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Ardeur: 14 Writers on the Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter Series, Page 2

Laurell K. Hamilton

  4. Male Characters Are Somewhat Idealized, but Have to Work to Keep Up with the Female Lead

  Movies, TV shows, and novels often portray women as making themselves over in order to attract an inaccessible man, a “Prince Charming.” Indeed, there is a whole category of romance novel known as the “makeover novel.” Anita Blake, on the other hand, ain’t down with makeovers. She’s tough, and makes the men work for her, or triumphs over them. Sometimes this happens in small ways. Coming across a woman in “sheer black stockings held up by garter belts” and a bra/panty set in royal purple, walking along in five-inch spiked heels, inspires Anita to declare:

  “I’m overdressed.”

  “Maybe not for long,” [Phillip] breathed into my hair.

  “Don’t bet your life on it.” I stared up at him as I said it and watched his face crumble into confusion.

  Phillip recovers a moment later, and Anita worries about what she has gotten herself into. But she does triumph, and not only in the end. In a standard fantasy novel, there might be some of this sort of repartee in the early chapters, but only to signal to the reader that by the end of the book the heroine will be in the hero’s bed and ready for a life of non-threatening monogamous domestic-sexual bliss. Attractive and sexually available men weren’t allowed to lose to women in popular fiction, not for long anyway. Even if a woman triumphed over a man intellectually, economically, or rhetorically in a scene or two, by the end of the book the female lead would be humbled and ready to submit to the male lead. Hamilton changed that. Blake calls the shots with her relationships in Guilty Pleasures and continues to remain the ultimately dominant partner across much of the series.

  Despite the fact that women buy the majority of books published in the United States, it is easy for publishers, editors, and writers to not take women seriously. “Women’s fiction,” romance, and other genres—whether read primarily by men or by women—are disreputable, designed to be disposable. The mass market paperback market is treated like a dumping ground for books fit only to be bought on a whim at supermarkets and airports. This is pretty easy to see from Guilty Pleasures—the original cover art in the paperback was downright cartoonish, looking more like an R. L. Stine book than a hard-boiled novel. Blake is not even the size of the male character’s nose, and the logo for the series is strongly reminiscent of Batman’s chest emblem. There’s even an entirely inexplicable back cover blurb from Andre Norton, assuring the reader that while Guilty Pleasures is “a departure from the usual type of vampire tale,” the book is still full of “chills and fun.” Yes. Chills, fun, and a revolution in popular fiction.

  The women’s mass market is not where publishers expect to find new audiences or, for that matter, new genres. Yet Laurell K. Hamilton did exactly that in 1993 with the publication of Guilty Pleasures. While the “serious” writers of the genre spent much of the last decade fuming at those dumb audiences and their taste for kiddy books like Harry Potter or video games, Hamilton showed that fantasy could reach a new and powerful audience of women. All it took was a new and powerful woman character: Anita Blake.

  Nick Mamatas is the author of two novels—Move Under Ground and Under My Roof—and over fifty short stories, some of which have recently been collected in You Might Sleep… . His fiction has been nominated for the Bram Stoker and International Horror Guild awards and as editor of the online magazine Clarkesworld, Nick has been nominated for both the Hugo and World Fantasy awards.

  When I started writing Anita Blake over a decade ago I was a devout Episcopalian, married to the man I lost my virginity to, and whose virginity I took as well. If I had enough self-control to wait then why would I settle for a man who couldn’t be as strong (or that was my thinking at the time)? I totally bought the white-picket-fence soulmate ideal. I was puzzled by people asking me why Anita didn’t have sex in the early books. (Yes, once I got flack for keeping Anita out of people’s beds. I just can’t win on this subject.) Anita didn’t have sex because I believed sincerely that you should wait for marriage.

  Then a funny thing happened, my soulmate and I turned out to be not so compatible. I had questions that my priest couldn’t answer for me. I’d bought the promise of Prince Charming— though I did consider myself Princess Charming rather than the maiden to be rescued, that was never my gig—and the prince turned out to be a nice guy, and I was a nice girl, but two nice people don’t always make a good marriage. Two bad people make a worse one, but oddly both types of marriages often end in the same place: divorce.

  One of the problems from the beginning for my ex and i was sex. We were virgins so we didn’t know what we liked in the bedroom, but the idea that we’d grow together and find our way to happiness didn’t quite work out. Sometimes you find that one half of the couple likes meat and potatoes and the other half likes something a little more exotic. Then what? You’re married, you’ve promised to be monogamous, and you don’t like the same kind of sex. Because it is different from person to person, and anyone who tells you different is doing it wrong, or badly. Every lover is a new country to explore and he or she can bring out things in you that you never even dreamed could be inside you.

  But back to that whole monogamy thing. I lasted over a decade, to my separation when my first husband suggested we both date other people. It was hard to write about Anita finally sleeping with Jean-Claude when my own sex life was not so good, but it was much harder to write about her falling in love with Richard Zeeman, werewolf and all-around Boy Scout. Writing about her love being fresh and new in that way that makes you think anything is possible while the love of my life was ending was one of the most painful things I’d ever done. Blue Moon, where Anita finally admits how she feels about Richard, was a very difficult write for me. By the time Obsidian Butterfly came out and hit the New York Times list, the first of my books to do that, I was either divorced, or on my way, and was out of my house, in a small apartment with my daughter, and on my own for the first time in my adult life. I was also dating for the first time since college and that was interesting. Times had changed and men seemed to assume that a first date with a nice dinner was a guarantee of sex. I actually told one guy who was being less than subtle, “Sure I’ll have dinner with you as long as you understand that the price of dinner is not the price of my virtue.” He lost one point for not understanding what I said, and all his points for not wanting the date then. I wanted to have sex, good sex, but somehow I didn’t feel that most of the men wanting to take me out were going to be good. I wanted good, and wasn’t settling for less.

  I would finally find it. I would finally not be able to say that I’d only been with one man, or even with two. I began to figure out what I wanted, and what good meant to me in the bedroom and on any other flat surface that would hold the weight. Most tables will not, just a caution. I still haven’t done everything I write about, sorry to disappoint, but unlike Anita I haven’t yet met that many men I like and trust yet. I am married again, but we lived together for six months first at my insistence. I was not going to make the same mistake twice. I knew exactly what I was getting this time, no unpleasant surprises. He knew what he was getting into, I made sure of that. I didn’t want any buyer’s remorse in my second marriage.

  While i was rebuilding my life i was still writing Anita. if my first marriage had worked would Anita have stayed a “good girl”? Would she have gone off into the sunset with Richard and the series gone down a more traditional “romance” path? I don’t know. I know that it continues to amaze me that being a woman who likes sex and writes about a woman who likes and enjoys sex still shocks people in the United States. Europe, not so much—they have more problems with the violence—but in the good ol‘ US of A I am still asked to defend my choices as a woman and as a writer.

  I love that Heather Swain compared Anita to Bertha from Jane Eyre, and Britney Spears. I so wouldn’t have thought of that comparison myself, but I like even more her point that where both of the other women lose power through becoming sexual beings, Anit
a gains power. my grandmother wouldn’t let me bring Jonathon home to meet her before we married. I was a fallen woman to her. No, really. But I knew I hadn’t fallen, I’d escaped, not my first marriage but the box that I’d tried to fit myself inside for that marriage. Escaped the expectations of what made a woman “good,” and what made her a “bad” girl. Ever notice that you’re a “good woman,” but a “bad girl”? Because the moment you own your sexuality, society still tries to make you less. You’re not a woman anymore, you’re just a girl. The idea seems to be that you’ll grow up, learn the error of your ways, and then you’ll be a woman again, a good one. Well, I have grown up, and so has Anita, and we’re both just fine the way we are, being not good women, but good people.


  Girls Gone Wild

  Britney, Bertha, and Anita Blake

  (How a Southern Virgin, a Fallen Angel, and an Abstinent Vampire Slayer Became Depraved Women)

  by Heather Swain

  A good story demands transformation, and for Protestant America’s buck, not much beats virtuous Christian girls tumbling into depravation. The mother/whore, the fallen angel, the good girl gone bad rivets readers to the page. When the preacher’s daughter winds up the pregnant homecoming queen (or for that matter, the vice-presidential nominee’s knocked-up teen stands hand in hand with her hunky beau at the Republican National Convention), only the most enlightened don’t snicker behind curled fingers. Even though most modern women think of themselves as liberated and in control of their bodies and libidos, society still has a penchant for demonizing those of the fairer sex who slide down the slope from virgin to sexualized woman. The sweeter the girl and the farther her fall, the better. It’s enough to make a girl ask, Can’t I just like sex?

  The fall of a good woman is a tale that’s kept the printing presses churning for centuries, yet there’s always a deeper story. If you look past all those flaky flashers on the Girls Gone Wild infomercials, you just might find a narrative about the precarious balance of power, sex, and gender politics that has followed women from the Old Testament to US Weekly and everything in between—including the Anita Blake series by Laurell K. Hamilton.

  At the beginning of Hamilton’s series, Anita Blake is a twenty-seven-year-old celibate Christian with a strict moral code about how to use her abilities as a necromancer. Despite her prickly attitude, Anita is a champion for the little guy, even if that guy happens to be a monster sometimes. As she reminds readers over and over again, no matter how much it may rankle her, non-humans have rights in her world. In her work animators frequently cross the line and use their abilities for ill-gotten gains, but Anita balks. She has no problem raising the dead for a profit or killing someone (or something), but only if there’s a good reason. And for Anita, that reason is often that if she doesn’t, someone innocent will get hurt.

  We know that Anita was engaged a few years back but got burned when her fiancé‘s mother turned out to be a closet racist who didn’t want a half-Mexican daughter-in-law. The relationship ended badly and Anita swore off sex before marriage. While her Christian beliefs form much of her moral code, Biblical doctrine isn’t the underpinning for Anita’s stance on premarital sex. Her Christianity has more to do with demarcating herself from the monsters that she kills. Anita believes in an afterlife that holds more promise than earthly immortality and the only way to get to the afterlife is through death. But—as anyone who’s read beyond book ten, Narcissus in Chains, knows— eventually all of that changes and Anita Blake ends up as far from celibate or married (or Heaven, for that matter) as Britney Spears is.

  There are cultural doomsayers who like to believe women such as Anita and the popularity of the stories about them are a problem of the modern age, but that’s nostalgia for you. Some of the stodgiest classics that high schoolers slog through today were the most scandalous literature of their era. Critics dismissed Jane Austen as fluff, accused the Brontës of being coarse, and Simone de Beauvoir may as well have written porn for all the flack she took.

  One of the most enduring depraved women in English literature is Bertha Mason, from Charlotte Brontë‘s novel Jane Eyre.

  By the time plain Jane shows up as the governess for Edward Rochester’s illegitimate French ward, Adele, she has learned to temper her inner raging woman. This is in stark contrast to Rochester’s wife Bertha—his brown sugar mama, who beguiled him with her seductive Creole charm then became a raving lunatic when he brought her back from Jamaica to the civilized world of merry old England where women were expected to submissively devote themselves to their husband’s every need. Now (unbeknownst to Jane) Bertha spends her days locked in an attic, guarded by a drunken maid, Grace Poole, who is equally pissed at the world but chooses to drown her sorrows in a pint of ale rather than go mad.

  One could read Jane Eyre as a warning to women who refuse to acquiesce to their husband’s power. Rochester claims Bertha is “intemperate and unchaste,” a “lunatic” both “cunning and malignant.” He further explains away Bertha’s condition as hereditary. Seems her mother and grandmother lost their marbles back in Jamaica. But I’m not buying it. Once Jane and Rochester reveal their love for one another, Bertha acts far too lucidly for a lunatic, no matter how cunning. After Rochester proposes to Jane, Bertha escapes the attic and enters Jane’s bedroom, where she places Jane’s wedding veil on her own head, then flings it to the ground and tramples it. Whether this is Bertha’s way of warning Jane to stay away from Edward because he’s bad news for women or a warning for Jane to steer clear of Bertha’s man (she is still Edward’s wife, after all) is anybody’s guess. Either way, Bertha’s behavior hardly seems maniacal. Rochester brushes off the incident by blaming poor, drunken Grace Poole.

  (It’s amusing to imagine at this point that literary worlds could collide. What if Anita were plopped down into Jane Eyre as Jane herself? First off, Bertha probably would’ve had her ass whooped for trampling the veil, and secondly, I doubt Anita/Jane would have taken Rochester’s crap. She’d have had him in some judo hold until he admitted the truth. But this is not the case. If anything, Anita has much more in common with Bertha.)

  Bertha’s brother is the one who stops Jane and Rochester’s wedding, by revealing the existence of Bertha. Seems polygamy was frowned upon in England then as now. However, even after the wedding is called off, Rochester tries to persuade Jane to become his mistress (thus tempting her through the door of depravity). To woo Jane, Rochester says she is just what he’s been searching for—the “antipodes of Creole.” Nice guy—sexist and racist, to boot.

  An alternate reading posits that Brontë used Bertha Mason to illustrate what happens when women repress their rage for too long. Bertha’s not the only angry woman in the novel, but she’s the one who lost it all by becoming volatile. Bertha’s volatility flew in the face of the prevailing Victorian notion of the good wife popularized by Coventry Patmore’s 1854 poem “Angel in the House,” which extolled the virtues of a wife who was meek, self-sacrificing, and pure. Bertha was none of those things, plus she was mad as hell. As the feminist scholar Jane Anderson points out, “to be an angry woman in nineteenth-century England is next-door to insanity.”1 Rochester believes Bertha is crazy, but he also links her condition to her lack of chastity. Seems there’s no room in Victorian England for a woman who gets mad and likes to fuck. Anita wouldn’t have stood a chance back then. They’d have locked her up and called her crazy.

  Like most female novelists of her day, Brontë wrote under a pen name, Currer Bell, to disguise her gender. Reviews of Jane Eyre were quite favorable when critics believed a man had written it. But when Currer was revealed to be Charlotte, the criticism turned ugly. A reviewer for the Rambler skewered Brontë for her “relapse into that class of ideas, expressions, and circumstances, which is most connected with the grosser and more animal portion of our nature.” In other words, she had the audacity and poor taste to allude to sex. Not only could women not like to do it without mental illness to blame, they couldn’t eve
n write about women who might.

  Since Anita Blake is an incarnation of the late twentieth-century, Hamilton probably didn’t think she’d have to worry about such priggish reviewers. And at first, sex wasn’t an issue because Anita remains celibate for six books. Not even the super hot Master of the City, vampire Jean-Claude, causes Anita to swoon—which is saying something because Jean-Claude oozes sex. This is not unlike Jane refusing to become Rochester’s mistress. Both Jane and Anita base their refusals on morality. For Jane, her Christian beliefs dictate that sex outside of marriage is a sin. For Anita, her desire to attain a Christian afterlife stops her from bedding a vampire. Anita, unlike Jane, might not believe she’d go to Hell for premarital sex, but she does worry that once she crosses the line from human to monster, she might lose her ability to die and therefore lose her place in Heaven.

  Rochester is Brontë‘s Byronic Man—the kind of guy Lord Byron’s ex-lover Lady Caroline Lamb described as “mad, bad and dangerous to know.” And Jane is madly in love with him, but she won’t compromise her hard-earned virtue. Anita feels similarly about Jean-Claude, although instead of love she feels pure lust. Maybe Jane and Anita could have a support group for Women Who Run with Wolves … and Vampires … and Werewolves, too.

  Later, when Anita falls in love with hunky, thoughtful Richard (who just happens to be a werewolf), she keeps her pants on. It’s one thing for her to turn down a vampire. She knows that getting involved with Jean-Claude necessarily means she’ll wind up his human servant and then it’s bye-bye afterlife. But for Anita to turn down the man she loves unless they’re married is some seriously Victorian thinking. Richard doesn’t mind, though; he simply asks Anita to marry him. And Anita says yes. At first. Until she says no, that is, and eventually gets involved with both Jean-Claude and Richard. Ah, the tumble begins!