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The black bus bumps like an undertaker's carriage through pastoral tableaus, as Anne Rice ponders the blood-red, vampire-eye sun, dying among lozenge gravestones.

These days, pumpkins lie in Western New York farm fields like giant orange heads. Evil Hawthorne-esque forests caution travelers. Crows hang in barren trees like funeral blossoms, near skeleton cornfields. The aroma of garlic emanates from rooms other than our kitchens, and crucifixes are no longer only convent-life accouterments.

Welcome to Anne Rice's world.

Buffalo is a natural -- or should we say a supernatural -- for an Anne Rice visit. After all, we have our share of "spirit treasures" including our 19th city of the dead, Forest Lawn (with the inventor of the electric chair among the famously interred), and area American-Gothic small towns like Sinclairville and Lily Dale.

Hex signs adorn barns. Reports of disembodied hands, voices in the dark and hauntings abound. And after a trick went terribly wrong, Harry Houdini, the great escape artist, magician and Western New York visitor, died on Oct. 31. Houdini promised that he'd communicate from beyond. Halloween seances have been held on the Niagara Frontier since his death in 1926.

A dark shroud of night descends on this Western New York night, the moon trimmed in bone white. The Media Play bookstore on Sheridan Drive is brightly lit, as if to ward off the undead. An icy blast hits us like the opening door of a mausoleum, our teeth chatter in our heads. Nearly 1,000 Buffalo area Rice-lovers gather to pay tribute to their favorite prolific writer. The line snakes around the store, spilling out into the street. At an indoor faux-misty cemetery, a fountain spews hemoglobin-hued liquid amid gray-porous tombs, and a pleasant powdering of cobwebs.

We're on the way to becoming Transylvania II.

Like one of her angels, Rice adorns herself in ruby velvet, silver and a gold headdress. We clutch our hearts, and the hair stands up on our necks. Rice herself has bodyguards.

A Catholic brother is one of the first fans in line for Rice's latest spooky tome.

"It's a great honor," the best-selling author of "Servant of the Bones" tells the brother and other admirers during her late-summer visit, with just a lick of New "Or-lins" in her drawl.

"Many, many readers are strongly religious, and they respond to the spirituality of my books. And that's wonderfully thrilling."

If you think that's a weird response from a vampire writer, note the fact that Rice read little more than the lives of the saints when she was a New Orleans teen, growing up in what she called -- until visiting Buffalo -- the only Catholic city in America.

The Halloween ax-eyed monsters of our imagination savage the fantasies of our young, and terrify the old and ignorant. We've always needed word-wizards like Rice with her stained-glass style, whose intelligence, experience and innate goodness make her a spirit guide, to negotiate with the demon tribes of our dreams, so we could sleep safe in our beds.

Until now, Dracula had been fettered, banished by literacy to midnight TV.

As Rice reminds us in her many books, the river between life and death can sometimes be swift. We gaze into its deep dark waters hoping to plumb the murky bottom, with rationale tied together like so many pieces of twine, and prayer to obligate our gods to treat us gently when it's our hour to cross. Still it comes, driven by destiny. Its icy waters wash up onto the banks of life, carelessly sweeping souls into black perpetuity, seemingly without regard.

Rice's undead "are a far cry from the leering, black-caped caricatures on a lonely quest for blood," notes an introduction to a study by Bette B. Roberts, English Department chairwoman at Massachusetts' Westfield State College.

You see, Anne Rice is one of the few cult writers who's also attracted the attention of the literati and their critical appraisal. Her writing has been studied by University at Buffalo English students. Some anthologists have put her in the same class with William Styron, Gloria Naylor, John Sayles, Elmore Leonard, Maya Angelou, Charles Johnson, Joyce Carol Oates, Martin Amis and Camille Paglia.

Thanks to Rice, vampires "now have a history and a vital new tradition," declares the Village Voice. "Instead of creeping about in charnel houses, they stand center stage, with a thousand spotlights on them. And they smile straight at the camera, licking without shame their voluptuous lips and white, sharp teeth."

The New York Times pointed out that "she makes us believe everything she sees," praising Rice as "brilliant." Scholars inject extra dimension into her dark writing, whether she intends it or not. Rice's vampire is "a metaphor for the outsider, the alienated," notes Norine Dresser of the Center for the Study of Comparative Folklore and Mythology at UCLA.

She's even been read by leading literary critic Leslie Fiedler, who has just published a new book "Tyranny of the Normal," in which he discusses bioethics, linked to our fascination with all this high-style gore. The UB critic and his wife, Sally, have actually visited the Dracula country that has inspired Rice.

"She has a gift," Fiedler says. "I think she believes what she writes. I mean, she's not faking it in any way."

Rice has written so many books she maintains she's lost count -- but just hold on to your autographed novel. One of her well-looped signatures on "Interview With the Vampire" could bring you a $1,000 ransom.

Deeply steeped in florid Catholic mysticism, Rice is both embraced and rejected by the religion of her birth, a religion that squarely faces death, a Bible filled with violence. After all, even the pope called Earth a planet of tombs. To some, Rice is truly the "Queen of the Damned." But she also reminds us of the mysteries that surrounded traditional Catholic thought.

"I grew up with a completely different feeling," she says. "I was nourished on those stories of the saints and miracles. I really thought it was fine to write a book in which everybody was a vampire and they all talked about good and evil."

Other writers like Digby Diehl have wondered why she pens "serious books about such strange stuff."

But Rice has explained: "We don't run from the dead, we don't try to hide. And the saints we grew up with -- St. Patrick, St. Joseph, St. Jude -- the saints were all very real, very alive, for us. People ask me: 'How you can write about such things?' And I answer: 'How can I write about anything else?' I grew up in a world where people believed in the miraculous. I mean, what about the saint who forgot to turn off the water and the angel came and turned off the water for him and the faucet turned to gold?

"There was absolutely firm belief in the Catholic Church and the miraculous. And in ghosts and what now would be called the mythology of the devil. We were taught that the sign of the cross took care of everything."

And if anyone doubts this, just check out the gargoyles on the churches in Buffalo and around the world. Or ask anyone who went to Buffalo Catholic schools before the '60s.

Nevertheless some Catholics in the Big Easy are uneasy about her buying up Church property. Rice's latest acquisition: Our Mother of Perpetual Help Chapel from the Redemptorist Order of Priests. Rice was educated by the Redemptorist Fathers.

"Catholics are offended that a celebrity with a strange take on Christianity should own the chapel," contended the Wall Street Journal in a recent front-page piece.

Rice later answers: "The Redemptorist Fathers sold me the chapel. They needed the money; parishioners wouldn't support it.

"I've had overwhelmingly positive messages supporting our desire to save the older churches of the parish, and to bring the parish together, and um, that moves my heart very, very much. I find it very difficult in my heart to understand how they could have let the magnificent churches of our parish disintegrate as they did, I really don't."

To Buffalonians she says: "I urge you to think about your churches. They are really beautiful, they are really monuments and they mean a great deal."

She insists her interests are "purely preservationist, and that she buys the buildings she loved as a child to save them from termites, greedy developers and neglect," writes Anne Refeinberg in the Journal.

But ...

A few Western New Yorkers -- inspired by her blockbuster novels like "Interview With the Vampire" and "The Vampire Lestat" -- have actually brought dentist-quality fangs to the book-signing. Yet she insists her fans "tend to be gentle, kind and benevolent."

"My fans include young kids and old people and mainstream people," she says. "It's just thrilling, it's just absolutely thrilling."

A number of her Buffalo followers do sport fin de siecle-chic chalky complexions, daughter-of-Dracula chill eyes and hood-ornament crosses. One even brings a Lestat doll to the author, who is an avid collector of vampire dolls.

At 55, Rice says she's still religious, but not in the Baltimore Catechism kind of way.

"I think God," Rice says, "is very much alive."

A Girl Named Howard
Feeling like God's lonely child is nothing new to Rice. Oddly, she was named "Howard Allen O'Brien" at birth, a few weeks before Halloween, the day when the physical world is supposed to grow close to the supernatural world. Sociologists call it the most popular American holiday.

Howard Allen was named after her father, who was once teased about being a girl. ("Howard, Howard, little girl coward.")

"It was my burden and joy as a child to have strange names," the former Howard Allen O'Brien says with a most definite feminine voice, perhaps explaining how she could slip into pseudonyms for her erotic novels like "Exit to Eden," which, in 1994 was made into a movie.

In first grade -- no coward -- Howard Allen decided to rename herself Anne. Sensible girl.

For a year, little Anne lived a Jane Eyre-life in St. Joseph's Academy boarding school, "a very 19th century Gothic place. We boarded up in the attic. All the boarders slept in one room, on old iron beds that looked like they had once held mosquito netting. The place itself was very hard."

"New Orleans, though beautiful and desperately alive, was desperately fragile," she wrote in "Interview With the Vampire." "There was something forever savage and primitive there, something that threatened the exotic and sophisticated life both from within and without."

Rice later would dream about buying the old boarding school, and eventually did so.

The Craving in the Blood
Her postal-worker father liked to take her through cemeteries at dusk, and Anne, in that exhilarating gloom, learned that the architecture of death can capture even the most diaphanous spirit.

Her father also read her night-of-the-grave master Edgar Allan Poe. Poe argued that memory is the only way to preserve the dead. But Anne was transfixed by those marble bulwarks against the Reaper's hand.

Sometimes she saw more than souls in stone, and graven images.

"Old caskets were made of cast iron, hermetically sealed against water at the time of interment," noted Rice's biographer, Dr. Katherine Ramsland. "However, when the water table rose in times of heavy rain or hurricanes, they tended to float and the tombs broke open. As Anne wandered, she sometimes saw bones spilling out, but the sight did not upset her. Like other natives of New Orleans who whitewashed family tombs each year on the Feast of All Saints, she understood death to be part of life."

Servant of the bones, indeed.

And the chilling hand of death would touch her early on.

When Anne was just 14, her mother suddenly died after a long drinking binge. Alcohol is the spirit of the 20th century -- cunning and powerful, as they say in AA.

"She told me it was a craving in the blood, that her father had had it, and his father, and his father," recalled Rice in "Prism of the Night" by Dr. Ramsland. "She asked me to say the rosary. She seemed scared of it. She and I lying on the bed, saying the rosary together, and her telling me that about the blood."

Later Rice discovered that the craving was in her blood, too.

In many ways, "Interview With the Vampire" is "about alcoholism. It's about being drunk," she reveals. "The whole experience of the dark gift is like a drunken swoon. It's like the golden moment of drinking, when everything makes sense. It was a lot of talking about the craving for booze, the need to drink. That wonderful feeling of transcending and everything meaning something when you are drunk, and yet it was crumbling away."

"The sweetness and the softness and the world far away, and even he in his ugliness was curiously outside of me," she wrote in "The Vampire Lestat."

"Like an insect pressed against a glass who causes no loathing in us because he cannot touch us, the sound of the gong, and the exquisite pleasure, and then I was altogether lost. I was incorporeal and the pleasure was incorporeal. I was nothing but pleasure. And I slipped into a web of radiant dreams."

Barely out of her teen years, Anne married Stan Rice, her high school student newspaper editor. He proposed to his former-features writer by telegram. To the shock of her future mother-in-law, the marriage license carried Anne's legal first name, Howard.

The young couple both earned degrees at San Francisco State University -- Stan in creative writing, Anne in political science. Five years into their marriage they had a daughter, Michele.

Their golden-haired little girl would paint and draw for hours. Anne displayed her drawings through their apartment. One night, the prescient young mother dreamed that her daughter was dying -- "there was something wrong with her blood."

Months later in late summer, small Michele became feverish and listless. Anne brought her 4-year-old to the doctor. The diagnosis: a rare form of leukemia that usually strikes adults.

Chemotherapy weakened Michele. One night, blood from a transfusion bottle spilled over her hospital bed. At dawn, Anne's little girl died. She was 5 years old.

Afterward, Rice did little more than drink and write, starting the day with two towering cans of beer.

"I was just a drunk, hysterical person with no job, no identity, no nothing. There was a two-year period after her death when I just drank a lot and wrote a lot, like crazy. Then I sort of came out of it and wrote 'Interview With the Vampire.' "

She penned it in little more than a month, in "white heat." The movie version made $200 million before reaching video or cable.

In the novel, 5-year-old vampiress Claudia resembles Michele.

"When I wrote 'Interview,' I wasn't conscious that I made little Claudia look like Michele. There's a period after a death like that when you don't think the lights will ever go back on. I remember even in the immediate weeks after her death, it was hard for me to swallow food. I felt a disgust for everything physical. I kept thinking of her in the cemetery."


About six years later, Rice had another child, Christopher. Soon after, the couple quit drinking, not wanting their son to have alcoholic parents.

Having exorcised that demon, she concentrated on her writing.

"Life seems at times to be almost unbearable," Rice observes. "It's just one inch from horrible. The amount of pain, the amount of waste, the amount of loss, the amount of destruction, the chaos -- everything. And I think that's like a vision always right near me. And I write, and I see my family, and I follow my obsessions, and I explore what I have to explore to fight that."

Her literary output soared after she stopped the beery dawns. Today, in her 19th book, "Servant of the Bones," Rice asks "over and over again, what the hell mankind and womankind are doing on Earth, and who are our leaders under God, and what can we believe, and what will happen to us? We will be received and then judged.

"I seek for the truth with the instruments of the spellbinder," she says. "I've always been a writer of massive tomes, lured into cosmic themes."

She's now at work on a new untitled ghost novel, "already writing itself." It was born "while I was in a magnificent building in Venice looking up at an enormous painting of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin by Veronese."

One of her residences, the former St. Elizabeth's Orphanage in New Orleans, has its own chapel. At her Amherst book-signing, she spends a lot of time chatting with a Buffalo-area woman who grew up in that orphanage.

"The chapel room is the most magnificent room I have ever seen," another Rice-reader tells author George Beahm in "The Unauthorized Anne Rice Companion." When this fan first stepped inside, "past the statues and pictures of saints, Christ, and the Virgin Mary, I was nearly breathless."

However, Rice devotees take heart. "I cannot desert my vampires," she says.

"One that has been haunting me for years is the ancient Roman vampire Pandora."

And when it comes Anne Rice's turn to pass into the great beyond, will she choose burial or cremation?

Rice retorts with a cackle, eyes glimmering like hot coals:

"I don't intend to die."

Buffalo News staff writer Louise Continelli was born on Halloween.