Part Three: We Have to Name a New Complex for This Level of Dysfunction
When last we left our deeply dysfunctional vampires, Lestat had dramatically told Louis that he simply couldn’t leave – what about their child? The little five year old near-plague victim that Lestat turned an hour ago? You can’t leave now, Louis! Your family needs you!
This can only end well.
As is so often the case with Louis, our first return from the section break isn’t actually about Claudia at all. Nope, we’re back to talking about Lestat. Which, normally I’d glaze over, but this is one of those cases where Louis proves unusually astute about someone else’s motives. In fact, consider this a bookmarking for when Lestat becomes the narrator, because it’ll tell you a lot about his particular brand of unreliability.
I’m convinced Lestat was a person who preferred not to think or talk about his motives or beliefs, even to himself. One of those people who must act. Such a person must be pushed considerably before he will open up and confess that there is method and thought to the way he lives.
That’s Lestat all over, all right. Daniel and Louis fence back and forth over the question of whether Lestat is dead, and Louis muses further that Lestat’s behavior is meant as a kind of revenge taken against the entire world. Oh, and there’s one more bit of “Louis, Master of Mixed Signals.” The last for pretty much this entire section, in fact (in fairness to Daniel, talking about dead children is one hell of a boner killer).
The vampire looked at [the time], and then he smiled at the boy. The boy’s face changed. It went blank as if from some sort of shock. “Are you still afraid of me?” asked the vampire.
The boy said nothing, but he shrank slightly from the edge of the table. His body elongated, his feet moved out over the bare boards and then contracted.
“I should think you’d be very foolish if you weren’t,” said the vampire. “But don’t be. Shall we go on?”
“Please,” said the boy.
Now, Daniel’s behavior hear is so pointedly unlike him that I half suspect Louis has unintentionally exerted his mind powers over the poor kid – if he was naturally charmed before, now we can add UNNATURAL charm overriding any survival instincts he might’ve had. Louis, you so don’t get to be mad at this kid.
But we were talking about Claudia.
Five years old and a vampire. I suspect most of you already know the problem with this – the idea of immortality as a physical cage, in a body that cannot care for itself or enter human society as an adult even as the mind continues to age, is perhaps Rice’s greatest addition to the horror of the vampire mythos. It’s a genuinely inspired turn, and she deserves every inch of credit for that.
Claudia is nearly mute in her early years, taking in Lestat’s lessons about killing and the horrors of mortality and Louis’ instructions about the beauty of humanity and the importance of poetry and philosophy without comment. The little family rents an apartment over a shop on the Rue Royale and settle in, with a full buffet of opulence before them: lovely clothes, fancy décor, living servants (which Louis refers to as “free people of color,” so small golf clap to him on that one), and their own little spaces.
In another universe, Louis is the bane of the PTA
Claudia sleeps in Louis’ coffin, his precious doted on daughter, and even Louis and Lestat seem to be getting along. They’re very nearly happy.
Lestat played with her as if she were a magnificent doll, and I played with her as if she were a magnificent doll; and it was her pleading that forced me to give up my rusty black for dandy jackets and silk ties and soft gray coats and gloves and black capes. Lestat thought the best color at all times for vampires was black, possibly the only aesthetic principle he steadfastly maintained, but he wasn’t opposed to anything which smacked of style and excess. He loved the great figure we cut, the three of us in our box at the new French Opera House or the Theatre d’Orleans, to which we went as often as possible, Lestat having a passion for Shakespeare which surprised me, though he often dozed through the operas and woke just in time to invite some lovely lady to midnight supper, where he would use all his skill to make her love him totally, then dispatch her violently to heaven or hell and come home with her diamond ring to give to Claudia.
The way Louis describes it, you’d think that this was no more than a few months of happiness – the period before things go bad is SIXTY FIVE YEARS. Nearly a century of sometimes strained but legitimate domesticity, told to Daniel through the filter of Claudia’s character arc. There is a great deal unsaid – and here is where a great deal of fanfiction lives (if it were to exist; which of course it doesn’t, because the fandom certainly wouldn’t do such a thing with Anne breathing down their necks, no sir).
We’re only able to experience Claudia through Louis, still hollowed out by grief all these years later, and she’s still one of the most vivid and fully realized characters in the entire series. She’s at once a mirror of her two fathers, learning detachment, a willingness to kill, and an appreciation for finery from Lestat; and philosophy and literature from Louis. Like the inexperienced parents they are, they view her as a quiet, receptive vessel they can pour themselves into; the fact that she never grows and doesn’t begin talking back to them for what seems to have been quite a number of years lets them hold onto that delusion longer than mortal parents might.
When she does start growing up, it’s discomfiting for Louis. Though he describes the two of them dancing together as “father and daughter, lover and lover,” he situates himself primarily as her caretaker, and the idea of her becoming unknowable frightens him.
Yet more and more her doll-like face seemed to possess two totally aware adult eyes…After days of her usual quiet, she would scoff suddenly at Lestat’s predictions about the war; or drinking blood from a crystal glass say that there were no books in the house, we must get more even if we had to steal them, and then coldly tell me of a library she’d heard of, in a palatial mansion in the Faubourg St.-Marie, a woman who collected books as if they were rocks or pressed butterflies. Se asked if I might get her into the woman’s bedroom.
But then she would sit on my lap…whispering to me softly I should never be as grown up as she until I knew that killing was the more serious thing, not the books, the music. ‘Always the music…’ she whispered. ‘Doll, doll,’ I called her. That’s what she was. A magic doll. Laughter and infinite intellect and then the round-cheeked face, the bud mouth. ‘Let me dress you, let me brush your hair,’ I would say to her out of old habit, aware of her smiling and watching me with the thin veil of boredom over her expression. ‘Do are you like,’ she breathed into my ear as I bent down to fasten her pearl buttons. ‘Only kill with me tonight. You never let me see you kill, Louis!’
Claudia becomes her own person while Louis isn’t looking – and yet, at the same time, she isn’t. She needs him to play her father when she decides she wants a child-sized coffin, with which she is fascinated. She must win her victims’ trust and get them alone, unable to rely on force in the way Lestat or Louis could; it is more difficult for her to hide a body. She cannot leave them, and they don’t take her seriously even though they claim to love her, mentally stuck in the scant number of years where her mind matched her body.
Her response, by necessity, is to become cunning. She doesn’t engage Lestat in open argument – instead, she ignores him, knowing that’s far more likely to get under his skin; the engineered ignorance means she can also play to Louis as her protector if things get out of hand, claiming her innocence. With Louis, she’s even more subtle, so much that he doesn’t seem to realize it even as he relates it. In getting the child’s coffin, for example, she’s implacable and demanding in saying she wants it, pummels him emotionally while providing a pre-formed plan that he just has to follow through on. Then, when he’s done what she wants, she gives him what he wanted in the first place – to continue sharing a coffin with her, which she phrases as being unable to bear seeing him unhappy. There might be a certain truth to that, for she does care for him…but it also means he’s now more likely to comply with her next demand because of the positive reinforcement.
Listen, I don’t wanna tell you two your business, but
you’re missing some real murder tableau opportunities here
Above all else, Claudia is a creature of want. She was raised lavished with affection and goods, but it’s not a question of being spoiled; her stunted growth is such a looming, angry weight on her life combined with her detached ruthlessness as a killer created a mindset determined to have whatever she set her mind on. No matter what she has to do to get it.
As I mentioned, the period in which the little vampire trio is happy lasts a total of 65 years. You want to know how long it takes him to go over those 65 years? About ten pages. For comparison, it takes almost 20 pages to through the single night when Louis burned down the plantation and ran to Babette (speaking of, she died young and was considered raving mad by her relatives after her encounter with Louis). Now, in narrative terms that’s because you want to get to the part where the conflict happens; as far as the character motivation…I believe it’s time to re-mention Louis’ quote about not discussing any memories he held too close to his heart (which also, incidentally, includes his unnamed sister – Claudia later mentions that she remembers Louis visiting the woman, and that he still keeps a picture of her).
But happiness isn’t to last, because this is our sad vampire soap opera. Despite Lestat’s insistence about not killing anyone that might bring suspicion back to them (“never in the house,” for you movie watchers), a mother and daughter pair of servants go missing from their home. “Missing” in that Claudia killed them and hid their bodies in the disused kitchen across the courtyard. Louis and Lestat argue over whether to confront her, at which point Louis is a giant hypocrite. Again.
“ ‘Then, are you master of us all? You didn’t teach her that. Was she supposed to imbibe it from my quiet subservience? I don’t think so. She sees herself as equal to us now, and as us equal to each other. I tell you we must reason with her, instruct her to respect what is ours. As all of us should respect it.’
Oh really, Louis, Mr. “I can’t handle that my daughter is acting like an adult now, let me continue infantilizing her.” What grand advice you give to other people that you can’t live up to yourself. Also, uh, my dude. I don’t know that you included actually respecting your fellow adult anywhere in that sentence. The vampire power plays are a whole other kettle of fish. We’ll come back to that in just a minute.
Now, a moment of acknowledgement: the film actually improves on this scene. It helps that it has a dynamite performance from tiny Kirsten Dunst, but the actual writing is a lot tighter. In the book, Louis and Lestat discover the bodies of mother and child (a fascination of Claudia’s, and a nice thematic foreshadowing in regards to her actual fate), talk for a while, and confront Claudia about it later – which is when she confronts them and demands to know how she was made. The film streamlines this into one scene, with Claudia uncovering her hidden corpse (a single adult woman) in a fit of rage and then boiling over into her demands (which are also written out into her realization that she’ll never grow up). It’s an incredibly tense and powerful scene, and Dunst goes toe to toe with Cruise well. Amazing how one learns to tone up their own work after almost twenty years. In theory.
Requisite post reminder that this movie is glorious camp beauty
Lestat tries to threaten his way back into control of the situation, giving the good old “I brought you into this world, I can take you out of it,” argument, but to no avail. The power structure is cracked, and both the illusory and real happiness are done for (Lestat is quite distraught about this, despairing that “everything was perfect” before Claudia started asking questions).
And she goes on asking, targeting Louis since Lestat provided nothing.
“ ‘I don’t know the answer to your questions,’ I said to her. Her face contorted suddenly, as if she were straining to hear me over a sudden noise. And then she shook her head.
It’s not just the peace that’s broken – the trust between Claudia and Louis is now strained too. The way he describes her actions in that clip are almost as though she was attempting to read his mind without his knowledge, to check whether he was really lying to her – while she’s weaker than Louis physically, she’s also far more in-tune with her existence as a vampire. It seems likely that she’d have a lock on any powers her weakened blood allowed for, while Louis is blind to his influence and ability.
At last, Louis breaks down and takes Claudia to the plague district, showing her the house where he originally found her and drained her blood. He relates how he drank her blood and Lestat gave her his, though he doesn’t claim to know how it actually worked. She takes it about as well as can be expected.
‘I took your life,’ I said. ‘He gave it back to you.’
“‘And here it is,’ she said under her breath. ‘And I hate you both.’”
In fairness, there’s a bit more at stake here than the immediately obvious. Not only is this the revelation of her life and death, but the realization that she was once no different than the people she kills on a nightly basis – the people she plays games of cat and mouse with, having been taught by Lestat that she’s apart from them. But now she has to contend with the fact that her life – her cursed, difficult, eternal life – was essentially an accident of timing, and that she was no more than a bargaining chip to get to Louis. If she wasn’t bitter before, this would’ve sealed the deal.
At the same time, this story seems to free her in a way. Knowing where she came from in the short term, and how she became a vampire, she’s able to reconcile at least part of her identity.
‘Yes, and [your human nature]’s your flaw, and why your face was miserable when I said as humans say, “I hate you,” and why you look at me as you do now. Human nature. I have no human nature. And no short story of a mother’s corpse and hotel rooms where children learn monstrosity can give me one. I have none. Your eyes grow cold with fear when I say this to you. Yet I have your tongue. Your passion for the truth.’
At heart, Claudia is a mirror. She is a “pure” vampire, completely unique even among the undead. She could search forever and never find someone as purely predatory as herself – except, perhaps, their very oldest Queen, with whom she will never cross paths. Having no one like her, she became a mirror instead, cherrypicking skills that are useful to her and reflecting what her companion wants to see as a means of survival.
Calm with this element, she’s moved on to wanting to search the world for other vampires. Unfortunately, there’s the problem of Lestat standing in their way. Unfortunate for Lestat, anyway, because Claudia’s developed quite the vendetta. Louis is torn. He’s forgotten how to live without Lestat, and his feelings have grown complicated – he describes himself as having grown “accustomed” to Lestat, and having great anxiety at the thought of being without him. But at the same time, the thought of being freed from the draining, unhealthy arrangement between the three of them gives him a deep sense of calm. Toxic relationships: nobody’s happy!
Louis begins making plans, which might be the first time since going to Babette that he’s been proactive in any way. He signs over a big chunk of money and property to Lestat, planning to say that he and Claudia are going on vacation…at which point, presumably, they’ll just never come back. But that’s not good enough for Claudia. She’s convinced that Lestat knows nothing because he killed his maker, and that they must do the same in order to be truly free.
‘The vampire made a slave of him, and he would no more be a slave than I would be a slave, and so he killed him. Killed him before he knew what he might have, and then in his panic made a slave of you. And you’ve been his slave.’
“ ‘Never really…’ I whispered to her. I felt the press of her cheek against my temple. She was cold and needed the kill. ‘Not a slave. Just some sort of mindless accomplice,’ I confessed to her, confessed to myself.
That’s quite a change from Lestat and Louis’ talk of masters and slaves on the night Claudia was made. However Lestat might still be flawed (and suffering from one hell of a case of untreated bipolar disorder), if that’s Louis’ take on him compared to the previous assessment of ‘yes, I was his slave,’ then that tips an acknowledgement to a genuine improvement in their relationship beyond just the two of them fussing over Claudia. Not enough to make it a good idea for them to stay, but I like to point it out. Those camouflaged moments of happiness and mutual effort make the two of them worth rooting for again down the line, after they’ve both grown as separate people.
Oh, and as for Claudia’s certainty….sheeeeeeeee’s completely wrong. But she’s said it with confidence and played on Louis’ own uncertainties, which has always worked in the past. But not here. Louis tries desperately to talk Claudia out of trying to kill Lestat, first implying that he’s much stronger and it would be impossible and at last simply begging. It’s all for naught. She’s not only determined to kill him, having talked herself out of hating Louis and laying ALL the blame for her current life on Lestat, but certain she’ll enjoy the act.
Worried that Louis might try to stop her, she plays her biggest card: she wagers herself against Lestat, betting that Louis will pick her because that option involves passively standing by in addition to keeping her safe.
I was enraged now…’it’s not necessary,’ I said to her. ‘It goes beyond all need, all common sense, all…’
“ ‘What! Humanity? He’s a killer!’ she hissed. ‘Lone predator!’ She repeated his own term, mocking it. ‘Don’t interfere with me or seek to know the time I choose to do it, nor try to come between us…’ She raised her hand now to hush me and caught mine in an iron grasp, her tiny fingers biting into my tight, tortured flesh. ‘If you do, you will bring me destruction by your interference. I can’t be discouraged.’
Well, that leaves nothing for Louis to do but wait on a bed of needles, agonizing over whether he should tell Lestat about the knife lurking in the dark. The man in question, meanwhile, has become quite enamored of a mortal: a talented musician and composer whose work is simply too disturbing to ever sell. This is the part where I wonder how much of Lestat’s background Anne had concretely worked out while writing this novel, and how much was worked in retroactively. Either way, this young mortal man quite perfectly evokes Lestat’s dead childhood friend and first love.
I mentioned before about Lestat having untreated bipolar disorder? Lemme show you what I mean.
He was positively friendly, in one of those moods where he wanted my companionship. Enjoyment could bring that out of him. Wanting to see a good play, the regular opera, the ballet. He always wanted me along…But this effervescence was frenetic and likely to vanish in an instant; just a word or two of amiable feeling on my part, some suggestion that I found his companionship pleasant, could banish all such affairs for months.
I suspect that there’s something deeper in what Louis offhandedly calls being appreciative, some time period compression of those meteoric highs and lows, but that’s aside the point for now. It aggravates the already troubled relationship between them, Louis’ persistent dark depression and intrusive thoughts and Lestat’s related and yet oppositional problems.
And on this night, Lestat shows the same behavior, lashing out when Louis refuses to go with him to meet the young musician (wanting, I suspect, to introduce the prospective new member of their family) only to come back buzzing and theatrical.
This, as you might’ve guessed, is the night Claudia sets her plan into motion. She’s gotten an apology gift for Lestat: two angelic looking adolescents, described in comparison to Botticelli angels (this is a favorite of Anne’s), full of food and apparently passed out drunk. And this scene bums. Me. Out. No, not because Lestat keeps looking to Louis before he accepts Claudia’s offer, trying to figure out if something’s up.
Claudia’s eyes were steady on Lestat, though now she raised her left hand and slowly undid the buttons of the child who lay beside her and reached inside the shabby little shirt and felt the bare flesh. Lestat did the same…[he] slid down off the cushions of the couch to his knees on the floor, his arm locked to the boy’s body, pulling it up close to him so that his face was buried in the boy’s neck. His lips moved over the neck and over the chest and over the tiny nipple of the chest and then, putting his other arm into the open shirt, so that the boy lay hopelessly wound in both arms, he drew the boy up tight and sank his teeth into his throat.
I’ll give you a minute to collect your skin from where it crawled under the couch there. Here’s the thing. I think the relationship between Louis and Claudia is interesting. Dysfunctional as fuck, like all the other romances in this book, but interesting. The book creates a very specific, tenuous atmosphere (the fact that vampire bodies are dead and physical intercourse is less interesting that blood-drinking, if it’s even possible; the fact that their connection is primarily a mental one, and the fact that Claudia sets all the terms of how they interact) is all laid out very deliberately to explore this problem of an adult in a child’s body wanting a relationship without fetishizing (mostly, fucking hell Anne) that difference.
And then scenes like this come along. There’s a genuinely disturbing undercurrent of ephebophillia in Anne’s books (nope, not just the horror ones; the Sleeping Beauty books she wrote as “Anne Rampling” feature a 15-year-old protagonist) that can make them deeply uncomfortable to read, and undermine the horror elements she’s intentionally including. It’s a miracle that – well, never mind. We’ll get to him next time.
Literally anything would be better than the previous mental image
So please enjoy this grisly bloodletting
Moving past the unintended horror to the intended bit (oh, by the way, Claudia killed him with children specifically as a means of adding irony to her revenge), the boys aren’t just drunk. They’ve been poisoned, which is beginning to render his body immobile. He starts calling for Louis, over and over, at which point my heart begins to break a bit.
‘Louis…’ he whispered, finally lifting his head just for an instant. It fell back on the couch. ‘Louis, it’s…it’s absinthe! Too much absinthe!’ he gasped. ‘She’s poisoned them with it. She poisoned me. Louis…’ He tried to raise his hand. I drew nearer, the table between us.
‘Stay back!’ she said again.
Louis is frozen, uncertain who to help, and that gives Claudia enough time to slit Lestat’s throat, stab him in the chest, and let him bleed out. Lestat’s body shrivels into a grey, veiny thing, eyes rolled up in his head. And then, for all Claudia’s talk of being free, they fall right into a new pattern where now she’s the one in charge of him. Just like Louis’ first night with Lestat, Louis is left horrified at the sight of a corpse and being ordered to help get rid of it. They take Lestat out to the swamps and let his body sink into the water; Louis finds himself almost overwhelmed with the desire to sink down after his maker, one of his first actively suicidal thoughts since becoming a vampire.
Back at the apartments, Claudia tells Louis she loves him, giving the same pattern of demands, threats, and positive reinforcement from the outing with the coffin. But this time, Louis is having none of it. He’s so distraught by Lestat’s death that he tells Claudia he doesn’t want her near him, though he’ll still care for her out of obligation. And this, the first time Claudia has come up against serious consequences, is a dreadful shock to her. She starts crying.
It’s difficult to tell how sincere she is in this. Like Lestat, we’re left to guess a lot because of Louis’ terrible people skills. It could be that she genuinely fears and mourns the idea of Louis hating her, as much as she mocked him for feeling wounded before. In her predatory worldview, things aren’t important until things affect her personally. The tragedy of it is that whatever sincere emotional change she might be feeling is undone when Louis responds to her tears. She hasn’t actually had to show remorse to him, or change her ways, or even apologize. She’s only learned that this new way of showing her distress and helplessness will bring Louis back to her, the same way she learned that saying “I love you” was a useful phrase. The moment goes by, and Louis sets back to making plans. It keeps him busy and ensures that he doesn’t have to actively engage with his interpersonal relationships.
But he takes time away from that to have a weird dream sequence where he walks into a church (Louis walks into a lot of churches and gets upset about stuff). He confesses to a priest and then eats him, and dreams about seeing a funerary procession. The corpse in the coffins switches back and forth between Lestat and Paul, reminding us that Louis has two deaths on his conscience – both of their deaths were caused by his hesitation to act, and both of them haunt him, so on.
Louis wakes up, horrified, and has a moment of clarity: everything in the church is as dead as the marble statues of saints, and he’s the only supernatural thing within it. This is going to come up now and then, so let’s go ahead and call it Catholic Corner. Almost all of Anne’s books are informed by her struggle with her Catholicism, and it is all over these books. In the case of the church scene, there’s a very particular importance to the church as “God’s House” in Catholicism. While Louis never professed to be much of a believer in life, he also never really bothered to question it. So this realization marks a break with dogma, a symbolic step to him learning to stand on his own.
Back in the plot proper, Louis and Claudia are preparing for their voyage. Claudia’s been studying myths and legends, trying to find anything about other vampires. But, be careful what you wish for. Remember that musician? Yeah, he’s in full on Freddy Eynsford-Hill mode, desperately bothering Louis for information about Lestat. Louis feeds him a line, making up a whole history about where Lestat’s gone on business and this and that and the other.
Unfortunately, swamp blood is murder on your pores
It doesn’t work. Pretty soon the musician is following them home, and on the very night of their departure he stands under their windows and stares up at them from the street. Uh. He’s a vampire now. I’m sure you can guess what that means.
The vampire in the furniture shop door had not moved. And I knew the step on the stairs. I knew the step on the porch. It was Lestat. Lestat pulling the door, now pounding on it, now ripping at it, as if to tear it loose from the very wall. Claudia moved back into the corner of the room her body bent, as if someone had struck her a sharp blow, her eyes moving frantically from the figure in the street to me. The pounding n the door grew louder. And in heard his voice. ‘Louis!’ he called to me. ‘Louis!’ he roared against the door. And then came the smash of the back parlor window.
Lestat corners them; from the first he’s poisoned through the end of this segment, he has no dialogue except for Louis’ name. He doesn’t make a move toward Claudia, unlike in the movie; he doesn’t make any aggressive moves at all, though it’s not a stretch to say he made the musician a vampire as a means of getting revenge. And then, panicked, guilty, and fearing for Claudia’s safety, Louis throws a lamp and sets Lestat on fire.
The whole of the Rue Royale is aflame, and Claudia and Louis barely make it to their boat, frightened for their lives. And thus begins their journey to the Old World.
NEXT TIME: A completely useless section that exists to explain away Transylvania and is more or less retconned by the ensuing books; and Parisian vampires are exactly as glad to see American ones as you might expect.