It's Halloween, and Anne Rice has a new book — a memoir in fact — that's climbing best-seller lists. Everything is normal, then.
Normal if it were 1994 — the height of Rice's mega-selling fame as a queen of Southern Gothic pulp.
For those who haven't been paying attention lately to vampire lit, America's most famous chronicler of bloodsuckers doesn't live in New Orleans anymore — and hasn't since before Hurricane Katrina hit — and she's riding new waves of enthusiasm: the memoir and Christian lit.
Her memoir, “Called Out of Darkness: A Spiritual Confession,” is the latest piece of evidence that Rice is reinventing herself in an attempt to build a reputation as a serious Christian writer.
In the memoir, the 67-year-old writer doesn't disavow the two decades she spent churning out books on vampires, demons and witches — with a batch of S&M erotica thrown in — following the breakout success of her first novel in 1976, “Interview With the Vampire.”
But she's clearly moved on.
In a telephone interview from her mountain home in Rancho Mirage, Calif., Rice laid out her goal:
“To be able to take the tools, the apprenticeship, whatever I learned from being a vampire writer, or whatever I was — to be able to take those tools now and put them in the service of God is a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful opportunity," she said. "And I hope I can redeem myself in that way. I hope that the Lord will accept the books I am writing now.”
The memoir follows the release of two books in a planned four-part, first-person chronicle of the life of Jesus.
And in this new 245-page memoir, Rice presents her former life as vampire writer as that of a soul-searching wanderer in the deserts of atheism; as someone akin to her most famous literary creations — Lestat, her "dark search engine," Louis the aristocrat-turned-vampire and Egyptian Queen Akasha, "the mother of all vampires."
“I do think that those dark books were always talking about religion in their own way. They were talking about the grief for a lost faith,” she said.
In 2002, Rice broke away completely from atheism — nearly four decades after she gave up her Roman Catholic faith as the 1960s started. It happened when she went off to college and found her peers talking about existentialism — Martin Heidegger, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre. Religion, she writes, was too restrictive to the young Rice. Too out of step.
Yet, religion had to come back into her life, she writes. For her, it was something she'd have to face up to again like an absent parent or a long-lost love child or Banquo the ghost in Macbeth.
By the late 1990s, when she went back to Mass, Rice — the author whose books sold in the tens of millions and who had recharged Hollywood's appetite for vampire-inspired horror — had fallen on hard times.
Her husband, poet and artist Stan Rice, died of a brain tumor in 2002. And she had become victim to diabetes.
Always over-the-top and beyond the rational, she writes that her return of faith was preceded by a series of epiphanies — many while on travels to Europe's cathedrals, Israel and Brazil. In one episode, when she visited the giant Jesus statue above Rio de Janeiro, she writes that she felt "delirium" as the clouds broke and revealed the statue.
Her professed revelations recall the religious intoxication she describes of her childhood.
When she was 12, she had her father turn a room on the back porch of the family's Uptown home in New Orleans into an oratory modeled after St. Rose of Lima — the saint Catholics believe turned roses into floating crosses. She wanted to be a saint, she writes.
In the memoir, Rice describes a familiar Catholic upbringing imbued with opulence and mystery. The incense. The statuary. The stained glass. The darkness. She learned the world, she writes, through her senses, through a "preliterate" understanding of the world. She writes that she possessed "an internal gallery of pictorial images" that, lamentably, was replaced “by the alphabetic letters” she learned later.
“You might call it the Mozart effect, but it was the Catholic effect on me,” she said.
In a sense, the memoir also is a confessional about her struggle as a writer to be a reader, a thinker and an author with a distinct literary style. Her stories often are reveries with no end in sight — and all too often ugly with pedantic unwinding, numbing in detail and overly simplistic, a pastiche of cliches.
Her turn in direction — from vampire fiction to Christian musings — still isn't winning the critics over.
In The New York Times, Christopher Buckley slammed Rice's memoir as “a crashing, mind-numbing bore. This is the literary equivalent of waterboarding.”
And the bar is high when it comes to writing about Jesus.
"The best may be Nikos Kazantzakis' 'The Last Temptation of Christ,'" said Jason Berry, a novelist and journalist who has written extensively on the Catholic priest sex abuse scandal. “But also (G.K.) Chesterton, Norman Mailer. ... A lot of narrative artists in both literature and film have taken on Jesus, so to speak.”
Rice isn't out to impress the critics, though.
“My objective is simple: It's to write books about our Lord living on Earth that make him real to people who don't believe in him; or people who have never really tried to believe in him,” she said.
She pressed the point: “I mean, I've made vampires believable to grown women. Now, if I can do that, I can make our Lord Jesus Christ believable to people who've never believed in him. I hope and pray.”
For her devotees, whatever she writes invariably goes down like a smooth bloodbath, that favorite Goth beverage sometimes made with raspberry liqueur, red wine and cranberry juice.
“There are so many people dedicated to her. They want her to write more vampire books," said Marta Acosta, author of the popular “Casa Dracula” series, a “comedy of manners” that plays on vampire themes. She also runs the Vampire Wire, a book blog for fans of gore and the undead.
As for her, Acosta couldn't care less if Rice sinks back into the vampire vein.
“People think it's sexual, but it's not. It's suppressed stuff. Southern Gothic,” Acosta said. "How many centuries is Louis (played by Brad Pitt in the movie 'Interview With the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles') going to whine?”
Never again, it seems.
Rice is busy writing about Jesus as a minister. And that's a tall order, Rice said.