By Lillah Lawson
Many have explored the relationship between vampires and Christianity – scratch the surface of any well-written piece of vampire fiction, from Dracula to The Vampire Chronicles, from Salem’s Lotto Twilight, and you’ll find no shortage of vampiric characters bemoaning the fact that they are damned by God, drinking blood as an act of sacrament, and drawing parallels between themselves and angels (fallen or otherwise). And fans have been drinking it up, as it were, for centuries.
For my part, I’ve been devouring vampire fiction since the tender age of 12, when I first picked up Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire from my local Target with my weekly allowance. Wide-eyed, I sat down to thumb through the first few pages, and found myself transfixed, immediately drawn into a world that was somehow medieval and distinctly modern at the same time, immeasurably beautiful and grotesque all at once, full of characters who are savage and ruthless, depressed and dastardly. Thus began a love affair that has lasted decades, one that I would be remiss not to touch upon, since at the time of this writing, the world has only started coming to terms with the death of our beloved Queen of Darkness, Anne Rice.
If I may talk personally for a moment, I find it really hard to express just how much Anne Rice has meant to me, not only as a reader, but a writer, too. Without her, I’m not sure I would have chosen this as my career, and I owe her a debt of deepest gratitude.
I don’t exaggerate when I say that some of my most core memories include Anne Rice. I’ve mentioned buying her book as a pre-teen – I poured over that book in a weekend and then watched the movie, in awe, completely overwhelmed by the exquisite world-building and the epic beauty of her deeply flawed characters, who bemoaned their pain while relishing in their opulence. At 17, I lay in a hospital bed with a life-threatening blood disorder; my mother brought me Anne’s latest, Vittorio the Vampire, which I read while receiving a blood transfusion (ironic, no?). At 21, I brought the epic tale of the vampire Marius, Blood and Gold, on the plane to New Zealand, where I’d live for the next five years. It was only my second time traveling abroad, and I knew Anne’s words would comfort me on a nervous plane ride. I read Blackwood Farm while sitting on a beach in the Coromandel Peninsula, and the book that followed, Blood Canticle, accompanied me on my journey back home to the United States. When Anne announced, after a ten-year hiatus, that she was finally releasing another Vampire Chronicles book, I waited in a long line to buy myself and my aunt a signed copy of Prince Lestat, which I gave her for Christmas that year. It is one of my most treasured possessions. It’s hard to imagine never seeing her friendly “Greetings, people of the page” on social media again—that in itself feels like a loss.
As a fan who grew up with Anne Rice’s vampires as the standard, I’ve approached all other vampire fiction and art through the lens of her vampires. I love anything vampire-inspired, from the music I listen to, to the framed pictures of Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee and Vincent Price that adorn my horror-movie-themed bathroom. But for me, it’ll always be Anne’s vampires – Lestat, Louis, Armand and their ilk – who define the genre. Everyone else must measure up to those who live in the Savage Garden. And one simply cannot talk about Anne Rice’s vampires without talking about the deep, dark themes that permeate her work. There are plenty of them – grief, sexuality, found family, otherness – but the one that gets people talking the most is, of course, Christianity.
Anne Rice wasn’t the first to go there, by any means. The vampire as we know it in popular culture could not exist without the foil of Christianity to give it struggle, and people have been writing about that struggle for centuries. After all, what conflict could befall an immortal being without the threat of damnation?
The very first written vampire story, The Vampyre, written by John Polidori in 1816, contains lines about demons, and drew on Christian imagery. Polidori, who grew up beside a churchyard, wrote a vampire narrative that spurred an entire genre which continues to this day (even if people originally credited it to Lord Byron, a Lestat-like “damndest creature” if I’ve ever heard of one). Most vampire fiction, art, and media still use this Christian imagery and lore, including crosses and crucifixes, Christian graveyards and mausoleums, holy water, and the sunrise (i.e. “son” rise; the resurrection), contrasting light and dark (good and evil)—the dawn of each new day sure to kill the vampire. While modern audiences may find it heavy-handed, Christian imagery is now synonymous with vampire lore, and frankly, couldn’t exist in the same way without it.
Time has not dulled the vampire’s popularity in pop culture. Extending to forms beyond literature such as art, video games, movies, TV, and music, vampires are everywhere, with none so prevalent as in rock music. In Anne Rice’s The Vampire Lestat, vampire Lestat de Lioncourt flirts with the idea of becoming a rock star, briefly fronting a band and becoming a bonafide celebrity. Many bands have drawn on the theme of vampire = rockstar, with one in particular taking vampiric aesthetics and marrying them with critical Christian themes, creating music that remains compelling to this day: Type O Negative.
It’ll surprise no-one, I’m sure, to find out I’m a Type O Negative fan. A certain hero from my own Dead Rockstar book trilogy, Phillip Deville, was heavily inspired by frontman Peter Steele. And while that book is not about vampires (rather, zombies, sorta), I was more than happy to borrow from the aesthetic when writing my tall, dark-haired, slightly terrifying rockstar, newly raised from the dead and ready to rock. And, as it happens, my own Phillip Deville is himself a huge Anne Rice fan, as readers will discover in an upcoming book!
Fans of Type O Negative are no stranger to the vampire comparisons. With an album called Bloody Kisses, it stands to reason that the content therein might be a little, well, bloody. Add to that songs like Suspended in Dusk, a vampire’s lament about the ennui of immortality, and Bloody Kisses (A Death in the Family), a forlorn and terrifying eulogy about the violent death of a lover by her own hand (the song is actually about Steele’s family cat, but you know, artistic license and all), it’s easy to imagine the doom metal band as blood-soaked immortals, standing on the fringes of society.
It didn’t hurt that Steele, who stood 6’8” tall, with long, lustrous black hair, piercing green eyes and sharp white teeth filed into fangs, embodied the vampire in every sense of the word. One can imagine him as a real-life Lestat de Lioncourt, though others might argue he looked more like the vampire Armand. Steele’s deliberate aesthetic of all-black, his regular habit of upending bottles of blood-red wine onstage, lyrics that celebrated drinking blood and shrouding oneself in darkness, completed his vampiric persona. Steele’s deep, low, melodic thrum of a voice only adds to the element of supernatural; his voice is that of a fallen angel.
Bloody Kisses isn’t the only Type O Negative album to lean into the supernatural. Wolf Moon (from the album October Rust) celebrates drinking woman’s blood during her “moon time”, this “unholy water” allowing the drinker to become a werewolf (readers of Anne Rice’s novel Memnoch the Devil will recognize the similarities to a certain eye-opening scene between Lestat de Lioncourt and the religious fanatic Dora); the song Christian Woman lovingly gazes upon a woman who finds the “Body of Christ” more sensually pleasing than spiritually comforting. Even Red Water (Christmas Mourning), the oddly mournful Christmas carol, invokes images of flowing blood. While Christian Woman was banned on MTV, the band leaned fully into the persona anyway, with Steele even appearing in a cardinal’s liveries in his later performances, a provocative juxtaposition to his sharp fangs. In fact, Steele’s own life mirrored that of an angsty, damned antihero – the vampire-like rockstar who nearly meets his demise from excess and finds God again before death. In the early days of fame, Steele often remarked on the Catholicism of his youth and talked frankly about the hypocrisy, bigotry, and oppression he found within it. After mental-health and substance abuse struggles, however, Steele famously re-embraced Catholicism in the years before his death, releasing deeply religious songs on the band’s last album before his untimely demise in 2010. In those later years, he still sometimes wore the cardinal liveries; however this time, he wore them unironically.
Peter Steele’s public crisis of faith, denouncing religion, then finding it again, mirror the experiences Anne Rice herself had in her life and career. Rice had many public and sometimes controversial crises of faith in her decades-long career, and never shied away from exploring her complicated feelings on God, religion, and death in her work. The aforementioned Memnoch the Devil, arguably her most religious (for some, sacrilegious) work, and the fifth in the Vampire Chronicles series, tells the story of Lestat the Vampire’s (literal) journey from Hell to Heaven, where he meets and befriends both God and the Devil and comes to question his entire belief system. Add in a chaste-but-somehow-still-raunchy flirtation with a religious fanatic named Dora, the daughter of one of his former victims (who appears in the novel as a ghost) and a traumatizing experience meeting God in which he’s literally blinded, and you’ve got one Hell (pun intended) of a novel.
Despite the spiritually charged conversations Anne Rice’s vampires and witches were having in her novels throughout the eighties and nineties, it still came as a surprise when Rice abruptly announced she had recommitted herself to the Catholicism of her childhood, and for reasons of faith, was done writing about vampires. For the next decade, Anne busied herself writing and releasing deeply religious works, namely the Christ the Lord series. She eventually dabbled in Werewolves and Mummies and created a few more controversies for herself in the meantime, but her most loyal of fans still craved the vampires. When Anne announced in 2010 that she had once again left the Roman Catholic Church, with a long Facebook post explaining why she was done for good and now considered herself an outsider, fans weren’t all that surprised. After all, she’d spent decades conversing on the matter, and her internal conflict was felt by many. Then, a couple of years later, when the long-awaited Prince Lestat arrived on shelves, fans rejoiced. The vampires were back in all their damned, sinful glory.
As a longtime fan of vampire fiction, I think that crises of faith are almost a prerequisite. Name a vampire fan who hasn’t grappled with their thoughts on organized religion, Christianity especially. The very nature of the vampire mythos and aesthetic relies upon Christian imagery and symbolism. Crosses and holy water are the antidote to vampires; the sun (i.e., “The Son” of God) is their ultimate demise. When The Vampire Lestat “goes into the ground” with Akasha in Queen of the Damned, he rises again, giving in to his own resurrection tale, just like Jesus. The only difference? Lestat’s a vampire and a rock star, too.
Plenty of bands have leaned hard into this idea, the vampire-as-rockstar persona, and artists have continued to borrow from religious and anti-religious themes to this day (even the recent release “Montero” by Lil Nas X, full of deeply religious and satanic imagery, borrows on these themes). But for my money, no band ever did it as good as Type O Negative did. As one of the leading goth bands of the 1990s, Type O Negative embraced their vampiric mythos with humor and melancholy in equal measure. Peter Steele’s Catholic upbringing inspired psalm-like songs that celebrate the life-giving properties of blood and the Eucharist. Through his lyrics and the imagery in his videos, he explores the complicated feelings he has about the Christianity of his youth, marrying the spiritual with the sacrilegious, the sacred with the profane. When he sings “Jesus Christ looks like me” (Christian Woman) through actual fangs, Peter Steele embodies both the Son of God and the vampire, blood-soaked and immortal – whether saved or damned, up to your interpretation.
As for Anne: she’s shuffled off this earthly coil and into the Savage Garden, where the damned are violet-eyed and beautiful and the blood always flows, leaving us to continue the conversation in her stead.
Lillah Lawson doesn’t contain herself when it comes to literary genres. Having dabbled in horror, southern gothic, fantasy, thrillers and historical fiction, she loves to write outside the lines, blurring different genres to explore the common threads between people.
Her debut novel, Monarchs Under the Sassafras Tree was published by Regal House Publishing in 2019 and was nominated for the Georgia Author of the Year Award (GAYA) in 2020. Her second novel, the first in a dark fantasy trilogy, Dead Rockstar, was published by Parliament House Press in 2020. Lillah was a recipient of the University of Georgia Willson Center/Flagpole Magazine Micro-Fellowship Living in a Pandemic, in which her short story Shoofly was featured as part of the online exhibition.
Lillah studied World Religions at University in New Zealand and recently went back to school to obtain her BA in History. She currently lives just outside of Athens, Georgia in the United States with her husband, son and three furry friends.
The Wolfden (Dead Rockstar #2) is set to release via Parliament House Press on February 22, 2022. Also look out for Lillah’s short story Burn the Witch (Red), which will appear in the upcoming horror anthology Chromophobia in late 2022 from Rooster Republic Press. Both books are currently available for pre-order. Check out lillahlawson.com for details on upcoming books and other works.