THE WITCHING HOUR
By Anne Rice
965 pages, $22.95
WHEN IS a novel at its best? When it seduces its readers? When it draws them into a foreign world and subtly but surely forges identifications with its characters?
Anne Rice's best work can do that. Her voluptuous horror stories of 20th century vampires made her a best-selling author. Creating a cult following with such a repugnant subject was another testimony to her power.
Now she takes on witchcraft, a 400-year-old dynasty of witches with a penchant for incest and wealth, and does it again. This novel works as a horror story. But there's so much passion and human emotion, her story works on other levels, too.
"It could be simply about sexuality," Rice said in a recent interview. "Or it could be about imagination: who's able to use it and who becomes a victim."
Whatever this novel is about, there's too much of it. "The Witching Hour" is 965 pages, and not the small paperback ones with large blocks of white space between frequent chapter changes, either. These are industrial-strength pages with small margins that can intimidate anyone except those able to ignore the demands of daily life.
Even for those people, there are entire sections -- some 100 pages or so -- that could be knocked out without sacrificing any of the story's breadth or power. This story simply should not take nearly 1,000 pages.
And another thing. Rice's prose has been called Modern Embellishment, a marked contrast to the minimalist style of Jay McInerney and other trendy writers. When they come from the mouths of vampires and ghosts that have lain dormant for centuries, it's one thing. Hearing the frequent "My beloveds" and "Yes, the happiest day" from supposedly sophisticated contemporary adults is another.
Rice has written erotic novels under another name -- "the pornography I could never find in bookstores," she said. The flaws in those are the same as the ones in her latest work.
Her treatment of extraordinary topics -- dominant and submissive sex, community witch burning, vampires feasting on mortals for immortality -- is utterly convincing. She makes the unbelievable seem plausible. She loses her grip when there is no blood, demon sex or bewitching visions of the supernatural. The characters seem fake. Her heart does not seem to be in it.
But Rice is still a young writer trying to find her voice. "To write something great," she said, "you have to risk making a fool of yourself."
She set out to write a massive, hypnotic novel that entices the reader with its broad imagery and universal conflicts. The characters in "The Witching hour" share the same quality as her others. Readers can see almost anything they were looking for, one reviewer observed.
"For she believed herself to be a witch," Rice writes about one of the women carrying on the legacy, "and therefore to be evil, and these were the devil's rites to her that she celebrated with such willfulness. Yet hers was a tender and loving heart . . . and so the mixture was a rare and powerful witch's brew indeed."
Rice believes in ambiguity. She doesn't believe in pure evil, she said. As a result, her characters -- especially the witches themselves -- are battlegrounds for the light and dark sides.
"What you've got here, Aaron, is a brilliant neurosurgeon descended from a family of witches, who can kill people just by looking at them," says one character. "On some level she knows it, she has to, and she spends every day of her life making up for it in the operating room, and when she goes out on the town it's with some hero who's just saved a kid from a burning attic."
Rice makes the evil sound just as exciting and fun as the good. Just a little different.
"I heard her humming as she held my hand," tells the daughter of the first witch, who conjured the spirit that haunts the book. "Oh, how she laughed with delight; how she danced. Like a child, she wrung her hands, and laughed again and threw back her hair. 'Do you see him, my baby?' she said to me."
Reading Rice brings on exhaustion and exasperation at all her unnecessary words. But she vindicates herself in her own special way.
The conclusion of "The Witching Hour" is a fitting end to the literary experience she has created. It's full of violation, of the feeling of being pulled along and nurtured with deliberate stimulation only to be repulsed by what inevitably follows.
With Anne Rice, it's only a story. And it's still a lot of fun.