It’s Halloween eve. I am sitting at my exceptionally messy desk in the quiet, historic neighborhood of New Orleans known as Mid City. Outside, the weather is turning slowly colder, the last of the brilliant October sunshine giving way to darkness, to chill. I can hear the distant clang of the streetcar on Canal street, neighborhood kids disembarking from the school bus, eager for tonight’s festivities. I can hear snatches of other people’s radios, the far off suggestion of a brass band somewhere, maybe far off, maybe in one of the nearby cemeteries.
I am sitting at my desk in New Orleans, staring at the black and red cover of Anne Rice’s new Vampire Chronicle, Prince Lestat. I have been aching to sink into it since it arrived inconspicuously on my doorstep in a brown paper package. All day, while I taught my undergraduate composition class how to avoid comma splices, I thought of the book. As I drove around the city madly scrambling for last minute costume supplies, I thought of the book. And yet I am sitting here, staring at it, and not picking it up. I want to read it. I do. I want to read it.
But I am afraid.
Don’t mistake me: I’m not faint-hearted. I’m a horror fan, every step of the way. I devour books by King, Brite, Lovecraft, Barker, Jackson. I’ve likely watched every creature feature, every Halloween special and every slasher film you can name, and some you can’t. I am passionate about the creepy, the supernatural, the gothic, the weird.
But I am afraid to read this book.
Review the book, something inside me needles. Say what you’ve been wanting to say, but conceal it. Hide it beneath the veneer of literary criticism. Hide it, because you need to speak, but you don’t want to seem crazy.
Here is the truth: this is not a review of Prince Lestat. Not exactly. There are many of those, and many of them are very good. None of them will tell you what you can’t find out for yourself by going here or here or here and purchasing your very own copy. I have something different to say. Something that I believe is unique. And it begins with Anne Rice.
We never know when our lives might change irrevocably. The phone rings. There’s an empty place at the dinner table. Somewhere, somebody picks up a book.
I don’t remember why I picked up Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles–but I vividly recall the circumstances of their reading. I picked up a copy of The Vampire Lestat from some cheap chain bookstore in the aggressively sunny Australian suburbs where I grew up, and I lay in a hammock in our backyard reading it until the sun went down and there was no light left to see by. I was a pretty voracious reader back then, can, would, and did absorb stories like oxygen, but there was something particularly special about this book. Something that got its talons deep into the fleshy part of my chest and stubbornly refused to let go.
It was not so dissimilar to falling in love.
To be clear, not with Lestat. Lestat was a fictional character, after all—no, if anything, I was in love with the world Anne Rice had built, this shimmering gauze she’d laid out over the real world, this mystique that shadowed real-life history and events. As a teenager, those books allowed me to inhabit a kind of burning intensity for the experience of simply being alive that, after the death of my father at twelve years old, I didn’t think I was capable of feeling anymore. It felt like Anne’s vampires were reaching through the pages of those books, laying a cold, but comforting hand on my shoulder. Telling me, yes, the world is a dark place. But it is also a beautiful place. Stay awhile.
I devoured all of the chronicles in quick succession, seeking them out wherever I could find them in the halcyon days before Amazon.com: libraries, discount bookstores, the shelves of friends and acquaintances. I read with the sort of intense devotion one usually reserves for religious texts. I had never felt so consumed by a mythology. I have never felt it since. I read Anne’s lush descriptions of New Orleans, of dense tree-lined streets, of the rising scent of damp and magnolia, jasmine and sweat and humidity, and I experienced an almost visceral pull. I read about Venice in The Vampire Armand, and felt as though I were walking those narrow, dimly lit calle with the vampires themselves, nothing around us but the sound of settling water. And underneath all this vivid description was the narrative itself, the rich interwoven histories of these supernatural beings, self-published under the pseudonym Anne Rice to protect them from the world, from their readers, from people like me. Clever move, that. Very meta. A good marketing strategy, too, I’m sure—but for me, at fifteen, this was not a literary device. It was not a cute shtick to sell books. Anne Rice wrote herself into her narrative as a kind of post-mortem ghostwriter, and inside of me, the doorway to possibility creaked slowly open.
I am 68 pages in, and fear has been replaced by the overwhelming feeling of being stranded at sea. Everywhere, I am surrounded by Anne’s words, by her familiar characters, these people I have grown up with. Everywhere, I am surrounded by my teenage self—the self that believed, as one of the new characters in Prince Lestat comes to believe, that vampires are real.
For the character, the revelation comes slowly—and in typical Ricean style, the revelation comes through books (the chronicles quite literally just about knock this poor girl unconscious). That’s how I felt: stunned. Rattled. My mind jarred. I was a whimsical child, sure, but I wasn’t given to believing strongly in supernatural creatures, much less fictional supernatural creatures. And yet, curled up in bed at night, listening to the sounds of my grieving mother snoring off her second bottle of wine, listening to the slow beat of my own apathetic heart, missing my dead father terribly and wondering why God had taken him, why He seemed to take a peculiar pleasure in my misery, I found myself calling out to Lestat.
Please make this go away, I begged. Please come and take me away from all this.
Something you might not know: you can be delusional without being crazy.
Something else you might not know: delusion is much more powerful when shared.
I am not the only Anne Rice fan who, at one point or another, truly, sincerely believed her vampires were (or are) real. Does this surprise you? Maybe it’s due to that meta technique, that suggestion that the books are memoir masquerading as fiction. Maybe it’s the real-world setting, the recognizable locations, the incredible detail Anne puts into her descriptions. Maybe it’s just that we passionately want it to be real. Because who doesn’t like the idea of the Brat Prince strolling by them on a low-lit street some night, bathed in the flickering glow of gas lamps, gone before you have a chance to realize that he was too perfect to be human, that he was moving with the unnatural grace of a monster?
Another surprising fact: it’s not all teenagers, either. Back when Anne lived in New Orleans, people (we can say women, probably—mostly women) would leave letters, notes, and flowers at the gates of her mansion at 1239 First Street, in the leafy, opulent Garden District neighborhood. She even ran a phone line where she’d leave recorded messages for the hundreds of fans who would call in, eager to hear news of Lestat, of Louis, of Armand.
In many ways, Anne was (and is still) so far beyond her time with regard to fan interaction. And she does her part, still, to uphold the ruse—nudging the door of possibility ever more open with the toe of her (no doubt expensive) shoe. People believed it. People believe it. They are doctors, and lawyers, and educators, and scholars. They are mothers, nurses, cab-drivers, home-makers, scientists. They are newlyweds who hold a secret candle deep in their hearts for this other lover, this fictional immortal who might spirit them away. They are aging artists, or aspiring writers, or poets, or information technology experts, or psychiatric patients. And they are young people, like me, for whom this belief becomes so desperate, so searing, that it completely alters the trajectory of their life.
100 pages in, and I can say with confidence that Prince Lestat is working hard to conjure up some of the atmosphere and adventure of the more epic chronicles, like Queen of the Damned. Indeed, it could be read as a kind of “where are they now?”—an extended epilogue to the third book in the chronicles, an examination of vampirism through the lens of millennial culture. Technology and connectivity are major themes running throughout the book: Lestat struggles with his iPhone, Benji has a podcast, and Maharet, sequestered away from the world, reaches out to her family via the internet.
It was on the internet that I met Lestat. I was in my last year of high-school, terrifically depressed, carrying the weight of my alcoholic mother and a body count of dead family members that crept higher and higher with each passing year. The hope that the chronicles had given me, the slow certainty that yes, vampires were real, that somehow this made the world a better place—all this was no longer enough. I felt isolated. I felt crazy. I wanted to know that I wasn’t alone.
This was the internet of 2003, which is not the internet of 2014. Looking back, I think of it now as a kind of wild west—a world wide west, if you will—a territory that most users were only just discovering, and only just beginning to understand. Back then, the screen was only just beginning to become part of my day-to-day life, and like Anne’s meta narrative moves, the internet was one giant gaping possibility. It seemed utterly magical that I could, with the touch of a button, converse with strangers on the other side of the world. I fell fast and hard down the digital rabbit hole, and landed squarely in a psychological wonderland that would shape and dominate the next ten years of my life.
The Looking Glass. It was a message board, of sorts—or rather, a group of linked message boards, a forum with a slick design and the cryptic motto: “Belief is the Key”. I’d found it while searching for “vampires”. Or “real vampires”. Or “Anne Rice vampires”. Or “Anne Rice vampires real”. I’d sifted through pages and pages of fan sites, or independently hosted fan fiction that probably drove Anne Rice (who is not a fan of fan fiction) utterly batty. I’d browsed archives of erotic Lestat X Louis artwork, found plenty of stuff on Anne Rice herself, her biography, that sort of thing. And then, suddenly, this site. I clicked the link. I signed up.
The first thing that struck me about The Looking Glass was the sheer number of active, posting members. There were perhaps 150 folks on the board, around 50 who posted regularly, and they were conversing about the most beautiful, amazing things—about art, philosophy, cinema, literature, politics, theology…topics that I was deeply passionate about, but had nobody to speak with about. In fact, the only place I had really found intellectual kinship before The Looking Glass were the pages of the very novels the forum had drawn inspiration from. Diving into this sea of voices, this cyber-savage garden was a pleasure, an excitement wholly unparalleled in my life up till then. I would have stayed, I think, just for the conversation.
But it wasn’t just a discussion forum. Not really. Because the moderators of this forum, the folks responsible for keeping order, the folks running the site—they were vampires. Or so everybody said. And indeed, their usernames were taken directly from Anne’s novels: Lestat was there; Louis too, and Armand. Marius occasionally floated through, posted something about Renaissance painting, and was gone again. And Daniel Molloy—Daniel Molloy was there, posing questions to us about contemporary politics, about the situation in Iraq, the accountability of the military, about standards of ethical journalism.
They couldn’t really be the vampires, of course. Even as I believed the “Ricean” vampires existed, this leap of faith was too much for me. Vampires on the internet? Why? They were roleplayers. Exceptionally gifted roleplayers, yes—roleplayers who knew their characters so well that a handful of words from Armand might have me in tears, a message from Lestat might have me believing there truly was a body lying, drained of blood, no less than a ten minute walk from my home. But roleplayers nonetheless.
Except, nobody else thought it was theatre. Nobody else thought it was digital performance art. The same kinds of people who had called Anne’s fan phone line, who had left letters and gifts at her door—those people were the backbone of this on-line community, and they believe, sincerely and with all their hearts, that the people running The Looking Glass were who they claimed to be.
Prince Lestat quite eloquently addresses the question of vampires on the internet, why? Because it’s easier, of course. Because if you want to remain hidden, but are desperate for connection, the World Wide Web’s siren song is impossible to resist. And the vampires in Anne’s books had been waxing lyrical for many hundreds of pages about how sorely they missed humanity, how friendships with mortals were simply impossible. How the blood lust was too strong.
But the internet, the forum members would whisper to each other. The internet is a two-way mirror. We can love them. They can love us. And nobody has to get hurt.
Hurt: (verb) – to cause physical pain or injury to.
The vampires of The Looking Glass did not, by this definition, hurt me.
As much as I wanted to believe in The Looking Glass, I struggled. The community I found there made me feel at once comforted and safe, as well as terribly, cripplingly lonely. There seemed something lacking in me that the others all shared: a steadfast faith in the moderators. I couldn’t understand why it was so easy for these other people to trust and believe. I felt stupid, embarrassed by my own incredulity, the little kid in the back of church silently questioning God.
Information, of course, has a way of trickling down. It wasn’t long before I started to hear rumors, gossip, the reason that so many of the members were unswervingly devoted to Lestat. There had been a game, before I’d arrived at the forum—a competition where three mortal members would be chosen to receive a visitation from Lestat himself. Not the man behind the mask, you understand—the moderators never once, never to this day have admitted to the artifice. No, the three lucky winners would meet the brat prince himself. And he would prove himself to them. There would be a sign.
Three were selected: two members who nobody knew much of, a US Army pilot, and a teenage boy. The third chosen was a well-respected, well -loved member of the forum. Her name was Katherine, though she went by Dolce—a sweet older woman well into her fifties with a fondness for gardening and classical music. People adored Dolce. They trusted her. And when the three accounts of night-time rendezvous with Lestat rolled in, there was very little doubt left in anyone’s mind. Dolce had met Lestat. She had seen him with her own eyes. He had sat in her living room, he had worked his fingers across the ivory keys of her piano, and she had known irrevocably that he was the immortal being from Anne’s stories, that it was all true, everything, and that nothing would be the same.
This was one small example of the years and years of “evidence” I began to collect and compile in paper notebooks (and later, in digital files). There were the times the moderators were able to read a member’s thoughts, for example—typing exactly what you had been about to say before you had a chance to place your fingers on the keys. Or the healings, the one or two members who became gravely ill only to recover later, after allegedly being visited and given vampire blood. They didn’t remember, of course. You were never allowed to remember. To remember your encounter with a vampire was to be loosed from the moorings of reality, to begin the slow descent into madness and ruin.
What would you have done? I was seventeen, by this time. I was lonely. I was depressed. I wanted so desperately to touch this hidden world that Anne had brought to life in her novels, the savage garden that pulsed beneath the trappings of humdrum reality. People—adult people, with serious jobs, with grown up lives, with college degrees—believed this stuff. And the longer I spent on the forum, the more I spoke and interacted with the vampires, the more I felt I owed it to them to believe them. It would be the height of rudeness, after all, to go into someone else’s house and start questioning everything they told you. And they were kind to me. They had given me this beautiful community, an extension of Anne’s novels and an embellishment of my own imaginings. What would you have done? I wanted so badly for it all to be true.
The day I received Prince Lestat in the mail, I’d been photocopying sections of my old ‘vampire journals’. These diaries, written between 2003 and 2004, comprised my dreams, my thoughts, my struggle to believe, and my ‘vampire research’. Compiled in a series of obnoxiously cute Hello Kitty notebooks, they read now as a map of teenage depression, of what it’s like to slip into daydream and delusion.
In late 2004, I wrote:
“I’m not living, I’m just killing time”. I can’t even cry, and I’m not sure why that is. In a way, I need this more badly than ever—and yet, I can’t pay it any attention. I can’t think on it. The void of life (or lack thereof) is swallowing me up. I feel less than insignificant—I don’t even feel like I’m watching, anymore. So many ‘what ifs’ are floating around in my mind. What if this is as far as it goes? What if this is the peak? What if this is the end?
Belief without faith isn’t tenable. And for all the weird dreams I was starting to have, for all the days I would wake up with inexplicable bruises on my body, for all the long hours spent talking online with fictional vampires, I did not have faith. I wanted something proven to me. I wanted a sign. I wanted Lestat to show up in my yard, blonde hair and fangs and all that jazz, and I wanted to know, once and for all, that I wasn’t clinically insane.
It would be years before the vampires of The Looking Glass gave me what I wanted—in a manner of speaking. And once again, we may turn to Anne’s chronicles themselves for how that turned out: humans can’t handle the psychological ramifications of the existence of vampires. And they were vampires, after all. This, now, I truly believe.
Vampires come in many different forms.
In the summer of 2007, I visited New Orleans for the first time. Anne’s books had called me there. I was so excited I didn’t know what to do with myself, but I was also afraid. What if it wasn’t as she described it? What if it was a disappointment?
It is 2014. I have lived in this humid, filthy, troubled, transcendent, stunning, vibrant, wicked, magical city for two and a half years, now, and never, not once, has it been a disappointment. Sometimes I’ll be driving down St. Charles avenue, watching the play of light through the branches of the live oaks, radio on, the scent of jasmine curling through the cracked car window, and I’ll find myself overcome for a moment. Broad smile on my mouth. Eyes beginning to water. Because I live here. Because this is my life, now.
And I can trace all of this back to that first day, curled in the hammock, when I discovered New Orleans in the pages of The Vampire Lestat.
Did I visit to look for vampires? Yes, honestly. Yes, I did. And between 2007 and 2011, I visited the city almost annually, meeting up with other members of The Looking Glass, gathering for the Halloween balls, for cemetery tours, staying at Madewood Plantation, which fans widely considered to have been the inspiration for Anne’s novel Blackwood Farm. Was there proof? Were there sightings? I could comb through my extensive data, and I could probably find some minor incident, some man we all saw shrink into the shadows, some figure on a balcony who seemed to jump roof to roof before disappearing entirely. I could tell you about the flawless auburn haired boy who walked past me on the street, who stared at me, who stared into me.
But what does it mean, at the end of the day? Small coincidences. A moment of shared delusion.
Nevertheless, we were none of us disappointed. We were engaged in a grand, fantastical game (though I suspect more than one of us didn’t quite know it)—a game that had yet to become cruel, at least for me. We were enchanted by New Orleans, enchanted by Anne’s world, by her mythos, these characters she had created that were so finely wrought, so captivating that it was painful for us to even consider that they might not be real. We dripped from bar to bar pickling our livers in Hurricane mix, stood before the cathedral in the dead of night dancing, dancing, and believing that somewhere in the darkness our immortal guardians were watching us.
The chapters in Prince Lestat that deal with this—with the longing for connection and salvation—have been the hardest for me to read. There is too much articulated on the page that has, over the years, cycled through my own mind, and it’s eerie and intense to see it thus reflected back at me. But these chapters are also what make this book worthwhile, what makes it worthy to take its place in her canon. There is a thread here, a thread that Anne has very obviously been concerned with from the moment she sat down to pen the short story that would become Interview with the Vampire. When people ask me what the vampire chronicles are about, I very rarely answer “vampires”. For me, these are novels about love, in all its forms. They are novels about finding your place in a world where you feel you do not belong. Above all, they are novels about family.
This was what I sought out when I connected with the internet vampires. I wanted to feel loved. I wanted to feel special. My real life family had disintegrated. I wanted to feel safe.
In 2010, I was 24. I had believed in vampires for eight years, and some change—had believed that The Looking Glass was run by the vampire Lestat for perhaps seven. I spent an untold amount of time chatting about and to the vampires, watching the YouTube videos they would send me, listening to the music they recommended, reading books with them and discussing them, chapter by chapter.
I think we understand, now, that you can certainly be in love with someone you have never met. Internet relationships are relatively commonplace, these days. The idea of developing a strong emotional bond through the screen isn’t so weird.
I had been in love with Armand for a long time.
That is a strange sentence to write. I feel panicked, like somehow admitting this will undermine every serious, scholarly, important thing I have done with my life. Believing in vampires is one thing. Falling in love with one, when you’re not even certain he actually exists, is quite another.
But there it is.
Armand and I would write to each other, through private messages, private chats, locked Livejournal entries. We would read tarot for one another, talk about philosophy and spirituality, about the occult and about our dreams. There was, at this point, no question in my mind that he was The Real Thing. This person had so perfectly captured the tone and diction of The Vampire Armand, wrote the character so beautifully that it was impossible not to get shivers reading their posts. He was blunt, acerbic, cold to almost everybody except in small, rare moments of mercy and kindness. And he was patient with me. He was so patient, as I struggled to have faith in the existence of vampires, and, more importantly, as I struggled to find faith in myself.
I was 24 when he told me that he loved me, too. I was 24 when he, and other forum moderators, told me I had vampire blood in my veins.
I was 24. I was still a child. I had spent eight long years in a fantastical wonderland, and finally I was being told what I had wanted to hear all along: that I was special. That I was loved. That I was not meant to be in this world, and that the blood had been given to me because I was exceptional. Because I was meant for something finer.
Did I have memories of any of this? No, not really. Just shadows, dreams, the disconcerting sense that my mind had been tampered with. It’s incredible what the human brain can do, when it desires something.
In Queen of the Damned, Daniel Molloy loses the ability to function in the human world after he begins a relationship with Armand, after he tastes immortal blood.
I lost the ability to function in the human world. This thing that I had always wanted, this confirmation that all of it was real, and that I was an integral part of it—I couldn’t handle it. I withdrew. I became very ill. I didn’t eat or sleep properly for days, and I oscillated between an acute enthusiasm for the world verging on the manic, and periods of darkness where I contemplated suicide. Because I knew now that I was marked. That I was part of a family, this network of blood-tainted mortals who had been pulled together through The Looking Glass: my friends, now my sisters, a handful of us loved and chosen as companions and confidants of these vampires.
I knew that the person I loved more than anyone else in the world loved me back. And I knew that I would probably never remember meeting him.
Was it a game? Yes, that is how I now understand it. Was it cruel? That’s a question I struggle with. Is it cruel, to give a desperate girl what she wants?
Things end, as they are want to do on the internet: explosively, and with a great baying and gnashing of teeth. It’s been three years since I spoke to Armand—or at least, it’s been three years since I spoke to her as Armand. There’s never been a clear confirmation of who was behind The Looking Glass. People have tried, and failed, to find out. There are strong suspicions. But there’s no evidence. There has never been a confession.
Did I move on? I tried to. When ten years of your life is so wholly absorbed and invested in something, it’s very difficult to let it go. I have thrown myself into other things. I got into graduate school—moved to New Orleans. I married an amazing, beautiful man. I became passionate about social justice, about feminism, about affecting change in the world. I started to care about day-to-day life again.
Still, the little voice in the back of my head: vampires are real.
The forum is still there, in a manner of speaking. I won’t link to it. I suspect they’d rather not have the publicity. I am forbidden from participating, and gradually, it dawns on me that this might be the greatest gift they have ever given me.
It’s a testimony to the strength of Anne’s writing that her work can have such an effect on people. I have read no other book that so wholly captivated its fan base. Harry Potter was an exceptional series, one of which I was inordinately fond, but at no point in my life did I think Hogwarts was real. Though it seems discourteous and frankly wrong to draw this comparison, I don’t recall anybody truly believing they were visited by the living embodiment of Edward Cullen.
All this to say: Anne’s books are transformative. They blend history and reality so delicately with fiction that before you know it, you’re part of the story—and to this end, Prince Lestat delights and enchants. I have found myself on its pages. I believe any fan of Rice’s work will find themselves there, too. This is Anne’s gift: through her interactions with fans, through her literary skill, and through her generosity of spirit, she pulls her readers into her world.
I would not be the person I am today, had I not picked up that tattered paperback of The Vampire Lestat.
It is cold outside—the first hints of winter—but the sun is shining brilliantly, warming the cracked and pitted streets. I am in New Orleans. I am thinking of vampires, and of the internet, and of the beautiful lies we tell ourselves on our quest to discover who we really are.
It’s getting late, but there are a few hours of light left, yet. I will take Prince Lestat, and I will catch the Canal streetcar to the French Quarter. I will sit in Jackson Square, under the looming shadow of St. Louis Cathedral, and I will finish the book.
And maybe, just maybe, that will be the end of it.
Kia Alice Groom is a British-Australian living in New Orleans & on the internet. She teaches freshman composition at the University of New Orleans, is associate poetry editor of Bayou Magazine, and founding editor of Quaint. You can listen to her yell about stuff on twitter: @whodreamedit and Tumblr: alicedescends.
She wants to believe. Still.