Interview with the Vampire: an essay

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The vampire as anti-Christ: the changing face of God in Rice’s Interview with the Vampire

 “ultimately there has never been any

God…only the simulacrum exists”

Jean Baudrillard, ‘The Precession of Simulacra’

Rice’s imaginary vampires question God. They question existence, and the consequences of living in a predominantly ‘human’ world. Because, for all they purport to be, vampires will always be humanistic to us. Aesthetically so, they are figured to be a character similar enough to us that feelings can be evoked easily and they can be used in our place to road test morally and ethically difficult situations. As such, critics have read a number of different things into the novel Interview with the Vampire. Predominantly, the concern has been with the sexual subtext and Freudian readings due to the dysfunctional nature of the child-figure, Claudia. Benefiel, in her essay on the nuclear family in Interview, discusses the conflation of identities and roles within a vampiric family: “a master vampire functions as father, mother and husband, with other younger vampires as children/lovers.”[1] A similar theme is explored in Doane and Hodges essay on the ‘preoedipal to postfeminism’ of the Chronicles, but the focus is on the character of Lestat and the Chronicles in their entirety. George Haggerty in ‘Anne Rice and the Queering of Culture’ offers a rather blunt approach to the series, suggesting that “to understand the Chronicles, in fact, they must be read as gay.”[2] However, I am suggesting that sexuality is not the key to understanding this text. Or, it is not what is most significant about this text. Rather, like Haggerty states early on in his essay, Rice’s vampires “offer a précis of some of our most deeply held cultural assumptions and an overview of the banality of transgression in the later twentieth century.”[3] Specifically, religion and the move away from the domination of Christianity in our culture.

Although identities for vampires particularly in this novel are merged, what is interesting is the way the boundary between damnation and salvation is drawn. Louis, arguably the central character of the story, despite Lestat’s dominance throughout the other books of the chronicles, is pre-occupied with his spiritual existence, rather than his physical one. Confronted with the possibility of eternity, he seeks answers to give meaning to his boundless existence. Why precisely the immortal are seeking redemption is a logistical problem. Nevertheless, it allows Rice to use the supernatural character of Louis to play out our mortal fears, to blur the moral boundaries and explore the finite possibilities of existence, perhaps in an attempt to inflict meaning on mortal existence, giving those of us with a soul some sense of hope.

To understand the text, it is important to look at where the references within the text originate. In this case, many of the references to religion appear to come from the superstition-based beliefs that surround vampires and their creation. In Legends of Blood, a book on the historical account of the vampire myth, the numerous ways that a vampire can be created are detailed. But it is clear that the origins of the vampire lie in religion and a transgression of the correct religious behaviour. Some “asserted that a vampire was created when a demon entered into a corpse, effectively ‘borrowing’ the body to indulge in holy activities.”[4]  This is the belief (and fear) that Louis harbours: that he has lost all chance of redemption, that he is “damned.” The superstitions surrounding vampires make use of themselves in Interview. InAmerica, where Louis and Lestat reside for the first part of the novel, suspicions are not so easily raised; it is either an indication of the more-evolved existence of Rice’s imagined society, or a comment of the blindness that allows the vampires ofAmerica to easily continue their existence. Interestingly, it is only the slaves who have any kind of suspicion of the vampires, as too, the European peasants vehemently fear the figure of the vampire. The underclass is the only sub-section that questions the actions of the vampires, their beauty and power not being enough to quell superstition, which is often confused with religion.

Now, though, we live in an age where the figure of the vampire has far surpassed the realms of superstition, and instead is an iconic figure of excitement. What is interesting to note is that the actions of the vampire, once considered immoral, are now calmly accepted as a fact of their existence, despite their fantastical nature. Characters are seen from different perspectives. To clearly see the difference, it only takes a look at Dracula to see how much our perception of the figure, and indeed, of evil, has changed. Stoker’s tale, often used as a basis in criticism on vampire literature, vividly details the dichotomy between good and evil. As Christopher Herbert notes, “Scriptural quotation is worked deeply into the stylistic texture of the novel, both in the frequent echoing of biblical verses and in dramaturgical effects such as the pieta that ends the story, the dying hero Quincey Morris bleeding from his Christological wound in the side.”[5] Dracula was presented in an abhorrent light. Aesthetically displeasing, closeted and controlling, the world’s most recognisable vampire firmly staked a name for himself as something to be feared. In comparison, Rice’s world of vampires presents an entirely different side to the figure. Louis’ tale, told to the somewhat sycophantic interviewer, reads at times more like an overdramatic diary. He wants us to feel his pain, to explore the same lonely territory that he is wandering through. Perhaps this is why we ignore the ‘evil’ that Louis partakes in. I would suggest that our perception of evil has changed, and this change has its roots in the disintegration of a firm religious system. The major difference between Dracula and Interview with the Vampire, arguably, is the way religion is explored. Herbert believes that “Dracula belongs to the imaginary regime of superstition rather than to that of religion and ethical consciousness”[6]. We see the world through Louis’ eyes, and his talk of damnation and his search for God are what concerns him, and therefore the reader, most.

What also facilitates this acceptance of ‘evil’ is the gradual way it is introduced. It echoes Louis’ need to “understand death in stages” (IWV, 80). First, the issue of killing is avoided by his diet of rats and animals. Post-vegetarian stage, we are told little of his murderous escapades, with the only real detail of his feeding being something that could be described as ‘positive’: the creation of Claudia.

Although she abhors her ‘parents’, Louis and Lestat, for giving her “immortality in this hopeless guise, this helpless form!” (IWV, 283) she has nevertheless been given the option of immortality. Rice’s presentation of the vampire is extensively humanised; with Louis’ murderous acts being qualified by his constant struggle with his conscience. Louis’ tale even manages to seduce the interviewer, who as a faceless figure, is a representation of the everyman, the reader. He, like us, covets the exciting lifestyle of Rice’s vampires, fixating on the perceived positives of the story. After all, if like Armand claims, “there is no God”, then at least damnation is one less thing for the modern vampires to worry about. With the onslaught of Enlightenment and reason, there was the disintegration of and disillusion with religion. Thus, the religious roots of the vampire become increasingly irrelevant, leaving it up to the authors to rewrite the moral boundaries of the figure. Because it is such an important figure for exploring every kind of issue with, it has necessarily been imbued with positive attributes. In this instance, the positive attributes arise because Rice “sees her characters as surrogate humans, exploring such troubling issues as “the mystical relationship in our lives between life and death and the larger moral definitions of good and evil.””[7]

As her vampire Louis says:

“People who cease to believe in God or goodness altogether still believe in the devil. I don’t know why. No, I do indeed know why. Evil as always possible. And goodness is eternally difficult.” (p16)

But it is this belief in evil that has us confused. Unlike Louis, we no longer appear to see a finite line between good and evil. There is always a vampire that is more evil than another; perhaps he has killed more often, more cruelly, and in a less human fashion. It is the semblance of humanity that renders these vampires good. Although Louis is keen to posit himself as “the devil”, his hesitance to kill and his renewed respect for life negate the evil in him. Armand, the “oldest living vampire” that Louis meets later in the novel, suggests that there are “gradations of evil”, challenging the typically religious categorisation of virtue versus sin. And so, our attitudes have shifted. We have moved from categorising things in a binary fashion, to a postmodern view of gradations, scales, multitudes of options. Even the vampire is no longer stuck in the horror genre. As Kane notes, “the genre evolved, and so too must our views and definitions of genre.”[8]

So what does the spectrum of the vampire now encompass? What I suggest is that Rice’s vampires are a sterling example of our need for fantastical figures and tales, for characters we can portray as ‘gods’. Vampirism itself has been likened to a religion, and specifically in relation to this text, Gelder has remarked that Louis’ “subsequent belief in vampires…is a kind of modern, secular replacement for his lost Catholic faith.”[9] As we as a society become increasingly alienated from the realm of the church and loosen the religious ties that bind societal experience, we are left with a void that figures such as the vampire fill. For many avid consumers of vampire film and literature, these tales are more than supernatural stories – they have become texts to be read with a religious devotion. Much like Claudia, in the novel, whose search for knowledge of other vampires leads her to “those few accounts of the vampires of Eastern Europe, which had become for her a sort of Bible.” (IWV, 180) Within the text, Rice sets up the vampire coven of Lestat et al as a subversive nuclear family with biblical echoes. The underpinning theme of the text is far more biblical than any of the allusions made in Dracula. That is because Rice’s vampires are portrayed as gods. They have the power to create and destroy at will; as Claudia says bitterly to her ‘maker’ Lestat:

“And you give all these things. They proceed from you. Life and death.” (IVW, 133)

 

They are aesthetically pleasing, and figured with just the right amount of humanity to make them sympathetic, but not so much that it would render them too commonplace. The community of vampirism within Interview With the Vampire is reminiscent of greek mythology. Instead of the religious order of monotheism, what vampirism offers is a return to “pagan hegemony of power and pleasure.”[10] It is a more honest, realistic view of our obsessions and idols. Louis himself describes the disillusionment with a traditional religion perfectly:

“I saw…the lip service to God and the Virgin and a host of saints whose names filled my prayer books, none of whom made the slightest difference in a narrow, materialistic, and selfish existence. I saw my real gods…the gods of most men. Food, drink and security in conformity.” (IWV, 17)

 

The lives of the vampires are listened to in awe, the godlike and supernatural actions they take documented by the rapt interviewer, whose attitude towards vampires by the end of the novel echoes religious conversion. But there is also another conversion in the novel: Louis’. His loss of Catholic faith and devotion to uncovering more knowledge about vampires reaches a climax when he meets Armand. Armand, the oldest living vampire, is god-like. He can offer Louis what he desires: knowledge. Knowledge is something that is denied to Louis by Lestat, who believes that the quest for knowledge is “mortal nonsense” (IWV, 41). His denial has an explainable origin: his hatred for his own father is underpinned by a denial of knowledge. His father pulled him out of school, “burning his books.” Louis repeats the cycle, but denies all knowledge to Louis, including knowledge of other vampires, and the divine consequences of becoming one. He would “taunt me [Louis] with sealed lips when I asked about God or the devil.” (IWV, 42) Lestat’s denial is a vampiric version of expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Lestat represents the Christian ‘Old testament god’, creating his first and finding a female for him, prohibiting the acquiring of knowledge. Yet, in this twisted version, the commandments are simple: kill, and separate yourself from those who are lesser than you, i.e., mortal. Armand, on the other hand, is found after a long, soul-searching journey, and heralds a change of belief in Louis. Armand can only be found after the symbolic killing of Lestat: true renunciation of an old faith is here made possible by the expulsion of its central figure. Armand’s authority here comes from experience, and thus, knowledge. Knowledge of the world around him, of the structure of things, and knowledge of his own nature.

Louis’ journey to Paristo find Armand is pivotal; not just to Louis, but to the book itself. On first meeting the Parisian vampires, Louis is invited to see a show at ‘Theatre des Vampires’. The theatre itself performs acts of vampirism, much like Lestat (and for the same effect) who “performs” murders to “set the imagination of New Orleans to working.” (IWV, 122) This plays on the idea of superstition within the text; parodying the traditional view of the vampire, and enforcing the (what we would today call) ridiculous superstitions that surround the figure. So it is that, as Gelder notes, “vampirism has become a simulation of the real.”[11] Taking into account the way vampirism has been described previously in this essay as a religion of its own, a secular, more realistic one, the original quote from Baudrillard at the beginning of this essay becomes relevant. For, if we follow Baudrillard’s argument that God is a prime example of a simulacrum, then the idea of vampirism as a simulation of the real begins to run parallel. Vampirism has always been a mere simulation, but the adoption of it as a religious system[12] Even beyond the text, we seek to simulate the simulation: there are many examples of ‘real-life’ vampires which inadvertently stem from real-life events themselves, which were in turn interpreted as ‘supernatural’. Perhaps it is because today we seek a rational explanation for everything that we are such willing consumers of supernatural fiction, and find our deities in the monstrous imagery of vampire fiction.

There is a major difference between the traditional religion of Christianity and the all-consuming world of vampirism. That is order. Our obsession with vampires and readiness to see them as gods (empowering them with the ability to control our human lives and unleashing them in the mortal world) comes from our unconscious desire to transcend the boundaries of mortality and the rules of society, many of which were originally enforced by religious orders. For example, as previously mentioned, the prohibition of knowledge or the denial of our basic ‘urges’ like sex. This is why Louis begins the novel following all the rules, and remaining within the boundaries. He has been conditioned by his beliefs to reject anything that is considered a ‘sin’. It is a mark of his ‘conversion’ to vampirism that by the end of the novel he feeds when he likes, and has sought out the knowledge that he was originally denied.

Rice’s vampires, “spiritual explorers”[13] as she calls them, may be gods, but they also represent a more humanised side to the divine. Their supernatural elements are at once envied and abhorred, but it is their experience as being something “other” that the readership latches onto. Sandra Tomc notes “The conflicted terrain of the self is figured, indeed, allegorized – as the zone of war between good and evil, salvation and damnation, between compromised survival and all-out annihilation.”[14] It this confliction that we recognise in ourselves, in the vampires we wish to emulate, with their transcendence of the rigid boundaries of mortality, and this confliction that posits the figure of the vampire as something to be idolised. However much Rice’s vampires may only be a simulation of vampirism, they still represent the supernatural figures we have come to worship. Louis, in his quest for answers about his existence, and indeed, the world as a whole, takes us on a journey that serves to re-enforce our desire to believe in something more than mortality, and in doing so, illuminates the disillusion that must simply be put down as part of the human condition.


[1] Benefiel, Candace, ‘Blood Relations: The Gothic Perversion of the Nuclear Family in Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire’ (p263)

[2] Haggerty, George, ‘Anne Rice and the Queering of Culture’ (p5)

[3] Ibid.

[4] Bartlett & Idriceanu, Legends of Blood, p.10

[5] Herbert, Christopher, ‘Vampire Religion’ in Representations, No. 79 (Summer, 2002) p.101

[6] Herbert, p.104

[7] McDonald, The Vampire as Numinous Experience, p.134

[8] Kane, Tim, The Changing Vampire of Film and TV, p.129

[9] Gelder, p.111

[10] Zanger, Jules, ‘Metaphor into Metonymy: The vampire next door’ in Blood Read: an Introduction, eds. Gordon and Hollinger,  p21

[11] Gelder, p.110

[12] Not officially, but as previous comments have tried to explain, it is a premise on which one abandons belief and finds role models in the documented stories based on inhuman events, much like many religions.

[13] McDonald, p.134

[14] Tomc, Sandra, ‘Dieting and damnation’ in Blood Read: an Introduction, eds. Gordon and Hollinger p.112

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Being Human

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Of course!

I was racking my brains as to what I wanted to write about. I’m not sure why it didn’t come to me sooner….my most beloved of vampire-related series! Being Human.

And, an added bonus…there’s also the US version which I will inevitably castigate. Even though I have a secret soft spot for it. Anyway….

I’m sure many of you reading this have seen or at least heard of Being Human. It is a wonderfully creative and at times, tenderly poignant series. For those who have no idea, the premise is this: a werewolf, a vampire and ghost live together in a small house, trying to muddle their way through an existence on the fringes of society. George, the werewolf, has to disappear monthly and exile himself to the nearby woods where he (rather painfully) changes into a wolf. Man and beast are separate, an overwrought Jekyll and Hyde. George lives with his condition much like someone with a crippling illness. He has learnt how to cope, yet at times, it is desperately painful to watch him struggle with the loss of normality. Mitchell, the vampire, harbours an addiction to blood and a repressed desire to commit acts of wonderfully brutal violence. He toys with ‘sobriety’ but in many senses, he is just as human as the rest of us, so falls off the wagon. The only difference being that when he does so, an entire train carriage gets drained…Annie is the ghost (although thinking about this now, it’s just occurred to me that the only female is a weak, somewhat ineffectual presence. Not sure how I feel about this) who has to adjust to the peculiar dichotomy of living and being dead. She is perhaps the most ‘normal’ character in the series, forever making cups of tea, and being perpetually gossipy and cheerful.

Later on in the series, we were introduced to Nina, who George ‘infected’. The whole issue surrounding her integration in the group lends weight to werewolves being a more powerful metaphor for HIV/AIDS than vampirism ever was.

The timing of the series was perfect: just on the cusp of the burgeoning vampiric revival, but not so far in that media had been over-saturated by monsters. Saying that, I can’t think of any other series on British TV that deal with these themes. (Correct me if I’m wrong.) The last (British) vampire series we had was Ultraviolet (starring Stephen Moyer, no less). Being Human has put forward a case for a British obsession with monsters. The film industry is so bloated with pale, sexually active vampires that it can be easy to dismiss them as irrelevant. I do not think this is the case however. The central themes in Being Human capture everything my PhD is about. The dilemmas the characters are faced with are moral, ethical, and sometimes rather banal. They fight to retain a sense of ‘humanity’ despite being given ample reasons why they should shun all notions of it. Like the Lost Boys, the characters are absolved of duty. Yet both Mitchell and George work in a hospital. Although the reasons are also quite practical (it gives Mitchell access to blood without death, and the night shifts suit both), there is still no escaping that it gives them a chance to help those who need it most, and witness the highs and lows of human behaviour. Aside from that, there’s murder, difficult pregnancy, addiction, loyalty, and religion. [At some point I’m sure, I will cover one of these topics in more detail. But for now, I’m content to give overviews on the texts/programs that I am dealing with.]

The series itself is popular, so much so that the Americans just had to make their own version….

Whilst I can’t deny that I much prefer their marketing of the series, it’s just…not the same. The first episode follows in much the same way as the first of the UK series. But from then on, it is completely different. The characters themselves are different – for starters, as many people have noted, the vampire, Aidan (named after the actor who played Mitchell in the UK series) has a look that’s far more ‘Twilight’. He storms around, broody, but somewhat lacks the same charisma as Mitchell. Josh, the werewolf, doesn’t have the same endearing awkwardness as George. Instead, he seems to portray a tortured soul, wounded by his ‘affliction’. As for Sally, the ghost, I hate her. She is whiny, and pathetic. Annie is quirky, thoughtful. Sally is more preoccupied with getting revenge for her untimely death at the hands of her emotionally challenged ex. In the UK series, Annie has the same problems, but doesn’t get quite as obsessive, or selfish. The series itself lacks the humour of the BBC version. However….the themes of religion are so strong in this one, it’s almost as if it were a different series. Both series have the issue of monsters masquerading as humans, or humans and their hidden monstrous nature, but in the US version of Being Human we see how religion is often the face for this monstrosity. The head vampire, Bishop (whose very name is suggestive) reveals the religious lynchpins he has in place. It turns out that many religious figureheads are vampires, and the authority helps them keep their existence under wraps.

There is a tendency for filmic vampires to be presented in a caricatured manner, which whilst entertaining, detracts from the metaphorical usefulness of the figure. Being Human, in my opinion, is a successful attempt to reinstate the vampire in its rightful place, as toeing the line between human and morally compromised monster, working out (as we all have to) how to be human.