by Nathan Snaza
Interview with the Vampire (1976) is not the first major American vampire novel, but the two previous novels about vampires are steadfastly within a literary tradition from which Interview breaks in some important ways that forever change the course of literary history. The two previous texts are Richard Mathesson’s I Am Legend (1954), which although it is explicitly about “vampires” is really more of a zombie novel, and Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot (published in 1975—the year before Interview).
Interview with the Vampire breaks with the tradition of literary vampires in two crucial ways. From the moment vampires travel from folklore to literary texts in Western European languages (roughly the end of the eighteenth century), the question “what is a vampire?” is almost always asked and the narrative viewpoints in the texts are unquestionably human. From Keat’s “Lamia” to Bram Stoker’s Dracula to relatively recent films like The Lost Boys, this question is asked so that the human protagonists can learn how to kill the vampires threatening them. Anne Rice’s story is important because it is the first text in which the vampire speaks directly to the reader/listener and asks “what is a vampire?” about himself. I half-jokingly tell my “Vampires” students that we could think about it as the first vampire autobiography, or the first novel of vampire existential crisis. This makes it much easier to identify with Louis than with Stoker’s Dracula (or any previous literary vampire).
This leads to the other crucial break from the tradition: the function played by “the boy” (Christian Slater in the film). Unlike almost all the humans in other vampire stories whose horror of the vampire only increases as they gain knowledge of it, the boy becomes more and more drawn to Louis. The more he hears. There are two main senses in which one could understand the noun “interview”: a conversation to gather news information, and a conversation to ascertain qualifications for a position. Across the novel and the film, the conversation between Louis and the boy slides from the first into the second.
In Rice’s story, there are three main ways we might consider the importance of New Orleans, one explicit and two more implicit. The first, which the novel narrates directly, is that New Orleans has a racially and culturally heterogeneous population, one that tolerates and even affirms all kinds of eccentricities and seeming excesses (and not just around Mardi Gras). Vampires like Lestat and Louis can therefore live there without standing out (at least not more than anyone else stands out).
Second, as part of the story’s existential drama, Lestat continually tells Louis that “vampires reproduce through slavery.” As many American Studies critics have demonstrated, this metaphorics of slavery and freedom takes on its particular meaning in the USA in relation to concrete racial slavery. Louis, before becoming a vampire, owns slaves and lives on a plantation. In other words, in order for Lestat’s theory of vampire propagation to take on its full meaning, the narrative had to be set in a slave state. Lestat’s assertion fills Louis with dread because he knows very, very well what slavery is.
Third, Louis explains directly in the novel that Paris is the “mother” of New Orleans. If you consider that Dracula sets out to take over London, the capital of Empire, at the end of the nineteenth century, it makes sense that vampires would seek their dominion in Paris in the eighteenth. After all, Paris was the petri dish that spawned “human rights,” democratic political theory, high fashion, the restaurant, the encyclopedia, and so on. As critic Nina Auerbach puts it, “Vampires go where power is.”
On a slightly different note, Interview with the Vampire introduces the idea of two “kinds” of vampires: those who are “all too human” like Louis, Lestat, etc. and mindless killing machines (in the novel they’re called Revenants and they live in Eastern Europe). This distinction, in time, leads to some very interesting developments in Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Twilight, and True Blood. You can think about vampires like the Cullens in Twilight who are “vegetarians” and don’t feed on human blood. Interview is really the first text to meditate extensively on the problem of what we could call “vampire ethics.”
Auerbach, Nina. Our Vampires, Ourselves. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.