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The ultimate primer on the works of Anne Rice

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Oct 2, 2020, 1:00 PM EDT

Over the past four and a half decades, Anne Rice has done more to wholly redefine the vampire genre than anyone else alive or dead who isn't named Bram Stoker. Without the works of Rice, most notably her 13-book long series The Vampire Chronicles, the face of modern horror would be utterly unrecognizable. The New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani wrote that "Anne Rice has what might best be described as a Gothic imagination crossed with a campy taste for the decadent and the bizarre."

That may be the most succinct possible description of what makes Rice's work so hypnotic. Her books are long, highly fragrant, and overwhelmed with the grandest of emotions. Her vampires are charming and sensitive, creatures of feeling who are often deeply tormented by their lot in life/death. They are sensual and sympathetic, far more interesting and humane than even the human beings they kill for food. Outside of the undead, Rice has dabbled in all manner of paranormal tales, putting her unique stamp on everything from werewolves to angels to djinni.

For novices, Rice's work can seem daunting. Her books are many hundreds of pages long, written with baroque flair, and full of the sort of mind-boggling deviance and plot twists that, when said aloud, would send many people running to the hills. Yet she is a vital figure in genre fiction and one whose voice feels invigorating even after many decades, particularly thanks to the unabashed queerness of her vampires. With AMC set to adapt her most iconic saga into a TV series, and with the author herself turning 79, there's no better time to dive head-first into the all-consuming worlds of Anne Rice. To help out all newbies, we have provided a helpful primer on where to start, some deeper and odder cuts, and a few to avoid.

This is not, obviously, a comprehensive exploration of Rice's entire bibliography, and there will be spoilers!

WHERE TO START

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The first three books in The Vampire Chronicles: The original trilogy of the life of Lestat De Lioncourt, the Brat Prince and beloved Rockstar vampire, is and shall always be the greatest thing Anne Rice has created. It's tough to overstate just how vibrant those three books feel to this day and what a spectacular wake-up call they must have been to the flagging vampire genre of the 1970s and '80s. Interview with the Vampire, The Vampire Lestat, and The Queen of the Damned establish a lush world populated with figures of endless allure. Lestat himself is beyond charismatic, even as he tries the patience of everyone around him. The first book, told from the point-of-view of the perennially tortured Louis, is lush and audacious and often discomfiting in its piercing insight into a centuries-old troubled mind. By contrast, The Vampire Lestat is giddy as Lestat decides to tell his side of the story and show the more joyous side of eternal life, which involves him becoming the Jim Morrison of '80s vampire rock. This arc's conclusion with The Queen of the Damned introduces a fascinatingly unique origin story for vampirism as well as a dramatic power play between the eponymous queen and her conflicted subjects.

The real hook of this trilogy, however, is its total reinvention of vampire lore and its meta-examination of vampirism as a creative concept. In both the real world and Rice's creation, the reader is invited to re-examine everything they know about vampires, and the re-imagining offered to us completely changed the game. These books are written like biographies, delving into the historical minutiae eras as varied as ancient Egypt, revolution-era France, and New Orleans before the Louisiana Purchase. Yet they are never dull. You feel embraced by the obsessive nature of this trilogy, so overwhelmingly emotional and richly textured. Without these three books, the vampire genre as we know it would be so very different.

The Mummy, or Ramses the Damned: Rice followed up The Queen of the Damned with an adventure-romance that may seem very familiar to those of you who like a certain Brendan Fraser movie. The Mummy, or Ramses the Damned takes its biggest influences from both the original era of Universal horror and the mysteries of writers like Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. Even by Rice's own standards, this tale of murder, passion, and family drama during the peak of Britain's archaeological explorations of Egypt is melodramatic. It is, however, great fun and is bound to interest lovers of historical romance. The book infamously ended on a cliffhanger with the promise of a sequel, but it took Rice (and her son, the author Christopher Rice) 18 years to write the follow-up!

THE NEXT STEP

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The Witching Hour: Over a thousand pages long (depending on your edition), The Witching Hour may be the most formidable title on Rice's shelf. Even by her standards, it is dense and labyrinthine, a generations-long saga of the Mayfairs, a family of matriarchal rule and intense powers of witchcraft that they have retained through a combination of incest and demonic deal-making. The sheer ambition of The Witching Hour is admirable, with the novel as jam-packed full of historical details and richly layered lore as anything Rice created for her vampires. This is classic Southern gothic, albeit with far more biological horror. The main Mayfair of the story, Rowan, is the designee of the cursed family legacy, most notably a malevolent spirit named Lasher who has plagued the Mayfairs for centuries as he tries to fulfill his desire to take a physical human form. A warning that The Witching Hour, while brilliant, is often deeply disturbing and deals with themes of rape, incest, and trauma.

The Tale of the Body Thief: Following the original Vampire Chronicles trilogy, Lestat became far more melancholy. The boredom and guilt of his undead existence set in and, in The Tale of the Body Thief, he sought a way out. Fearing that he has lost the last vestiges of his humanity after centuries as a vampire, Lestat makes the evidently ridiculous decision to swap bodies with a mysterious man who possesses the ability to jump from form to form. It turns out that being a human doesn't necessarily make one more humane, and Lestat still cannot come to terms with his own experiences. The Tale of the Body Thief sees The Vampire Chronicles take the next step into more metaphysical ideas and conundrums, which would become Rice's bread and butter. The expansion of the world of vampires into one of Earth-shattering notions of good and evil would divide some readers, especially those who missed Lestat being a proud brat, but this is where Rice starts to get truly bold in the most fascinating ways.

DEEP CUTS

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The Wolf Gift: It's a surprise that it took Rice this long to write a werewolf novel. 2012's The Wolf Gift is a surprisingly old-school gothic novel, one that would not be out of place among the works of her most classical influences. Reuben Golding is a hard-working journalist sent on assignment who is attacked and soon finds himself turning into a werewolf. Rice's attention to detail during the metamorphosis makes for some of her most thrilling prose in years. Her concerns with the conflict between good and evil are on full display here, and the book's take on lycanthropy as a twisted form of puberty, complete with lavish descriptions of bodily change, wouldn't feel out of place in an Angela Carter story.

Servant of the Bones: After vampires and witches, Rice took an unexpected left-turn with Servant of the Bones in 1996, a story of a genie whose spirit is bound to his own gold-encased bones. Whoever possesses his former body can command him to do their bidding, however twisted or amoral. Azriel was a Jewish merchant's son who, through trickery, became a genie and has spent centuries serving many masters and trying to find an escape from his immortal plight. Like much of Rice's work, this story is told mostly through flashbacks, but the modern-day subplot featuring a hyper-capitalist cult and a murder mystery also proves highly intriguing.

Pandora: One of the downsides of The Vampire Chronicles is that the stories are almost exclusively told from the points-of-view of the male characters. Pandora is a rare but welcome exception. For some reason, the book was published as one of the so-called "New Tales of the Vampires," which doesn't make much sense given that she's a key supporting character in the main saga. Still, her novel, one of Rice's shorter works, is a much-needed insight into one of the series' most striking and complex heroines. Pandora was the daughter of a high-ranking Senator during the Roman Republic who sought independence rather than a life of wifely servitude. She meets the mysterious Marius, a beloved character in The Vampire Chronicles, and the pair become inextricably bound for centuries through their torrid love affair. To fully appreciate this book, you will have to read most of The Vampire Chronicles first, but if you're in deep with this series then Pandora's narrative ends up feeling like a welcome breath of fresh air.

Songs of the Seraphim: Rice famously abandoned writing about the speculative for many years after returning to the Catholic Church in the early-2000s, but when she came back to the paranormal works that made her famous, it seemed only right for her to tackle stories of angels. Angel Time and Of Love and Evil are curiously metaphysical thrillers about an assassin (delightfully) named Toby O'Dare who encounters a seraph who offers him a chance to save lives rather than take them. He is then transported through time to see the full scale of what is at risk in the battle for his — and all — souls. As expected, there are many discussions of God here, but the expansion of the mythos of the angels is particularly captivating. This is clearly a very personal book, although, that said, Rice's works are infamously rooted in her own ideas and experiences, to the point where you could probably label much of her bibliography as "Rice's Id." This is one for the fully invested Rice fans and not the beginners.

The Vampire Armand and Blood and Gold: As Rice expanded The Vampire Chronicles, she moved away from the plight of Lestat and delved into the origins of her supporting characters. Armand, the lascivious perpetual adolescent, and Marius, the wise and committed guardians of the mother and father of all vampires, are two of the fandom's most popular figures. These two novels in particular offer some of Rice's more piercing examinations of sexuality, human and vampire alike. None of it will make any sense unless you're in deep with these vampires, of course.

THE WEIRD STUFF

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Lasher and Taltos: The rest of the Mayfair Witches trilogy is not quite on the same level of quality as The Witching Hour, but they certainly surpass that book in terms of sheer weirdness. The sexual violence and incest are still on full display but the bigger focus now is less on the witches themselves and more on the spirit Lasher, who has now taken on a physical form and is raping his mother Rowan repeatedly so that she can birth him a mate. Yeah, really. These books are still jam-packed with fascinating historical details and Rice's world-building for the Taltos themselves is second to none. The big problem with these two novels is the presence of Mona Mayfair. The precocious teenage cousin of Rowan, Mona seduces her in-law, gets pregnant with a Taltos, and becomes extremely powerful. Rice has always, let's say, had an interest in characters with a Lolita complex, and it's never been more discomfiting than it is with Mona. We wouldn't blame you if you read The Witching Hour then stopped there.

Memnoch the Devil: For some Vampire Chronicles fans, Memnoch the Devil was where it all went downhill, but that doesn't do the book justice. It's far too audacious for that. As Lestat continues searching for his soul, if he ever had one, he ends up meeting the literal devil, who offers him the chance to be his right-hand man. Before he can make that choice, Memnoch reveals the true origins of God, man, and the concept of evil to him. This is essentially Anne Rice's passionate and often furious reimagining of the entire Christian canon, and it's truly astounding. It's as close as we've gotten to a truly modern-day Paradise Lost. It's a daringly cosmological tale, and one that felt out-of-place to many Vampire Chronicles fans who just wanted undead sensuality without all the God stuff. If the first three books in the series are the absolute necessities, then Memnoch the Devil is the intermediate follow-up that will infuriate and reward you in equal measure.

The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty: Did you know that Anne Rice wrote a whole lot of erotica? She didn't half-ass it either. Under the pseudonym of A. N. Roquelaure, she penned the Sleeping Beauty quartet, a wholly sexual re-imagining of the classic fairy-tale, one that plays up the source material's inherent subtext. Here, Beauty is awakened from her hundred-year sleep not with a kiss from her Prince but by rape, and soon she is initiated into a Dionysian-like world of deviance and sexual freedom. Anything goes in these books, and we mean anything: BDSM, pony play, massive phallus statues, a very unnerving moment involving a bat... Lots of stuff to raise your eyebrows.

Prince Lestat and the Realms of Atlantis: After 11 years, Anne Rice returned to her beloved Vampires in 2014 with Prince Lestat, but it was that book's follow-up where things went truly wild. Prince Lestat and the Realms of Atlantis is the kind of gutsy reinvention that most writers would be warned against completing. Imagine spending decades achingly crafting a beloved and richly layered mythos, only to decide that, yes, they're all aliens. No, really, the vampires originated from aliens. Four decades in and she added aliens! A lot of readers felt betrayed by this change, but I personally loved it. How could you not be won over by literal aliens who make vampires and also the lost city of Atlantis is there? It opens up the Chronicles to a whole new realm of exploration, not unlike when the Fast and Furious franchise decided to stop pretending that realism was a thing. We heartily welcome the new developments of Rice's vampires. Lestat on the moon, maybe?

ONES TO AVOID

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Blood Canticle: Nowadays, Blood Canticle is best-known as the "last" Vampire Chronicles novel before Anne Rice briefly quit the series to focus on books about Jesus. Upon release, it caused a minor stir when Rice responded to bad reviews by claiming that readers were "interrogating the text from the wrong perspective," a quote that has gone down in history among book critics everywhere. But make no mistake: Blood Canticle is a very bad book. It opens with Lestat chastising readers for not enjoying Memnoch the Devil, then turns the focus to Mona Mayfair's hunt for her Taltos child. Rice's work is noted for how full-throated her commitment to her own worlds is, but Blood Canticle feels dishearteningly half-assed as if she didn't even want to write it, and that disdain is evident on every page. Fortunately, this book is basically not canon anymore, so we only recommend reading it if you're a die-hard completist.

Belinda: Aside from the Sleeping Beauty saga, Rice wrote a number of other erotic novels. Exit to Eden is a pretty standard tale of love and sadomasochism that is most notable for its hilariously misguided movie adaptation that added a buddy cop comedy diamond heist subplot featuring Rosie O'Donnell and Dan Aykroyd. Belinda, however, is just squicky. The protagonist of the title is the object of lust and obsession for Jeremy, a 44-year-old divorced author. He falls for Belinda, paints her nude, and becomes embroiled in her dark world after it's revealed that she's the runaway daughter of a movie star. Oh, and also she's only 16, which means that it's — shocked horror — illegal in the state of California for Jeremy to "seduce" her. A large part of Belinda is focused on exploring the supposed conundrum of whether true love can exist between two people when there's such a large age difference and it's also technically statutory rape. No, thank you.

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