Anne Rice

Anne Rice, author of the The Vampire Chronicles, speaks to her fans at C2E2 at the McCormick Place in Chicago, Sunday, April 15, 2012. Rice is one of the best known writers of vampire literature. (Heather Charles, Chicago Tribune / April 14, 2012)

Anne Rice hasn’t written about vampires in almost a decade.

But for many fans, she remains the authority on the undead. So when she made an appearance at the Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo, a gathering of comic, fantasy and science fiction aficionados earlier this month at McCormick Place, people had pressing questions.

For example: What happens if a vampire bites a zombie?

Zombies, which have challenged vampires as the monsters du jour, were on lots of people's minds.

Rice, petite and pretty in a black turtleneck and brown velvet jacket, and looking much younger than her 70 years, appeared thoughtful.

"It would be catastrophic," she concluded, because vampire blood would make a zombie much stronger. "But the vampire would just spit the zombie blood out."

Much has changed since Rice, in 1976, published "Interview with the Vampire," the first of 10 novels that would become "The Vampire Chronicles." Though her books eventually were game-changers in the vampire genre, gripping mainstream audiences with glamorous portrayals of lonely and gifted outcasts, most people initially "sneered and snickered" at her treatment of vampires as sympathetic souls, she said. "I got so much criticism and contempt and dismissal."

These days, you can't throw a wooden stake without hitting a sultry vampire series on the bestsellers list. And with "True Blood"returning to HBO for a fifth season in June, the final movie of the "Twilight" series due out in November, Johnny Depp starring in the upcoming film adaptation of the 1960s vampire soap opera "Dark Shadows," and horror heavyweights such as "Pan's Labyrinth" director Guillermo del Toro contributing to the booming canon of vampire literature, the ongoing vampire craze, much like its fanged superstars, refuses to die.

"I think right now we're living in a golden age for fantasy writers, for speculative fiction, for paranormal romance," said Rice, whose new book, "The Wolf Gift," marks her return to the world of supernatural monsters after taking a decade off from the undead to focus on her Catholic faith (which she has since renounced).

Though she's currently enthralled by her werewolf character, Reuben — a strong superhero type who strives to use his powers for good — Rice said she might one day revisit her vampires, including her beloved Lestat.

"I wouldn't say no to anything at this point," Rice said. "I feel like someone who is returning from a vacation. I find I have new ideas and new attitudes."

Why consumers have latched onto fantasy fiction, and vampires in particular, has been the subject of some academic exploration.

A common theory is that, during times of great stress, it offers an escape, said Sue Schopf, associate dean at Harvard University Extension School, who teaches a course called The Vampire in Literature and Film, which she launched in 2010. Vampires, in particular, indulge our longing for eternal youth and the wish to cheat death, she said.

While zombies serve as a metaphors for epidemics and mankind devastating itself through technology, tapping into the real fears of today, Schopf said, vampires take us away from it (though stories of apocalyptic vampire viruses are often more zombie-like).

The ancient, deliberate, seductive nature of many vampires, even in the diabolical Dracula types, adds to their appeal. The vampire's mouth against a neck drips with sexual imagery, and the skulking bedside visits — often eagerly received with a heaving bosom — have long been a symbol for forbidden sexuality.

"It's about the erotic longings in human beings, the longing to be desired and nuzzled and sucked," Schopf said. The recent rise of the vampire bodice-ripper may be the ultimate manifestation of that desire.

Sometimes their appeal is more about power than sex.

Mae Panzica, 22, who picked up her first Anne Rice novel at a church book sale when she was a teenager, said the vampires made her feel strong during a challenging adolescence, as they represented that "you have to take the cards you're dealt and decide what you're going to do with them."

"I loved the idea that the vampires could still persevere, that they could choose to use their power to be good or evil," said Panzica, a graduate student at St. Louis University studying education and opera study.