Essay On Earlier Works
8/15/2007 5:11 PM
TO MY READERS -- On the Nature of My Earlier Works.
Since the publication of Christ the Lord, Out of Egypt, which included an Author’s Note regarding my Christian conversion and my new commitment to Christian literature, I have received many interesting emails about my earlier novels. Questions have come up as to the value of “dark stories,” and as to why I don’t, as a Christian, renounce works that include witches and vampires and other elements of the supernatural.
I have been answering these emails one by one now for several years.
I also receive a steady stream of emails from readers of The Vampire Chronicles expressing dismay that I might have renounced these books.
Questions from journalists regarding my earlier works and my attitude towards them are as frequent now as these questions were in 2005 when Christ the Lord, Out of Egypt was published.
Obviously the subject is of concern to people, and no answer that I have made in any public interview, either on television, or in a newspaper, or on radio, is going to settle the matter.
So I feel it is imperative to make this statement now – not only for the new Christian readers who don’t know my earlier novels, but to clarify my position for the older readers who have supported, and remain avid fans of, my earlier works.
The intention here is not to offer these older works to Christian readers. It is simply to clarify what I see as a deep misunderstanding about the nature of these works.
Let me begin by saying that I see my earlier novels as part of a long tradition of “dark fiction” which includes some of the most highly prized religious works read in Western culture. Dante’s Inferno is a dark work in which Hell is described in considerable detail. Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Macbeth are both “dark works” in which ghosts play a key role. Macbeth involves three witches as well as a ghost, and the best lines in the play are spoken by the nihilistic villain, Macbeth himself. These plays are so highly prized by our culture that, in my time, Macbeth was taught in high school classes. One could not graduate from high school in those days without knowing about the ghost of Hamlet’s father, or about the mad obsessive cries of the guilt ridden Lady Macbeth.
Another dark work, John Milton’s world famous poem, Paradise Lost, focuses intensely on the population of Hell, and some have said that its real hero is Satan, a character who apparently has the best lines in the book.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a dark classic, is a highly moral indictment of the mad doctor for his meddling with life and death and abandoning the monster, his wretched offspring.
The novels of the Bronte sisters are some of the most famous “dark stories” of the nineteenth century, and Jane Eyre, with the lurid spectacle of the mad woman discovered in the attic of Mr. Rochester’s house -- and Jane’s supernatural call to return to her former beloved -- is, by any standards, a seminal work. I first read this book in the library of my Catholic high school in New Orleans.
During that same period, I read in our textbooks the novel, Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, a grim dark story of a young man’s ambitions and sufferings dominated by the gothic horror of the mentally diseased Miss Havisham, a woman living out her life in a rotting wedding dress near the table of a rotting wedding feast, as she destroys the innocence of the hero and the heroine of the book.
Dickens’ Christmas Carol, a gothic ghost story, is even more well known than Great Expectations, and is widely viewed as one of the greatest Christmas stories ever written. The book invites the reader on a journey through pain and darkness led by three ghosts. The Victorians had a long well attested tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas time. They had no suspicion of the genre on moral grounds.
The short stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne, written in America, involve witches and Satan, and are highly moral in tone. I recommend above all others, the short story Young Goodman Brown, which involves an innocent man who witnesses a witches’ Sabbat.
Herman Melville’s masterpiece Moby Dick is an intensely dark story, involving biblical allegory and violence, as the famous Captain Ahab, in pursuit of the white whale, takes almost his entire crew to a watery grave.
Though I am not personally a fan of Flannery O’Connor, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention her dark and violent short stories and that she has a considerable Christian following who see high moral significance in her work.
I could list many more examples. Let me add only the legend of Faust. This is one of the most famous dark stories in any language. For those who find Goethe’s version too demanding, there is the opera Faust by Gounod – a beautiful and highly accessible version of the old tale. F. W. Murnau’s silent film, Faust, is now available to the public as well.
My point here is that “dark stories” have been part of our literature for a very long time, and that they are viewed as highly valuable by educated people throughout the West.
I am hardly stating an original idea when I say that such stories are transformative. They invite the reader on a journey which reflects perfectly the formula of Aristotle for great drama: as one reads (or watches the film or play), one feels pity and fear, and eventually experiences catharsis. One is taken to a place, through the literary experience, to which one might not have ever gone on one’s own. I feel strongly that dark stories demand that the audience earn the transformation; they require a certain suffering on the part of the audience as the price of eventual affirmation.
I would like to submit that my vampire novels and other novels I’ve written, such as the Mayfair family trilogy, and the novels, Servant of the Bones, Violin, Cry to Heaven and Feast of all Saints are attempting to be transformative stories as well. All these novels involve a strong moral compass. Evil is never glorified in these books; on the contrary, the continuing battle against evil is the subject of the work. The search for the good is the subject of the work.
Interview with the Vampire, the novel that brought me to public attention, is about the near despair of an alienated being who searches the world for some hope that his existence can have meaning. His vampire nature is clearly a metaphor for human consciousness or moral awareness. The major theme of the novel is the misery of this character because he cannot find redemption and does not have the strength to end the evil of which he knows himself to be a part. This book reflects for me a protest against the post World War II nihilism to which I was exposed in college from 1960 through 1972. It is an expression of grief for a lost religious heritage that seemed at that time beyond recovery.
Because I have written so many books, I will take only one other example for examination: the novel about the vampire Marius called Blood and Gold. The theme of this novel has to do with whether or not the Italian Renaissance and the artistic movement that reflected its humanism can redeem the central character and those he seeks to shepherd as apprentices, as he himself seeks to create great works of art. The debate between the characters Marius and Armand has to do with whether Renaissance humanism can redeem Armand from a despair experienced by him after the loss of his Russian orthodox childhood. The true villains of the novel -- a band of Satanists who are presented unsparingly as cruel and deluded -- destroy the potentially beautiful refuge which Marius has created for his “family” and himself.
Much could be said, and has been said, about all of my works. I would like to say that the one thing which unites them is the theme of the moral and spiritual quest. A second theme, key to most of them, is the quest of the outcast for a context of meaning, whether that outcast is an 18th century castrato opera singer, or a young boy of mixed blood coming of age in ante-bellum New Orleans, or a person forced into a monstrous predatory existence like the young vampire, Lestat. For me, these themes are inherently significant and noble themes. They are worthy of exploration; they are evocative; they can and do reflect the deepest questions that humans face.
Yet, somehow, my earlier novels have been dismissed out of hand -- by people who haven’t read them -- as “immoral works.” They are not immoral works. They are not Satanic works. They are not demonic works. These are uninformed and unfair characterizations of these books, and this situation causes me deep personal pain.
If I had it to do over again, I would not use the word “vampire” in my novels. In 1976, when Interview with the Vampire was published there was no “vampire literature” published in America. There was no “Goth culture.” Certainly there was no “vampire lifestyle” and I am not sure there is any “vampire lifestyle” today. As far as I know vampires do not exist. I certainly don’t believe that vampires exist.
In 1976, I felt that the vampire was the perfect metaphor for the outcast in all of us, the alienated one in all of us, the one who feels lost in a world seemingly without God. In 1976, I felt I existed in such a world, and I was searching for God. I never dreamed that the word, vampire, would prevent people from examining this book as a metaphysical work. I thought the use of the word was a powerful device.
As I look back on it, I have to say that the use of this word did indeed bring me popular attention, but it brought me that attention at a dreadful price.
I also have to confess that, whatever my intentions, there is now no consensus among my very wide readership as to what all these earlier books really mean. In some ways, that is interesting and encouraging. In other ways, it can drive an author to desperation.
I’ve enjoyed not only great popular success, but serious critical attention as well. I’ve had the great honor of having my books assigned to students in high school and in college. But I also receive evidence almost daily that I am rejected out of hand as some sort of demonic writer -- or goth popular writer -- by those who have never read a word of these books.
The existence of my Goth audience continues to create misunderstanding. Yet I remain convinced that many of the young “Goth” readers who write to me are hungering for transcendence. They gravitate to these books because they find their environment sterile, secular, and materialistic and to a large extent unsatisfying. They “identify” with my heroes as my heroes search for beauty and for truth. These young readers have deluged me with poems and paintings in past years. They, as well as other readers, express openness to the painting, music, history and philosophy discussed in my books. These readers are looking for something enduring and something meaningful, and I cherish their response to these books.
Are there those who misunderstand these works? Of course. Any art involves risk. Michelangelo’s beautiful naked figures on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel caused a later Pope to want to cover up their private parts. History has not been kind to that Pope. Even a pretty Holy Card, with a feminine faced Jesus bending tenderly toward the viewer can alienate some one from religion who finds the image sugary and insipid and concludes that religion itself is artistically and morally bankrupt.
There is no art without risk. There is no Christian art without risk. Reading a book is an experience. Looking at a painting is an experience. There is no experience without risk.
Again, I do not encourage Christian writers to approach my earlier books. That has not been my purpose here. My purpose, however, has been to clarify the ambition of these books, the intentions of the author to write something of complexity and innate value, something that will transform the reader for the better.
Individual readers, and history, will determine whether or not I succeeded in my intentions. But at least you know now what drove me to create these works and why I can not and will not renounce them. And perhaps you will forgive me for adding here that these earlier works have always enjoyed, from the beginning, a large Christian audience, and something of a literary audience, made up of those who appreciate their spiritual and moral themes.
For me, the entire body of my earlier work, reflects a movement towards Jesus Christ. In 2002, I consecrated my work to Jesus Christ. This did not involve a denunciation of works that reflected the journey. It was rather a statement that from then on I would write directly for Jesus Christ. I would write works about salvation, as opposed to alienation; I would write books about reconciliation in Christ, rather than books about the struggle for answers in a post World War II seemingly atheistic world.
My books reflect now, as they always have, what I see and feel and struggle to understand.
Let me also affirm the following: my goal has always been to write for the mainstream. I have tried to create books that could be read by eleven year olds as well as adults from all walks of life. I have never wanted to write for an elite. Entertainment, plot, action, character -- all these elements are important to me. I think books for the popular audience can be great books. Dickens is my hero because he was both a popular writer and a great writer. That is what I would like to be.
Therefore my books are deliberate mixtures of many ingredients. They work on different levels. They inevitably attract different people for different reasons. But popularity alone has prejudiced some people against them. This is a source of pain to me.
Again, I give thanks for having acquired a large readership. I don’t want to complain about the misunderstandings that have accompanied that popularity. I want rather to add a clarifying statement to the record for any and all who might care.
Thank you for reading this essay.