IT'S THE kind of ending that would go down well in a Hammer House of Horror film. A middle-aged woman who has lived most of her life on the dark side, populating her imagination with sympathetic vampires and morally complex witches, finally embraces the ways of light and seeks sanctuary in the arms of the church.
But this is not a work of fiction. Anne Rice, the most famous writer of vampire stories since Bram Stoker, has found God and in the process has infuriated many of her fans. The author, 67, whose novel Interview With The Vampire breathed life into stories of the undead, is back in the fold of her childhood Catholicism and, worst of all for the many readers who are astonished by her change of heart, she maintains she was headed there all along.
On a website titled "F*** you Anne Rice," fans accused the author of "ruining" her own Vampire Chronicles by becoming a Christian. Other fans describe their one-time heroine as "nuts". Most comments are so abusive they can't be reprinted. "Not all my fans like my new work but I had a wonderful letter from one recently who said, 'Now I understand, your characters were searching, they were lost and looking for a way back to God,'" says Rice, from her home in California, a state so sunny it would zap most vampires to dust.
To understand the scale of Rice's conversion, and get some insight into why her change of heart has infuriated so many of her fans, it helps to realise that Rice is not so much a writer as a sensation. Her books about vampires and witches (and several pornographic novels under the pseudonym AN Roquelaure) have sold nearly 100 million copies, making her one of the most widely read authors in modern history. She has inspired everything from musicals to pop bands (Sting, The Damned and Savage Garden have all written songs inspired by Interview With The Vampire). She did for vampires what Michael Crichton (who passed away last week) did for genetically modified dinosaurs, what Peter Benchley, the author of Jaws, did for sharks.
Rice seemed to be more than a simple writer of vampire fiction. With her curtain of black hair, now grey, her black clothes and sepulchral manner, she was the embodiment of the spooky.
But now, with her 29th book and her first work of non-fiction, Out Of Darkness: A Spiritual Confession, Rice seems to have made a startling U-turn. She describes her new book as a "spiritual memoir". It is not a full autobiography – "that would be far too painful," says Rice. There has certainly been plenty of pain in her life: a childhood blighted by her beloved mother's alcoholism, the death of her daughter from leukaemia in 1972, and her own subsequent battle with alcohol, and the lingering death of her husband from brain cancer in 2002.
But even without these tragedies, the author has had a strange life. Bizarrely christened Howard Allen O'Brien by her parents, Rice had a liberal and unconventional childhood, without strict rules and boundaries, save for the Catholicism which bound her family and the New Orleans community in which they lived. On her first day of convent school, Rice gave herself her new Christian name. She describes having the feeling as a young girl that she could do anything she put her mind to, pianist and priest being top of her list, despite the handicaps of an obvious lack of talent and the wrong type of genitals.
In the book, Rice, whose fictional characters are often androgynous, talks about how growing up she didn't have a clear sense of the difference between adults and children and between males and females. "A person's gender is the least interesting thing about them," says Rice. "I'm far more interested in what I can learn from them as a person."
Though she talks enthusiastically of exploring the New Orleans of her childhood, setting off on her bike for long days filled with adventure, Rice's life seems to have been governed by a sense of purpose rather than of pleasure. In the 1960s, after her mother died, she enrolled in a secular Texas college where, confronted with the forbidden fruits of the modern world, she decided to renounce religion.
"It was a delayed adolescent rebellion. I wanted to be bohemian, smoke Camel cigarettes, wear black gloves and know what the modern world was," says Rice. "I felt that if I couldn't be a good Catholic, there couldn't be a God. It was a tragic mistake."
Mistake or not, in the next 40 years Rice made her name writing long, extravagantly sexy gothic shockers about aristocratic vampires. Her vampire books brought her enormous numbers of fans and a large amount of money.
All this was accomplished while, in the author's own words, she was estranged from God. When she found her way back, Rice decided to make up for the folly of the Godless years, by devoting everything she wrote from then on to Him. After considering the matter, Rice decided not to end her Vampire Chronicles with her vampire hero Lestat converting to Christianity, which may have saved her some ire from her fans, but the news that she plans to concentrate on "novels about the life of Jesus Christ" seems to have astonished others.
The latest twist in the Rice life story has baffled or infuriated many of her fans, but Rice claims to be comfortable with her new audience as a Christian writer, adding that "for every nasty letter I get, I get a hundred lovely ones".
Rice's antagonistic relationship with her fans isn't entirely new: she managed to anger many with her uncompromising stance towards fan fiction, in which readers produce their own online stories using beloved characters from published novels. Rice posted a notice on her website: "I do not allow fan fiction. The characters are copyrighted. It upsets me terribly to even think about fan fiction with my characters. I advise my readers to write your own original stories with your own characters. It is absolutely essential that you respect my wishes."
Later she took the unusual step of logging on to online bookseller Amazon.com to take violent issue with the critical comments some fans had made about her book Blood Canticle.
This touchy and slightly erratic tone was also in evidence in Rice's attitude towards the film of her best-known novel. Rice sold the film rights of Interview With The Vampire, but when the producers announced they were casting Tom Cruise as the vampire Lestat she gave a series of disparaging interviews about Cruise (she apparently wanted Rutger Hauer). In the event, Cruise's performance was widely praised and the film grossed more than $100m at the US box office. She took out a full-page ad in Variety apologising to the producers.
So must fans of her earlier works resign themselves to no more of the same? "I'm writing a variety of Christian books, some of which might be appealing to fans of my early work. In the future, I want to write books about Christmas; Christmas books in the sense of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol; books about early Christianity when people were struggling in the Roman Empire in the early church. I grew up with Ben Hur. I'd love to write a big book like that. I'd love to write a book and have Hollywood make a movie of it, like Gladiator but about Christianity."
As well as allegations of hypocrisy from early fans, Rice's new book has been savaged by some critics. The New York Times review described the book as "a crashing, mind-numbing bore… the literary equivalent of waterboarding". She has also been accused of vanity publishing. "My job is to write what I feel compelled to write. I'm suspicious of vanity publishing and I don't see turning to it as a good alternative," she says.
At least Rice is putting her money where her mouth is: there will be no more vampire books. Instead Rice will write more books with titles like Christ The Lord: The Road To Cana, part two of her proposed four-book series.
Her new book is an oddity; for someone whose novels allow us an insight into the souls of the undead she seems incapable of giving us an interesting peek into her own, despite having lived an extraordinary life. The irony is that Rice has written a book which only her fans could be interested in, but many fans will feel betrayed by it. As such it all seems rather perverse. But then Rice has never been afraid of that.
Called Out Of Darkness: A Spiritual Confession by Anne Rice is published by Chatto & Windus, 16.99