The narrator of the poem “The Dark Night of the Soul,” written by the Christian mystic St. John of the Cross, speaks of being wakened in the night and led, as if by a spiritual force, through the outer darkness and into the waiting embrace of a lover.
The metaphor for man’s alienation and return to God, with its haunting, erotic imagery, is also a perfect metaphor for the spiritual journey of author Anne Rice.
Since her first novel, “Interview with the Vampire” debuted in 1976, Rice has sold nearly 100 million books, most of them featuring characters who are either witches, spirits or, like her most famous protagonist, the vampire Lestat, one of the legions of the undead feeding on the blood of the living.
Rice’s signature style – part florid Southern Gothic, part historical fiction, part fantasy – draws heavily from the Catholic symbolism and piety that colored her childhood in New Orleans.
“My mother, Katherine, taught me a great love for the world of the invisible, the world of spiritual values, the world of truth,” Rice said, speaking on the phone from her home in California.
Despite her religious upbringing, Rice was a committed atheist most of her literary life. Today she’s come back to the faith into which she was baptized, and her work has taken a bold, new direction.
Rice recently spoke to the Daily Journal about her return to the church, as well as about her work and how she’s sure that, in some mysterious way, it all serves the glory of God.
Among all her characters, Rice identifies most with the vampire Louis, the protagonist of her first novel, a lonely, contemplative creature who grieves the loss of his mortality.
“I was essentially grieving the loss of my own faith,” said Rice, recalling how as a child she was enraptured with the lives of the saints and longed to devote her life to God.
Rice started drifting away from the church years before she achieved any literary success. After her mother’s death she moved to Texas, outside the world of parish schools and what she came to see as the authoritarian hand of the church.
In the ‘70s she and husband Stan Rice made a life inside intellectual circles in San Francisco, a life that decidedly did not include religion.
“We met terrific, secular, intellectual people,” she said of her close friends, many of whom were homosexuals. “They were absolutely committed to making the world a better, more beautiful place.”
Although the couple’s five-year-old daughter, Michelle, died of leukemia in 1972, their atheism remained grounded less in bitterness than in disillusionment, their belief that the Christianity they both professed as children simply wasn’t tenable anymore.
After the publication of “Interview,” the success of Rice’s subsequent novels made her an icon among legions of readers. They devoured her sumptuous stories about beautiful, guilt-ridden vampires and families of witches living in decrepit ante-bellum mansions.
She traveled extensively, then, in the mid-1990s, as she was visiting some of the most awe-inspiring works of religious art in the world, like the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, she began to feel a change coming over her.
In 1998 she experienced an emotional conversion nearly four decades in the making. Four years later she completely rededicated her life to Christ and she’s been a recommitted Catholic ever since.
People sometimes ask Rice if she regrets having written stories about the occult, or the erotica she wrote under a pen name.
“Absolutely not,” she said. “My books are transformative. They demonstrate a moral compass, a real sense of right and wrong. Evil isn’t glorified.”
Her recent novels have included two fictionalized accounts of the boyhood of Jesus, and her 29th book, “Angel Time,” released this week, which weaves together the themes of the heavenly hosts, history, and Rice’s long-time interest in Judaism, an interest that played a large part in her return to Christianity.
People sometimes wrongly assume that when Rice creates a character she’s condoning the character’s actions.
“In fact, when I was writing those dark characters, they felt themselves cut off from grace, from light, and that’s the way I felt, cut off from those same things,” she said. “They were metaphors for lost souls.”
The enduring symbolic power of the vampire, Rice feels, is precisely as one who is cut-off, as the ultimate outsider.
“It’s us, the ones who contemplate immortality,” she said. “All of us feel ourselves, at times, to be predators and sinners.”
Rice sees Stephanie Meyer’s popular “Twilight” books and the HBO series “True Blood” as examples of vampire fiction that are intelligent, symbolically rich and which speak to the experience of being “other.”
For Rice that sense of being an outsider extends also to gender and sexuality. She’s felt a life-long aversion to overly stringent gender roles, a trait she’s written into many of her characters. Her books have enjoyed widespread popularity within the gay community and her son, novelist Christopher Rice, is gay.
The Catholic Church holds that homosexuality is gravely disordered, but Rice, an avid student of theology, prays that will change with time.
“People like me, who grew up in the South in the ‘40s and ‘50s, should really stop and think about this,” she said.
“Back then we were told many of the same things. We were given biblical reasons why society would become decadent and immoral if we allowed people of color equal status in society. Nobody today would think any of that had any validity whatsoever.”
Like her supernatural characters, Rice remains a great fan of humanity.
“When I was a child it was very brutal, but today we live in an unprecedented age of understanding about homosexuality and I hope people will continue to learn,” she said.
“How many school teachers, clergy, artists – gay people in all walks of life – need us to learn and understand more? Christianity has always had its scapegoats, but we have to stop this. We have to define ourselves without persecuting another group.”
A poem written by Rice’s husband, Stan, begins, “Some things lighten nightfall, and make a Rembrandt of a grief.”
That sense of the dark beauty in life has characterized all of Rice’s work. It has also given her a calm acceptance that God’s ways are essentially unknowable to man.
In December of 1998 Rice went into a diabetic coma and nearly died. Four years later, her husband of more than 40 years, Stan, died of brain cancer. For an author who’d written so much about immortality, the specter of death was suddenly very close.
“I’ve never really asked ‘Why me?’” said Rice. “It’s quite the opposite. I think bad things are just what we – humans – call random, and for me they don’t particularly encourage or discourage faith. They’re just part of the life that I see all around me.”
Rice’s submission to the mystery of God has also freed her to enjoy a thoroughgoing love of life. She’s a big fan of holidays, particularly those with religious origins, and she detests what she calls the “lingering Puritanism” that aligns against them.
“It’s part of the wisdom of our Christian ancestors to take those pagan observances and translate them into feasts,” she said of holidays like Halloween.
“Not many people realize that Puritans wanted to outlaw Christmas celebrations because they felt they were too geared toward feasting and enjoyment. We have to have outlets for that Dionysian energy in life.”
After Stan’s death Rice left her home in the Garden District of New Orleans, the setting for several of her stories, and moved to California. Today she attends Mass regularly and immerses herself in reading Christian theology and mysticism.
In one of Rice’s books the vampire Lestat is given a privileged glimpse of heaven and hell, but he’s left wondering if it was all a delusion.
“I devoutly hope hell doesn’t exist,” said Rice. “I believe there’s some form of justice, where one has to confront one’s deeds, but it’s really frightening that so many Christians believe you can essentially go to hell by accident.”
Despite the clamoring of die-hard fans, Rice has left the vampires behind, and, as she puts it, has completely dedicated herself to writing for the glory of Jesus Christ. Like the losses she’s experienced in life, no decision like this is ever easy, in fact it’s agonizing. Those characters will always be part of her, but she likes to think that suffering ultimately has a redemptive quality.
“It’s a great trust in the mind of God,” she said. “Like in the old songs, we will understand it by and by. The Catholic imagination is tinged with purple and blood, where nothing is wasted. All suffering can be offered up and reconciled in Christ.”
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal