Hopeless Reimantic Presents: Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter (Part One)
Early December. The leaves have fallen, the sky has darkened. Rain lashes the windows. Doors yawn open before you; blackness whispers chill secrets into your hair, and your worst nightmares take shape ‘twixt the smoky trees, taunting, menacing. Waiting.
Basically, at the time of writing it was the month with Hallowe’en in it, and I hate to waste a perfectly good theme. So without further ado, allow me to welcome you to Hopeless Reimantic Presents! In this column I’ll be going in-depth into the works of specific authors who are in – or cross over into – the romance genre. In the spirit of the season, I thought we’d take a look at the stuff of nightmares: let’s talk about Laurell K. Hamilton. More specifically, let’s talk about Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter, one of the weirdest and most controversial series I’ve ever interacted with.
First of all, a slightly complicated preface. Before I ever picked up an Anita Blake book I knew quite a lot about them, and while I’d like to stress that I’m here to talk about the books and not Ms Hamilton herself I feel like I’ll be remiss if I don’t at least give a quick summary of some common controversies surrounding the series and its author.
I first became aware of Laurell K. Hamilton via Anne Rice. Well, not Anne Rice herself, but the now-infamous Anne Rice Author Tantrum, which I arrived at a couple of years after the fact and consequently saw linked to…Laurell K. Hamilton’s similarly poor handling of criticism (link to a Wikispace article, as the original blog post has vanished).
Hamilton isn’t quite as vitriolic in her I Can’t Believe Not Everyone Likes My Book-ness, but she’s still pretty irritatingly condescending, although I do agree with her that if someone’s taking their book up to you so that you can sign it, then opening with “I hated this one and what you’ve done with the series” is kind of poor form.
She’s since made a name for herself on Twitter for calling her critics sexually frustrated, jealous wannabes, and a name for herself among readers and other writers for not handling criticism well and shamelessly inserting herself into her books. The LKH_lashouts community on LiveJournal keeps a nice catalogue of her various posts, blogs and misdemeanours, and I’ve been on it all day, which might explain why my brain is starting to feel too heavy for my skull.
As a lot of you probably aren’t familiar with what makes the Anita Blake series so divisive in the first place, I’ll give you a quick, neutral description to start us off (don’t worry, we’ll get to the incoherent ranting later). The Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series started out as a kind of monster-of-the-week dealio, with some romance in it but not a huge deal. The romantic – and sexual – content of the books got a lot more page time as the series went on, and the tenth book in the series, Narcissus In Chains, saw a metaphysical event turn Anita Blake into a succubus who needs sex to survive.
Subsequent books are arguably more “paranormal erotica” than anything else, and the last time I checked in with Ms Blake she was in a polyamorous relationship with five guys and happy as a clam. This, and the fact that a lot of the events of Anita Blake’s love life seem to mirror the author’s, have led to accusations that Laurell K. Hamilton is using Anita to brag about how much sex she’s having, and have turned a lot of readers off the series.
The upshot of all this is that this time three months ago, your intrepid romance novel enthusiast knew of Laurell K. Hamilton and had formed a pretty strong impression of the Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter books – but had never actually picked one up. So when the call came around for horror-themed posts for autumn and winter, and I decided to take them on, I was…nervous, but excited. Here was a series with a strong female lead which had lost popularity as the erotic content had upped and the quality of the writing had deteriorated – the stuff of feminist bad-porn-lovers’ wildest dreams, right?
All that given due consideration, I wanted to approach the series with an open mind, but I didn’t want to actually buy any of the books because a) this isn’t somebody I want to give money to and b) there are approximately bleventeen of the damned things and I don’t have a job. I put out a call on my social medias for donations to the cause.
Three weeks later, I had seventeen Laurell K. Hamilton books. And with various deadlines coming up? I had a week to read them in.
Some would have panicked. Some would have faltered. Some would have done several noisy circuits of the living room, sobbing about the hilarious injustice of life. Some would have said, “Well, that’s okay, I don’t have to read all of these, I’m not that much of a masochist”, picked out a selection, and called it a day.
I did all of these things except the last one. Here’s how I got on. The following are my initial notes:
Initial thoughts on LKH: The Anita Blake series is not as bad as I thought it would be for the reasons I was told I would hate it, but it is creepingly terrible in ways I didn’t really anticipate.
Day 3 of LKH immersion. Eyes gritty. Legs heavy. Some subcranial tenderness. Seem to have “What Does The Fox Say” stuck in my head.
Laurell K. Hamilton Immersion Week, Day 5. Sore throat, some muscle ache. Have been reading some of the earlier books, which are much better even if I don’t like murder mysteries that much. I’m sad that her deep love of stuffed penguins seems to be worn away by all the sexy sexy sex she starts having in a book or so’s time. What happened to Sigmund, Anita? Did Sigmund mean nothing to you? Developing protective feelings for all penguins.
LKH Immersion Week, Day 6. I…I just don’t even know anymore, you guys. Just leave me alone. I’m going shopping for leather.
By the end of the week I’d contracted a stomach virus, although the medical jury is still out on whether or not this was a symptom of my burgeoning lycanthropy. The next full moon isn’t until December 17th, so I guess we’ll find out then.
This is going to be a difficult bit of analysis to write, because – well, I read seventeen books, you guys. I’m having to be extremely choosy about which books I quote and why. Maybe I’ll upload a list of Supplementary Supportive Material, but, um, I wouldn’t count on it.
Broadly speaking, dear readers, here’s the thing: I didn’t hate these books the way I was expecting to.
Look, fourteen-year-old me assumed I’d hate these books because they were a self-insert Mary-Sue-type series that ended with the main character having far too much ridiculously improbable sex and being the best at everything. Fourteen-year-old me was also scared of non-monogamy, kind of selective in her feminism and a lot more judgmental. Fourteen-year-old me would probably have written this bit of the article in a far more entertainingly vitriolic manner.
Unfortunately, you’re stuck with twenty-three-year-old me, and twenty-three-year-old me doesn’t have a problem with any of these things on principle. Look, okay, self-insert Mary-Sues aren’t my cup of tea, and I can see why a sharp rise (hurr) in sexual content in a series which basically had no sexual content at all for the first four books might turn readers off – but those two facts don’t make either of those authorial decisions inherently wrong.
For all her flaws (and she has many – and I’m not just talking about the fun kind of flaws that make a character seem real, either) Anita Blake has some nice bits of refreshingly feminist outlook. One of the best story arcs in the series comes in Danse Macabre, when she has a pregnancy scare. She talks it over with all of her partners, one of them says he’ll stay at home and raise the baby so that she can keep working, and another says he’ll marry her:
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph, Richard, is that all you think it takes to fix this? Marry me so the baby won’t be a bastard, and it’s all better?”
“I don’t see anyone else offering marriage,” he said.
“It’s because they know I’ll say no. Every other man in my life understands that this isn’t about marriage. It’s about the fact that we may have created a little person. And we need to do whatever is best for that little person. How will marrying anyone make this work better? … What do you think having a baby will do to me, Richard? Do you think just because I have a baby I’ll become this other person? This softer, gentler person? Is that what you think?”
– Laurell K. Hamilton, Danse Macabre, pp. 162-164
Whatever else I think about Anita Blake the character, I wholeheartedly rooted for her throughout this story arc. Would it have been unrealistic for her to keep being a federal agent who has all the sex and also a baby? Sure, maybe. But this is a fantasy series and clearly delineated as such, so if that’s too much suspension of disbelief for you then allow me to refer you to Scott Lynch.
Regarding the non-monogamy…well, there are not a lot of mainstream series that won’t even touch non-monogamy with a bargepole, and twenty-three-year-old me quite likes the normalisation of non-mono and monogamous relationships here. What I’m basically trying to say here is that if Laurell K. Hamilton wants to chronicle her sexy adventures as Badass The Vampire Slayer (And Harem) and people want to read it, I’m honestly okay with that. I wish she’d be more honest about what her books are (she seems to do a lot of If You Don’t Like It You’re Just Too Mainstream For My Awesomeness-ing), but – whatever. Fine.
However. The fact that I didn’t hate these books for the reasons I’d assumed doesn’t mean that they in no way made me want to tear my own eyes out. Unfortunately this article is skittering dangerously close to its word limit, so stand by for Part Two, in which I attempt to explain why cleanly and concisely but inevitably deteriorate into wordless, feeble sobbing.
Can’t wait! See you then.