As the vampires turn

Michael Harris is a regular contributor to Book Review.

In "Memnoch the Devil," the vampire Lestat -- the purported author of many of Anne Rice's "Vampire Chronicles," the Byronic antihero of his own stories, the Boss Fang -- has visions of eternity and is tempted to reform. Now, in "Blood Canticle," Lestat says he wants to be a saint. Not a humble, self-effacing saint, of course -- not with his ego -- but a saint adored by millions, like a rock star. He realizes that not all of "his" readers will like that. (Evidently not all of Rice's readers liked "Memnoch.") So he tries to set them straight: "I give you this metaphysical vision ... and what thanks do I get? 'What kind of a novel is this?' you asked. 'We didn't tell you to go to Heaven and Hell! We want you to be the fancy fiend!' "

On and on Lestat goes in this vein, throughout a prologue so silly and off-putting that everyone but confirmed Rice fans will slam the book shut on it. Fortunately, he's in no hurry to renounce his fiendhood or his fine clothes. "Blood Canticle" is the sequel to "Blackwood Farm," in which Rice merged the saga of her vampires with that of New Orleans' powerful Mayfair family of witches. Mona Mayfair, ill since she gave birth to a female "monster child," Morrigan, has herself taken to Blackwood Farm to die in the care of her lover, Quinn Blackwood, a newly made vampire. Lestat makes Mona a vampire as well, saving her life -- or at least giving her immortality -- and restoring her beauty.

By not letting Mona die and go to heaven, Lestat incurs the enmity of Julien Mayfair, the self-appointed guardian of the clan. Julien is long dead, but his ghost haunts and torments Lestat. In addition, Rowan Mayfair, head of the coven and CEO of Mayfair Medical Center, where Mona was being treated, turns her big gray eyes on Lestat -- and Lestat quivers, for perhaps the first time in his 200 years among the undead, with something like actual, romantic love.

Vampires and witches coexist uneasily in Rice's universe. Both must hide their special powers from ordinary folks, if not from the Talamasca, an ancient order of psychic investigators that figures in many of the Chronicles. Witches, who are mortal and therefore vulnerable to vampires, can sniff out Blood Drinkers, who otherwise could prowl the night streets undetected. And vampires, who read minds, can unearth secrets that witches would prefer to keep hidden, especially the Mayfairs, whose history of incest and trafficking with nonhumans is messy indeed.

These nonhumans, the super-tall, fast-growing Taltos, described in the novels "Lasher" and "Taltos," are nearly extinct but have insinuated their DNA into the Mayfair line. Rowan had a Taltos son who raped her, producing a daughter. Both mutant offspring had to be killed. Mona at 13 seduced Rowan's husband, Michael Curry, and gave birth to Morrigan. During the years when Mona was ill -- and when she believed Rowan was tempted to kill her -- Morrigan disappeared. Finding her Taltos daughter is now Mona's priority, to Lestat's chagrin -- more important than exploring her new powers and responsibilities as a vampire.

This isn't all. Loose ends from "Blackwood Farm" have to be tied up. The farm's graveyard is still sooty from the blaze that consumed Merrick Mayfair, a witch-turned-vampire, and Quinn's fearsome doppelganger, Goblin. Also, Quinn killed his hated mother, Patsy, a country singer, who was dying of AIDS. Now her ghost is haunting the farm, terrorizing its mortal retainers. Can Lestat somehow steer Patsy into the Light where Merrick went, the Light he glimpsed in "Memnoch" -- although his own belief in heavenly salvation is still too weak for him to follow? And what should everyone tell the sheriff?

"Blood Canticle" is short for a Rice novel, but it drags nonetheless. The beginning (after that godawful prologue) is lively enough, and so is the climax, in which the search for Morrigan leads Mona, Quinn and Lestat to a private Caribbean island taken over by drug lords. But the middle, consisting of long family gabfests, has a banged-out, first-draft quality to it. Too much of the action is reported secondhand rather than dramatized. It's almost impossible to trace the sequence of any character's emotions through the swamps of talk and the lush canebrakes of description. And when we can't do that, we stop caring.

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