Anne Rice has a problem that she is not totally responsible for. Many of her fans tend to be younger, and when they grow a little bit older, their enthusiasm for her books reminds them of some of the worst aspects of being a teenager, especially a dramatic, literary goth teenager that reads vampire books. They then mock the entire phase, and treat her books as if they are purely juvenile. This is, at least, my own history with Anne Rice. There are other artists that suffer this same problem, Pink Floyd comes to mind. Is it possible, though, that Anne Rice still has something to offer those who don't think staying up until 4 AM at waffle house, chain smoking and discussing My Bloody Valentine is a great idea?
Vitorrio the Vampire, published in 1999 as one of "The New Tales of the Vampires", makes me think that the answer is, indeed, yes. It also seems to be the case that her breadth and skill has grown since the earlier books. The book takes place in the same world as The Vampire Chronicles, but except for a brief mention on the first two pages, it does not intersect with them, and it has a different atmosphere and tone. The protagonist of the book is one Vittorio, who starts off as a minor French nobleman in late adolescence, living in early renaissance Italy, outside of Florence. In true Rice fashion, the book has many rich, sensual passages in the beginning where the culture, religion and art of the era are described in detail. The plot of the book then begins, as Vittorio's father is hunted by a group of vampires because of his refusal to pay tribute to a clan of vampires. They eventually invade and slaughter Vittorio's family, leaving a desperate Vitorrio to search for help.
He reaches a town near his home where he tries to learn what has been happening in the surrounding hills, but the residents of the town seem to be cheerfully unaware that anything is going wrong. Before long, he realizes that the town has made an unstated pact with a nearby group of vampires to sacrifice their weak and infirm so that everyone left in the city will be happy and untroubled. This disgusts Vittorio, and he goes to fight a castle of vampires single-handedly, a fight that he can not succeed at. A beautiful vampire named Ursula saves his life, and although he is tortured in a black mass, he is not killed but is instead returned to Florence. In Florence, he finds that his vampiric torment allows him to see some angels, who agree to help him wipe out the nest of vampires. He does so, sparing only Ursula, who turns him into a vampire, much to the disgust of himself and the angels. He still maintains his ability to interact with both the angelic, and the divine in humans, even as he becomes a predator for the following centuries.
I hope that plot description was not too long, especially since the plot is not what is different in this book. The difference is in the characterization. Within the confines of genre fiction, Vittorio seems a much more real character than Lestat, who although being well drawn, seemed more of a super hero or rock star than real literary character. In part, this is because the novel manages to communicate some religious awe throughout. Although Rice had not yet converted to Christianity, the book has a different type of consciousness than the dimestore existentialism that was present in the earlier books. Instead of merely falling into a sensual trance and deciding that meaningless life as a vampire is just the way things are, Vittorio maintains his ideas of right and wrong all along, and fights being a vampire. The ethical issue of the town's decision to condone euthanasia is also treated relatively seriously. It is hard to say why a book has depth of characterization, but this book does indeed display it.
But what of the people who read vampire novels for horror, or even just for the simple gore? This book does have elements of these, although they are not grossly overstated. The high point (or low point, if you prefer) for these is during the surreal black mass scene, which really does manage to have some of the traditional disgust of a horror novel. However, in general the book is even more of a turn away from such things than her earlier books were.
Anne Rice is a popular author who should probably enjoy more of the fame, and less of the scorn, associated with that term. And this book is one of the reasons why.
Written, in part, for Necronodecon: The 2008 Halloween Horrorquest