“And then it was that I said good-bye to the sunrise and went out to become a vampire” — Interview with the Vampire (1976)

When news broke that the iconic, complicated, and startlingly prolific Gothic novelist Anne Rice had passed away on December 11th, 2021, at the age of 80, the response was one of overwhelming grief. The sense of loss evident in newspaper obituaries, retrospective articles and across various social media platforms was profound. Rice’s novels – particularly her long-running “Vampire Chronicles” series (1976-2018) – were formative for many readers, with countless horror fans tracing their love of the macabre to an early encounter with a battered paperback copy of Interview with the Vampire or Queen of the Damned. Her influence on popular culture was likewise immeasurable. Rice’s debut novel Interview with the Vampire is often credited with inaugurating a new, thoroughly postmodern vision of the vampire without which, scholar Sorcha Ní Fhlainn notes, “the vampire would have been relegated as a static if not ossified Gothic convention”.

Indeed, Rice’s tormented, morally ambiguous vampires have sired generations of imitators, from Buffy the Vampire Slayers’ remorse-ridden Angel to the brooding heroes of Twilight and the True Blood novels. Equally important, Rice’s preoccupation with the intensity of male relationships has generated a multiplicity of queer readings of her work, while the author herself has regularly explored gay relationships in her fiction. In a 2012 interview, she described her most famous vampiric creations, Louis de Pointe du Lac and Lestat de Lioncourt, as a “same-sex” couple. Rice’s vampire novels are in many ways radical because of how they tease out the queer themes present in nineteenth-century works like Carmilla (1872) and Dracula (1897), framing homosexual or bi-sexual desire not as a signifier of monstrous Otherness, but as a mark of the complex humanity that burns in the hearts of even her most frightening creations.

Rice left behind a vast, sometimes complicated, legacy, but I think perhaps the most powerful part of that legacy is the raw, often painful manner in which her novels portray grief. Indeed, the public, highly visible mourning that followed Rice’s death was especially poignant precisely because her own work so often dealt with grief and loss. Although sorrow is a constant in all of her novels – Lestat loses his beloved Nicki in The Vampire Lestat and mourns both his deceased daughter and his humanity in The Tale of the Body Thief – it is in Rice’s first and most famous novel that the theme of grief is most fully explored.

Anne Rice wrote Interview with the Vampire in 1973 while she was still grieving the loss of her daughter Michele, who died from granulocytic leukemia at the age of five. Read in this light, Interview might initially appear as a particularly dark piece of wish-fulfilment. Following the death of his brother Paul, wealthy New Orleans planter Louis abandons his humanity to live forever as a vampire alongside his maker, Lestat. The pair transform an orphan, five-year-old Claudia, into a vampire and raise her as their daughter. In effect, Claudia becomes an eternal, immortal child, destined to live forever as a bright, beautiful little girl. Louis, even more so than his sire, delights in caring for the girl, “constantly sounding the depth of her still gaze as she took the books I gave her, whispered the poetry I taught her, and played with a light but confident touch her own strange, coherent songs on the piano” (p.100). It is easy to imagine such a character serving as a comfort to Rice as she mourned her own daughter. However, Interview is a far more challenging text, and Rice refuses to present the fantasy of immortality as a salve against pain and loss. Indeed, as the novel progresses the immortality of the vampire merely precipitates Louis’s loneliness, sharpening his grief into an acute depression.

Interview with the Vampire portrays the process of becoming a vampire as a sort of loss. Not only does the prospective vampire have to die in order to rise again as a creature of the night, but to transform into a vampire requires severing oneself from the wider world. When Louis recalls his own transformation, the strongest memory associated with it seems to that of his last sunrise. As he tells the as yet unnamed reported Daniel Molloy,

“I remember it completely; yet I do not think I remember any sunrise before it. I remember the light came first to the tops of the French windows, a paling behind the lace curtains, and then a gleam growing brighter and brighter in the patches among the leaves of the trees. Finally the sun came through the windows themselves and the lace lay in shadows on the stone floor […]. I lay in the bed thinking about all the things the vampire had told me, and then it was that I said good-bye to the sunrise and went out to become a vampire. It was … the last sunrise.” (p.15)

Louis’s memories of that final morning and the play of the sunlight between leaves are as sharp and as richly detailed as any recollection of a lost love. Rice’s vampires may be eternal, but that immortality comes shrouded in loneliness. They must hide forever from the bright, mortal world illuminated by Louis’s last sunrise. Once his transformation is complete, Louis feels himself retreating, unbidden and inexorably, from the humans around him. He views their lives as precious, yet ephemeral. His interactions with his moral sister become painful because while she remains, for the moment, “sweet and palpable”, Louis sees her as “a shimmering precious creature soon to grow old, soon to die” (p.38).

Throughout the novel, Rice expresses a profound awareness of the destructive power of grief, of lingering, whether physically or mentally, among the dead. Although Lestat refuses to teach his protégé anything significant about the nature of vampirism, preferring to keep Louis dependent upon him, he does warn the younger vampire about the dangers of coming too close to death. When Louis, during the excitement of his first kill, continues to drink a victim’s blood after his heart has ceased to beat, Lestat admonishes him: “He’ll suck you right down into death with him if you cling to him in death” (p.30). Nevertheless, over the course of the novel, Louis is dragged down into death. He witnesses the passing of those he loves most: his brother, Paul; his sister; and his neighbour Babette. Even the beautiful girlchild Claudia – who had once seemed destined to remain frozen in time like some golden, angelic doll – is lost to him. After coming to resent her adoptive fathers for trapping her in the body of a child, Claudia is finally taken from Louis when she is killed, incinerated, by the Théâtre des Vampires. Each of these losses envelops Louis, cloaking him in another layer of grief. Louis became a vampire in an attempt to escape his sorrow, but vampirism merely brings him closer to death.

Louis’s grief also takes on a variety of forms over the course of the novel. When his brother Paul, a religious mystic, dies, Louis becomes suicidal. Unable to end his life by his own hands, he wilfully places himself in danger, hoping to be murdered by thieves or maniacs. When Claudia is killed, Louis’s grief manifests as anger and an intense desire for revenge. He burns the Théâtre des Vampires to ground, bring death to the creatures who had murdered his beloved daughter. A century later, in New Orleans, Louis visits the home he had once shared with Claudia and Lestat. Little changed, aside from the installation of electric chandeliers, the townhouse evokes in Louis a deep sadness. However, this sorrow differs from both the all-consuming blackness and the grief-tinged fury Louis had previously felt. Rather, it takes the form of a gentle, sweet, all-pervading sorrow:

“But this sadness was not painful, nor was it passionate. It was something rich, however, and almost sweet, like the fragrance of the jasmine and the roses that crowed the old courtyard garden which I saw through the iron gates. And this sadness gave a subtle satisfaction that held me a long time in that spot; and it held me to the city; and it didn’t really leave me that night when I went away.” (p.324)

Interview begins with Louis grieving, suffering the loss of his brother, and it ends, 200 years later, with Louis still tormented by grief. The anguish of grief, Rice suggests, never truly vanishes. It transforms, it takes different forms as other losses accumulate, but it is fundamentally intransient. Moreover, Rice portrays all attempts to circumvent death and loss as not only fruitless, but ultimately destructive. Lestat brings Louis an ageless, deathless daughter, a perfect child who will never leave him. However, in creating the immortal child Claudia, Lestat and Louis also create a bitter, spiteful creature, a woman trapped in the body of a little girl who grows to resent the fathers who condemned her to an eternal childhood.

A tale of immortality and undying passion, Interview with the Vampire is, at its core, a meditation on the constant nearness of death and the inescapable power of grief. Louis remains bound to his sorrow throughout the novel, but he is not the only character consumed by grief. Claudia consistently mourns the woman she might have become, while her short-lived companion Madeline laments the death of her own daughter. Armand, a vampire Louis encounters in Paris (and whose history is fleshed out in a later entry in the Vampire Chronicles), longs for the happiness he once shared with his master in Venice. Even Lestat, in the book’s final pages, is seen to grieve Claudia and bemoan his own loneliness. Rice’s portrayal of grief is challenging, and Interview offers little in the way of comfort. Its characters do not overcome their pain, nor do they learn to move past it. Instead, grief appears as a tick web of suffering, all-consuming and suffocating. At the same time, it is metamorphic, shifting and contorting with each loss, even as it remains omnipresent.

In the wake of her death, Anne Rice leaves behind a rich legacy. A pop culture pioneer, she reimagined the vampire as a tragic protagonist and a beguiling narrator. She opened up new spaces for the queer imagination to play and created a whole fictional world (indeed, many fictional worlds) attuned to the inscrutable nuances of desire. Yet, alongside all of these dark gifts, Rice created a new fictional and imaginative language of grief. She deployed the tropes of horror and monstrosity in fantastical, novel ways in order to illuminate the depths of grief. When I read of Rice’s death on Sunday, scrolling through Twitter posts lamenting her loss and extolling her influence, I couldn’t help but think of the powerful, disturbing, and often beautiful ways in which she herself represented grief. Rice may have done much to transform how popular culture conceives of the vampire, but she also changed how mainstream Gothic fiction dealt with difficult emotions and challenging themes.