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A History of the Undead : THE QUEEN OF THE DAMNED : <i> The Third Book in the Vampire Chronicles by Anne Rice (A Borzoi Book/ Alfred A. Knopf: $18.95; 448 pp.; 394-55823-5 </i>

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In “Interview With the Vampire,” the first volume of the “Vampire Chronicles,” Anne Rice ushers us into the eerily succulent, yet refined world of Louis de Pointe du Lac, a man who became a vampire in late-18th-Century New Orleans.

The second book, “The Vampire Lestat,” explodes with fury into the world of high-tech 20th-Century San Francisco. Lestat, the charismatic iconoclast of the undead, relates his tale from his human youth as a French nobleman of the early 1700s to his ascension to rock superstardom and cult hero worship as a modern-day vampire.

With “The Queen of the Damned,” Anne Rice has created universes within universes, traveling back in time as far as ancient, pre-pyramidic Egypt and journeying from the frozen mountain peaks of Nepal to the crowded, sweating streets of southern Florida.

In all truth, the epic scope of this novel is mandated by the profound mysteries and timeless questions which Rice seeks to answer. What lies beyond death? What is the nature of goodness? Is there meaning to life? But here these age-old enigmas are mulled over, puzzled through and furiously attacked, not by mere mortals, but by the blood-sucking undead. Rice’s vampires are natural philosophers. Their immortality serves to heighten those concerns which have beguiled and befuddled humans for centuries.

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One of Rice’s many splendid characters is Armand, a beautiful boy-vampire who has walked the Earth since the early Renaissance. He becomes enamored of Daniel, a lovely young human lad and the “interviewer” of the first novel. Their relationship, though unnatural in the extreme, is both breathlessly erotic and heart-breakingly sad. Daniel who cannot bear his own aging, implores Armand for the “dark gift,” to be made immortal, but Armand desperately needs to hold onto Daniel who is his last link to the humanity he has forever lost:

“More and more they argued philosophy . . . Pulling Daniel out of a theatre in Rome, Armand had asked what did Daniel really think that death was? People who were still living knew things like that! Did Daniel know what Armand truly feared?”

When a creature of potential immortality ponders the nature of death, or when a being who must drink the blood of the living to survive, consciously seeks the high moral ground, the irony is inevitable, yet their futility is no less agonizing than man’s. Enormously old, incredibly powerful, and constantly questing, many of Rice’s vampires remain, like humans, incurably neurotic.

Much of “The Queen of the Damned” is devoted to the actual resolution of one arcane mystery. How and when were vampires first created? The more sensitive of the undead share a common need to know the nature of their origins. They also share a kind of vampiric Jungian universal subconscious. They find flashing through their collective minds visions of an incredibly ancient legend about two red-haired sisters who are brutally attacked while engaged in the holy tradition of eating their dead mother. Simultaneously there is also a common knowledge that Akasha, the mother of all vampires, once again roams the Earth.

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Akasha, however, is no nurturer. Bent on world conquest, she embarks on an apocalyptic journey of bloodcurdling slaughter and destruction. For her companion and co-ruler she chooses Lestat, whom she seduces through fear and lust. Yet the Young Lestat (not yet three centuries old) is hideously torn between the seditious lure of Akasha’s charms and his crying, if vestigial need to be embraced by the love of mortals:

“Why did my heart come up in my throat now? Why was I crying inside, like something dying myself?

“Maybe some other fiend could have loved it; some twisted and conscienceless immortal could have sneered at her visions, yet slipped into the robes of a god as easily as I had slipped into that perfumed bath.”

Occasionally, Rice can become repetitive and overly instructional in her need to recount every detail of the vampires’ ancient beginnings. More often she provides an exhilarating blend of philosophic questing and pure, wondrous adventure.

Rice’s vampiric world is a continually unfolding one, a tapestry too enormous to be hung on any wall. And just when we begin to think we can see its borders, she leaves us with a tantalizing final chapter that promises us weavings we never even suspected.


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