Anne Rice and Sexual Politics: The Early Novels
James R. Keller
Jefferson & London: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2000.
$28.50, 181 pages, ISBN 0-7864-0846-4.

Georges-Claude Guilbert
Université de Rouen

James R. Keller is professor of English Renaissance literature at the Mississippi University for Women in Columbus. Those are two good reasons why he should have developed an interest in Anne Rice’s fiction. Rice often expresses great admiration for the Renaissance (Italian rather than English though) and sets numerous scenes of her vampire novels in that period. And anyone with a connection to American Women’s Studies—as surely a professor at a women’s university is bound to have—should look at Rice’s work at some point, and ponder what it has to say to women.

The words “sexual politics” in the title of the book, however, obviously do not merely hark back to Kate Millet and sixties / seventies feminism. Keller also addresses the gay question, so central in Rice, in a way that owes much to post-Foucaldian Queer Theory. Using various thinkers to further his research, Keller takes a magnifying glass and subjects Rice’s novels to pitiless examination. There is a lot of Freud, a bit of Lacan, but no Jung to speak of—surprisingly.

Anne Rice belongs to that particular species of American writers: popular novelists who delight millions of indulgent fans and manage at the same time to raise keen interest in academe. Keller writes: “Rice’s choice of subject matter reveals a negotiation between high and low culture, between the elite and the popular, between literature and commercial fiction.” [6] Many university professors would agree to say that she cannot write to save her life, but that does not make her any less thrilling. Some mock her for the way her English characters speak (nobody talks like that), but her ideas are utterly fascinating. And her characters even more so.

One of the most striking features of her vampires, as Keller notes, is their sexual ambiguity. Of course, vampirism in any work of fiction—be it on film or in print—can be read as a metaphor for homosexuality. But Rice’s vampires are gayer than other people’s, as it were. And in this day and age it is easy to see them as politically ambiguous too. Anne Rice belongs to that particular species of women writers who can never get enough male gay sensibility in their work—sometimes even Camp—like Mary Renault, Elizabeth A. Lynn, or Poppy Z. Brite.

Anne Rice has had a long association with the gay community, which includes keeping her residence for many years in the Castro district of San Francisco. In addition, she has broken the culturally imposed silence upon the issue of homosexuality in virtually every one of her novels, a move that is both bold and socially significant in popular fiction because it is obligatory silence that perpetuates repression and myth. [14]

Most people see Rice as the quintessential New Orleans resident, so the critics do not usually make much of her San Francisco years. But she has certainly had her share of gay entourage, wherever she has lived. Her own son Christopher Rice is an out novelist. Biographical criticism having been out of fashion for more than a century, we won’t worry unduly as to whether her mixing with gays led to her writing very gay fiction or vice versa. The fact is, she does address very topical gay issues in her novels. One example in particular is the (more or less dysfunctional) alternative families she presents. Those vampire recomposed families have all sorts of vampires playing all sorts of roles, quite independently from their gender or actual age. Keller shows that when vampires Louis and Lestat “adopt” Claudia, having turned her into an eternally childish-looking vampire, they very much evoke gay parenting. So of course, if things go wrong, the disastrous results could be seen as a condemnation of gay parenting. And this is where Rice cannot win. Whatever she does, considering she writes horror stories, horrible things are bound to happen. Thank God she never actually strives to be politically correct. As a matter of fact, you can pull apart every one of her vampire novels and demonstrate that the gay (sub)text is positive, just as you can demonstrate the very opposite. At least she does write about homosexuality – if not homosexuals, as Keller acknowledges. His first chapter, “Interrogating the Vampire: Heterotextuality and Queer Reading” is fascinating.

The queer family in Interview could be an intentional parody of the normative family, intended to create an irreverent bourgeois horror story. If the intention of horror fiction is to frighten, it is probable that the people whom Rice intended to spook are the heterosexist, middle-class people who regard homosexuality as an insidious threat to the family politics and as a danger to the normative sexual development of their children. Thus the queer family becomes a camp parody […]. [38]

In his second and third chapters entitled “Engendering Whiteness: The Politics of Race, Gender, and Class in The Feast of All Saints” and “The Purloined Penis: Castration Anxiety in Cry to Heaven”, Keller very convincingly examines two non vampire novels that usually fail to delight Lestat aficionados as much as the Chronicles, although they are extremely interesting, and of course ideal for psychoanalytical criticism. As for the last chapter, “Rape Fantasies: Constructing a Masculine Prototype among the Mayfair Witches”, it is as splendid as Rice’s Mayfair Witches series itself.

I recently supervised an MA dissertation on Anne Rice that spoke of little else but sexual politics and gender politics, and so it should have. But when my student asked me if she should take into account the stuff Rice published under the names Anne Rampling and A. N. Roquelaure I said no. I am perfectly aware of the fact that those erotic / sentimental books are constantly reprinted with “Anne Rice writing as” on the cover, but in the same way I would not dream of lumping Gore Vidal’s novels with those he wrote as Edgar Box, I myself tend to stay away from Rampling and Roquelaure, at least when it comes to exegesis. So I do not care as much for Keller’s fourth, fifth and sixth chapters, devoted to books like Exit to Eden and Belinda, however persuasive. Maybe it’s my conservative side.

The book as a whole, anyway, is an indispensable addition to the library of anyone who has ever enjoyed Anne Rice’s work.