It’s been two long years since the Horror genre was graced with a new novel by Anne Rice. A one-woman revolutionary in the genre, Rice reshaped our concept of what a monster is and why it does what it does. She almost single-handedly resurrected and revised the dated, mangled image of the vampire, inspiring the current mega-trend of vampire novels, and causing a domino-effect in the rediscovery of the traditional monsters of Horror.
Rejoice, Rice fans! The Wolf Gift is at last among us!
Yet all is not well in the newly minted world of her werewolf, according to the bulk of book reviews. USA Today claims the book “lacks teeth” and calls it “disappointing” and worthy of some measure of “blame” for its inadequacies of unfocussed elements and lack of dramatic tension (http://books.usatoday.com/book/anne-rice-the-wolf-gift/r628825). The LA Times reports that the book “fails” in providing the desired “bite,” and that Rice “hits her stride” too late to placate some readers who may be inclined to abandon the story (if not the writer) before reaching the best the novel has to offer (http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/books/la-et-book-anne-rice-20120224,0,658875.story). Kirkus Reviews suggests that the storytelling machinery contains “creakiness” and the protagonist “acts more like Batman than a bestial agent of disorder” although ultimately succeeding in its reworking of a traditional tale (https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/anne-rice/wolf-gift/). And one Canadian reviewer calls it “delightfully bad” suggesting it might be meant as a kind of spoof because it is “possibly the worst novel ever written” (http://www.thestar.com/news/books/article/1132648--the-wolf-gift-by-anne-rice-review).
This is not welcome news to say the least. Yet there are some reviews that complement the new book: The UK’s Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/mar/02/science-fiction-roundup-review-), and The Denver Post (http://www.denverpost.com/books/ci_20082478) are two examples. And of course, there are her fans (some of whom I know personally were ready to drive to New Orleans in 1991 to rescue her draft of The Tale of the Body Thief from an impending hurricane had it become necessary). For those die-hard Anne Rice followers, there is a greater measure of tolerance that comes with knowing an Anne Rice monster is well worth the wait.
So why the disparity in reviews? The logical answer is that we have come to expect wondrous things from Anne Rice. After hitting so many home runs, we expect every book to be ground-breaking and genre-shattering. But this is hardly fair. Anne Rice (born Howard Allen Frances O’Brien) is adored by her fans because she does not spoon-feed formula to her audience; she breaks molds and takes chances with her fiction. Sooner or later, that chance-taking will have to result in a lesser-loved tale, and perhaps The Wolf Gift is it. Or maybe it is just part of what happens in writing.
Many Anne Rice books fall into groups of trilogies and series. As part of a trilogy, Book One is typically a stand-alone; it can be read by itself and taken or left by both reader and/or publisher. But if it already exists in the writer’s mind as a Book One, it won’t have the emotionally-charged cliff-hanger climax of a Book Two, or the impact resolution of a Book Three (for further reading on supernatural writing and serials, see Steven Harper’s Writing the Paranormal Novel, c2011 Writer’s Digest Books). When an author basically writes in an anticipated series format and has the initial publishing guarantee which results from having multiple previous bestsellers to shore up that assumption, it is not unreasonable to conclude that there might be an instinctive reserve in the delivery of the first book that tends to serve as a kind of backstory.
Additionally, there is the issue of building empathy for a new character. After years of developing and exploring characters that held personal relevance for her, Anne Rice is starting in a new direction with a new monster. She is in the process of building an emotional investment in her protagonist that is probably meant to last beyond one book and that in the past has provided a vehicle to take her readers deep into the psyches of monsters where most others have not successfully been. Starting fresh with a new protagonist can be a little less exciting for the reader and the writer because the character is new to both. There is a period of discovery for the writer in the constructing of new characters, and if the publication deadline looms sooner than the full revelation, the character may indeed seem a little less developed than protagonists of other novels. It would be inevitably so if the novel precedes a series.
It is also possible that no monster can take the place of the vampire in her writer’s heart. We all have favorites, so it should come as no surprise that Anne Rice might also. As writers we tend to have one “Vietnam” novel that gores into our moral fabric and mental health, one character that is so real and all-consuming that he or she becomes a virtual surrogate for important issues, navigating in prose the minefield of dark emotional territory that is too personal and devastating for our own conscious acknowledgment. Perhaps her passion is therefore entombed with Lestat and The Vampire Chronicles. We should not desire or expect her to remake vampires into werewolves. We should see what the four-legged has to offer by letting the story unfold naturally and in the writer’s time, watching for the transformation from new character to genre icon that we know is at least possible in Rice’s capable hands.
A slight change in setting may have also taken us by surprise. Anne Rice has serious talent as an historical fiction writer made evident in two books published after Interview With The Vampire in 1974. Feast of All Saints was published in 1979, and Cry To Heaven in 1982. If she hadn’t been writing Horror all these years, she might well have been writing historical fiction, because no one writes period atmosphere like Anne Rice. Her descriptions are thick and textured, impregnated by prose that titillates the senses with a realism that is tangible and coarse. Her sense of historical setting is so detailed and so impeccably choreographed that a reader can have the same sense of teleportation that an afternoon of good cinema manages. With so many of her novels reaping benefit from this phenomenal ability to relate historical setting, it is likely that some of her prose feels less developed in this new novel’s setting in familiar modernity. With the greater weight of the novel resting in current times, it comes as no surprise that some would feel less fulfilled in reading The Wolf Gift, less thoroughly enveloped in the exquisitely rendered fabric of a typical Anne Rice tale.
Furthermore, we must acknowledge that authors do change. Like anyone else, Anne Rice is evolving her own belief systems and exploring new avenues. Her life is not static, and her interests and views should be expected to change. If the territory of the new mythology is not as comfortable residing in her prose as we have come to expect, we should not be surprised; she spent quite a long time in the company of vampires, witches and angels. A new monster is a new fit for her as much as it is for us. She will gain her footing simply because it is natural for her as a writer to do so. We are fortunate that she invites us along for the ride, but it is patently unfair if we assume every novel should outperform the previous one. As an author, Anne Rice has always amazed because she boldly shares her personal evolution in the blank spaces in between the lines of her prose. Perhaps she is more or less filled with the disquiet that bled into her earlier novels at this stage of her life. Maybe we as readers should be okay with that.
Finally, I say give the woman time. Anne Rice knows how to build characters that change stereotypes and misconceptions. She knows how to breathe life into old monsters. Her fans know that reviews aside, critics need to give her some room -- that some things are not meant to be tampered with. So get off her back.
Don’t mess with Howard.