I don’t do a lot of traditional book reviews and this isn’t going to be one of them, I guess, more like thoughts on the book while explaining why I think it’s so great. Maybe that is a traditional review. Whatever. It’s morning and I’m not awake yet.
So I’m re-reading the ENTIRE Anita Blake Vampire Hunter Series from book one to infinity because I last stopped reading the series at book 13 (or something, can’t remember) and got into other things and then Laurell K. Hamilton’s Merry Gentry series.
By the time I wanted to pick the Anita books up again I’d forgotten half of what happened and knew I needed to start from the very beginning to get the full immersive experience.
I picked up Guilty Pleasures back in January and I was going to try to finish all of them by the end of this year. Seeing as it’s already August and I’ve just started book 4, I probably won’t.
But I wanted to talk about what I’ve read so far, specifically in the context of how art imitates life and how I connected with the second book in the Anita Blake series, The Laughing Corpse.
Trigger warning: Don’t read below the cut if you don’t want spoilers or expositions on violence, gore, and rape in literature.
I had forgotten how violent The Laughing Corpse is. It’s not a problem for me, I love violence in books. (I also write very violent books.)
A little bit of background:
The Laughing Corpse was published back in 1994 and is the second book in the Anita Blake Series. I first picked up Guilty Pleasures, book 1, with my high school bestie in 2002.
At that time the only other horror literature I’d been exposed to were the classics: Edgar Allen Poe and H.P. Lovecraft. I’d read Anne Rice but found Interview with the Vampire too serious (much like Louis himself). Reading Anne Rice, for me, is like reading Herman Melville. I love it (some of it in Anne Rice’s case) but I have to be in the mood for long, plodding tones and slow, plodding plots. I’d also read Amelia Atwater-Rhodes and found her books entertaining and the characters compelling but they were very light and fluffy for me.
When I was on a summer job, one of my coworkers suggested I read Bloody Bones. Bloody Bones is book 5 so when I picked it up I was totally lost. But then my high school best friend bought a copy of Guilty Pleasures and said I needed to read it. So I did. And here’s why I loved it: Anita was real. I could hear her, see what she saw, smell what she smelled, feel what she felt. Laurell K. Hamilton makes her books like you’re plugging into the matrix. You get to live the book right along with the characters.
This was pre-Twilight. This was before everyone thought vampires and black nail polish was cool. I was more of the stereotypical goth girl than my friend but where I’d always been an “outsider” at my school, all the “cool kids” avoided her because she was new, she’d just moved to Arkansas from Florida and, as Southern preppy high schools are also incestuous institutions that follow the “keep-to-your-own-kind” paradigm, no one wanted to hang out with her except the other “outsiders.” This was before facebook took off and this was before anti-bullying regulations were set in place. We were no strangers to harassment and discrimination.
We weren’t accepted in our limited version of society, we had family problems at home, we struggled with addiction and alcohol abuse, we had unreliable boyfriends, but we could escape into books.
Here’s an image for you: underaged teenage girls sitting on a wooden deck overlooking the woods and the Arkansas River smoking cigarettes and reading Guilty Pleasures aloud to each other. At night. She was team Richard, I was team Jean-Claude. Guess who won 😉
I felt like Anita was someone I could look up to and maybe even be friends with, she struggled with thinking about religion and spirituality the same way I did. I wanted to be just like her and have a job when I graduated college (that didn’t happen but whatever, that’s another story). I wanted to have meaningful relationships with boyfriends (that also didn’t happen but whatever, that’s another story).
I found Anita and the rest of Hamilton’s cast of characters more real than any other characters I’d read at the time (except the wolves in Jack London’s books). And I believe that they are so real because of the way Hamilton portrays daily life in her books.
In The Laughing Corpse, a killer zombie murders two families. But it doesn’t just kill them, it rips them apart and eats them.
You see a child with it’s stomach and intestines torn out. You see another child’s severed hand. You see a blood soaked baby blanket and possibly the little blob of meat that was left over from the baby.
You see ribs, you see ball joints, you see organs.
And that right there is my bread and butter. Because it’s real. When someone is murdered it’s not pretty, it’s not neat and tidy; it’s visceral and in-your-face. Showing this in literature, and the characters’ human reactions to this violence, are extremely important because somewhere in the world, this scene has happened. Minus the killer zombie, of course. But out here in the real world, a very unfortunate person met an extremely unfair end.
Daily life, for most people, is not filled with violence and death. But there are other bad things out there. You know the saying, “Everyone is going through something.” Hamilton not only gives me an escape from my “something” but makes me feel normal for having “something” to go through instead of feeling like a weird freak who can’t get her shit together (that’s another story for another time).
In the afterword to The Laughing Corpse, Hamilton writes, “Once upon a time it bothered me that I don’t think like the majority of people. That I walk through a world where the worst can happen, and often does. That I see danger where most people see nothing.”
This isn’t about being an alarmist or living in fear of all the things that can kill you, this, I feel, is about acknowledging and respecting the nightmares and, most importantly, showing that you can live through them.
When I re-read this book I’d forgotten that Anita was almost raped. Not by a vampire or any other supernatural creature, but a person. A human bodyguard for a human villain. Thankfully though, she wasn’t raped. She got free and kicked the shit out of that guy. But it still happened. A man put his hands on her.
I’m going to say something that you might not like. That attempted rape scene was important.
Not just for character development or plot, not because I like reading the horror genre, but because atrocities need to be looked at and acknowledged.
I didn’t like seeing Anita in that situation. I cheered when she got out of it. Anita was also tortured (physically beaten as incentive to do what the bad guy wanted) in that scene and yes, Hamilton could have chosen to not go that far–or faded the scene to black the same way romance authors will sometimes do sex scenes–but she did and I’m glad she did because, again, telling stories where REAL things happen is important.
I could look at Anita and say, “Wow, bad things happened to her.” Bad things happened to me too; making a connection with a character through a shared experience like that helped me not feel so alone, helped me function as a real human being.
In interviews and at book signings Hamilton talks about how fans will come up to her and say “Thank You” for making role models and heroes for them to look up to. She’s had people tell her that if Nathaniel could get therapy then so could they. And that’s a beautiful thing. And that probably wouldn’t have happened if Hamilton didn’t write the dark aspects of the human condition.
But it’s not all gloom and doom. Anita has loving relationships with people, Anita is happy with herself (most of the time) and if she can do that then so can I.
The Laughing Corpse ends with the bad guys defeated but the mystery of life is still sitting there waiting to be solved. Anita solved one problem but she has others to deal with in book 3. That’s life too. Even when things are going good something will happen to turn things upside down. Anita handles those things like a human. She gets pissed off, she gets sad (sometimes), but she always solves the problem and carries on with her life. Even when it hurts.
Again, if she can do it, so can I. And that’s why I love the Anita Blake Vampire Hunter series.