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Anne Rice and the making of a modern vampire

Apart from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, there’s hardly a more famous vampire novel than Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice. It was among the first of its kind to take a modern stance to the vampire tale, such as coping with the existential horror of living forever when one’s loved ones have grown old and died, or the ethics surrounding drinking human blood.

While the vampire might have been brooding and Byronic in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, a symbol of the aristocracy loosening its grip on modern Europe, Rice’s influence would create our contemporary understanding of the vampire tale. And, some would argue, restore a sense of eroticism and sensuality to the genre. Whether you loved or hated it, it’s hard not to contend with Interview with the Vampire when talking about late twentieth-century vampire literature, film, or TV.

Anne Rice was born Howard Allen Frances O’Brien in 1941. As far as the unusual name is concerned, Rice has said “Well, my birth name is Howard Allen because apparently my mother thought it was a good idea to name me Howard. My father’s name was Howard, she wanted to name me after Howard, and she thought it was a very interesting thing to do. She was a bit of a Bohemian, a bit of mad woman, a bit of a genius, and a great deal of a great teacher. And she had the idea that naming a woman Howard was going to give that woman an unusual advantage in the world.” Yet, despite the eccentric name, the very first day of school she told a nun her name was Anne and no one corrected it. She had it legally changed in 1947.

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Rice lived in New Orleans, Louisiana with her maternal grandmother, parents, and three sisters. Her mother died of alcoholism when she was fifteen, and her father placed all four girls in boarding school at St. Joseph’s Academy. The school left quite an impression on young Anne, stating that it was “something out of Jane Eyre… a dilapidated, awful, medieval type of place. I really hated it and wanted to leave. I felt betrayed by my father.” After graduating from high school, Anne went to university in Texas before running out of money and then heading west for San Francisco, where she went to stay with friends and get back on her feet.

From the very beginning, Rice was interested in creative writing, taking night classes to pursue an MA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State. She initially pursued a PhD at the University of California, Berkeley, but dropped out because she “wanted to be a writer, not a literature student.” Her husband, Stan, however, taught Creative Writing at San Francisco State and later would go on to chair the department. In the meantime, they had a daughter Michele (nicknamed “Mouse”) in 1966. Six years later, Michelle was diagnosed with acute granulocytic leukaemia, a type of cancer that affects both the blood and bone marrow. Rice claims she had a prophetic dream that there was something wrong with her daughter’s blood before she was diagnosed. Unfortunately, Michelle died, sending Rice into a deep depression.

Interview With The Vampire by Anne Rice - first edition book cover
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Interview with the Vampire was originally a short story Rice had written in 1968 or 1969, a thirty-page length version of the novel recounted from the interviewer’s perspective. Coping with the loss of her daughter, she extended it, and – according to some sources – the character of Claudia is based on Michelle. Rice was inspired by Gloria Holden’s portrayal of Countess Maria Zeleska in the Universal film Dracula’s Daughter, where she struggles with accepting her vampirism. This is evident in the self-pitying nature of Louis, who is overcome with guilt at the notion of consuming human blood. Rice has often attributed this subtext to her own issues with Catholic guilt, but fans and critics of the book have often extended this metaphor to homosexuality as well, attracting an enormous gay following to the later Vampire Chronicles series. Rice once commented, “From the beginning, I’ve had gay fans and gay readers who felt that my works involved a sustained gay allegory… I didn’t set out to do that, but that was what they perceived.” Regardless, the sustained eroticism between Louis and Lestat (and later between Louis and Armand) is hard to ignore.

The vampire Louis frames the story by recounting his 200-year-old life story to a reporter, beginning with the end of his human life as the owner of an indigo plantation in Louisiana. After Louis’ brother dies, he is sought out by the vampire Lestat de Lioncourt after engaging in self-destructive behaviours. Louis is turned into a vampire by Lestat and together they live off the slaves on Louis’ plantation before they revolt and Louis discovers Lestat’s total disregard for human life. Curiously, the slavery aspect of the story was omitted from the film adaptation. Louis tries to escape, but Lestat keeps them tied together by turning a young girl dying from the plague named Claudia to serve as their vampire “daughter.” Claudia is cursed as she remains in the body of a young girl, but soon her mind develops into that of an intelligent young woman, something Louis fears is becoming poisoned by Lestat. The pair attempt to kill him before fleeing New Orleans for Europe, where they travel to Paris and meet another group of vampires like themselves. Armand, a 400-year-old vampire who runs a Grand Guignol-type theatre where vampires feed on unsuspecting humans, takes them in. Claudia begs Louis to turn her companion Madeline, a Parisian doll maker, into a vampire, and for a time all three of them live in the company of the theatre vampires. But soon, the trio is abducted, Louis locked in a coffin to starve while Claudia and Madeline are locked in a dungeon, left to burn in the sun. Louis escapes with the help of Armand, but Claudia’s death has sapped his will to live, and the pair dissipates. He has returned to New Orleans since the early twentieth century, never creating another companion for himself.

Rice wrote Interview with the Vampire in five weeks, researching vampires by day and writing at night. After facing several rejections from publishers, she developed obsessive-compulsive disorder, frequently washing her hands and checking locks on windows and doors. Luckily, after attending Squaw Valley Writer’s Conference, Rice was introduced to her future agent and sold the rights to the book to Alfred A. Knopf in 1974 with an advance of $12,000 in the days when authors were lucky enough for $2,000. The book was published in 1976 and received mixed reviews. On the one hand, many critics condemned the overt eroticism and dark themes of the book, and on the other, it sold eight million copies and spawned eleven sequels, all collected in the series known as The Vampire Chronicles. The first sequel, The Vampire Lestat, was published in 1985, followed by Queen of the Damned in 1988.

Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt in the film adaption of Interview with the Vampire
Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt in the film adaption of Interview with the Vampire

When the film adaptation came out in 1994 after many years of remaining in production limbo, Rice apparently wasn’t happy with the casting choice. She actually insisted that Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise switch parts, claiming that Cruise as Lestat was “so bizarre; [it was] almost impossible to imagine how [it was] going to work.” But, when the film came out, she was satisfied with the results, recanting her original choice of French actor Alain Delon for the role. River Phoenix was almost cast for the part of the interviewer but died shortly before he could begin, and Christian Slater stepped in as a replacement. Graciously, Slater donated his entire salary to Phoenix’s favourite charities at the time. When the film finally premiered, it generally garnered positive reviews, despite Oprah famously walking out during the first ten minutes because she didn’t “want to be a contributor to the force of darkness.” Brad Pitt was also famously miserable during filming and at one point wanted to buy himself out of his contract because he became so depressed from the mostly-exclusive night shoots.

Today, both Rice’s Vampire Chronicles and the film version of Interview with the Vampire remain cult favourites among horror fans and vampire lovers alike. It also remains an iconic film for fans of queer horror and homosexual narratives in the horror film, as well as other examinations of gender, race, and class. Moreover, the course of vampire literature has shifted because of Rice’s influence. The image of the reluctant or tortured vampire in contrast to the egotistical vampire who embraces their identity is now a common trope used in teen vampire media, for example, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Twilight, True Blood, and The Vampire Diaries. Also, Louisiana has eclipsed Transylvania as a popular setting for the vampire tale thanks to Rice’s novels. Just like Louis abandons the Old World at the end of Interview with the Vampire, Anne Rice updates the vampire legend for a modern horror audience by bringing the Gothic to distant shores.

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