The world lost a literary giant this past weekend. Anne Rice, author of nearly 40 novels, including the transformative Vampire Chronicles series, passed away at age 80. Many, including myself, have elaborated upon how much Rice’s novels transformed vampire fiction. And gothic fiction overall. But personally, Anne Rice changed my life. Particularly as a queer person who barely saw himself represented in the kinds of fantastical fictional landscapes that I loved. I know I was hardly alone in this regard.
Rice’s first three vampire novels came out between 1976 and 1988. But it was in the early ‘90s that the books, now packaged as a trilogy, really took off with readers. (Similar to how the ‘50s published The Lord of the Rings became a ’60 counterculture phenomenon). Rice’s The Vampires Chronicles and Lives of the Mayfair Witches books drew queer Gen X readers like me en masse into her hyper-sensualized world. But really, anyone who felt like they didn’t belong in a world that celebrated the ordinary and mundane over the exotic and transgressive found kinship with Rice’s beautiful monsters too.
I first heard of Anne Rice’s world in hushed tones. I was perhaps eight years old—this was the early ‘80s. A paperback novel my aunt and older brother both read, Interview with the Vampire, captivated them. I was curious as to what they were talking about all the time, so they tried to explain the book to me in kid terms. They explained to me that it was about “a family of Draculas.” One a little girl, who lived forever and could never grow up. The novel had an image of the three leads on the back. And it was a hilariously bad photo. One that didn’t resemble their descriptions in the book at all. But I was fascinated with this grown-up book I couldn’t read. The memory of that novel’s cover imagery stuck with me.
Fast forward several years. By 1989, that lone vampire book had become a trilogy. The Vampire Chronicles, which comprised Interview, The Vampire Lestat, and the Queen of the Damned. Now a teenager, I was old enough to read and truly appreciate these books, and I utterly devoured them. I loved the tale of the vampiric family of the first novel—particularly the tragedy of the undead child Claudia. Anne Rice created a lush and sensuous world I had never experienced, and I finished that first book only wanting more.
But the two immediate follow-up novels expanded upon the universe and its history in ways that rendered that first novel almost quaint. The way Rice explored vampiric history, going back to the days of ancient Rome and ancient Egypt, enthralled me. She had taken this vampire legend exploited in pop culture for years, and created an entirely new mythology for it. Other vampire fiction has made their own vampire origin stories since then, but I’ve yet to see one that matches anything that Rice invented.
But the real way Rice’s books changed my life was the fact that my discovering them coincided with my own coming to terms with being gay. The late ‘80s and early ‘90s were not an era when mainstream genre fiction explored queer themes. Certainly not the kind of fiction that sold millions of copies. Even a 14-year-old me understood that these characters, despite not having sex the way humans do, were explicitly queer. The vampire Lestat loved his progeny Louis romantically, as much as he loved his human lover Nicolas before him. Yes, women also drew him in, like Akasha, a vampire queen. But his principal relationships were with other men. In fact, the family of Lestat, Louis, and their daughter Claudia were the first same-sex parents I ever encountered in any media.
And with that queer subtext explicit, it shaped how I viewed my sexuality at a vulnerable age. Interview with the Vampire in particular showed the main character of Louis as someone who hated what he was, and despised all of his own innate desires. No matter how much pleasure and companionship it gave him over the centuries. He was the perfect metaphor for the self-loathing homosexual, who begins and ends the narrative as someone who despises his very nature. So, not the role model I wanted.
His vampiric maker, Lestat, was the opposite. Yes, he was essentially the villain of that first book, and took despicably cruel actions at times. But he also believed that their outsider nature gave them a unique perspective on humanity that no one else had. It wasn’t a curse, as Louis saw it, but a gift. One with serious drawbacks, to be sure, what with the “having to kill” thing and all. But a gift nevertheless. Absorbing these books, I felt a lightbulb go off over my head. “What makes you different makes you special, not lesser.” It’s a lesson I internalized, and I have Anne Rice to thank for it.
I could have chosen to hate myself for what I was by nature, much like Louis did. A great deal of LGBTQ folks in my generation absolutely struggled with this. Or, I could relish in my otherness. I chose to view my circumstances as Lestat did his. In The Vampire Lestat, he said “I am very good at being what I am.” Well then, I would be too. As I met more and more Rice fans, I noticed how many of the most devoted were queer like me. Or, at the very least, didn’t fit into society the way everyone else did. Her Sleeping Beauty series of erotica put BDSM literature in the local chain bookstore. She did so decades before there were 50 shades of anything. And the BDSM community embraced her as well.
But like all things initially loved by queer and outsider audiences, mainstream consumers eventually wanted in on the phenomenon. I’ll always remember the moment when I was browsing in a bookstore circa 1991. I was all of 16 years old. I overheard a customer talking to a clerk, asking her all these questions about a nameless character in a book. And I quickly realized that she was asking about Louis, the narrator of Interview. As an impertinent kid, I butted into the conversation. “Louis clearly struggles with depression,” I said. She replied, “Has EVERYONE read all these books except me?”
For a time, it sure felt like everyone had.
By the time Rice’s fourth Vampire Chronicle, The Tale of the Body Thief, came out in 1992, Rice was like a nerdy rock star to her most devoted fans. I recall a book signing in a Barnes & Noble at a mall. My teenage friends and I got there early, hoping to be among the first to meet our literary idol. We didn’t account for the fans who camped out overnight. We were in line for the better part of eight hours. But we didn’t mind. We bonded in line with other fans. We talked about how which characters were our favorites, and how wonderfully queer it all was. And, of course, who we’d like to see play them in an eventual movie. And trust me, Tom Cruise was never on our radar. Even though Rice herself admitted that worked out.
Her characters seemed real to us, because they were real to her. She’d often elaborate about how she’d look at the world around her and wonder what Lestat or others would think of something she’d read or experienced. She used real-world locations in her novels, to the point where the entirety of her Witching Hour book took place in her own Garden District mansion in New Orleans. This trend goes back to the beginning. The house where Louis gives his confession in Interview with the Vampire is a real Victorian house in San Francisco, one which still stands. On the day after Rice passed, I had to go and make a pilgrimage to the place where it all began to pay my respects.
Another thing about Anne Rice that made her special was that she was one of us. And by that I mean she was a huge nerd too. In the ’90s, she had a publicly listed phone number fans could call to hear her talk and answer questions about her novels, or just hear her effusively recommend current films and books. (My phone bill, thanks to all those calls to New Orleans, was a hefty one). In the modern era, her Facebook page mainly featured her talking about all the same media we all love, from Game of Thrones to True Blood to Downton Abbey.
Anne Rice understood fiction had a transformative power, especially fantasy fiction. It’s part of the reason why she was so grateful for her readers. Because she loved fiction in the exact same way we did. She never thought our passion for stories of the fantastic was frivolous or a waste of time. She was honored that people loved her stories the way she loved those of Charles Dickens and others. Looking at it now, in her final years, her returning to her world of vampires, mummies, and pansexual erotica, felt like a beautiful farewell gift to us.
So I want to say now, to Anne Rice, wherever you are: as a boy you helped me see my queerness as a blessing, and I am forever grateful. As an adult professional who interviewed you more than once, you were thoughtful and generous with your time. Your work will live on in me, and millions of your readers who identified with your glamourous outsiders. You once said, “I picture heaven as a vast library, with unlimited volumes to read. And paintings and statues to examine galore. I picture it as a great doorway to learning… rather than one great dull answer to all our questions.” I hope you are wandering the halls of this library now, soaking in all that beautiful knowledge.