On Thursday we walked through the Lafayette cemetery, spreading out individually so that we might take in the atmosphere at our own pace. I wandered off into a far corner, where the trees seemed to cluster, and offer the most shade. A consequence of the trees was the heightening of an eeriness which to me, exists everywhere in a cemetery. But here, beneath the trees and surrounded by dilapidated tombstones; where the air took on a new wave of muskiness and the leaves seemed to crunch more forebodingly under my sneakers, the eeriness felt amplified.
Here, I found it easy to squint my eyes and try to picture the characters from Anne Rice’s Interview With The Vampire sneaking around, slipping between raised graves, or crouched behind tombstones. I could envision Lestat stepping out from the darkness, an evil laugh issuing forth from his lips as he walked calmly towards his victim. The young vampire Claudia fit perfectly in this scene—I could imagine her crying softly, winning the sympathy of some passing mourner, who would kneel to comfort the innocent child, never expecting the attack at their neck that would immediately follow. The cemetery provided a perfect context for beginning to read Rice’s classic story, as we settled in for the next two weeks of living in New Orleans.
And yet, as I progressed further into the story, I was surprised to find that the cemetery setting where I could so easily picture a vampire in the night was not actually the true setting of the novel. On the contrary, Anne Rice places her two vampire protagonists in an apartment above a store on Rue Royal—one of the most lively streets of the French Quarter. We visited Royal street as a group. The buildings were of a great variety of vibrant colors, and with beautiful balconies designed with careful iron work, and people bustled happily down the sidewalks, snapping photos and wandering in and out of every store they passed. I tried to picture Louis and Lestat, the vampires who were written to live here, and found it much harder to envision them here than it had been in the cemetery.
Why, I wondered, had Anne Rice strayed so far from the traditional perception of vampires hiding out in some dark and creepy setting, prowling through the deserted night like an animal in search of prey? Why place monsters in so lovely a location—in one of the brightest and most bustling streets in America?
I found a solution while reflecting on our time in the cemetery. The notion that I have always had of cemeteries has generally been a negative one. I associate it with death, and the sadness of having to bury and leave behind someone with whom you share memories of being together and joyous. I have always interpreted that cemeteries connote sadness; each tombstone signifying the end to something that had been good.
But as I reflected on that somber walk across the cemetery grounds, and having looked through the photos I had taken there, I began to see spots of beauty in an otherwise morose setting. Many of the graves were covered with little artifacts that represented the deceased people who lied beneath them. There were flags pinned to tombs, crosses erected, even a few worn pages of Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises kept safe in a jar—a tribute to a deceased person who had likely lived by the novel’s inspiring themes. I was touched by all these trinkets. They seemed to be an invasion of light into a place that up until this point I’d only seen the darkness of. Objects that preserved a lasting presence of the person just below them; reminders that they had once lived an entire life and that it had contained happiness.
The result of my reflection was the consideration that there is no unsurpassable barrier between death and life. Of course, one cannot float freely between the state of living and the state of being dead. What I mean to say is that death is not surrounded by solely sorrow, nor is life free of its tinges of darkness. A tombstone is decorated with beautiful flowers and flags and crosses and novels; allowing the former existence of that deceased person to still resonate joyfully in the world of the living. A vampire buys an apartment on Royal Street, and a bustling center of human activity is now invaded by the living dead. Life and death are interchangeable, in small ways—like the adorning of a gravestone—and in shockingly major ways—like the hidden presence of a monstrous being among unsuspecting humans. Having developed my understanding, it now seemed less odd to me that Anne Rice should place Louis, Lestat, and Claudia in a cute little store-top residence on the lively Rue Royal. And I can better understand the style of New Orleans funerals, which Louis describes as “a festival…a celebration of death.”
A disclaimer is necessary, I think, in defense of the vampires who I claim to be death-like figures who invade the beauty of Royal Street with their darkness. After my revelations about cemeteries having their share of beauty, and the lack of perpetual separation between death and life, I read further into Interview With The Vampire and found that the vampires (disregarding the sadistic Lestat) were difficult to hate. Again having formed preconceptions of vampires based off of the traditional legends, I had made the assumption that the vampire in the novel would be a “bad guy.” And while Lestat, and sometimes Claudia, easily fulfill that expectation with their ruthless murders and absence of remorse, Louis does not. He is unhappy with the role he must play as a vampire. He kills regretfully, always lamenting that he has been forced into this existence, out of which nothing awaits him but damnation. And in his idling hours, he sits and thinks of those many beautiful things in life that deserve appreciation. He is “in love with color and shape and sound and singing and softness and infinite variation.” Again going against the traditional conceptions of vampiric nature, Anne Rice creates a sympathetic character in Louis; a vampire who dislikes his evil nature and upkeeps a gratitude for the aspects of mortal life that are beautiful. Louis in himself is another example of an assumed setting of darkness being infiltrated by beauty; like flowers in a cemetery.
Reading The Interview With The Vampire in New Orleans allowed me to better understand Anne Rice’s characters and their behaviors. Visiting the cemetery and Royal street revealed the disconnect that existed in my mind between death and beauty. I had thought that cemeteries were strictly morose; that Rue Royal was only fun; that vampires were monsters incapable of empathy. But reading the novel while living in its setting helped me to see that boundaries are not always so strict. Beauty goes where it will, as does darkness; each following its own intuition with disregard towards our expectations. Each can go wherever—into a grave or into New Orleans. I continue on this trip, and in every place, my eye is out for beauty, knowing now that it can pervade any space—even the heart of a vampire.