Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress

ALTHOUGH FRIDAY THE 13th is but two days away, the crowd gathered at the Hungry Mind this past Wednesday to have Anne Rice sign copies of her latest book, Memnoch the Devil, is remarkably pedestrian. Of the some 400 fans who show up between 6 and 10 p.m., we spot only a few capes, a dozen pairs of fangs, and some wan girls in crumpled velvet dresses and eyeliner.

Rice, however, doesn't disappoint. Dressed in a ballgown of black velvet and taffeta with a gold tiara, flanked by two handmaidens in burgundy velvet and black, the queen of the dark side presides at a wooden table. A plate of cookies and a can of Tab detract from any altar-like effect, but her fans take no notice. A gaunt man in a full-length cape drops to one knee before Rice and bows low; another kneels before the table and appears to be swearing a loyalty oath by placing his right hand on a copy of Taltos, one of her early books.

Rice hasn't read in public since she had an awful experience doing so in California in 1979, but her signings are so popular that her publisher established regulations governing them. Foremost is that only those who purchase Memnoch at the store receive a ticket for the signing; others take their chances at the end. There's a list of things Rice won't sign (old books, comics, posters, or other collectibles), even though "Rules exist to be broken," notes the author herself. Besides, there are more interesting things to autograph, like leather jackets and throats and belly buttons. "I've signed lots of body parts," she says, and recalls doing her first pair of fangs here in St. Paul.

In this post-literate world, signings can seem grim proof of the further transformation of books into product, but these fans are clearly readers, not camp followers. Impassioned debates break out in line about the existence of God in Rice's novels. At least one fan, Ana Morales, quotes lines by heart, admitting to an "insane" obsession with Rice that stems not from her books' neo-Gothic cast, but rather the idea that in these paranormal worlds, sexuality, gender, and race are simply non-issues.

As we leave, the last fan in line looks fashion-conscious in a funereal way, with slicked-back hair, a charcoal suit and wingtips. It's kind of an Elvis-as-undertaker look. Clutched reverently against his belly is a brown paper bag, presumably full of books.

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