Content warning: This article discusses unspeakable evil and shocking depravity, both of which go unpunished. It also contains plot spoilers.
It is 1791, Louisiana. A white creole slaveholder named Louis falls under the tooth of a vampire named Lestat. So Anne Rice begins the story in her 1976 classic gothic thriller, Interview with the Vampire. Now, AMC ingeniously updates Rice’s original conceit with its new television show. In the 2022 Interview with the Vampire, the setting is the Storyville neighborhood of New Orleans, fabled birthplace of jazz, in the 1910s. Now, Louis is the Black creole descendant of wealthy landowners and has shifted the family business, abandoning agriculture in favor of urban gambling and prostitution, in a bid to preserve a niche for les gens de couleur libre in an increasingly white supremacist, Anglo-dominated city.
Also updated for the new millennium is the homoerotic undertone in Rice’s original novel and its campy 1990s big-screen adaptation: Louis and Lestat are reimagined for the ’20s as tormented gay lovers. In a call back to some of the most lurid true crime stories of the turn of the 20th century, Interview exploits the fearful symmetry between forbidden queer passion and depraved homicidal lust. As Louis laments to his modern-day interviewer, describing his murder/seduction: “He drained me almost to the point of death.”
Until recently, queer criticism might have scrutinized such televised depictions for traces of homophobia or racism. But perhaps not now, and not this show. Indeed, the relish with which the ambivalent Louis and the diabolical Lestat are plunged into this over-the-top melodrama bespeaks a new watershed in the mainstream representation of what I can only think to call homosexual miscegenation. And by placing the story in Storyville—which was an official red-light district between 1897 and 1917—the 2022 Interview employs the fictional device of vampirism to literalize deep-seated fantasies and fears about the social contagiousness of interracial and homosexual desires.
Homosexual miscegenation—like military intelligence—seems to be an oxymoron. But if it is, it is a productive one, insofar as it happens to map precisely onto the dynamic between Lestat de Lioncourt, born in France under the ancien regime, and Louis de Pointe du Lac, born into a Black creole family in the Jim Crow South. It is the decadent French aristocrat who induces Louis to act upon his homosexual tendencies, bringing him out of the closet and into the coffin, so to speak, while it is Louis, scion of a Black family, whose wealth and standing originate in the institution of plaçage (the miscegenous practice by which white men could hold Black women in concubinage, raising families on both sides of the color line).
There have been more juvenile attempts to humanize the vampire recently, such as the juicy Twilight series. By contrast, Interview doubles down on the use of horror as the genre best suited to depict the terrors of white supremacy.
Lestat, for example, literalizes the African/American belief that white European slavers were cannibals, feeding on enslaved flesh. In Rice’s novel, Lestat actually initiates Louis into vampirism through killing and draining a fugitive slave. In the TV update, Lestat is the quintessential colorblind liberal racist, goading Louis into outbursts of rage against the constant petty insults and humiliations he faces at the hands of white New Orleans, while all the way lording it over one and all, white and Black, as the ultimate puppet master.
Louis himself confesses to his interviewer, the journalist Daniel Molloy, that Lestat was at once his maker and his lover. This taps into a particular vein of Southern fiction in which incest and miscegenation taboos overlap and bleed into each other.
The gothic twist, of course, is that what makes Lestat parent to Louis is not unacknowledged paternity through the rape and forced breeding of chattel women, as in many classic 19th-century narratives of miscegenation. Instead, it is the direct bite of the male vampire, which here serves as a queer allegory for reproduction between men. Or, more nearly, as sex without reproduction, only a risk of contagion.
We can go further. If we look for a name for what the gothic can do to unlock the dark recesses of sexuality and racism in the American nightmare, we should speak of the hystericization of race. Hystericization names the process of becoming hysterical, the hysteric being the one who demands to know: Why am I who you say I am? This, after all, is the question Louis asks constantly, first of Lestat and then of the aging white male journalist Molloy.
“Why am I who you say I am?” Louis demands of the world. At first, he does rage against the system; it is his brash spirit that attracts Lestat’s interest. But over the course of the series, Louis is revealed to be the quintessential homosexual mark: a quick-witted, strong-willed young man of great promise, who finds himself “drained” by the overpowering malevolence of an older figure who ensures his endless torment, above all, by professing an immortal love for him. Using sex as a weapon, Lestat unmans Louis (in one scene, Lestat literally drags him from a confession booth, desecrating the church with the blood of the slain priest) and by the end of the season turns him into a simpering househusband and hovering father to their vampirically created daughter Claudia. Out of the closet and into the coffin.
In the relationship of Louis and Claudia, the theme of miscegenation meets an apogee. The key here is not to equate miscegenation solely with heterosexual reproduction. The term is an American pseudo-scientific neologism, coined during the Civil War era, for the supposed unnatural crime against nature of sex and reproduction across the color line. It would seem counterintuitive for the taboo to extend to sodomitical acts. And yet, as early as the antebellum period—as I showed in my book The Amalgamation Waltz—it did.
There have been more juvenile attempts to humanize the vampire recently. By contrast, “Interview” doubles down on the use of horror as the genre best suited to depict the terrors of white supremacy.
For example: in Interview, the fictional device of vampirism allows the story to enact the fantasy of male pregnancy. This is achieved by creating a scenario in which Louis persuades Lestat to “save” a dying child’s life by turning her into a vampire as well. Shut up in a tomb with the philandering Lestat, Louis longs for Black kin (after his brother commits suicide, his mother dies, and his sister rejects him for becoming a vampire).
Claudia is an adolescent Black girl rescued from a burning brothel. She is turned into the daughter of this ersatz family on Royal Street, at least until it dawns upon her that she is trapped for all eternity in the body of a child. In a truly candid scene, shocking for its open acknowledgment of the afterlives of slavery in a scene of domesticity, Claudia tells Louis that Lestat is treating them both like chattel.
Louis cannot quite bring himself to admit what Claudia’s youthful perceptiveness treats as obvious: he is trapped in a relationship dynamic of antebellum slave play. Even when Lestat beats Louis nearly to death for trying to leave him, the younger man describes the abuse to his interviewer as further proof of Lestat’s passion.
And yet, for all that he suffers, Louis does not become a “Sambo,” the imaginary figure so subjugated by slavery that he accepts and even identifies with his dehumanization. He first attempts to graft a semblance of Black domesticity onto his undead condition by adopting Claudia (itself an unconscious repetition of the generations of Black women before him who were bonded to the institution of plaçage). Next, Louis turns to therapy (or confession) as a device through which to unlock the various attachments that keep him (as the poet Pamela Sneed puts it) more afraid of freedom than slavery.
Here, in my interpretation, the figure of the interviewer Daniel Molloy is crucial. He does not just passively sit recording Louis’s life but actively reacts and retorts, engaging in aggressive psychodrama to get Louis to admit uncomfortable facts about the gaps in his story. Aging, world-weary, and terminally ill, Molloy has lost all fear of the vampire, and most of his sympathy. It is Molloy who insists that Lestat really is a monster, and that even darling Claudia is one, too. Tearing the veil of sentiment away from Louis’s story, Molloy assists him in coming to a new form of consciousness as an out and proud queer man of color.
After several decades of postracialism and colorblindedness, it was perhaps predictable that the pendulum would swing back to more racially visceral art and entertainment. The new television adaptation of Octavia Butler’s Kindred (full disclosure: written by a colleague) is an even bleaker (and in some ways more terrifying) stare into the abyss. But the reason horror and the gothic should play such a prominent role in this swing is worth pondering.
Was the genre simply ripe for the plucking? Insofar as horror really is the preserve of teenage kicks, its popularity during the current youth-led racial reckoning in arts and culture makes sense. I would even suggest that horror is the genre that complements afropessimism, which has come into vogue in critical theory at about the same time and for many of the same reasons. If terrifying tales of neoslavery like Interview with the Vampire didn’t exist, afropessimism would have to invent them.
And yet, open, revanchist, anti-Black racism—identified by afropessimism as saturating the culture down to the ontological level, which is to say, down to the basic building blocks of reality—is to be distinguished, I would argue, from the hystericization of race. This subtle but crucial distinction is missed when the blanket indictment of “anti-Blackness” is hazily applied to all phenomena, in all times and in all places. Whereas gothic fantasy favors the hystericization of race—Why am I who you say I am (that is to say, a queer [un]dead slave)?—the revanchist racism of the Trump era is more of the order of perversion. While the hysteric insistently questions and agonizes, the pervert simply enjoys and rages. (I suspect that those who claim Trump is only cynically racist—pretending in order to fool his followers—are only fooling themselves. In the figure of the pervert the distinction between pretense and sincerity is obviated, since both are subsumed under the unavoidable fact of enjoyment. Trump and his avatars relish their race-baiting racism, whether they really “believe” in it or not.)
I’ve mentioned how this series has thrown me back to the long-abandoned concerns that drove me to write The Amalgamation Waltz, where I argued that mixed race is not a recent, post–civil rights, postintegration obsession but an anxiety built into the fabric of race thinking in America. Interview with the Vampire very much complements my argument, suggesting how a breakthrough in queer Black representation in the 21st century can also unlock aspects of the past that have been deemed unspeakable.
Yet, in looking to this history, I arrive at different conclusions than my colleague Jared Sexton, for whom amalgamation (aka miscegenation) is a “scheme” to defang Black radicalism. Interview with the Vampire certainly insists that interracial love provides no exit from either racism or the afterlives of slavery. But isn’t it a bit odd to have believed that it would in the first place?
No queer, after all, imagines that their relationship(s), simply by their very existence, will end homophobia. To the contrary, queer relationality can be best described as that set of systems, psychic and social, set up to ensure survival under persistent homophobia. There is some peculiar dynamic at play in the passion of a same-sex relationship across the color line, and when it really lingers over and examines such moments, the show simply shines. Whereas the dominant tendency in our literature has long been some form of realism, it may well turn out that Interview with the Vampire’s Louis de Pointe du Lac will be the most convincing and three-dimensional portrait of a Black gay man on screen this year.
When Louis brings Lestat home to meet his family in an early episode, Louis slyly remarks that it will tickle his mother’s vanity to receive a white gentleman in her home. Of course, trickster that he is, Louis is actually bringing home the devil. But he fools himself into imagining that he can handle Lestat, that Lestat’s implacable love means that he can be bargained with or even reformed. In the end, for his bravado, Louis has to face a fate worse than death, worse than slavery: a love for and dependence upon the man who holds him in perpetual thrall.
In a seeming nod to W. E. B. Du Bois (specifically his undersung 1928 novel Dark Princess), Louis ultimately only escapes the clutches of Lestat by falling in love with an even older, even more powerful vampire of Middle Eastern descent, Armand. But whereas Du Bois’s protagonist Matthew Townes finds salvation in marriage and childbearing with the titular dark Princess Kautilya of Bwodpur, the disastrous attempted adoption of Claudia leads Louis to flee the fantasy of reproductive futurity.
Instead, the first season ends on a cliffhanger, with the revelation that Armand has been there, hidden in plain sight, the whole time. He is the harbinger, perhaps, of a queer transnational undead commons, one that has stopped waiting for the end of the world, because it has already happened.