Saturday, December 31, 2011

Memnoch the Devil (Vampire Chronicles, Book 5)

Memnoch the Devil (Vampire Chronicles, Book 5)


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The fifth volume of Rice's Vampire Chronicles is one of her most controversial books. The tale begins in New York, where Lestat, the coolest of Rice's vampire heroes, is stalking a big-time cocaine dealer and religious-art smuggler--this guy should get it in the neck. Lestat is also growing fascinated with the dealer's lovely daughter, a TV evangelist who's not a fraud.

Lestat is also being stalked himself, by some shadowy guy who turns out to be Memnoch, the devil, who spirits him away. From here on, the book might have been called Interview with the Devil (by a Vampire). It's a rousing story interrupted by a long debate with the devil. Memnoch isn't the devil as ordinarily conceived: he got the boot from God because he objected to God's heartless indifference to human misery. Memnoch takes Lestat to heaven, hell, and throughout history.

Some readers are appalled by the scene in which Lestat sinks his fangs into the throat of Christ on the cross, but the scene is not a mere shock tactic: Jesus is giving Lestat a bloody taste in order to win him over to God's side, and Rice is dead serious about the battle for his soul. Rice is really doing what she did as a devout young Catholic girl asked to imagine in detail what Christ's suffering felt like--it's just that her imagination ran away with her.

If you like straight-ahead fanged adventure, you'll likely enjoy the first third; if you like Job-like arguments with God, you'll prefer the Memnoch chapters.

Rice has made a career out of humanizing creatures of supernatural horror, and in this fifth book of her Vampire Chronicles she requests sympathy for the Devil. Having survived his near-fatal reacquaintance with human mortality in The Tale of the Body Thief (1992), the world-weary vampire Lestat is recruited by the biblical Devil, Memnoch, to help fight a cruel and negligent God. The bulk of the novel is a retelling of the Creation story from the point of view of the fallen angel, who blames his damnation on his refusal to accept human suffering as part of God's divine plan. Rice grapples valiantly with weighty questions regarding the justification of God's ways to man, but their vast scope overwhelms the novel's human dimensions. God and the Devil periodically put on the flesh of mortals, and too often end up sounding like arguing philosophy majors. Meanwhile, the ever-fascinating Lestat, whose poignant personal crisis of faith is mirrored in Memnoch's travails, becomes a passive observer, dragged along on trips to Heaven and Hell before being returned to Earth to relate what he has witnessed. Though Rice boldly probes the significance of death, belief in the afterlife and other spiritual matters, one wishes that she had found a way to address them through the experiences of human and near-human characters, as she has done so brilliantly in the past.

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