More than twenty years ago, I picked up a novel by Anne Rice titled The Vampire Lestat while waiting for a plane to New Orleans. I was captivated by the story on the trip down and finished the novel during my week-long stay–the first of many visits to New Orleans. This novel, later made into a blockbuster motion picture, brought vampires into the modern world. My introduction to the world of Anne Rice happened the week I began my passionate love affair with New Orleans, a city haunted by bodies that lay beneath the pavement of Rampart Street –and now and forevermore by minions of the undead brought to life by this Maven of the Macabre who, at the time, lived in the Garden District.
Rice blew away the dust of Bela Lugosi and replaced the moldy antiquated bloodsuckers of the past with a new breed that would thrive and later fascinate my adult children and teenage grandchildren in the Twilight series. Anne Rice made vampires not only scary, but approachable, bringing out what was latent in the myth all along: the idea that there’s something so sexy about a guy (or girl) who wants to bite your neck!
Evil had finally encroached on the present, with rock-star vampires and vixens. Evil, it seems, was no longer a thing of the past, but a very real part of our present. The evil of our lives we know all too well, but we prefer to relegate it to fiction. It’s safer.
I must admit that I had a hard time with her books following Lestat. I frequently gave up after a hundred pages or so. I am not sure why. It all seemed so formulaic. This happens with writers who make it big. They are expected to repeat, and they do. Sometimes with success, sometimes not so. But imagine my intrigue when Rice found religion again a few years ago, returning to the Catholicism of her youth, and penned Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, the first of a seres about Jesus. I read this one with interest, but not much enthusiasm. It was well researched, but left me with a feeling of, “Okay. So what?”
Now comes “The Wolf Gift.” This one I have not been able to put down. It would appear that her fascination with God-made-man–her visit to the light–has given her even greater depth in an analysis of Man-made-beast, an incarnation of evil that, strangely, sheds more light on goodness than her recent foray into religion.
A young, extremely good-looking (naturally) man named Rueben, a fledgling reporter, meets with an older, drop-dead gorgeous (naturally) woman named Marchent to look at a home she owns in Mendocino County, California. He immediately falls in love. With the older woman, of course (whom he doesn’t take long to undress) and with the old, spooky home itself. There, after a night of messing up the sheets in a four-poster bed, the two are attacked by two intruders. The men are Marchent’s drug-addled siblings who are intent on killing their sister and thus enriching themselves through the estate. However, there is a problem. Out of nowhere, the men are slashed, ripped apart, defaced, and eviscerated by a … well we’re not sure. Reuben stumbles into the fray only to be attacked by the beast, which he swears is a large dog. He is bitten, but not killed. The dog backs off for some reason, letting him live.
Yes, you guessed it. The “dog” is a werewolf. Now, Reuben is a werewolf too. You know how that goes. Once bitten…. But this time the full moon has nothing to do with it. He changes at any time. Eventually, he can control it. And the explanation is less mysterious: it is less of a curse than it is a virus, one that attacks the pluripotent progenitor cells that we all have in us. These are the cells that make umbilical stem cells so promising since they can turn into anything. Now we know! And all those years we thought it had to do with lunar magnetism!
The story that follows is a rich one, with elements of Superman and Beauty of the Beast. You could say the story is Grimm. The newly enhanced Reuben has super-sensitive hearing. He can hear people from a long way away calling for help. This “Man Wolf” can smell intent in humans. When he encounters someone who is evil, he can smell it. Then he shreds them, leaving the innocent victims alone. The innocent victims do not smell of evil, and something in the wolf’s nature makes it difficult, if not impossible, to harm them. Frequently, he even dials 911 and informs authorities that help is needed. He protects the innocent, and soon becomes a hero in the eyes of the public–with some ambivalence of course. An animal-like creature is playing judge, jury, and executioner in scattering the bloody remains of perpetrators around the streets of San Francisco. What about their rights?
There is romance too. At one point, after saving some hapless victim from being tortured, the “Man Wolf”–still in his lupine condition–encounters a very attractive woman (go figure) living alone in the woods. Strangely, she is not frightened by him. In fact, she is inexplicably physically drawn to him! (“My, what big teeth you have! My, what a big….). What is interesting is that the woman who relishes being pawed (pardon the pun) by the “man wolf” is described in such as way (she has long, prematurely white hair) as to suggest Rice herself! How weird is that?
The woman, Laura, is damaged goods, having lost a husband and children to tragic circumstances. She and Reuben soon become deeply connected. She is as protective of him, as he is of her. At one point, when Reuben is attacked by another “Man Wolf”, she drives an axe blade into the attacker’s skull, slowing the critter just long enough for Reuben to behead him. Buy why would the creature want Reuben dead?
The encounter with another “Man Wolf” makes one thing all too clear: Reuben is not alone. There are others. Are they too intent on his demise?
The blood and gore and then more blood and gore notwithstanding, Rice’s recent passage through religious enchantment , however brief it may have been, left definite and distinctive marks on her writing. Her venture into the light has given her a deeper understanding of the darkness. Somehow, in the mixture of the two, she has achieved an understanding of human nature that is worth pondering. We not only see evil, we understand it from the perspective of one who is forced to live it. We can even, possibly, feel the admixture in our own souls. Along the way, she alludes to theologians as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Saint Augustine, the quotes popping up in conversations between Reuben and his older brother, Jim, a Roman Catholic priest. Her recent religious side trip has made Anne Rice a writer to be much more deeply appreciated.
This is a mature work by an intelligent woman who has worked though many painful episodes in her life. For once, we find something human in the heart of the beast. We know all too well that there is something beastly lurking in the heart of humans. Perhaps an amalgam of the two might enhance our nature. Wolves kill to eat or to protect themselves. Humans kill…because they can.
I recently read an article in the Chicago Sun-Times about a woman who stumbled into a bar, drunk, only to be led outside by a group of teenagers. There, they beat her, robbed her, raped her, and left her for dead naked in someone’s front yard.
It kind of makes you wish there was such a thing as a “Man Wolf” who would rip miscreants like this apart and then disappear into the night.