“I wasn’t sent here to find angels! I wasn’t sent here to dream of them. I wasn’t sent here to hear them sing! I was sent here to be alive. To breathe and sweat and thirst and sometimes cry.”
—Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt
Anne Rice is described in Wikipedia as “an American author of gothic fiction, Christian literature, and erotica,” which at first may seem like a bit of an odd mix to some, particularly the Christian literature part.
But the truth is that all of her writings have a very spiritual perspective, and when viewed as a whole, her body of work traces the fascinating arc of a deeply spiritual life that has taken on different forms throughout successive periods. When approached in this way, her books take on an added dimension that further enriches the innate entertainment value of these stories. And while an in-depth analysis is beyond the scope of this article, we will attempt to briefly summarize what we see as three overarching developmental periods as reflected in the books of Anne Rice: her Atheistic Period, her Christian Period, and her Secular Humanist Period.
The Atheistic Period
“The atheism and nihilism of my earlier years now seems shallow, and even a bit cocky.”
Rice entered her atheistic period in college after a girlhood of being raised Catholic and sent to Catholic school. This period would last 38 years, beginning in 1960 and lasting until 1998.
However, it is in 1976 that the darkest phase of her atheistic period would manifest itself in literary form with her first published novel, Interview with the Vampire. The book itself was actually written in 1973 in a “white heat” in just five weeks. It’s not hard to imagine the emotional drive that must have propelled this flurry of creativity. Rice’s first child, her daughter Michele, had died of leukemia only a year earlier, and the mother was still in mourning for her child. In Rice’s own words, she was a “sad, broken and despairing atheist” when she wrote Interview, and it’s hard not to draw parallels with her loss with what happens to a certain character in the novel (though Rice has also said that, surprisingly, she was not consciously thinking of her daughter when writing that particular scene).
Of course, it is one thing to be an atheist which in itself is simply a neutral quality—it is neither inherently dark nor bright, neither optimistic nor pessimistic. It is simply a view of reality. But so far as we can tell from Interview with the Vampire and from interviews she has given, after Michele’s death Rice’s own particular brand of atheism was driven by an existential angst due to what her rational mind saw as an absence of meaning while her heart desperately wanted meaning. In other words, it was dark and pessimistic. But it was also probing and soulful.
Although there were other books from this period, such as Cry to Heaven (1982), which contained themes and ideas that could be said to have been influenced by her atheism, the Vampire Chronicles are perhaps the neatest encapsulation of this range of themes. With the sequel to Interview, The Vampire Lestat (1985), Rice’s self-identification shifted from the morose character of Louis from the first novel to Lestat, but the atheistic threads remain as soul-searching as ever and the eponymous vampires in these chronicles, particularly Lestat, are continually seeking redemption and assurance that they are not damned by nature.
It it is with Memnoch the Devil (1995), the fifth novel in the series, that the seeds of the next phase of Rice’s spirituality begin to germinate. In this book, Lestat encounters a being who claims to be the Christian devil. Memnoch, however, attempts to recruit Lestat, claiming that he actually does the work of God, helping to transition lost souls to Heaven. This concept shares much with the Eastern philosophy of yin and yang, which describes how opposing forces are actually connected and interrelated. Not only are these ideas presented in Memnoch consistent with Rice’s life-long tenet of inclusiveness, but they symbolically suggest that perhaps her period of darkness was not antithetical to the resurrection of her faith but a necessary part of it, just as Christ’s death was a necessary part of the very resurrection that, for Christians, makes him God.
The Christian Period
“In the moment of surrender, I let go of all the theological or social questions which had kept me from Him for countless years. I simply let them go. There was the sense, profound and wordless, that if He knew everything I did not have to know everything, and that, in seeking to know everything, I’d been, all of my life, missing the entire point.”
—Called Out of Darkness: A Spiritual Confession
The books which probably most define Rice’s Christian period—other than her spiritual memoirs, Called Out of Darkness (2008)—is a series she began in 2005 entitled Christ the Lord of which she has written the first two, Out of Egypt (2005) and The Road to Cana (2008). The third planned volume, The Kingdom of Heaven, has as of yet not been published. Written during a period in which Rice had re-kindled her Catholic faith, these books are fictional accounts of the life of Jesus, based on historical knowledge of the time period and an emphasis on Christ’s humanity—“the Word having been made flesh and dwelling amongst us.”
The books are written in the first person perspective from Christ’s own point of view, which at first might come across to some as a pretension, however the voice almost seems to keep a reverential distance from itself and offers up a sort of respectful privacy. In this way, the tone of the books somewhat resembles the style of Interview with the Vampire in that the latter is in the first person but related by an interviewer—the purpose of the interview being to convey the key events that shaped the nature of the interviewee.
The first book, Out of Egypt, is set during Jesus’ childhood, from his family’s return from Egypt to Nazareth and encompassing the Passover visit to the temple in Jerusalem described in the Bible. The intricacy of the writing and ideas progresses with the boy’s growth and transition from simple child to complex adult.
What is particularly interesting are the “life lesson” events Rice creates for Jesus that punctuate any typical human childhood.
[*minor spoilers for Christ the Lord series*]
For example, when the family first returns to Nazareth they are confronted by Roman soldiers tasked with executing any suspected participants in an ongoing rebellion. Rather than react with fear and mistrust to the threat, an elder member of the family, Old Sarah, provides food and drink to the soldiers showing compassion and reflecting on the difficulty of the task they’ve been charged with. The soldiers are stunned at the kindness and admit that “battle is one thing, execution is another.” They are refreshed by the fare, but even more so by the consideration and spare the family and the town. These stories of Christ’s childhood can be readily paralleled with Christ’s own later teachings.
The second of the series, Road to Cana, covers Jesus’ adult life just prior to the start of his ministry with his first official miracle of turning the water to wine at the wedding in Cana. Rice illustrates his role in the town of Nazareth and its dramas and imagines a man somewhat frustrated and restless to begin the fulfillment of his purpose. Indeed, the Bible depicts the start of Christ’s ministry to have occurred during his early thirties, which would have been a fairly advanced age at that time in history. Rice’s choices of events for this book are even more interesting than those of Out of Egypt.
For instance, the book begins with the stoning of two young men accused of homosexual relations and describes Christ’s passionate response. Another key event involves a woman Jesus loves who is a victim of a sort of Tess of the D’Urbervilles–type of situation. Rice shows Jesus setting aside his own desires and going to great lengths to achieve justice for the victim and ensure that she may marry an “Angel Clare”-type character despite her “disgrace.” The stories appear to reflect Rice’s personal conflicts with Catholic teachings against homosexuality and its aversion to sexuality in general with the emphasis on virginity and purity. Rice is underlining the compassion that has always been present in Christ’s teaching and extrapolating it to situations that remain controversial even today.
Speaking of the Church’s stance on homosexuality, this eventually became one of Rice’s reasons for officially re-renouncing her status as a Catholic in 2010, but it is interesting to witness her attempt to reconcile her love of the Jesus figure with her uneasiness over the Church’s views in a novel published two years prior to this renunciation.
What ultimately emerges from a reading of these two books, however, is the sense of a spiritual seeker doing her best to understand the central figure of her erstwhile faith through her writing and, in so doing, to reach a deeper understand of the paradox of God through the human being believed by Christians to be God in physical form.
The Secular Humanist Period
““Tis the gift to be simple… ‘Tis the gift to be free…”
This brings us to the current period, what we’ll call the “secular humanist period,” named after words she has used to describe herself now. In this period leading up to the current day, Anne Rice has formally renounced her status as a Catholic but retains her belief in a God.
For the time being, the books which seem to most capture the essence of her current spiritual outlook are the Wolf Gift Chronicles. However, in our opinion, “pantheism” or “non-dogmatic theism” may be terms that are equally appropriate as “secular humanism” when describing the brand of mysticism in these books.
Over the course of the first volume, The Wolf Gift (2012) and its magnificent sequel, The Wolves of Midwinter (2013), the overarching mystical vision is one in which God is alive within every fiber of the physical earth and universe, not tied down to any one single figure, not tied down to any one single tradition. It is so all-encompassing and all-embracing that names, concepts and dogma become moot points. It is a vision in which “the highest truths a person could discover were rooted in the natural world” and in acts of goodness towards each other.
Indeed, just as with the beasts of the wild who have no need for names, ideas and concepts, to know the God who quietly, almost invisibly, exists in The Wolf Gift Chronicles is to shed the over-thinking human mind and to simply be. In the Wolf Gift mythos, to become an animal does not mean to become base and somehow lesser than man as we usually mean when we say that one has “become an animal.” Rather, for the Morphenkinder, to become an animal is to transcend man and to become ever closer to the divine but without the compulsive need of humankind to label and compartmentalize everything intellectually.
This harkens back to Rice’s quote from Called Out of Darkness about letting go of the questions, only now we are letting go of concepts as well. We are simply being, at one with the earth and universe around us. In so doing we finally attain the long sought, ever elusive communion with God.
Perhaps the single best quote from both of the Wolf Gift books that embodies this ethos is in The Wolves of Midwinter:
…His eyes closed, his hearing sharpening, probing over greater and greater distances until it seemed to him all the world sang. All the world was filled with falling rain.
“Listen to it,” he said in her ear. “It’s as if the forest is praying, as if the earth is praying, as if prayers are rising to heaven off every shimmering leaf and branch.”
The Binding Thread
“There is nothing under the sun…nor under the moon, no entity of intellect, that does not have to believe something about itself, something about its purpose, the reason for its suffering, its destiny.”
As stated in the intro, this article hasn’t meant to be a detailed analysis but rather a quick overview of the three primary periods in the spiritual life of Anne Rice as reflected in her fiction. And when the thematic progressions in her books are viewed as a whole, a binding thread clearly emerges, which is that regardless of whatever specific beliefs she has adopted and discarded, Rice’s entire literary career has been marked by a desire to grasp and understand the ultimate truth of our world and existence, and to express it symbolically with gusto and romanticism through her art—characterized, always, by her love of beauty, sensuality and of life itself.
Hopefully, in her current belief structure, she writes another Christ the Lord book. A secular humanist first person point-of-view of the Road to Calvary (or the Kingdom of Heaven) has a place in contemporary literature, I think.