Anne Rice, the author who gave new life to the undead, lives in a house full of saints.
Her library holds half a dozen 15-inch to 2 1/2-foot-high statues, including a porcelain Virgin Mary and Child dressed in embroidered velvet and stiff, gold lace. Almost life-sized wooden figures of Mary and of St. Lucy, holding two eyeballs on a plate, stand serenely in a dining room decorated with antebellum murals of rural Italy. A smaller, arrow-pierced St. Sebastian writhes on a sideboard, contorted in holy agony.
Rice's fascination with sanctity started long before she began "Interview With the Vampire," her first novel to ask whether the undead might be part of God's plan. "Blood Canticle" is the latest and last of her books about vampires and witches.
As a child, she read about saints and arranged a small room as an oratory, a room for prayer.
"I wanted to be a saint. I wanted to be like St. Rose of Lima," Rice says. "She could toss roses in the air and they'd stay as a wreath -- she was so powerful as a saint. I used that image in 'The Witching Hour.' I had Lasher, the evil spirit, help the little girl Deirdre ... toss flowers in the air and they'd stay."
"But I don't want to take those things and use them any more for the witches and vampires. That chapter's closed. I seek something much more extensive."
Like many writers, Rice hears and sees her characters so vividly in her mind that they seem to have a life of their own. Such was the case with her flamboyant master vampire
"Lestat didn't speak to me for a long time," she says in an interview with The Associated Press.
Now, the farewell isn't easy. "I hate leaving him. But someone else will come."
That's the thing about chapters, stories, series: They end. "She may have done as much as she can or really wants to do with these characters or this particular story," says William Patrick Day, author of "Vampire Legends in Contemporary American Culture: What Becomes a Legend Most."
Day, an English professor and director of the cinema studies program at Oberlin College in Ohio, says Rice was the first author to give vampires a full inner life and personality. Before her books, "the vampire was a purely mythic figure -- the monster, the other -- even when they had sort of personalities and background."
"What she does in `Interview' is say, `You really want to know about the inner life of the vampire. That is where the full vampire as us, as an image of our own identities, comes into part of the popular culture."
Margaret L. Carter, whose work about vampires has been published in anthologies and on the Internet, notes that authors before Rice wrote first-person short stories about vampires and even a novel narrated by a vampire speaking into a tape recorder, as Louis does in "Interview." But they are known only to fans of horror, fantasy and science fiction, she says. Rice was the first to become widely popular, writing one best seller after another.
Before Rice, she says, writers either followed the lead which Bram Stoker set with "Dracula," or reacted against it. "There are now two competing templates -- the shadow of Dracula and the shadow of Anne Rice," she says.
Rice says that when she began "Blood Canticle" (a hymn or song of praise), she knew the book would be the last of what have become known as the Vampire Chronicles.
The decision had nothing to do with the death of her husband of 41 years, who designed the round koi pond centered in a rectangular flagstone terrace outside the glassed-in porch, and whose vivid oil paintings are the only art hung on the 14-foot-high walls of the mansion they shared.
Anne Rice had about one-third of the book written when Stan Rice, whom she had known since high school, was diagnosed with brain cancer. He died Dec. 9, 2002.
"It was a nightmare," the author says. "The only good thing was that it was short. So he died without suffering a long time. It was rough."
There is, though, an almost supernatural shape to it all. Rice began the series a year after their 5-year-old daughter, Michelle, died of leukemia in 1972. She has said that she gave Lestat her husband's looks and grace, and that the child vampire in "Interview" was an unconscious way of giving Michelle immortality. Thirty years later, her husband's life and the series ended.
"I had made up my mind to end it before he was sick. So I can't say there is a connection. But it certainly seems like it when one stands back and looks at the big picture," she says.
People may have expected "a grand finale for every character" when ads announced that "Blood Canticle" would be the final Chronicle, Rice says. But that was not her intention. "Everything I wanted to do had been done. Marius, Armand -- all the major characters had been explored. I'd done everything that I wanted."
After 30 years of probing the dark side of the supernatural, Rice is "weary of the constraints of the metaphor." And "Blood Canticle," she says, is "sort of about the repudiation of the form."
From Chapter 1, Lestat's rant about his desire to be a saint and his love for and impatience with his fans and himself, he breaks the novel's frame and comments on it, as the narrator does in Thornton Wilder's "Our Town." The short chapter in which Lestat finds and kills a woman in a hotel is stream of consciousness deliberately modeled after James Joyce.
"The broken frame is the big theme of 20th-century literature," Rice says. "Over and over I broke the frame. ... I think that's what it's about. The repudiation of the 'Chronicles.' I felt some of my best writing is in there."
A few months after finishing "Blood Canticle,'' Rice began another transformation -- one of her own body. Weight had been a lifelong problem, and as she watched her husband die, she hit 254 pounds. She couldn't walk more than a few steps without panting. Her blood pressure was high. She suffered from sleep apnea. She was almost a hermit: "I didn't want to go anywhere."
On Jan. 15, 2002, she had a gastric bypass operation.
She has lost 104 pounds and works out daily -- about 40 minutes on a stationary reclining bicycle while she reads The New York Times ("it's the ultimate reader's bike") and 20 minutes lifting weights. She'd like to lose another 20 pounds.
"A year ago I was a 3X. I bought things based on whether they fit and covered me. I still have to stop myself from buying things just because they fit. I have to remember I no longer have to. I have choices."
She's down to size 12. "To be able to wear a Ralph Lauren blouse," she says, gently touching the sprigged fabric. "I'm so thrilled!"
Even better, she became fit enough for a national book tour.
"I was able to see the readers face to face. I get too isolated here. I need to see them. They give me a lot on tour -- just being there, the books they bring to sign, what they say. It's incredibly invigorating."
Earlier this month, she went to Burbank, Calif., to talk to the makers of an NBC miniseries based on "The Witching Hour." She also was able to go to New York in November to see the read-through of the Elton John-Bernie Taupin Broadway musical of "The Vampire Lestat," which she loves.
"The music is just transcendent. ... And the lyrics by Bernie Taupin are excellent, too. They really got the essence of 'The Vampire Lestat.' They got the darkness. They got the tragedy. And it's going to be a very moving musical, a very heart-rending musical," Rice says.
It's scheduled to reach Broadway in 2005, when the NBC miniseries is to be aired.
Meanwhile, Rice plans to keep writing novels about the philosophical questions that have gripped her from the start: "about good and evil, about whether there is a God, about our personal quest for redemption."
She likes creating stories, suspense and characters with which both she and her readers can fall in love.
She expects to finish her next book by the end of January, and to see it in print next fall. She's been working on it for at least a decade.
"There are some books like that. I worked on 'Feast of All Saints' for years, too. I was working on it before I ever worked on Vampire," she says. "I have projects that have deep, deep roots. Other things spring up and take over -- like 'Interview With the Vampire' sprang up and took over."
She wouldn't talk about the subject, except to say that it won't be part of a series.
"It's not good to talk about things in the future, because these things change," she says, noting that three books she talked about never got written. "One name even got on Amazon for people to pre-order. I went into a diabetic coma and didn't write the book. I simply couldn't resurrect it."
She doesn't even know how long the new book will be.
"I don't even print out until the end," she says. "I work in WordStar, which only numbers the chapters. ... It's going to be what it's going to be. I think it's so important that it seek its own length."
Rice does have a new series in mind -- about the supernatural, just not witches and vampires.
The song of blood is over. It is time to sing unto the Lord a new song.
About angels, perhaps?
A good guess, Rice says, without making any commitments.
"It does seem logical, doesn't it? And if I do it, I'll probably do something nobody else has done, just as I did with vampires."
By Janet McConnaughey