Prince Lestat and the Realms of Atlantis
by Anne Rice
Chatto & Windus

What makes a bestseller a bestseller? I guess if I knew the answer I wouldn’t be writing reviews; I would be writing my 73rd hit novel. That aside, being in the right place at the right time is key. Jaws, helped by that movie, ignited our fear of monsters that were all too real. The Silence of the Lambs, helped by that movie, ignited our fear of monsters that were all too human. Twilight, helped by those movies, ignited our love of monsters that were anything but real or human. Fifty Shades of Grey? Not sure I really want to consider that one just yet.

How to account, then, for Anne Rice’s series of baroque vampire stories? For one thing, 1976’s Interview with the Vampire wasn’t helped so much as hindered by that movie – or rather by Tom Cruise on his personal quest to drive another nail into a much-loved book. Yes, little Tom, I am talking Jack Reacher here. But at least the frankly curious performances of Brad Pitt and, more winningly, Antonio Banderas caught the heady strangeness of Rice’s writing.

Where Stephenie Meyer’s Edward and Bella were cutesy and unthreatening, Rice’s vampires are sleek, deadly and sexually voracious. Try this on for size. “He held her as if he meant to kiss her, her breasts against his chest and her head fallen back as if her neck had been broken. Dipping his fingers into her open mouth, he brought the blood to his lips! Sweet sizzling sensations … He bent to suck the blood out of her mouth with his own.” The sheer sensual aban­don, of the prose and the violence, makes E.L. James sound like E. Nesbit. And this guy isn’t even one of Rice’s usual villains.

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As to timing, Rice famously drew on the most bitter and personal tragedy for her first vampire fiction. Her daughter, Michele, died of leukaemia in 1972. Rice talked later of experiencing visions of Michele having “something wrong with her blood”, and it’s not a fantastical leap to see Claudia, the child vampire of her debut, as both a poignant fantasy of wish fulfilment and a warning.

Prince Lestat and the Realms of Atlantis is the 14th of Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, and the second after the decade-long hiatus that followed 2003’s Blood Canticle. In truth, it’s not a great title, hinting at a fifth-rate Japanese sci-fi, or one of those black-and-white weekly serials from the 1950s.

Indeed, it seems that Rice has a strange way with names of all sorts. As her titular hero suggests, she leans towards the exotic. Many of her suck-by-night boys recall Eurodisco DJs: Armand, Marius, Sybelle, Raymond Gallant. She has a heavier mood, too, perfect for an industrial death metal band: Severaine, Memnoch and, of course, Children of Satan.

How to account, then, for “Derek”, with its near-comic under­tones both of Zoolander’s dumb hero and generations of drab accountants? It makes even the most portentous line sound a little silly: “He drained the blood of Derek without ever spilling a drop.” Then again, if you are doomed to spend centuries surrounded by suave undeaders called Rhoshamandes and Everard de Landen, perhaps names like Derek or Cyril (the Egyptian vampire) seem exciting.

What proves genuinely striking, as one sinks one’s teeth into Rice’s world, is how very male it is. Granted, one subplot concerns the identity – or, perhaps, humanity – of a brilliant scientist, Dr Karen Rhinehart. But female characters hardly stain the page until Louis bites the poor (or is she fortunate?) victim described above. I can’t recall many, or possibly any, novels in which men told other men they loved them as often as this. The combinations of amour are dizzying: love in the biblical, pseudo-spiritual, parental, fraternal and post-existential senses.

Love and hate are, of course, different sides of the same coffin, and just as many vamps want to kill their undead kin, or at least bicker them into submission, as in the case of Rhoshamandes. Poor old Lestat gets the good and bad from Amel, an ancient vampire who seems to have taken up residence inside his head. At least Amel has something approaching a sense of humour, calling Lestat a “slut” one moment (which the prince loves), and sulking when he refuses to commit arson another: “You never do anything I say,” he complains.

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Amel is central to this new plot, connecting Rice’s regular cast with another order of immortals, of whom Derek is one. Alongside the powerful Garekyn and Kapetria, Derek hails from the lost city of Atlantis – which they call Atalantaya. This heavenly metropolis is glimpsed by several characters in dream visions, which leads to the central questions: what the hell is Amel doing there, and what connects his creatures of the night to these odd beings?

One answer could be their fashion sense. Rice spends almost as much time describing haircuts and tailoring as she does acts of outrageous killing. The flowing locks and loose curls betray the series’ 1970s roots. I pictured more than one bloodsucker as Marc Bolan, flouncing in velvet. When Derek sires a son (Dertu, a compression of “Derek Two”), the new generation favours “heavy black jeans […] a thick white sweater […] a handsome heavy tweed coat that hung to his knees”. In other words, he is Ian McCulloch from Echo and the Bunnymen.

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The creation of Dertu not only fits with Rice’s broader interest in clones, but inspires a scene that has haunted me ever since. Tortured by Rhoshamandes (“a mighty angel of Hell with […] soft curling hair”), Derek has his left arm dismembered and thrown into the fire. Game over, you think, until (drum roll) the arm crawls back towards him “by means of the fingers of the left hand”, in case you were wondering. “This was impossible,” Derek thinks, before having all notions of impossibility entirely recon­figured. “He felt the fingers touching the left nipple of his chest, felt them pulling on the nipple, pulling and pulling, and the warmth collected into heat beneath the nipple.” Now, I don’t know about you, but not only is that at least one nipple too far for my tastes, but the passage rivals William Burroughs for sheer corporeal ingenuity.

And here is where I doff my felt top hat to Anne Rice. Prince Lestat and the Realms of Atlantis is not only gripping great fun, it is one of the more memorable stories I have read of late. As sensitive, wordy and occasionally baffling as her characters are, Rice understands the Gothic in much the same way that F.W. Murnau or Francis Ford Coppola did. Audiences don’t want restrained. We want the kitchen sink thrown at our shimmering black lapels, and we want it filled with virgins’ blood. Fang, as they say, tastic.