NEW ORLEANS -- Anne Rice, the author who gave new life to the undead, lives in a house full of saints.
Her library holds half a dozen 15-inch to 2 1/2-foot-high statues, including a porcelain Virgin Mary and Child dressed in embroidered velvet and stiff, gold lace. Almost life-sized wooden figures of Mary and of St. Lucy, holding two eyeballs on a plate, stand serenely in a dining room decorated with antebellum murals of rural Italy. A smaller, arrow-pierced St. Sebastian writhes on a sideboard, contorted in holy agony.
Rice's fascination with sanctity started long before she began "Interview With the Vampire," her first novel to ask whether the undead might be part of God's plan. "Blood Canticle" is the latest and last of her books about vampires and witches.
"I wanted to be a saint. I wanted to be like St. Rose of Lima," Rice says. "She could toss roses in the air and they'd stay as a wreath -- she was so powerful as a saint. I used that image in "The Witching Hour.' I had Lasher, the evil spirit, help the little girl Deirdre ... toss flowers in the air and they'd stay.
"But I don't want to take those things and use them any more for the witches and vampires. That chapter's closed. I seek something much more extensive."
Margaret L. Carter, whose work about vampires has been published in anthologies and on the Internet, notes that authors before Rice wrote first-person short stories about vampires -- and even a novel narrated by a vampire speaking into a tape recorder, as Louis does in "Interview." But they are known only to fans of horror, fantasy and science fiction, she says. Rice was the first to become widely popular, writing one best seller after another.
Before Rice, she says, writers either followed the lead which Bram Stoker set with "Dracula," or reacted against it. "There are now two competing templates -- the shadow of Dracula and the shadow of Anne Rice," she says.
Rice says that when she began "Blood Canticle" (a hymn or song of praise), she knew the book would be the last of what have become known as the Vampire Chronicles.
The decision had nothing to do with the death of her husband of 41 years, who designed the round koi pond centered in a rectangular flagstone terrace outside the glassed-in porch, and whose vivid oil paintings are the only art hung on the 14-foot-high walls of the mansion they shared.
Anne Rice had about one-third of the book written when Stan Rice, whom she had known since high school, was diagnosed with brain cancer. He died Dec. 9, 2002.
There is, though, an almost supernatural shape to it all. Rice began the series a year after their 5-year-old daughter, Michelle, died of leukemia in 1972. She has said that she gave Lestat her husband's looks and grace, and that the child vampire in "Interview" was an unconscious way of giving Michelle immortality. Thirty years later, her husband's life and the series ended.
"I had made up my mind to end it before he was sick. So I can't say there is a connection. But it certainly seems like it when one stands back and looks at the big picture," she says.
After 30 years of probing the dark side of the supernatural, Rice is "weary of the constraints of the metaphor." And "Blood Canticle," she says, is "sort of about the repudiation of the form."
A few months after finishing "Blood Canticle," Rice began another transformation -- one of her own body. Weight had been a lifelong problem, and as she watched her husband die, she hit 254 pounds. She couldn't walk more than a few steps without panting. Her blood pressure was high. She suffered from sleep apnea. She was almost a hermit: "I didn't want to go anywhere."
On Jan. 15, 2002, she had a gastric bypass operation.
She has lost 104 pounds and works out daily -- about 40 minutes on a stationary reclining bicycle while she reads the New York Times ("it's the ultimate reader's bike") and 20 minutes lifting weights. She'd like to lose another 20 pounds.
"A year ago I was a 3X. I bought things based on whether they fit and covered me. I still have to stop myself from buying things just because they fit. I have to remember I no longer have to. I have choices."
She's down to size 12. "To be able to wear a Ralph Lauren blouse," she says, gently touching the sprigged fabric. "I'm so thrilled!"
Even better, she became fit enough for a national book tour.
"I was able to see the readers face to face. I get too isolated here. I need to see them. They give me a lot on tour -- just being there, the books they bring to sign, what they say. It's incredibly invigorating."
Rice plans to keep writing novels about the philosophical questions that have gripped her from the start: "about good and evil, about whether there is a God, about our personal quest for redemption."
She expects to finish her next book by the end of January, and to see it in print next fall. She's been working on it for at least a decade.
"There are some books like that. I worked on 'Feast of All Saints' for years, too. I was working on it before I ever worked on 'Vampire,'" she says. "I have projects that have deep, deep roots. Other things spring up and take over -- like 'Interview With the Vampire' sprang up and took over."
Rice does have a new series in mind -- about the supernatural, just not witches and vampires.
The song of blood is over. It is time to sing unto the Lord a new song.
About angels, perhaps?
A good guess, Rice says, without making any commitments.
"It does seem logical, doesn't it? And if I do it, I'll probably do something nobody else has done, just as I did with vampires."