It isn’t really fair, is it, when a member of the old posse comes riding back into town? When a ringer is sent it to trounce the opposition? It’s cheating, really. Anne Rice – you’re cheating! Because let’s face it, the Catholics have cornered the market on creepy Gothic and metaphysical otherness, haven’t they (or I should say – we – as my background is not dissimilar to Rice’s)?
It’s all very well these young Mormon upstarts trying to dazzle us with their sparkly, clean-living, vegetarian vampires and upright, earnest young werewolves (Stephanie Meyer, we mean you!). If you really want to get down and dirty, you can rely on an ex-convent school girl to excite your supernatural urges!
Since Rice’s wholehearted embracing of her new liberal Catholic beliefs, prompted by her own personal health problems and the loss of her husband in 2002, she has regularly published more contemplative life-writing and fiction that uses methods other than the Gothic to consider the human condition and personal theologies. But with The Wolf Gift she is back to her old style, and with a (bloody) vengeance.
This work contains an ambiguous portrayal of a central character who is truly conflicted about the ‘gift’ he has received. Reuben has youth, flair, money, and good looks on his side; but he undergoes a genuine ‘conversion’ with the onset of the mysterious ‘gift’. And things occur in a satisfyingly visceral and gory fashion – you won’t be disappointed on that score. Plus, there is no agonising over abstinence – true love certainly does not wait, in Reuben’s case.
If the Gothic is about the articulation of social, domestic, and moral anxiety in different times and in different cultures, then this novel of Rice’s serves as a mature articulation of such difficult social and moral times in contemporary America. The wealth and privilege of the central characters is contrasted with the guilt they feel about it and the gift/curse antagonism of the supernatural ‘Chrism’ – the name that the werewolf cult give to the infection that changes them, and turns them into the ‘Morphenkinder’.
Rice explores bio-chemical and genetic territory as well, investigating the possibilities of a medical explanation for what afflicts her hero. But throughout it all there is the struggle: with lust, justice, acquisition, and desire. This is a brilliantly mature and thought-provoking Gothic novel with at times a genuinely baffling and exciting plot and some actual mystery, eroticism and romance. In other words, things actually happen, as opposed to the anguished postponement of anything like fulfilment or action. Granted, this is Gothic for grown-ups.
And Rice is, in this dissection of certain issues to do with age and desire, answering the acquisition of the Gothic and the blood-thirsty by the YA market. She is insistent about the process of growth that her hero experiences, rather than the arrested development of the vampire clans. The Gothic, she reiterates, is the territory of the ground-breaking and disturbing novel for readers accustomed to the traditions that deal with the concerns of society at large and not just the discomforts of high school. Her cleric, biologists, historians, and writers that gather towards the end of the novel engage in a debate about the future and the past of the werewolf myth. They also provide the groundwork for what will probably become a 21st century series that will up-date said myth.
The roll-call of characters is most intriguing: along with Reuben and Stuart (the new generation) there are the older members of the ‘Morphenkinder’ – Margon, Felix, Sergei, and Thibault. Each one has a unique history and Rice has skilfully introduced them to us via literary and cinematic references. This howling, dangerous, energetic troupe have legs – they will run and run.