The Gospel According to Anne

Sometimes Anne Rice won't leave her bedroom for days on end--and neither would you. Glass doors open onto a terrace that looks over the red-tiled roofs of La Jolla, Calif., to the Pacific Ocean. A live-in staffer brings meals to the table at the foot of her ornately carved wooden bed, which faces an ornately carved stone fireplace. She exercises in a huge bike-in closet. She's got two computers and enough books to last her a year. Splendid isolation? Splendid, sure. But she's often got family visiting in a downstairs guest suite, she reads The New York Times every morning--"Nicholas Kristof is a hero to me"--watches news "till I can't stand it anymore," and spends up to an hour and a half a day e-mailing with her extraordinarily faithful readers.

They've been worried about her. After 25 novels in 25 years, Rice, 64, hasn't published a book since 2003's "Blood Chronicle," the tenth volume of her best-selling vampire series. They may have heard she came close to death last year, when she had surgery for an intestinal blockage, and also back in 1998, when she went into a sudden diabetic coma; that same year she returned to the Roman Catholic Church, which she'd left at 18. They surely knew that Stan Rice, her husband of 41 years, died of a brain tumor in 2002. And though she'd moved out of their longtime home in New Orleans more than a year before Hurricane Katrina, she still has property there--and the deep emotional connection that led her to make the city the setting for such novels as "Interview With the Vampire." What's up with her? "For the last six months," she says, "people have been sending e-mails saying, 'What are you doing next?' And I've told them, 'You may not want what I'm doing next'." We'll know soon. In two weeks, Anne Rice, the chronicler of vampires, witches and--under the pseudonym A. N. Roquelaure--of soft-core S&M encounters, will publish "Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt," a novel about the 7-year-old Jesus, narrated by Christ himself. "I promised," she says, "that from now on I would write only for the Lord." It's the most startling public turnaround since Bob Dylan's "Slow Train Coming" announced that he'd been born again.

Meeting the still youthful-looking Rice, you'd never suspect she'd been ill--except that on a warm October afternoon she's chilly enough to have a fire blazing. And if you were expecting Morticia Addams with a strange new light in her eyes, forget it. "We make good coffee," she says, beckoning you to where a silver pot sits on the white tablecloth. "We're from New Orleans." Rice knows "Out of Egypt" and its projected sequels--three, she thinks--could alienate her following; as she writes in the afterword, "I was ready to do violence to my career." But she sees a continuity with her old books, whose compulsive, conscience-stricken evildoers reflect her long spiritual unease. "I mean, I was in despair." In that afterword she calls Christ "the ultimate supernatural hero... the ultimate immortal of them all."

To render such a hero and his world believable, she immersed herself not only in Scripture, but in first-century histories and New Testament scholarship--some of which she found disturbingly skeptical. "Even Hitler scholarship usually allows Hitler a certain amount of power and mystery." She also watched every Biblical movie she could find, from "The Robe" to "The Passion of the Christ" ("I loved it"). And she dipped into previous novels, from "Quo Vadis" to Norman Mailer's "The Gospel According to the Son" to Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins's apocalyptic Left Behind series. ("I was intrigued. But their vision is not my vision.") She can cite scholarly authority for giving her Christ a birth date of 11 B.C., and for making James, his disciple, the son of Joseph by a previous marriage. But she's also taken liberties where they don't explicitly conflict with Scripture. No one reports that the young Jesus studied with the historian Philo of Alexandria, as the novel has it--or that Jesus' family was in Alexandria at all. And she's used legends of the boy Messiah's miracles from the noncanonical Apocrypha: bringing clay birds to life, striking a bully dead and resurrecting him.

Rice's most daring move, though, is to try to get inside the head of a 7-year-old kid who's intermittently aware that he's also God Almighty. "There were times when I thought I couldn't do it," she admits. The advance notices say she's pulled it off: Kirkus Reviews' starred rave pronounces her Jesus "fully believable." But it's hard to imagine all readers will be convinced when he delivers such lines as "And there came in a flash to me a feeling of understanding everything, everything! " The attempt to render a child's point of view can read like a Sunday-school text crossed with Hemingway: "It was time for the blessing. The first prayer we all said together in Jerusalem... The words were a little different to me. But it was still very good." Yet in the novel's best scene, a dream in which Jesus meets a bewitchingly handsome Satan--smiling, then weeping, then raging--Rice shows she still has her great gift: to imbue Gothic chills with moral complexity and heartfelt sorrow.

Rice already has much of the next volume written. ("Of course I've been advised not to talk about it.") But what's she going to do with herself once her hero ascends to Heaven? "If I really complete the life of Christ the way I want to do it," she says, "then I might go on and write a new type of fiction. It won't be like the other. It'll be in a world that includes redemption." Still, you can bet the Devil's going to get the best lines.

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