SAN DIEGO, Nov. 12 (UPI) -- More than 20 years ago, young women (and men) across the country read Anne Rice's first novel, "Interview with the Vampire," and were so seduced by the terrible beauty, languid ferocity and frank eroticism of her bloodsucking creations that some even began leaving open their windows at night as they slept. They half-hoped, half-dreaded that a gorgeous vampire like Louis or Lestat might visit them in the dark, so convincing was the portrayal of Rice's supernatural otherworld.
Through the many sequels that have followed, the novelty has worn off, and Rice's prodigious output -- more than 20 thick novels, since 1988 about one a year -- has exacted a sacrifice in quality. In recent years many fans have been disillusioned by Rice's novels, which often are rushed so quickly into publication they read like first drafts.
So it comes as a sort of relief to peruse Rice's latest tome, "Blackwood Farm," just released and touted by the publisher as a blend of her Vampire Chronicles and other long-running saga, the tales of the Mayfair witches. Perhaps the title (not the name of a vampire, witch or other supernatural being) is the first hint that Rice may have moved away from the cookie-cutter hastiness of her last few efforts. After all, both "Interview with the Vampire" and "The Witching Hour" -- her two best efforts to date -- were not named for individual characters either.
Another hint gives the reader hope -- apparently Rice has learned the lesson that the courtly, outrageous Lestat de Lioncourt is the vampire fans really want, so he is back in this novel, though it is ostensibly the story of Quinn Blackwood, newly made reluctant vampire and heir to Blackwood Farm and all its ghosts and secrets.
"Southern Gothic" doesn't even start to describe the baroque bizarreness of the Louisiana swamps from which Blackwood Farm arises in all its rococo finery. This is an ancestral manse in which mulatto servants keep the glories of the past alive and the spoiled heir, Tarquin or Quinn, has every wish catered to, even to sharing his bed with his doting housekeeper well into adulthood (chastely, of course). Despite this, and the fact that he has enjoyed (or suffered) the constant company of a supernatural doppelganger, Goblin, his entire life, Quinn still turns out to be a respectful, attractive, well-educated and sensitive young man whose fear of Goblin's increasing powers sends him to seek out the most famous of vampire VIPs, Lestat himself.
It is in Quinn's recounting of his tale of woe to Lestat that the bulk of the book takes on a familiar, and comforting, structure: an interview. Returning to the successful formula of her very first novel, Rice lets Quinn tell his story without adornment, and indeed, none is needed.
"Blackwood Farm" can be said to be more than the sum of its parts. That is probably a good thing, since aside from Quinn, Goblin and Lestat, the book is populated by a bewildering array of characters, from Quinn's stately Aunt Queen to his bitter mother, the country-western singer Patsy, to members of the Mayfair witch clan and the famous not-so-secret society the Talamasca, to Petronia, the hermaphrodite vampire who becomes Quinn's maker. Baroque? Over the top? Even ludicrous? Yes, it probably is. Classic Anne Rice, hard to put down? That, too.
Fans of Rice will enjoy this novel, since it is a return to the form that originally drew so many into her bizarre subworld of blood drinkers and witches in the first place. On the other hand, anyone who has never read Anne Rice before should probably not start with this novel. The best introduction to her work remains "Interview with the Vampire," which was published in 1976 but remained a cult success until the mid-'80s, and was made into a successful film starring Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt.
Anne Rice lived in San Francisco at the time (she has since returned to her native New Orleans, where she lives with her husband, the poet Stan Rice, and her son, Christopher, who recently published his second novel), and has been famously accessible to her fans throughout her career. She once staged her own classic New Orleans-style jazz funeral, with party to follow, through the streets of the Garden District. Rice rode in a glass coffin as the band played behind her horse-drawn hearse. What an... interesting person she must be to know.
It comes as no surprise that someone with such a feverish imagination and taste for the morbid could produce the Vampire Chronicles and the many other forays into the world of the undead and the supernatural, and that's just under her own name. Writing as Ann Rampling and A. N. Roquelaure, Rice has published five additional novels, ranging from the Lolita-ish soft-porn "Belinda" to the more hair-raising S&M "Sleeping Beauty" trilogy.
The Vampire Chronicles were interpreted in some circles as an extended allegory on homosexuality and AIDS (vampires make mortals into new vampires through an exchange of blood), which might partly have accounted for their surge in popularity in the '80s.
"Interview with the Vampire" and its sequels, "The Vampire Lestat" and "Queen of the Damned," were followed by "The Tale of the Body Thief," "Memnoch the Devil," "The Vampire Armand" and "Blood and Gold," all of which combined form The Vampire Chronicles. A spinoff following vampire David Talbot include "Pandora" and "Vittorio the Vampire." Unfortunately, as a source of inspiration these undead had their limits. I (and most of the other Rice fans I knew) ran out of steam somewhere between Armand and Vittorio.
Rice was not dissuaded. A brief foray into ancient Egypt spawned "The Mummy," but fortunately no sequels, and then she hit a fruitful new lode in "The Witching Hour," published in 1990. Introducing the Mayfair family of witches, it remains one of her best novels. Dense, rich with detail and description and full of fascinating and attractive characters, it made many readers wish they were witches, just as "Interview with the Vampire" made them wish to be blood drinkers. "The Witching Hour" led to "Lasher," "Taltos" and "Merrick," in which vampires and witches come together for the first time. (Merrick Mayfair returns in "Blackwood Farm," for her own fiery apotheosis.)
Vampires and Mayfairs collide again in "Blackwood Farm." Reaching adulthood, Quinn Blackwood finds himself faced with many challenges and unexplained mysteries that have only been hinted at throughout his young life. The Blackwood property and fortune are now his responsibility, as are the many members of his family (legitimate, corporeal and otherwise) and a mysterious stranger that only visits his hideout in the swamp at night (hint, hint). On top of all that, everyone thinks he's crazy (go figure), and while undergoing psychological testing he's met and instantly fallen in love with the youngest, most powerful of the Mayfairs, Mona, who has troubles of her own.
How these various issues are resolved, with the help of Lestat (who makes what is really a small, though important, cameo appearance), brings the novel to a short, sharp and partly tragic denouement after a long and well-told autobiography on Quinn's part. Rice reserves enough shockers until the end to make it worth finishing. After all, the days are getting shorter - you could find worse ways to while away a few autumn evenings than immersed in her bizarre world.
Just be sure you double-check the window latches before you go to bed... or not. HEADER:(Blackwood Farm, By Anne Rice, Knopf, 530 pages, $$@$!26.95)