Anne Rice’s first novel, Interview with the Vampire, hit like a meteor. A bestseller whose paperback rights sold for more than Carrie, it gave vampires new (un)life in a cosmology that influenced everything from Near Dark to Buffy the Vampire Slayer (look at those creepy kid vampires alone). She used her native New Orleans to create an outwardly glamorous and sexy world and populated it with a cast of intriguing characters that readers wanted to learn more about.
Rice delivered, first with The Vampire Lestat, told from the point of view of the first book’s love interest and antagonist. The Vampire Lestat brought Lestat, the charismatic center of Rice’s vampiric universe, into the modern world after decades of vampiric sleep, and gave him a chance to tell his own story, which sometimes gave nuance to the events of Interview with the Vampire and sometimes recast the previous book’s events in an entirely different light. The effect was, essentially, of listening to two squabbling exes trying to convince a third party that they were in the right. It was a great narrative trick, and made it easy to accept Lestat as a protagonist, even if he wasn’t a particularly trustworthy one.
The stage was set for a good old-fashioned vampire apocalypse, and Rice delivered with the sprawling, rococo epic, The Queen of the Damned.
The Queen of the Damned starts with a pair of twins and ends in a bloodbath. In between, it spans centuries and the circumference of the world, murders countless vampires and a number of humans, once again upends our understanding of vampire mythology, and reunites Lestat with Louis, the narrator of Interview and the closest thing Lestat has to true love. The Queen of the Damned is about both creation and destruction, as its vampires face the possibility of their immortality coming to an end and hail a new Queen. It’s the kind of book that is a fitting end to a saga, a Grand Guignol finish to a supernatural epic.
Rice then kept on writing vampire books for the next twenty years. Ah well. They weren’t all completely terrible.
At any rate, at least in my books, none of Rice’s following works had the perfectly unhinged balance of The Queen of the Damned: its sprawling, odd, delightful scope, its obsessive and obsessed-over cast, a plot as convoluted as a Gordian knot and resolved in a similarly lateral fashion. (If only Alexander the Great had thought of cannibalism.)
But this book isn’t dull or dry. Passion runs through The Queen of the Damned. Rice devotes an entire chapter to the mutually obsessive relationship vampire Armand and journalist Daniel initiated immediately after the conclusion of Interview with the Vampire, culminating with Armand turning Daniel into a vampire before his alcoholism kills him outright.* A major theme is vampire Maharet’s passion for her family tree, generation after generation of red-headed descendants who are more powerful than they realize. Akasha, the titular Queen herself and the progenitor of the world’s vampires, is awoken from her timeless slumber by the, er, rock violin music of Lestat, and her hunger for his companionship sets most of the novel’s plot in motion. The Queen of the Damned pulses with sensuality, with desire, but also with loss and regret. Rice’s characters want so much, so desperately, and most of them are willing to tear the world apart to get it. A handful of them come pretty close.
There’s been a lot of literal and virtual ink spilled about Rice and how her own personal pain and alcoholism spilled into her work, especially in Interview with the Vampire. Rice lost her mother to alcoholism and lived through what most parents are fortunate enough to consider unimaginable — the loss of her only child to leukemia at a very young age. That impossible pain seeps into Interview and shadows much of her other work. All three books in the trilogy are about family at heart; the parody of the nuclear family that Lestat delivers to Louis when he turns Claudia in Interview, Lestat’s choice to make his mother immortal and the complicated relationship that follows in The Vampire Lestat, and the generations of The Great Family that Maharet follows with such obsessive devotion. Maharet, like all vampires, cannot have children after her transformation, and she is doomed to watch most of her descendants age and die, even as she works passionately to protect them. Claudia’s brief life and death haunts all three books (and beyond). Alcoholism and addiction are explicitly portrayed with Armand and Daniel’s toxic relationship, but are implicitly addressed every time a character takes another drink of blood (Rice’s vampires can subsist for a time on animal blood, but it’s not really living).
The Queen of the Damned has all of that and more: possession, obsession, Egyptian history, twin witches, kidnapping, sexual assault, murder, rock ’n’ roll, secret societies, magic, telepathy, and a Florida resort. (No, really.) For all my jokes about how much stuff Rice manages to cram into this book, it all works remarkably well, particularly with the way the history of the earliest vampires fills out their motivation and impacts their present actions. Rice also introduces the idea that all vampires are connected by their lineage, which gives the vampires going up against Akasha a true dilemma: they cannot destroy her without destroying themselves.** The book gives the reader generous doses of both heartbreak and hope, and yes, the day is saved thanks to cannibalism in a way that makes perfect narrative and thematic sense. When Anne Rice was on, no one did it like her.
The Queen of the Damned was adapted, more or less, into a pretty terrible movie with only an enormously fun Aaliyah performance to recommend it (and no Devil’s Minion subplot to redeem it). Dominic Noble has a good video essay on the adaptation vs. novel, if you’re curious. Rice, who championed the Interview adaptation, was less positive about The Queen of the Damned. She was also a notorious figure in fandom, both for her crusades against fanfiction and her rather bizarre tirade against Amazon reviews. She was a lot, in both the positive and negative senses. Lindsay Ellis has a good overview of her overall body of work and influence for It’s Lit. She was almost certainly the most influential vampire author since Stoker.
* This, the “Devil’s Minion” chapter, is the best chapter of the book and might be my favorite thing Rice ever wrote, I will not be taking questions at this time. Fun fact for those of you who only watched the movie: Armand is supposed to be in his mid-teens at the most, his very existence being an early warning to Lestat that turning children is a very bad idea. Antonio Banderas is very attractive in the Interview movie, but he’s definitely not a canon-compliant Armand. At least he inspired Guillermo de la Cruz.
** I’m not sure if Rice introduced this idea, but she certainly popularized it. (You may remember it coming up in the What We Do in the Shadows episode “The Escape.”)