Although Anne Rice’s vampire chronicles consists of thirteen books, many people simply read the first three as a trilogy: Interview with the Vampire, The Vampire Lestat, and Queen of the Damned. I read Queen of the Damned to fulfill my summer reading bingo square asking for “a book we once started but never finished.” I couldn’t remember why I quit this chunky novel back in high school when I had been so enamored with getting to know Louis and the Lestat. But, as I read this past week, I remembered.
After being so close to Lestat in his novel, readers are given a taste of the beloved vampire for one opening chapter in Queen of the Damned and then handed off to different characters’ perspectives for a long time. I felt betrayed that I had to meet and acclimate to all these new characters when I was in high school, like something was withheld from me. This go around, I knew they were important because each will see, or be the victim of, spontaneous combustion. Who is murdering vampires, how, and why?
Now that Lestat has revealed vampire secrets to the world in an “autobiography” and is putting on a one-night-only concert with his world-famous rock band, he’s made himself known not only to mortals, but to the mother of all vampires, the first vampire, the source: Akasha. Created pre-Egypt, Akasha and her king, Enkil, have been vampires so long they’re indestructible, no longer need blood, nor do they move. An ancient vampire guards them and notices they may move slightly in his absence, but overall, they’re like rocks.
While vampires are being murdered in the days leading up to Lestat’s concert, readers learn that protagonists are plagued by disturbing dreams of red-haired twins. Each character’s version of the dream adds more to the picture: cannibalism, a dead mother, rape, mutilation, war. Eventually, we learn who the twins are through Maharet, a member of the First Brood (vampires made by Akasha who are thousands of years older than the “ancient” vampires we met in The Vampire Lestat).
Although Anne Rice used metafiction successfully before — Louis’s story being turned into a book marketed as fiction and Lestat’s story is his autobiography — it doesn’t work as well in Queen of the Damned. Lestat pens the novel, but to avoid quote marks within quote marks within quote marks, he uses third person. Fine and dandy, but even using third person, the execution is clunky. Maharet tells a long story about what the dream of the twins means, and in it she tells us what other people — including one vampire sitting at the table — thought, felt, and did thousands of years ago when she was not present. Rice needed to ditch the “penned by” method that worked beautifully before when she chose to narrate from multiple perspectives.
Not only was Maharet’s twin story awkward because it’s three chapters of dialogue, she gives an obscene number of details to a dozen vampires listening to this story in the hopes of finding some clue how to stop Akasha, who is globally mass murdering humans and vampires alike. Had the story been in third person, I wouldn’t have felt so acutely that the words on the page were Maharet’s dialogue, stretching the believability of what the group would have sat and reasonably listened to.
Rice’s strength is that she writes wonderful characters, and thanks to having more patience now than I did in high school, I was able to get to know them this time. Armand, for example, comes back from the second book. He was made into a vampire when he was seventeen in the 1400s. He tries to connect with humans during the current timeline in Queen of the Damned, 1984, meaning he learns about modern devices after years of technology not changing much beyond horses and steam power:
Technological inventions began to obsess Armand, one after the other. First it was kitchen blenders, in which he made frightful concoctions mostly based on the colors of the ingredients; then microwave ovens, in which he cooked roaches and rats. Garbage disposers enchanted him; he fed them paper towels and whole packages of cigarettes. Then it was telephones. He called long distance all over the planet, speaking for hours with “mortals” in Australia or India. Finally television caught him up so utterly, so that the flat was full of blaring speakers and flickering screens.
Seeing gadgets I take for granted through the eyes of someone born in the 1400s allowed me to connect to Armand through understanding my environment better. The novel is still pre-WiFi, but being forced to compare life with electric gadgets and those who find them fascinating made me reevaluate who this character is and stop assuming he’s just like twentieth-century Americans but with a funny accent and cape.
Even more keenly I felt Armand’s skepticism of Americans’ distance from each other in a more connected (again, pre-WiFi!) society:
“We lived six and seven to a room in those days, when I was still among the living. The city streets were seas of humanity; and now in these high buildings dim-witted souls hover in luxurious privacy, gazing through the television window at a faraway world of kissing and touching. It is bound to produce some great fund of common knowledge, some new level of human awareness, a curious skepticism, to be so alone.” (emphasis mine)
Though a five-hundred year-old-vampire, Armand can teach us something about ourselves, something I felt deeply as I read the novel and grew more interested in companionship, travel, and art — three things the vampires are interested in.
It’s well known that Anne Rice hates the film version of Queen of the Damned and feels that it mutilates her work, but the writers of the script, I would argue, capture the villain, Akasha, more clearly. In the novel, she’s ruthless in pre-Egyptian times, but when she awakes in the present she has this idea about how to create world peace that involves murdering 90% of the male population. I couldn’t reconcile who she was as a human and her actions as the mother of vampires. As a human she herself started wars on peaceful villages and harmed women for her own selfish purposes. In the movie, she killed mortals because they were nothing to her. Made more sense to me.
Though I wasn’t engaged in the plot as a whole, I saw potential in characters who I now know come back in later vampire chronicle novels. For that reason, I was happy I read Queen of the Damned, awkward and wonky as it could be.