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Prism of the Night: A Biography of Anne Rice

Katherine Ramsland

EP Dutton Publishers

US Hardcover

ISBN 0-525-93370-0

385 pages;22.95

Date Reviewed: 02-28-1992

Reviewed by Rick Kleffel © 2002



Non-Fiction, Horror

Anne Rice, literary queen of the damned, has the kind of literary mind that conjures up little girls who become vampires, witches in Deep South plantations, and S&M resorts where the bellhop takes your bags and gives you a good spanking. She's achieved mainstream success writing horror and pornography, both genres traditionally dominated by men, using the prose and approach of romance, a field ruled by women. How this union of opposites was achieved reads, not surprisingly, like something Anne Rice might herself have written. Her biography, "Prism of the Night", by Katherine Ramsland, is every bit as entertaining and unsettling as her own duplicitous fiction.

At the heart of this book, unseen, unspoken of, is the relationship between the biographer and her subject. From interviews with the author, her friends and family, Ramsland has gained more than information. She's picked up on Anne Rice's style, and without seeming slanted for or against her subject, she presents the facts that shaped this writer's fictions. From the moment of her birth, Anne Rice -- born Howard Allen O'Brien -- was a collection of contradictions, a pretty little girl with a boy's name. Forced by peer pressure and embarrassment, she re-invented herself as "Anne!" on her first day at school, and has continued to do so throughout her life.

As Ramsland traces her strict Catholic schooling and contrasts it with her chaotic home life, Anne Rice emerges as her own most believable and likable heroine. From her rich fantasy life as a child, her mother's death in her teens, her strong and supportive marriage to poet Stan Rice, from the Garden District of New Orleans and the Castro District in San Francisco, to her first unsuccessful attempts to sell a short story about a vampire, Ramsland offers an entertaining account of Rice's search for the right means of expression. She was not to find it until her five-old daughter died from a rare form of leukemia. Ramsland provides a gripping but dispassionate description of a family beset by tragedy, and Anne's downward slide into drinking, depression and eventually the dream state in which she wrote "Interview With the Vampire".

Ramsland's treatment of Rice's fiction is perhaps this book's only weakness. Occasionally the plot summaries begin to plod, and readers can hardly wait to get back and find out what was happening inside the mind of the writer that made her tell such twisted tales. Still, as the biographer builds her momentum, her recounting of Rice's books begins to achieve the 'story-within-a-story' feel that Rice herself uses so well. This is especially true as Ramsland describes Rice's decision to write S&M erotica under two pseudonyms. "She was beginning to feel as if she had three distinct personalities, or as if she were an actress playing out three different roles," Ramsland writes. "Later, she referred to her body of work as 'the divided self'." Ramsland's careful recounting of Rice's novels are thus seen by the readers of this biography as concrete realizations of differing aspects of Rice's personality.

As a reviewer of horror, I was particularly interested in the discussion of Rice's erotica. Ramsland describes Rice's fascination with gay men "as figures that exhibited exhibited the erotic aspects of gender while transcending the negative aspects...Each of these characters since Louis the narrator of "Interview"] showed increasingly clear signs that they could take charge..." Ramsland shows how Rice used the erotica to resolve her own sexual conflicts and self doubts before returning to the ultimately successful world of her vampires. Ramsland's examination of these novels and the creative process that brought them about makes for fascinating, involving, uncomfortable reading.

That discomfort is, paradoxically, one of the prime pleasures of "Prism of the Night". As the biographer examines her subject, readers are forced to consider their own reactions to this unusual, florid fiction. Of course, Anne Rice's novels are full of paradoxes of this nature. That her biography should contain such contradictions is a pleasant surprise.