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Book Review

A Steaming Brew of Vampires and Witches

MERRICK, by Anne Rice, Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95, 320 pages


Anne Rice's last novel, "Vittorio, the Vampire," was a one-off: Set in the Italian Renaissance, it was a stark and simple tale that stood by itself. "Merrick," however, returns to Rice's native New Orleans and is full of references to "The Vampire Lestat," "Memnoch the Devil," "The Tale of the Body Thief," "The Vampire Armand" and other installments of her primary saga of the undead.

Here Rice brings together the world of the vampires and the world of witchcraft in the person of Merrick Mayfair, a barefoot 14-year-old girl who appears at the door of the Louisiana Motherhouse of the Talamasca, a centuries-old order of psychic investigators, and announces: "I've heard of you people, I need you. I can see things. I can speak with the dead."

Merrick, of mixed race, is related on one side to the white Mayfair witches of New Orleans and on the other to practitioners of voodoo and the Brazilian slave religion of Candomble. She is beautiful and gifted. The Talamasca--in particular, its superior general, David Talbot, an elderly Englishman--watches over her and educates her.

Twenty years later, Merrick is a valued Talamasca scholar, but the order has suffered defections, like a police force corrupted by the crooks it's supposed to keep in line. David has undergone a "body switch" and has been seduced by Lestat, trading his scruples for a handsome, ageless form. The Talamasca knows what has happened to him, but David, who loves Merrick, is too ashamed to contact her.

He does so, finally, at the request of a fellow vampire, Louis de Pointe du Lac, the guilt-ridden hero of "Interview of the Vampire," who has need of Merrick's powers. Louis wants to summon the spirit of Claudia, the young girl he turned into a vampire in 19th century France, and be reassured that she isn't suffering. As David explains, this is a matter in which witches, who "partake of the realm of pure spirituality," can outdo vampires, who are "creatures of the earth," however powerful.

So David meets Merrick, falls in love with her all over again and introduces her to Louis, who is equally smitten. The seance is prepared with the aid of bottles of rum, statues of Catholic saints that serve double duty as voodoo and Candomble gods, the skull of Merrick's murdered sister and a jade spirit-seeing mask that Merrick and David found in Central America when he was still an old and mortal man.

By now, the themes of Rice's work are familiar. She is fascinated by vampires because they intensify, without really changing, the human condition. "To sin is to exist," muses a character in Dermot Healy's recent Irish novel, "Sudden Times," which has nothing to do with the supernatural. Rice's vampires exist longer--in a luxurious and sexy atmosphere, at that--but they have to sin correspondingly more.

"Merrick" grounds its ghostly goings-on in Rice's sensuous descriptions, her knowledge of occult lore and her research into the gens de couleur libre, the New Orleans social class to which Merrick's family belongs--descendants of the black mistresses of white men, a mingling of French and African influences.

What's new here--or perhaps just emphasized more than Rice has done in the past--is a skepticism about what all this supernatural stuff really means. Despite the wonders he witnesses, David says, "I suspected that there was nothing beyond this earthly life." Rice's people become vampires because they fear death; they remain vampires, and assume crushing burdens of guilt, for the same reason.

Ghosts, spells, the "flashy miracle" of vampirism itself--none offers true consolation, David says. "Lingering after death for some while is not beyond the realm of science to explain someday--a soul of some definable substance detached from the flesh and caught in some energy field that wreaths the planet. . . . But it doesn't mean immortality. It doesn't mean Paradise or Inferno. It doesn't mean justice."

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