The best joke—maybe the only joke—in Anne Rice’s breakthrough novel Interview With The Vampire comes near the end. After spending 300 or so pages listening to tortured vampire Louis describe his life of luxury, decadence, and moral torment, the reporter recording the tale asks, then begs, to be turned into a vampire himself. Louis is astonished. How could someone willingly embrace a life of eternal darkness? The joke being, how could someone not? Rice made her career on exploiting the sexual metaphor in occult archetypes, and by embracing the more alluring fantasies those archetypes presented. Her vampires are tormented by their need to kill to sustain their existence, but they’re also powerful and beautiful, with access to wealth and freedom most readers only dream of. At its finest, Rice’s work exploited the tension between these two extremes, lightening the angst with privilege, grounding the fantasy with death.
Rice returns to the supernatural for her latest book, The Wolf Gift, and the results are mixed at best. All the old signposts are here. The novel’s protagonist, Reuben, is an impossibly handsome, sensitive young man who becomes even more impossibly handsome and sensitive when a mysterious, man-shaped wolf-monster bites him. Baffling his doctors and throwing his life into thrilling chaos, Reuben quickly heals from the attack, grows thicker hair, learns how to stand up for himself, and one night, transforms into a full-fledged “Man Wolf,” a powerful, furry monstrosity who can tear through assailants as if they were tissue paper. Drawn by the voices of the suffering and wounded, Reuben uses his new form to kill rapists, murderers, and psychopaths, and becomes a media sensation overnight. He also inherits a gorgeous mansion, full of oceanside property where he can indulge his lycanthropic whims. Oh, and he’s rich, and again, terribly handsome.
This description may sound glib; if so, blame Rice. The Wolf Gift is a series of descriptions of opulence, good meals, sunsets, and convenient romance, interspersed with occasional acts of horrific violence. While Reuben occasionally struggles with the morality of his behavior, the narrative goes out of its way to find him convenient outs and justifications for his murder sprees; the people he kills stink of evil, and the thought of attacking the innocent makes him physically ill. Each potential dramatic conflict is resolved without any actual drama, as the world repeatedly goes out of its way to improve Reuben’s already pretty excellent lot.
There’s nothing wrong with escapism, but without any reasonable threats, The Wolf Gift falls back on the strengths of its characters and the ingenuity of its world-building. Neither are that impressive. The ensemble is pleasant enough, but after a while, it becomes different to tell one warmly reassuring face from the next. Any signs of disagreement or unpleasantness are smoothed over or pushed aside without consequence. The various explanations given for Reuben’s Big Good Wolf are science-based and jargon-filled, but they fail to much distinguish themselves from half a dozen other werewolf tales. With Interview, Rice helped redefine vampires for the modern age, and whatever unfortunate turns that definition may have taken, the novel had a passion that made it resonate. In The Wolf Gift, Rice attempts to bring the same vitality to a new monster, but the book features little bark, and no bite.