Part One: Achievements in Unreliable Narration
As promised, this week we begin our (currently) monthly journey through the Vampire Chronicles, that crucial stepping stone in the modern conception of vampirism and bestselling bastion for young queer kids throughout the end of the 20th century. I’d originally planned on spending four posts on this first book in the series, but it’s beginning to look like it’ll be more in the realm of six. In technicality the book is divided into four “parts,” but that would frontload almost half the book in one post, so we’re just making a guess of it. Buckle in, dear readers. We’re going back to 1976.
In a room that is just a room, belonging to no one we’re assured, we meet a young man (he’s not named throughout this book but he’s retroactively christened “Daniel,” because I’m going to get tired of typing epithets like “the boy” and “the interviewer” sooner rather than later). Speaking of epithets, Anne doesn’t much believe in a variance of them – the subject of our interview is called The Vampire for a good long while, and nothing else (it’s equally true that too many flowery epithets – The Boy, the Smaller One, the Golden Haired Blah – has been the ruin of many a young practicing fic writer, but we’re talking six uses of “the vampire” within the first hundred words or so. Would it’ve killed you to throw in a “he,” Anne?). But that’s an editor’s nitpick, something an untrained eye would likely never notice (and besides, this is far from the point to start being concerned about editors).
As I said, we have a young man trying to make his bones as a reporter; apparently he interviews three or four people on a nightly bases, recording their stories. Is he a beat reporter stuck doing puff human interest pieces? Is he gathering this data as a freelancer, hoping to strike gold (as indeed he does)? Is he an early Richard Linklater? We just don’t know (though we do know that he is just a living sweat fountain, like you would not believe). And why would we? He and we are here for the same person: The Vampire.
He won’t tell us for some time yet (for he has a very unusual definition of what qualifies as important and notable facts), but his name is Louis de Pointe du Lac. He owned a plantation in New Orleans, and died in 1791 at the age of 25. And he is adorable.
“Ah, that’s the accent…” the boy said softly.
For a moment the vampire stared blankly. “I have an accent?” He began to laugh.
And the boy, flustered, answered quickly. “I noticed it in the bar when I asked you what you did for a living. It’s just a slight sharpness to the consonants, that’s all. I never guessed it was French.”
Daniel’s pickup game in the bars must be so strong. I picked out this scene (and we’ll come back to moments like it) partly because Louis tends to be remembered retroactively as The Mopey Emo One. Which, yes, he spends a good chunk of eternity with severe depression and a not infrequent superiority about it to boot, but he’s also pretty damn charming and witty.
The other part is because this idea that Louis “forgets” things is key to his character, and something we shouldn’t forget. IWTV is far from the first novel to use a frame narrative of a-story-being-told (let’s start with “call me Ishmael” for a far more famous example), but it is a bit unusual in how often it reminds us of that frame. Long stretches will slip into almost-scenes taking place in the past only to snap back to the room and its two occupants, firmly insisting on making Daniel not just an audience surrogate (though he is definitely that) but a character with his own right.
So, 1791. Louis first tells us of the death of his brother Paul, and I can hear a fair number of you tilting your heads in confusion, since in the at this point better known film Louis’ depression was sparked by the death of a wife and child. It’s a fine enough change for the new medium – it’s shorthand that an audience can grasp in a couple seconds and move on with, as opposed to the fairly protracted setup that a novel has time for. Hollywood audiences are a lot more used to fridging a wife, after all.
Aside of the obvious difference that a brother plays a lot more vague on our main character’s proclivities, Paul’s brief inclusion informs us on a huge chunk of how Louis will operate for the rest of the story (and above all he’s super important because he gets a name, which Louis’ poor sister never does). Paul was a very devoted Catholic, you see, who wanted to enter the priesthood. Louis just adored him and built him an oratory to pray in, and planned to fund his training in the cloth. But then one day Paul starts claiming, at 15, that he can see visions. He tells Louis they absolutely have to sell the plantation and use the money to go fight the great scourge of atheists in France. As we all know, their kitten-kicking, mustache twirling ways and their capital-r Revolution must not be tolerated. Louis is not on board with this plan.
One night they argue, and Paul falls down the stairs outside Louis’ room, breaking his neck. It destroys the Pointe du Lac completely: Louis’ mother blames him for Paul’s death, though no more than he does himself; his sister falls into hysterical grief, apparently because that’s what she felt she was expected to do; and Louis starts drinking like there’s no tomorrow. On a deeper level, which he never comments on, he also becomes absolutely terrified of direct conflict. He had a confrontation with his brother and it killed him, so for the rest of his days Louis operates by passive aggressively trying to nudge people into doing things for him and eventually exploding when backed into a corner, like the proverbial cork popping.
During all this, we come back to the present for something interesting.
“Perhaps he saw the visions,” said the vampire.
“Then you…you don’t claim to know…now…whether he did or not?”
We don’t know this yet, but the question of “why can’t you impart all the world’s knowledge and deep philosophical meaning to me, you stupid bumpkin” is one of the chief bones of contention in Louis and Lestat’s relationship. When the pattern is repeated here with a new wondering soul and Louis in the position of unexpected, impulsive teacher, he can’t answer either. And the irony passes him by pretty much completely. Louis is very good at deep thought on theoretical subjects like Good and Evil, but he’s exceedingly bad at Other People. And he’s especially bad at Lestat.
Now I can’t imagine you, a reader in 2016, don’t know who Lestat is. He did go on to become the face of the series, once Anne had overcome the grief and depression that spawned this first book and could no longer see herself in Louis (at which point she began to treat him abysmally, but again, later). But in case you’re not aware, he is here Louis’ vampiric maker and bane of his existence. It is at this point worth pointing out that we are explicitly being told this story retroactively after everything we’re going to hear has happened, and so from the beginning the telling is influenced by the ending. This isn’t so much a True Account of the Dread Vampyr as it is a really, really bitter dragging of an asshole ex-boyfriend. It is, if I may date this post immediately, Louis’ version of “call Becky with the good hair.”
You can tell almost immediately, because while Louis has spent whole pages describing the beautiful landscape of Louisiana and other things he’s nostalgic about, the introduction of Lestat in the story is a scant few sentences of “and then while I was out trying to drink myself to death or get knifed in an alley, a vampire totally chomped me and left me for dead.” He’s so deep into this delusion that the reason he gives for Lestat turning him into a vampire is thus:
But the vampire came back that night. You see, he wanted Pointe du Lac, my plantation.
And I don’t mean that in a “please validate my ship,” sort of way (though as I’ve told you, these two meant a great deal to young Vrai). Even before Lestat stepped up as narrator and talks about how he fell “fatally in love” with Louis, the explanation of pure financial gain just doesn’t gel with the Lestat we see. He’s definitely opulent and vain, but more than capable of getting money on his own (which Louis goes on to handwave), and he keeps Louis with him long after he’d need to if love weren’t involved. But again, it’s far less painful, I imagine, to remember things as “he never really loved me and wanted me for my money.”
Louis goes on to talk about how completely entranced he was by Lestat, how ever deeper in wonderment he fell when this beautiful, otherworldly man came to him with the offer of immortality. Interestingly, though there is the element of being asked – Louis dithers over whether he decided or it was inevitable because of Lestat’s charms – isn’t actually part of this initial version (though it was retroactively written into the movie, because “I’m going to give you the choice I never had” ended up being an enormous driving factor in Lestat as a character).
At this point, we begin our walk through the experience of becoming a vampire.
“Yes,” said the boy. “How did you change, exactly?”
“I can’t tell you exactly,” said the vampire. “I can tell you about it, enclose it with words that will make the value of it to me evident to you. But I can’t tell you exactly, any more than I could tell you exactly what is the experience of sex if you have never had it.”
Yes, word document, I see the weird sentence structure too. Anyway, this is our first and far from our last example of equating vampirism with sex (though thankfully it doesn’t include an element of later books that I’m pretty sure we’ve all agreed to ignore, or at least I hope so: vampiric permaboners). Lestat forces Louis to watch as he kills the overseer of Louis’ plantation, to make sure he can handle death; and he also moves his infirm, elderly father into Louis’ house. And then, the vampening.
“’Now listen to me, Louis,’ he said, and he lay down beside me now on the steps, his movement so graceful and so personal that at once it made me think of a lover. I recoiled. But he put his right arm around me and pulled me close to his chest. Never had I been this close to him before, and in the dim light I could see the magnificent radiance of his eye and the unnatural mask of his skin. As I tried to move, he pressed his right fingers against my lips and said, ‘Be still. I am going to drain you now to the very threshold of death, and I want you to be quiet, so quiet that you can almost hear the flow of blood through your veins, so quiet that you can hear the flow of that same blood through mine. It is your consciousness, you will which must keep you alive.’
“‘Listen, keep your eyes wide,’ Lestat whispered to me, his lips moving against my neck. I remember that the movement of his lips raised the hair all over my body, sent a shock of sensation through my body that was not unlike the pleasure of passion…”
He mused, his right fingers slightly curled beneath his chin, the first finger appearing to lightly stroke it.
BUT IT’S NOT GAY, Y’ALL. Seriously, the amount of technical handwringing justification stating that these two aren’t romantically and sensually involved because they didn’t touch dicks (which, as we discussed, Ricean vampires hold blood as way more intimate than sex) and the whole “technically asexual” nonsense that erases ace people as still part of queer romantic identity and hold on I’m getting angry again. Deep breaths.
So, they have their Absolutely Hetero Platonic blooddrinking session: Lestat drains Louis as he promised, and then has Louis drink from his wrist. All that’s left after that is for Louis’ mortal body to die, where a great deal of gross things are implied in the simple statement that all of Louis’ mortal fluids left him that night. The mess must’ve been something else.
Once Louis is all neatly vamped up they head back to the house, and Lestat realizes that he super no really accidentally forgot to get Louis a coffin of his own. Yes, the “we must share a bed” trope from a million fanfictions is actually canonically in here. Louis fails to appreciate it.
Back in the present, Louis and Daniel have a conversation about vampiric myths, so that Anne can lay out the distinctions of her own mythology. Crucifixes, for a starter, are no big thing.
“And what about the rumor about keyholes? That you can…become steam and go through them.”
“I wish I could,” laughed the vampire. “How positively delightful. I should like to pass through all manner of different keyholes and feel the tickle of their peculiar shapes. No.” He shook his head. “That is, how would you say today…bullshit?”
The boy laughed despite himself. Then his face grew serious.
“You mustn’t be so shy with me,” the vampire said. “What is it?”
“The story about stakes through the heart,” said the boy, his cheeks coloring slightly.
“The same,” said the vampire. “Bull-shit,” he said, carefully articulating both syllables, so that the boy smiled.
ADORABLE, y’all. Louis, you flirt, how are you possibly surprised that this kid gets a crush on you?
Back in the story, Louis is dead and still carrying on with his mortal duties of running the plantation. Which includes, y’know, owning people. This series has some uncomfortable forays into racism.
In my own inexperience I still thought of them as childlike savages barely domesticated by slavery. I made a bad mistake.
Which is…look we all know that I’m the pastiest human alive at this point, but this attempt to brush off Louis’ whole bit with the slave trade is a bit undercut by the book’s tendency to couch the “good” descriptions in tones of Africans as mystical Other with their strange bone rituals and so on and so forth. Which I’d also be more inclined to shrug off as well-meaning if one of the first and only POC we get, three books in, didn’t come with a whole new host of OH ANNE NO. But I’m out of my depth here, so let us move on.
Remember the “bitter ex” part of the story? It goes a long way to explaining why Louis is, and let us not mince words here, a total elitist dick. He knows immediately, simply within an instant, that Lestat is stupid and useless and vain and not nearly as Deep and Thoughtful as Louis and don’t you all just agree he’s the worst.
I realized that I was his complete superior and I had been sadly cheated in having him for a teacher. He must guide me through the necessary lessons, if there were any more real lessons, and I must tolerate in him a frame of mind which was blasphemous to life itself. I felt cold towards him. I had no contempt in superiority.
Of course not, Louis. It’s worth noting that whenever Louis mentions being disappointed in Lestat for not teaching something as Louis thought he ought have – reverence for killing, or wonder at death – we never see him mention his disappointment or question Lestat’s approach to his face. Nah, it’s way better to stew in silence because he should know what he did. It’s at this point that Louis discovers he can live off of animal blood, and swears he won’t take a human life.
But for all that Louis talks of hating Lestat instantly and feeling alone, he lets slip an interesting detail: the two don’t actually fight until Lestat sets his sights on a family living up the river from the Pointe du Lac plantation: the Frenieres, a family of five young women and one heir. As Louis tells the story, Lestat sets his sight on the young man of the house and simply won’t be turned away because fuck it, he’s evil, and wouldn’t it be funny to take the sole breadwinner away and watch this family fall into ruin. Lestat himself, though quite bent on “setting the record straight” with his own bitter ex-boyfriend screed, never actually mentions this incident, though he establishes that he vastly prefers killing sinners and evildoers, and has powers of telepathy that Louis lacks. It’s led to more than a bit of speculation as to what might’ve set him on this young man whom Louis speaks glowingly of, usually squaring on a very dark interpretation of the fact that apparently the sisters all adored and depended on him and the oldest ones who should’ve been marriageable had never gotten away from the family. But, headcanons all the way down.
As I said, Louis mentions this as his first fight with Lestat. He races his maker on horseback as they head for a duel Freniere had gotten himself ensnared in, because apparently Lestat couldn’t bear the thought of not being the one to get to kill this kid. Seriously, what did he do.
Louis is ultimately able to delay but not stop the death, and so he winds up feeling a personal responsibility for the Frenieres, and pulls an Angel of Music on the oldest daughter, Babette (a scene so apparently memorable Sting wrote a song about it). He’s already falling a bit in love with her, though that won’t come to a head just yet.
More pressing is the fact that the actual human people Louis owns have decided that he and Lestat are the devil, and are planning to storm the house and kill them to drive the evil out. This happens at the same time that Lestat’s father has chosen, so inconveniently, to be in the throes of dying. Lestat’s relationship with his father is…not the best.
And as he moaned and prayed for death, Lestat in the other room began to play the spinet. I slammed it shut, barely missing his fingers. ‘You won’t play while he dies!’ I said. ‘The hell I won’t!’ he answered me. ‘I’ll play the drum if I like’ and taking a great sterling silver platter from a sideboard he slipped a finger through one of its handles and beat it with a spoon.
….Look I never said that Lestat wasn’t also legitimately prone to doing stupid, petty things when in the throes of his rather explosive temper. He’s a total dipshit. But he’s one with layers. Like so:
He talked now of some country teacher, a name garbled, who found in Lestat a brilliant pupil and begged to take him to a monastery for an education. He cursed himself for bringing Lestat home, for burning his books.
‘You were Joseph among your brothers,’ the old man said. ‘The best of them, but how was I to know? It was when you were gone I knew, when all those years passed and they could offer me no comfort, no solace. And then you came back to me and took me from the farm, but it wasn’t you. It wasn’t the same boy.’
Time is running short with the whole mob thing outside, and Louis sides, even in retrospect, with Lestat’s father. He refuses to kill the man, which Lestat can’t bring himself to do, until Lestat accepts the deathbed pleading for forgiveness. Still very much the Catholic in spite of claiming disillusionment, is Louis.
He goes on to talk about how Lestat’s drive as a vampire is vengeance against the whole world, which leaves him forever bitter and wanting, but doesn’t offer any other thought or interpretation on this bit of backstory (despite always claiming to want to know more about Lestat – only more in the sense of vampirism, I suppose; the spiritual and philosophical offerings more than the man). These two spend years communicating horrifically: Lestat holds information about himself for ransom, thinking he has nothing else that will keep Louis with him; and Louis puts Lestat up on an impossibly high pedestal and is then bitter to find another flawed individual instead of an all-knowing oracle. They make their escape from Pointe du Lac, but not before Louis sets the mansion on fire himself, signaling an end to that point in their lives.
NEXT TIME: the vampire duo move into the city, and Lestat has a plan to save his failing relationship that has definitely totally always worked in a thousand romance novels and soap operas