With its strange and suggestive brew of cultural influences, combining Creole, the Catholic Church, and, of course, carnival, New Orleans has always been the American city most likely to give rise to, or at least inspire, significant writers. Truman Capote and John Kennedy Toole were born there, and Tennessee Williams and Richard Ford spent essential parts of their lives there.
Perhaps no modern writer owed more to New Orleans, though, than Anne Rice, whose literary imagination and spiritual journey, such as it was, was unimaginable without the influence of the so-called City That Care Forgot.
Rice, who died on Dec. 11 at age 80, inhaled the city’s atmosphere, as well as its reputation as an epicenter of voodoo, the occult, and otherwise weird goings-on, and exhaled the most impressive literary treatment of vampirism since Bram Stoker dreamt up Dracula: Rice’s wildly popular “Vampire Chronicles” series commenced in 1976 with Interview with the Vampire, featuring the iconic vampire characters Louis de Pointe du Lac and Lestat de Lioncourt, as well as the child vampire Claudia. To the delight of readers, she continued the story in successive novels, including The Vampire Lestat (1985), The Queen of the Damned (1988), and Prince Lestat (2014). Readers by the millions awaited the ghoulishly gothic tales.
Rice may have been drawn to the dark arts. Still, her upbringing was defined by their opposite: One of four daughters (and two future writers) born to Howard and Katherine O’Brien, Anne, whose actual name was Howard Allen Frances, was reared not only in the Catholic faith of her parents but in one of the most strikingly Catholic cities in America; in Louisiana, what the rest of us would call counties are known as parishes.
“The whole world was Catholic,” Rice said in a 2005 interview, describing her city as it was during her youth. “At that time, parochial schools dotted all of New Orleans. They were everywhere, and everyone went to parochial school. You didn’t really know anyone who went to a public school.”
Of course, adolescence and piety can make unhappy bedfellows, and by the time Rice enrolled at Texas Woman’s University in 1959, her faith had started to dissipate. “I suffered a crisis of faith,” she said in 2005. “I really wanted to read Camus and Sartre and Kierkegaard and explore existentialism.”
Rice not only drifted spiritually but strayed geographically: After quitting North Texas State College, to which the nascent existentialist had transferred, she set up shop in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. There, Rice made a life for herself: After marrying poet Stan Rice in 1961, Anne earned degrees in political science and creative writing from San Francisco State University, where her husband eventually became a professor. In 1966, the couple became the parents of a daughter, Michele. A son, a novelist named Christopher, survives her.
A calamity precipitated Rice’s turn toward fiction — and return to her roots: In 1972, Michele, then 5, died of leukemia. Within a year, Rice had repurposed material written for a short story into the novel that became Interview with the Vampire, whose child vampire figure, Claudia, was widely seen as a ghostly reincarnation of the deceased Michele.
Despite Rice’s status as an adopted San Franciscan, the “Vampire Chronicles” books drew heavily on all she was exposed to as a native New Orleanian. “For the first time, I was able to describe my reality, the dark, gothic influence of my childhood,” Rice told the New York Times in 1987. “It’s not fantasy for me. My childhood came to life for me.”
In the end, Rice managed to pack multiple careers — and lives — into her 80 years: Concurrent with writing fiction that centered on vampires and, later, witches and mummies, Rice adopted assorted noms de plume to produce a series of novels that could charitably be classified as erotica, including 1985’s Exit to Eden, written by one “Anne Rampling.” Rice also proved that one could go home again: In 1988, she again took up residence in New Orleans, and, a decade later, she came home to the Catholic Church, a spiritual renewal reflected in her 2005 novel Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, but one that did not, some of her more recent statements suggest, prove lasting.
Yet in her infinite variety, Rice was as uniquely American as the city from which she sprang. And several generations of readers were kept up reading late, looking over their shoulders, as a consequence.
Peter Tonguette is a frequent contributor to the American Conservative, National Review, and the Wall Street Journal.