Anne Rice hasn’t written about vampires in almost a decade.
But for many fans, she remains the authority on the undead. So when she made an appearance at the Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo, a gathering of comic, fantasy and science fiction aficionados earlier this month at McCormick Place, people had pressing questions.
For example: What happens if a vampire bites a zombie?
Zombies, which have challenged vampires as the monsters du jour, were on lots of people's minds.
Rice, petite and pretty in a black turtleneck and brown velvet jacket, and looking much younger than her 70 years, appeared thoughtful.
"It would be catastrophic," she concluded, because vampire blood would make a zombie much stronger. "But the vampire would just spit the zombie blood out."
Much has changed since Rice, in 1976, published "Interview with the Vampire," the first of 10 novels that would become "The Vampire Chronicles." Though her books eventually were game-changers in the vampire genre, gripping mainstream audiences with glamorous portrayals of lonely and gifted outcasts, most people initially "sneered and snickered" at her treatment of vampires as sympathetic souls, she said. "I got so much criticism and contempt and dismissal."
These days, you can't throw a wooden stake without hitting a sultry vampire series on the bestsellers list. And with "True Blood"returning to HBO for a fifth season in June, the final movie of the "Twilight" series due out in November, Johnny Depp starring in the upcoming film adaptation of the 1960s vampire soap opera "Dark Shadows," and horror heavyweights such as "Pan's Labyrinth" director Guillermo del Toro contributing to the booming canon of vampire literature, the ongoing vampire craze, much like its fanged superstars, refuses to die.
"I think right now we're living in a golden age for fantasy writers, for speculative fiction, for paranormal romance," said Rice, whose new book, "The Wolf Gift," marks her return to the world of supernatural monsters after taking a decade off from the undead to focus on her Catholic faith (which she has since renounced).
Though she's currently enthralled by her werewolf character, Reuben — a strong superhero type who strives to use his powers for good — Rice said she might one day revisit her vampires, including her beloved Lestat.
"I wouldn't say no to anything at this point," Rice said. "I feel like someone who is returning from a vacation. I find I have new ideas and new attitudes."
Why consumers have latched onto fantasy fiction, and vampires in particular, has been the subject of some academic exploration.
A common theory is that, during times of great stress, it offers an escape, said Sue Schopf, associate dean at Harvard University Extension School, who teaches a course called The Vampire in Literature and Film, which she launched in 2010. Vampires, in particular, indulge our longing for eternal youth and the wish to cheat death, she said.
While zombies serve as a metaphors for epidemics and mankind devastating itself through technology, tapping into the real fears of today, Schopf said, vampires take us away from it (though stories of apocalyptic vampire viruses are often more zombie-like).
The ancient, deliberate, seductive nature of many vampires, even in the diabolical Dracula types, adds to their appeal. The vampire's mouth against a neck drips with sexual imagery, and the skulking bedside visits — often eagerly received with a heaving bosom — have long been a symbol for forbidden sexuality.
"It's about the erotic longings in human beings, the longing to be desired and nuzzled and sucked," Schopf said. The recent rise of the vampire bodice-ripper may be the ultimate manifestation of that desire.
Sometimes their appeal is more about power than sex.
Mae Panzica, 22, who picked up her first Anne Rice novel at a church book sale when she was a teenager, said the vampires made her feel strong during a challenging adolescence, as they represented that "you have to take the cards you're dealt and decide what you're going to do with them."
"I loved the idea that the vampires could still persevere, that they could choose to use their power to be good or evil," said Panzica, a graduate student at St. Louis University studying education and opera study.
For teens, who seem to have an insatiable appetite for this stuff, school vampires speak to struggles to fit in, not to mention the desire for a strong-yet-sensitive vampire boyfriend who texts you back when he says he will, said Mari Mancusi, author of the young adult "Blood Coven" series, which releases its eighth book in September.
In her books, vampirism is so coveted that people have to fill out an application to join the immortal club, and blood donors looking for some extra money offer up their veins for feedings.
For those who cringe at the mild vampires next door, rest assured that bloodthirsty killers are alive (if you will) and biting.
"I think that what makes vampires enduring is what makes them scary," said Scott Snyder, author of the "American Vampire" comic book series from Vertigo, which released its 26th issue this month. And what makes them scary, he said, is the notion that someone you trust could rise from the grave and terrorize you.
Sndyer's vampires, described as the first species born indigenous to America, are American icons — an outlaw from the frontier, a wannabe Hollywood starlet. They have rattlesnake fangs, long claws and are impervious to sunlight, though they become weak on a moonless night and are allergic to gold.
The beauty of vampires is that there are endless permutations of how they can look and what they can do, so the genre can keep diversifying without growing stale.
"Until the real vampire stands up and says, 'you've got it wrong,' it's anyone's game," said paranormal romance author Jeaniene Frost, whose "Night Huntress" series features a half-vampire heroine.
But though we may not bat an eye at werepanthers, Stephenie Meyer managed to hit a raw nerve when she decided to make her vampires sparkle in the "Twilight" series.
As he stood in a long, snaking line at the Chicago comic convention to get Rice's autograph, Thom Hooppaw, 44, echoed the sentiments of many fellow vampire fans when he scoffed at the idea that a vampire could glow gold in the sun.
"That 'Twilight' stuff is crap, it's too glittery," said Hooppaw, of Chicago, who, wearing a ruffled shirt and brocade vest, was dressed as Louis de Pointe du Lac, the regretful vampire at the center of Rice's "Interview with the Vampire."
Rice, for her part, says "Twilight" are books for "very young people" and reminiscent of a classic Jane Eyre romance of a young woman falling for a dangerous man. She is a much bigger fan of Charlaine Harris, author of the Southern Vampire Mysteries starring the telepathic Sookie Stackhouse, the basis for the sex- and blood-soaked HBO series "True Blood."
Vampires, as fans of Harris' work know, are supposed to have the best sex — though, in Rice's "The Wolf Gift," you discover werewolves aren't too shabby either.
So it wasn't so surprising when Rice was asked: Can you make a zombie sex scene?
"Yes," she smiled, "I think there's a way to do it."
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email.Like to read more? Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times