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Hopeless Reimantic Presents: Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter (Part Two)

2013 December 5
The columnist after a long, hard day's reading. Not pictured: my creeping sense of despair.

The columnist after a long, hard day’s reading. Not pictured: my creeping sense of despair.

CONTENT NOTE: Discussions herein of sexual assault, dubious consent, mental health treated badly, homophobia, biphobia and slut-shaming. Oh, and plenty of spoilers.

Welcome back to Hopeless Reimantic Presents! Last time we got our teeth into Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter, and I found myself actually saying some pretty positive things about the books. (Honestly, I’m as surprised as you. My fourteen-year-old self is throwing one hell of a sulk.) It’s not the full story, though, and there’s still quite a lot about this series to unpack.

First of all, there’s something I need to make clear: as I said in Part One, I went into this review determined not to talk about the series in relation to Laurell K. Hamilton herself more than was necessary.

I generally hold that unless an author has done something that I can’t reconcile myself to morally, I don’t feel like it’s my business to talk about their personal life when I am supposed to be reviewing their books. And from what I’ve read of Laurell K. Hamilton’s blog posts, she seems kind of entitled and I find her annoying, but…well, let’s just say that as far as I can tell she’s no Orson Scott Card. By and large my problems with the ideas she puts across can easily be expressed in criticism of her work rather than criticism of her.

I ran into some problems with this approach, to be sure; the evidence for Anita Blake being the author’s avatar is pretty compelling. But for the purposes of analysing the text, I’m putting that debate to bed. From here on out, guys, they’re just books, so if anyone is reading this expecting it to be a catalogue of Ms Hamilton’s character flaws, well, it’s not going to be. Hashtag sorry not sorry, or something.

Oh, one more thing: I’m limiting myself to a maximum of one book quotation per point here, because SEVENTEEN BOOKS LORD HAVE MERCY.

Okay! Let’s get started. Where were we? Was I wanting to tear my eyes out? I think I was wanting to tear my eyes out.

…I’m going to need to slip into a more concise format, I think, or that’s just going to be the entire article. Here, then, in no particular order, are My Main Problems with Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter:

1) Anita only has one dating experience that I would describe as fully consensual.

She dates Richard, a werewolf, and then she gets engaged to Richard, and then the vampire she’s been hanging out with decides that he needs “equal time” to win her over, or he’s got no choice but to duel Richard to the death:

“You have dated him for months, and I have said little. Before you marry him, I want equal time.”

“I’ve been trying to avoid you for months. I’m not just going to give in now.”

“Then I will start the music, and we will dance. Even if I die, and you die. Richard will die first, I can promise you that. Surely dating me is not a fate worse than death.”

- Laurell K. Hamilton, The Lunatic Cafe, p.221.

(I’m not so sure about that, dude.)

There’s also the shapeshifter leopard who basically just rapes her (it’s okay, she enjoys it) and then is her mate and it’s all fine, and the other shapeshifter leopard who is Terrifyingly Submissive at her until she gives in (more on that later). These are her four main men and, last I checked, the various loves of her life.

There are a couple of things at play here, and I can intellectually grasp them both. One is that an easy way to add darkness and tension to a story is to have your main character interact with a world which doesn’t recognise their morality, which is how we get all those kind of racist “I was ravished by a barbarian/sheikh/otherwise rich and dark-skinned man” stories (remind me to talk to you about The Panther And The Pearl some time). And that’s not necessarily a bad thing in a fantasy world where you are dealing with beings that might have witnessed the greater part of human history. I do take the point that you might well not care so much about pesky human morals when you’ve been living off blood or sex or male tears or whatever for about a thousand years.

And, credit where it’s due, Laurell K. Hamilton does make some effort to deal with the effect this is having on Anita; she agonises, at least initially, over the detachment she feels from her humanity as she gets drawn deeper into the preternatural world. Hamilton doesn’t really take that conflict anywhere, which is a shame because it makes the whole thing feel a bit too insta-conflict for my liking, but she tries.

The considerably more disturbing thing is the second point, which is that this is supposed to be hot. We’ve touched on this before in the column on alpha males, but one thing that I think I missed there is actually what I find grossest about this particular fantasy – that being threatened or coerced, either physically or by other means, into being with someone is supposed to be evidence of part of a woman’s power and mystique. It’s not that these guys are proto-rapists, no – it’s that women are so damned irresistible that they overwhelm men’s judgement and common sense. Basically, they are the full moon to every man’s boner werewolf (link NSFW).

There is an element of pick-up artistry that states that when you overcome LMR (last minute resistance, usually to sex) you’re actually doing the woman a favour, because you’re taking the responsibility out of her hands. She can’t be a slut, because she’s not in control; you’re preserving her purity while still giving her the sex she wants. That is gross and messed-up and a terrible bit of rape apologia, but it’s the same kind of logic that I’m seeing here; it’s a way to skirt around having Anita own her own sexuality. She can’t help it! She’s just got this energy!

And on that note…

2) There’s hella slut-shaming.

It took me a while to realise this. I started out with Danse Macabre, but the more of these books I read, the more I became convinced that having lots of sex was only okay for Anita Blake, and by extension her harem of men, because Anita Blake has sex because she somehow has to – which is a pretty icky sentence to begin with, by the way.

Anita starts out the series not believing in pre-marital sex. She ends up having quite a lot of it, but there’s never a sense that she revises that belief, which would be really interesting if it didn’t have such weird implications for the other women in the books. Anita has sex because of deep love, a deep sense of obligation (erk) and/or because she is a succubus. Metaphysical events or very strong emotion compel her to bone, and the fact that she ends up enjoying it immensely is somehow a coincidence, which is possibly the strangest permutation of the forced seduction trope I’ve ever seen.

And even that would be okay, were it not for the fact that every single other woman in the books who has sex for such a frivolous reason as the fact she just enjoys it is painted as either a) shallow and heinous, b) mentally unstable, or c) both.

Which brings me neatly to:

3) There is gratuitous use of mental illness as a plot device.

Basically every villain is crazy. And there’s Nathaniel, her second shapeshifter love interest, who is super-submissive and utterly traumatised by his past and hey, did we mention he’s kinky too and can take more pain than anybody else? Because he’s damaged?

Urgh. If I had to hazard, I’d say this follows a lot of the same logic that we see in point 1), but let’s just be honest here; this isn’t just offensive, it’s lazy writing, in the same way that blaming serious criminal offences or terrorism on mental illness is lazy journalism. It’s a way to avoid grappling seriously with what could actually be some pretty compelling issues and it’s depressing me. So let’s move on to our final point:

4) Gender essentialism and homophobia.

Hoo boy.

This is a pretty interesting one, actually, because the characters around Anita Blake actually call her on some of it, and it doesn’t work. I skipped a quotation for mental illness and point 2, so we can have two in here because it’s my column and I make the rules.

I feel like I need to include this one because it’s in Shutdown, which was actually only released a few weeks ago – and, again, in fairness to Ms Hamilton, releasing it the way she did was a nice idea (it was a freebie because of the US government shutdown, in solidarity with government workers who were off without pay).

The story itself is interesting purely because the premise is so flawed: Richard, Anita Blake’s erstwhile lover, now-Top, is engaged to another woman, and apparently has chosen only now to mention to her that he’s poly and wants to see other people for wild kinky sex. His fiancee has a problem with this – not, you understand, because somehow they have got as far as being engaged without this ever having come up, but because she’s a crazy jealous harpy who can’t wrap her narrow mind around non-monogamy or sex that isn’t vanilla.

I liked precisely nobody in this short, but Anita least of all:

I hadn’t had to endure this much small talk in years. We’d learned a lot about one another, but unless we were looking to date, I didn’t see the point.

Men understood that sometimes you didn’t want to smile, but you weren’t mad either, while women expect other women to be pleasant, and if you’re not they think you don’t like them. There are so many reasons that most of my friends are men.

- Laurell K. Hamilton, Shutdown, pp.6-8

Oh, Ms Blake, you charmer. I could quote this little piece all day, actually, because it shows you a lot about the mess of contradictions that is gender portrayal in these books, but – you guys, I can’t. I just can’t. I think my brain is leaking out of my ears.

Let’s finish up, then, with one final quote, and my witty and insightful riposte.

Look, okay, this isn’t even close to the most homophobia I’ve ever seen in fiction, or the worst. I’ll give you that I really do think this was… misguided, but well-intentioned. For what that’s worth. But the fact remains that I don’t think I’ve seen a non-heterosexual character in the Anita Blake series who wasn’t sex-obsessed, mentally ill (see above) and/or just plain old mean.

Anita Blake herself later gets a girlfriend and starts identifying as “heteroflexible”, which is a completely valid label that I don’t wish to detract from, but in this case reads to me sort of like she’s just started adding “no homo” to the end of all of her sentences about fancying women.

And then there’s…well, this. For context: some of Anita’s male partners are bisexual. She has just had a threesome with one of them and another man, which she feels gives her incontrovertible proof that he is, in fact, also into guys. The other men around her do not seem bothered by this revelation. Which prompts the following:

“In college I had a friend, a girlfriend, a girl who was a friend. She and I went shopping together. Slept over at each other’s dorm rooms. I undressed in front of her because she was a girl. Then toward the end of college she told me she was gay. We were still friends, but she went into that guy category for me. You don’t undress in front of people who see you as a sex object. You don’t sleep with them, or…oh, hell.” I looked up at Micah. “Won’t it weird you out to sleep nude beside him now?”

- Laurell K. Hamilton, Danse Macabre, p.188.

Funny story: my original response to this paragraph was a lot more colourful. I’m going to try and discuss it briefly, coherently and without expletives.

I’m not sure which bothers me more, here: the idea that being attracted to members of one gender means you’re attracted to all members of one gender, or Anita’s assumption that everybody around her is going to have the same weird hang-ups as she is. I will say, though, that reading this made me briefly see red. You can come hang out with my friends, Anita Blake’s token lesbian college friend! They’ll hug you! Even the straight women!

What I’m struggling to articulate is why, exactly, this paragraph was the exact point that I fully lost patience with the series, because in context it’s not actually so bad. Anita is laughed at for her small-mindedness, and they all go to sleep naked and it’s fine.

Except…

Except that this never really goes away. There’s a kind of false normal here that you’re not supposed to stray from, and then even when Anita does, all that happens it that it gets this veneer of “exotic sexy sex stuff” that makes the books transgressive and naughty. It doesn’t read like a straight-up sex fantasy. I definitely don’t buy that it’s an honest exploration of sexuality in fiction. I’m not even sure that it’s Laurell K. Hamilton bragging about her sex life with extra fantasy elements.

The best way I can describe it is that it reads like a zoo exhibit, if people who have a lot of sex could actually literally be zoo exhibits. It doesn’t challenge normative attitudes, is what I’m saying. It takes the stuff Ms Hamilton describes as “too underground for the mainstream” and sticks it behind a thick layer of societal assumptions-reinforced glass, so that you can look at it without getting your brain too into all the sex stuff. And then you can go home at the end feeling like you’ve learned something. And perhaps a little icky.

And that brings us to the end of Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter. If you enjoyed this column and want me to do more like it, consider dropping me a comment, because the experience was…

…it was…

…it’s been an experience, guys. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to read something else. Something gentle, with no sex in it whatsoever. Maybe some Catherynne M. Valente.

See you next time!

15 Responses leave one →
  1. Matthew Wiltshire permalink
    December 5, 2013

    Excelent! More please.

  2. December 5, 2013

    Thank you for reading all that stuff, so that I won’t have to. I doff my hat to your stamina. I’d never previously heard of Laurell K. Hamilton or her work. But here’s a thing…

    At one time, I read quite a lot of Victorian vampire stories. They seem to have worked on this basis: “Since we’re Victorians, we can’t write about sex (obviously) so let’s present it in disguised form as blood sucking.”

    That’s weird, but appears to make some kind of perverse sense. But, now that books include sex, does it make any sort of sense also to feature vampirism?

    That’s something I wondered with regard to the Twilight series (of which I’ve heard, but haven’t read). My puzzlement also seems to apply to Laurell K. Hamilton’s books.

    • Mina Kelly permalink
      December 5, 2013

      I read Varney the Vampire recently. The second half* is very much about sex and men being unable to help themselves. Over and over Varney meets a nice girl, can’t stop himself from nomming on her, then tried to marry her (while all her family insist she should go along with it, because she’s been ruined for other men). While Dracula and Carmilla etc are vaguely subtle about it, Varney really hits you with the rape analogy. And because it’s Victorian, Varney is portrayed as broadly sympathetic – if he could get a woman to love him and marry him, then he’d be free of his curse, but he just can’t stop himself from biting all the young ladies – which is a character trope that still appears in paranormal romances today.

      Blood is still very much about sex, but now it’s about the sex you’re not meant to want. Kinky sex, gay sex, rape fantasies (and straight up rape) etc. The Sookie Stackhouse books really work this angle. AB uses it too, but whereas most PNR usually gets its happy ending from “it’s okay if you find someone who also wants it” AB seems to really get stuck on “it’s okay because she doesn’t want it really”, which just makes for massively uncomfortable reading.

      *The first half is much, much better, similar to Rymer’s other famous work, A String of Pearls (or, a it’s better known, Sweeney Todd). But then he went bankrupt, and well…

      • Rei Hab permalink
        December 5, 2013

        I think Mina’s response to this comment is pretty much dead-on, Pet, but I will add this, just because you mentioned it: there’s not actually a lot of bloodsucking in Twilight. The vampire aspect of it honestly isn’t much of a feature at all until the fourth book (and even then, you could pretty much switch them out for any other paranormal creature you’ve authorially modified to be invincible, impossibly beautiful and sparkly).

        • Miranda permalink*
          December 5, 2013

          I have always felt that the vamps in Twilight were presented much more like fae than undead. Edward and his ethereally pretty family come over more like a weird iteration of the Elfin Bridegroom trope than walking corpses.

          • December 6, 2013

            Mina, I can only regard you with awe. You managed not only to read the whole of Varney, but to keep your critical faculties attuned throughout. Wow! I started reading Varney but, after a while, took to looking at the pictures, and skipping the text. Occasionally (but not often) a picture was sufficiently interesting for me to read a little bit to find out what was going on. I also read the ending to see whether it was as I’d heard. (“Crumbs!” was my reaction. “It really does end like that. Who’d have thought?”)

            Rei and Miranda, thank you you for cluing me up on Twilight. I will freely admit to being fully half a century too old for Twilight. I hadn’t guessed that vampires could sink into such a debased form.

  3. Kirsty permalink
    December 5, 2013

    I really enjoyed this piece, and it reminded me of all the LKH I have read in the past. I like to read erotica, and sometimes I don’t even mind if it’s bad erotica, because it’s still entertaining. But there was definitely a point where I couldn’t read any more of her books (I also read the first few fairy books of another series of hers-I was home with my Mum, they were on the shelf, don’t judge me!). A major point for me was actually all the repetitiveness, I got sick of hearing about people who could ‘benchpress a Toyota’. And then it became more than that, I actually started to realise that Anita was a hypocrite. She said one thing, did another, and there was a never a problem with it. And even if someone did have a problem with it, if they were a guy they would get over it because they wanted to jump her bones. I think you’ve done an excellent job of summing these books up in a short space, and I really enjoyed the links to LKH’s and Anne Rice’s rants. I had to laugh when LKH implied that her books make you think-I was never thinking when I read it, I can tell you that! And the link to The Pervocracy was excellent as well. Well done!

    • Rei Hab permalink
      December 5, 2013

      Thanks! I’m really glad you enjoyed it.

      I struggled with the repetitive nature of the books as well; in perfect fairness to LKH, I think part of the reason it hit me especially hard is that I was reading a lot of books from a long-running series back to back, which I feel is kind of similar to marathoning a TV show that used to run once a week and getting annoyed by all the mandatory bits of set-up they do at the beginning of each episode because you’re seeing them all at once. She doesn’t half lay it on thick, though. And after a while there are just no new characters anymore. Maybe that would have bothered me less if I’d read each book as it was released, though. I guess I feel like in a long-running series the repetitive setup serves a purpose at the point of publication, but it doesn’t really reward back-to-back reading.

      Yes, Anita Blake is a complete hypocrite. She’s…I don’t know, a lot about her rubs me up the wrong way. I’m totally fine with characters who just aren’t very nice people, but she’s so…*smug* about it.

    • Rei Hab permalink
      December 5, 2013

      (And also, I really don’t think I’m in any position to judge anyone else’s choice of reading material. ;-))

  4. Mina Kelly permalink
    December 5, 2013

    I can’t remember when i gave up on AB. Book seven, I think? I was getting bored of the sex, the absence of the earlier detective plots (when Anita actually had skills and a life beyond sex) but mostly it was the hypocrisy. The fact that it’s okay for Anita to have lots of sex because she has to, but for anyone else it’s immoral. That it’s okay for men to be gay or bisexual because it’s hot, but not for women because they might find Anita attractive. There this weird Catholic morality that pervades everything without actually being put to any use within the plots. Anita never grows or learns or changes; despite her behaviour she still holds precisely the same moral values she had before she ever got dragged into everything and applies them to everyone except herself.

    • Rei Hab permalink
      December 5, 2013

      To be perfectly honest with you, I found some of the earlier books kind of boring. This is maybe because I’m not that big on detective novels; I did enjoy the “monster of the week” setup to an extent, but…well, I think part of it might have been that, as I said above, I was reading them all at once, and they all have a very similar structure. After the first couple that started to drag.

      Yeah, I think that was what ultimately left me with a bad taste in my mouth about the books. I think the author sees them as major gamechangers in paranormal romance, but they’re really not.

  5. Clouds permalink
    December 5, 2013

    I would really love to see you do a compare and contrast between this and the Canadian TV series Lost Girl. For the uninitiated, Lost Girl is a monster-of-the-week affair centring around a succubus PI, but it’s a lot more interesting and sensitively written in many ways than LKH.

  6. Nessical Ness permalink
    December 5, 2013

    I have great swathes of respect for you after reading this, because your brain is still intact.

    Marvellous article, I vote Jilly Cooper for the next lot of reading ;)

  7. Ludi permalink
    December 6, 2013

    I really, really like your conclusion in this piece, and it reminds me of a conversation about Fifty Shades (and I’m sure the trope comes up al over the place) about Gayle Rubin’s charmed circle – expanding the definitions of acceptable forms of sex just enough so that it can be presented as naughty and sexy, while reinforcing shutting out other unacceptable forms in comparison to make the mild stuff more palatable to the mainstream. Like assimilationism. Here’s the article about it that explains it better, if you like – http://sexgeek.wordpress.com/2012/09/20/crazy-and-criminal-on-those-damn-books-and-why-they-matter/

  8. December 31, 2013

    Consider this comment dropped because I love this article.

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