Darkness Constrained

Criticizing the transformation of one of my favorite authors, Anne Rice

There are a handful of authors whose style and storytelling is so appealing, I count them among my favorites.  With the exception of Bob Woodward, they are all fiction writers, and include such diverse authors as Charles Dickens, John Updike, John Steinbeck, Terry Pratchett, Tom Robbins, Stephen King, Herman Wouk, and Gore Vidal.  When I identify an author as a “favorite,” it becomes my goal to read their entire writings.   This is much easier with dead or retired writers, as modern authors have the annoying habit of releasing new material even after I have completed their existing bodies of work.

One of the first authors I “finished” reading was Anne Rice, most famously known for her vampire and witches chronicles.  Those familiar with Rice may not know that in addition to her well-known series, she has written a number of books that are, shall we say, risque, almost to the point of vulgarity.  In particular, her three-part take on the legend of Sleeping Beauty is suitable neither for children nor adults, and her decision to write it under a pseudonym was probably for the best.

Despite those vulgar mis-fires, the body of literature produced by Rice is compelling.  Before such authors as Stephanie Meyer remade vampires as teenagers full of angst, Rice crafted a vampire saga that explored the humanity of her characters, and believably described their reactions to and interactions with the preternatural forces they encounter throughout the stories.  In a parallel story-told world, that of the Mayfair Witches, Rice lavishly describes the experiences of a young girl with a mysterious family history, and follows her as she uncovers both its secrets, and her own.  The Witches saga, as well as the first five books of the vampire series (it continued a book or two past its expiration date), represent Rice at her best.

The elements that make Rice a compelling storyteller include her focus on the humanity of her superhuman characters, her ornamental descriptions of landscapes, people, and societies, and the edginess of her stories.  Undercurrents of the struggle between good and evil run through each of her novels, and her protagonists typically experience the ambiguity between those forces.  Though her early works were dark, they were not depressing, and her choice to make the “monsters” the protagonists gave her stories a freshness and originality that distinguished them from the classic Bram Stoker version of the vampire myths.

Following a near-death experience in the late 1990s, Rice underwent a spiritual reawakening, and returned to Christianity (during her early career, she was essentially athiest).  This was accompanied a few years later by a decision to stop writing about figures of darkness, and begin devoting her writing to telling the story of Jesus.  In her only non-fiction offering, a memoir entitled Called Out of Darkness, Rice explained that she realized a need to let go of the skepticism that was keeping her from the church, and to accept Jesus back into her life.  Since 2003, she has not published any more stories of the preternatural.

Instead, Rice has focused on telling plausible stories from the “lost years” of Jesus’ life, including the surprisingly readable Christ the Lord series.  It pains me to write this about an author I have admired for many years, but I believe that in making the decision to devote her writing to religious purposes, Anne Rice has lost her way.

This would be a much easier pronouncement if the religiously-themed novels were bad, but they’re not bad.  They’re actually pretty good, and that’s the problem.  Rice is an author of tremendous abilities, and when she combines her narrative style, her storytelling ability, and the edginess of her earlier works, she can write truly great novels.  Her recent stories lack that distinction.

I believe the problem with these recent books relates to the constraint imposed by working within a religious framework, particularly as it relates to literary themes.  Her earlier stories had thematic undercurrents that were engaging and controversial.  While Rice has described her early work as consistently narrating transformative quests by her protagonists, she also explores issues of sexuality, mortality, feminism, and philosophy.  The newer stories are much more constrained and predictable in their themes of temptation, sin, redemption, and immortality through faith.  The stories lack edge, and if they had been the first books from Anne Rice I had encountered, I probably would not count her among my favorites.

I want to stress that the Christ the Lord series, particularly for readers interested in history and the early life of Jesus, is readable, accessible, and avoids being preachy.  Rice does manage to entertain as she presents her message, but the message is there, it is predictable, and it is far less fun and compelling than her early works.  It also bears mentioning that Rice is an author very much engaged with her fans, and with the political and social issues of the day.  She embraces the controversy of both her earlier works, and her evolution past them.

My recommendation to anyone unfamiliar with Rice is to take a pass on both her newer works, and her more vulgar early works (Claiming of Sleeping Beauty Trilogy, Exit to Eden).  However, the Mayfair witches, the early vampire series, and a standalone entitled Belinda are tremendously effective stories, at once engaging and enthralling.  For my part, I will continue to stay current on Rice’s new works, and I remain optimistic that the force of her writing will eventually overcome the disadvantages she faces constraining her writing to Christian themes.

Her newest effort, an upcoming novel called The Wolf Gift, comes out in February.  I will keep my fingers crossed, but I won’t be holding my breath.



Published in: on December 3, 2011 at 6:23 pm  Leave a Comment  

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