Son of a vampire lover

The scariest thing about Christopher Rice’s A Density of Souls—in spite of the spooky cemetery gargoyle embraced in mist on the dust jacket and the author’s presumed roots (via mom Anne Rice) in dark fiction—is its actual publication and flashy sale of movie rights.

Would Talk/Miramax really have thrown down ink in the neighborhood of $800,000 for the rights to the author’s debut work (as well as a second novel) had it not been for mom’s commercial success with vampire tales? That would be about as likely as Tom Cruise sucking off Brad Pitt’s neck. So it’s really not surprising to find that the first outing (ahem) for the Queen of the Damned’s baby boy is a disappointment.

It’s not that Rice’s style lacks promise; it’s that young Master Rice’s egocentric immaturity and inability to settle on a consistent storyline reduce what might have been an intriguing set of circumstances to pulp unworthy of the worst R.L. Stine knockoff.

The book consists of three short stories feebly interlocked through recurring characters. Using the broadest possible interpretation of the form, A Density of Souls might have been an enlightened coming-of-age novel in which the central characters search out their personal identities. Instead, the reader is subjected to a montage of cliché-driven episodes involving four childhood friends from the privileged end of New Orleans, the hometown they grudgingly cling to, “where drinking makes it easier to watch everything rot.” With the vacuity that would make Dawson [of TV’s Dawson’s Creek] and his cronies proud, Rice’s cardboard creations spend most of this novel trying to avoid meeting themselves on the dark bridge between the past and the future. That’s about as dense as these souls get.

In case it’s not apparent in his sledgehammer approach to the horrors of adolescence, Rice defined the theme of the work for the reader in an interview with The Herald-Sun last month, claiming “That’s what the book’s about: their struggle.”

Yet, like the novel’s refracted plotlines, the author’s story changes at will. Less than a month before that interview, Rice told CNN that the book is basically “a murder mystery that surrounds four kids.” The relatively subdued suggestion of murder, introduced like an afterthought halfway through the novel, might make this believable. However, a more urgent mystery might be the author’s motive for stringing out the more-than-obvious revelation that at least two of the four friends have been knocking boots from the first chapter on. Whether the only female in this quadrilateral affair is attempting to drown her raging homophobia or intense jealousy is not nearly as clear.

The author has offered a more believable version of intent in his responses to “accusations that the book is juvenile” and reviews that suggest “If you find the rituals of high school to be boring, you may not like it.” Rice confessed to The Advocate, “Really, what I set out to do was write the book that I as a gay kid in high school wanted to read.” If Christopher Rice really thinks he had “something to say about teenage culture that isn’t being said,” it must have gotten lost in the translation.

It has been said that young people have a distorted preoccupation with their own suffering and self-importance . Rice uses a lot of words to say it again. Yet for readers who get beyond the novel’s sulking petulance, the neon elucidation that our culture’s biggest fear lies in a future of novelists who cannot move beyond high school English classes that encourage them to “write from the heart” in the hope that style will emerge.