Several people have told me that Anne Rice’s books kept them up all night. The Witching Hour had a much more powerful effect on me. It put me soundly to sleep. Even as I write I hardly know whether I have read this tale of sex-charged sorcery or dreamt it, so uncannily preposterous does it seem.
Rice is in the lucrative business of supplying steaming shovelfuls of what is missing from the thin topsoil of contemporary ”literary” fiction: mystery, rapture, romance, destiny, history measured in dynastic generations, omens, staggering coincidences, decaying mansions teeming with secrets. Whether you like this stuff depends largely on whether you can maintain enough readerly momentum to ignore the machinery by which Rice delivers the goods: the bald contrivances; the sentimental, fantasy-infested inspiration; the lush but lumpy prose. Millions have liked her vampires, and millions will like her witches. All I can say is that her gripping style didn’t grip me and her chilling suspense left me cold. As thick as a mail-order catalog, The Witching Hour is also just as full of merchandise.
We are given standard-issue Irish-American priests and black servants. We get a stock English gentleman representing a trite secret society with its roots lost in the usual murky medieval depths of the Knights Templar. We get the rich, scandalous Mayfairs, who can be traced from their dark, moldering New Orleans house through a Haitian plantation to witch-hunting 17th-century Scotland.
The Mayfairs have a venerable tradition of incest, punctuated by violent deaths, and an emerald heirloom that comes with a sinister demon called Lasher. They also have a long line of witches, each of whom finds the emerald around her neck and the demon Lasher between her legs. Last of the line is the ”tall, slim, sexy, extremely healthy, brilliant, strong, and successful” San Francisco surgeon Rowan Mayfair, who has lethal occult powers and no knowledge of the family she inherited them from — until she rescues a drowning man called Michael Curry, who on account of his near-death experience has occult powers too. Together our heroes, delirious with the author’s rapelike idea of perfect sex, return to their native New Orleans to settle the demon’s hash.
The real key to liking the novel may lie in sharing Rice’s fascination with the occult. Some very intelligent people — such as C.G. Jung, Mircea Eliade, and Joseph Campbell — have seen in the occult a sign of the eternal human craving for spiritual truth. My own view is that when religion starts leaking, the occult is the puddle on the floor.
When Rice isn’t writing herself into a frenzy, she writes well — of Curry’s New Orleans Irish neighborhood and his return to it, for instance. The rest is stuff sold by the yard. I am told that she keeps copies of bad reviews, whether for use in voodoo rites or merely to help her laugh all the way to the bank I don’t know. In any case, here’s one more for the collection. D