whatever problems I have with the pacing, this was the grandmother of the genre I now love, established the tropes we’ve come to know and really brought the concepts to light; and while I think some later authors may have taken it further and done it better, Anne Rice laid this foundation on which those works were built.

I don’t think we can truly even appreciate this book now without looking hard at that – at how new and different Interview with a Vampire was when it was published even if it feels, in some ways, rather tired and done now. Yes there are a lot of vampires like these – but this was what they were imitating.