Sunday, February 26, 2012
How Anne Rice Influenced My Life.
Many of my friends know that novelist Anne Rice is one of my heroes. I was eighteen years old when I first picked up her 1976 novel Interview with the Vampire. That book changed my life, it possessed my heart. The vampire genre had little to do with what lured me into her spell of words. These creatures never inspired me until I met the gorgeous, resilient Louis de Pointe du Lac in those sacred pages. To be frank, the only vampire book I had ever read was Bram Stoker's Dracula in a condensed form when I was sixteen years old. I didn't care much for it. But I loved Bela Lugosi's iconic portrayal of the seductive blood sucking fiend.
I fondly remember prowling through my elementary school library as a precocious child hungry for monsters and things that go bump in the night. I was in 2nd Grade reading these large baby-shit yellow, lovingly tattered, and worn hardbacks of the old MGM horror films such as King Kong, Tarantula (I managed to get through that terror even though I had severe arachnophobia and still do), The Blob, It Came From Outer Space, The Preying Mantis, The Day The Earth Stood Still , Frankenstein, and lastly the vampires: Dracula and Nosferatu. These books were my first encounters with outsiders. I felt right at home mixed in with the company of the damned and deplorable. How I loved them. What I liked most about these spooks were the haunting metaphors they portrayed. Even as a small child, I realized they represented something deep, and as I got older those metaphors came alive with a palpable fruition. These characters represent the monsters inside of us all, even if we don't want to admit it.
I had previously been to New Orleans twice (my cousin lives there). This was way before hurricane Katrina came along and blew it away and Anne Rice was actually living comfortably within the Garden District. I was completely unaware. My memories of New Orleans are simple and lively:
I remember riding the green rickety St. Charles street car through the Garden District with my parents (for they had once lived in New Orleans as newlyweds), I remember the large buttress oak trees with their gnarled branches stretching across the sky in a dark shade of formidable green covering the gorgeous Greek revival mansions of the old district. There were other trees that had the haunting grey Louisiana swamp moss dangling in large clusters from the ancient branches to give a more cozy feel to the neighborhood. I recall the rotting putrid stench of piss and shit rising up through the sultry sewers. The fumes permeated through Magazine Street. I have memories of looking at antiques in large mortar brick buildings that were hot as hell inside because cooling systems were never installed. The building breathed in desperation through the open windows. The smell of old dust and aged lacquered wood is still fresh in my nostrils. The heat was fiercely dreadful and oppressive. It reminded me of a heavy gauntlet on my shoulder that would never let up, it just sweltered and boiled. It cooked my soul. Sometimes it would start raining in the daylight and my mom would call it liquid sunshine because of the tropical humidity.
I will never forget Bourbon Street. It was the first place I had ever seen a strip club and one could smell the rank odor of cigarette smoke drifting through the thoroughfare. The immaculate buildings that aligned the street had large opened two-story balconies that would reveal a bustling French Quarter. Black rout iron fencing wrapped around the ledges to protect patrons. Large lush green ferns hung from the ceilings of these French inspired dwellings from hooks and long black chains that were attached to metal baskets. The effort produced a beautiful image of grace and mystique. It was sensual to see the Parisian flair mingle with the Southern antebellum.
Catholicisms enveloped all around me. It was strange to see religion mix so well with the wild revelry and sin below the large steeples. New Orleans has an erotic decadence running through it. The St. Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square was daunting and graceful to behold with its large towers rising above the Quarter. I have always been fascinated by death, and I was fortunate enough to see the famous Roman Catholic cemetery St. Louis #1 before its watery demise by Mother Nature. These cemeteries are above ground. Some of the most beguiling and beautiful crypts and tombs reside here. I was completely unaware that the literary vagabond Vampire Lestat made his home here in Rice's work. But I knew that the infamous Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau was laid to rest in this hallowed ground. It was something to go to her mausoleum.I remember being captivated by the story of Marie Laveau and wouldn't stop talking about her to my parents.
I have fond memories of the French Market with all its produce, souvenirs, and people bustling around in the humid sunshine. And no visit to New Orleans is complete without a visit to Cafe Du Monde. They have the most delicious and buttery beignets loaded with mountains of powdered sugar! Then there is the might Mississippi River to behold in southern splendor from the residing park. You can see "Dixie Gates", which are two bridges stretching over the river connecting the Crescent City with the West Bank town of Gretna. I remember watching sailors coming in from the gulf on battleships as homeless people were sleeping in the park to the sounds of steamboats churning in the water, jovial steam calliopes playing spirited melodies, and excited men waiting to touch land and have a rousing good time in the city that care forgot.
The setting of Anne Rice's novels surrounded me at that time, yet I was too young to even know it. However, I had my memory to conjure it all back up. The stage was set and her world was waiting for me silently with a fierce patience. Fast forward: I am eighteen years old, in the midst of becoming an adult for the first time...
My introduction to Anne Rice came from my aunt in 2005, she is not a reader. However, my aunt loves movies and adores vampires. She remembers watching the campy 70's soap opera Dark Shadows with vampire Barnabas Collins and his werewolf cousin. I used to watch reruns of the soap on the Sci-Fi channel. Who can forget the corny supernatural cries howling through the television speakers as dark moonlit waves crashed hard against the ominous rocky cliffs? I had been attending a Bible College in San Francisco Bay Area and was home for Spring Break. My aunt excitedly asked me if I had seen the film Interview with the Vampire. I told her I hadn't, but had heard about it for quite sometime and that the book was written by a woman named Anne Rice. My aunt had recorded it on television and we started to watch. By the end of the film something in me changed. I was crying. I can't explain it really...but I "got" the movie. I loved watching Lestat drive across the Golden Gate Bridge while Guns N' Roses sang a smashing cover of "Sympathy for the Devil". Another reason I was moved is because the film is set in San Francisco. I had always had a love affair with that city. The film offers some haunting cinematography of the city-by-the-bay. Another thing struck me as odd: I realized that the characters were actually residing not too far from where I was living at the time. I was in the setting.
The next morning I rushed to Wal-Mart and bought a paperback of Interview with the Vampire and finished reading it in two days. The story absolutely grabbed me. I fell in love with her style of prose. Its lush description and her erotic undercurrents captivated me. She was the first author I had ever encountered that saw the world as I did. I've always felt like I didn't belong anywhere. I was lonely, confused about my religion and what the church was telling me was sin and I inherently didn't believe the world to be evil, and all these philosophical questions were being raised through this sympathetic reanimated, blood-sucking corpse named Louis de Point du Lac who did not enjoy killing innocent people, but did because he had The Dark Gift. After reading the novel I started doing research on it's creator Anne Rice.
In a nutshell I came to find out that she was originally from New Orleans, Louisiana, had been a devout Catholic all her young life, her real name was Howard Francis Allen O'Brien, but when she started parochial school she told the her teacher her name was Anne and from then on it was. At fourteen; her mother died of alcoholism, and the young Anne O'Brien broke with the Church and became an atheist when she started college. The reason she lost her faith is because when she stepped onto a college campus for the first time, her mind was opened and free to explore anything she wanted. She didn't have the Legion of Decency and the Index of Forbidden Books looming over her. She was confused and was discovering the real world for the first time. Even though she was an atheist, she had strong morals and kept them. She always desired a meaningful life. She later moved to San Francisco, California to continue her studies. It wasn't long till her high school sweet heart Stan Rice proposed to her through a letter. She flew back to Richardson, Texas and married him becoming the name the world would eventually know her as: Anne Rice.
They moved back to San Francisco and enrolled in San Francisco State University. It was during this time that the great Summer of Love was happening. They lived in the middle of it within the Haight-Ashbury district. She was determined to get an education. Stan was already creating a name for himself through his poetry and eventually became a professor at San Francisco State in the English Department. Anne became pregnant and gave birth to a girl. They named her Michelle and she became the center of their lives. Anne had always been fascinated by gay relationships and she would incorporate this into her short stories. I firmly believe that if you are repressed hard by certain things you will explore them someway or another and Anne did so in her writings. Stan was becoming a local celebrity and Anne was the proverbial little wife and mother sitting in the back room typing away.
To Stan and Anne's horror, their daughter Michelle was diagnosed with leukemia and died just before her sixth birthday. This almost destroyed their marriage and they drowned their pain in alcohol while living in Berkeley. One night, Anne pulled out a short story she had written called Interview with the Vampire. She decided to expand it into something more. Anne would stay up through the night typing away, drinking beer, and pouring everything she wanted to discuss and grieve about into the key characters of Louis, Lestat, Claudia (a small child that was transformed into a vampire who was immortal), Gabrielle, and Armand. The story was cathartic. Two years later, the work was published by Alfred A. Knoph and it forever changed the vampire genre. Anne Rice evenhandedly reinvented it. Interview with the Vampire was her salvation so to speak and became a cult classic.
In 1998 Anne Rice returned to the Catholic Church after experiencing a religious conversion. During that time she wrote two novels that dealt with the life of Jesus Christ. Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt and Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana. Being disgruntled with the Catholic Church's persecution of gay people, their abstinence of not supplying birth control, the destructive pedophilia scandal, and their views on women Anne Rice walked away from Organized Religion. On July 29, 2010 she publicly stated via her Facebook page:
"For those who care, and I understand if you don’t: Today I quit being a Christian. I’m out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being “Christian” or to being part of Christianity. It’s simply impossible for me to “belong” to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’m an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else."
She followed up with:
“In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen.”
She followed up again:
"My faith in Christ is central to my life. My conversion from a pessimistic atheist lost in a world I didn't understand, to an optimistic believer in a universe created and sustained by a loving God is crucial to me. But following Christ does not mean following His followers. Christ is infinitely more important than Christianity and always will be, no matter what Christianity is, has been, or might become."
"My commitment to Christ remains at the heart and center of my life. Transformation in Him is radical and ongoing. That I feel now that I am called to be an outsider for Him, to step away from the words, "Christian" and "Christianity" is something that my conscience demands of me. I feel that my faith in Him demands this of me. I know of no other way to express how I must remove myself from those things which seek to separate me from Him."
I never had a severed break with my religion, but I ended up thinking outside of the box and chewing on the meat, while spitting out the bones so to speak. Anne Rice was the first person to let me know, "Its okay to think this way and explore." The Independent Fundamental Baptists didn't like that.
When I came back to college after Spring Break I would go to the library and read her books. I even hid some of the them in my dorm room. One time, I brought one of her books from the library and my dorm supervisor discovered it while I was in my room. He started reading a passage aloud and said, "Kevin this stuff is evil trash, why do you have this here?" I replied, "Anne Rice is one of the greatest authors in the world. You should check her out! It's not trash, it's lovely and she sees the world as I do." His face turned red and he this deep angry expression started to form upon his face. He threw the book in a trash can and demanded it be thrown in the large green dumpster outside. I looked at him and said, "You should treat all books with respect, no book deserves to be thrown in a trash can or burned. You wouldn't do that to your Holy Bible would you? What's more, it isn't even my property. It belongs to the public library. They wouldn't be to happy to see this. And I absolutely love her style of writing! You can't stop a person from reading. It's not the Dark Ages." I thought the flesh on his face was gonna melt off like the villain on Indiana Jones Raiders of the Lost Arch! He demanded it be taken back immediately...it didn't go back till I was done reading it. I was exceedingly proud of my rebellion and standing up for what I believed in.
The Bible College phase burned out. I couldn't take it any longer There was simply too many people being hypocritical and when I didn't agree with someone's view they lashed out in hatred, it made me feel ostracized and inferior. I didn't go looking for trouble, but I just didn't have their convictions. Never was, never will, never hope to. I remember this preacher ranting about the sin of the world and how he was tired of identifying with it. To this day, I still have this piece of paper in my Bible. It reads: Some preacher's talk about being sick of identifying with the world. In my case, I am sick of identifying with the Church." I still believe in God and am a practicing Christian, but I'm not rigid and so close-minded that it appears I'm brainwashed. You cannot keep a person locked away from reality. If you do, your not saving that person, your hurting him or her. They won't be able to function.
When I moved back to Arkansas I decided that I was going to collect one authors complete works in First Edition Hardback. I chose Anne Rice, surprise! This was exciting, it became like a game and I can't tell you how awesome it was to explore all those used bookstores and Amazon.com for her works! I love her book covers, they are beautiful and each one is special. It took me two years to complete the process. I have all thirty-two of her novels in hardback. Twelve are actually signed now. My collection is priceless and it's always a conversation starter when people look at my vast library made up of immaculate hardbacks. I love seeing the gleam in their eyes.
Anne Rice is my hero and my friend. On February 24, 2012 I got to meet her face to face for the first time.