The Laughing Corpse — Laurell K. Hamilton

Sometimes? LKH makes me really really angry. Why? Because she takes these pretty standard tropes re: the angsty mulatta, tosses in some vampires/angry faeries, and voila! People love it.

I’m gonna do a close read of The Laughing Corpse, one of the first books in the Anita Blake series. After this, I’ll probably do a follow up with Obsidian Butterfly, to talk about what almost-getting-it-right looks like.

Rightio then. We begin the story with a monster; it dashes in, kills a family, and Anita (a short, tough-as-nails preternatural expert) gets called in to help the police solve the crime. She’s got a  dead line: the scary-scary is probably going to have to kill again, and soon.

We’re reminded of Anita’s mixed race status from the get-go:

My hair and eyes match, black hair, eyes so dark they look black. They are my mother’s Latin darkness. But my skin is pale, my father’s Germanic blood. (14)

A curvy trail of rationales leads Anita to the door of Dominga, the “grandmother of voodoo,” a woman who’s feared all over because of her magickal skills. She’s also incredibly evil, and will do anything for money, including some really unscrupulous things involving human sacrifice. She’s everything Anita’s not… including totally Mexican. Anita describes her as “the Mexican grandmother of [her] nightmares” (265), and Anita’s differences from her (Anita’s Christianity, her inability to speak Spanish, and her scruples) are all emphasized as crucial signifiers demarcating the line between a particular type of “Latin darkness” and the deracinated, supernatural cowboy identity Anita performs as the Executioner of the undead.

This mixed identity is constantly reiterated throughout, and constantly apologized for. The source of Anita’s ability to raise the dead is the source of that which can damn her.  Even her matrilineal grandmother encourages her to identify more with her white ancestry and with Christianity, as though the two were synonymous:

Grandmother Flores had told me I was a necromancer. It was more than being a voodoo priestess, and less. I had a sympathy with the dead, all dead. It was hard to be a vaudun and a necromancer and not be evil. Too tempting, Grandma Flores said. She had encouraged my being  Christian. Encouraged my father to cut me off from her side of the family. Encouraged it for love of me and fear for my soul. (50)

I’d be happier if at least one of the Mexican characters Anita encounters was not somehow tainted. Even Anita’s trusted colleague, Manny, has committed human sacrifice as part of voodoo, something Anita did not know until Dominga tried to use it against him. Anita’s mixed race heritage is a taint, something that brings her closer to the darker side of magic.

I never puzzled about how I came to do what I do. There was no mystery. It was in the blood. (119)

Part of what bothers me about this is that it’s a narrative of passing: passing as white, passing as normal, passing as safe and sane. It could be deeply compelling (for example, if Anita wasn’t so light, would her grandmother have been so anti Anita’s involvement in her Mexican identity?) if, again, one took seriously the idea that whiteness lends one some serious social power, especially in the South. Even if Anita’s mixed identity were treated as part of the set of symbols indicating that she’s not what you think (she’s female but not defenseless, tough-as-nails but tenderhearted, short but not fragile, etc) instead of a constant danger, it might squick me out less.

Comments

  1. Pat Mathews says

    Agreed, though I hadn’t thought of it that way. And BTW, the term is “mestiza”, not “mulatta.” But with Hamilton having a Hispanic woman practicing voodoo (an afro-diasporic tradition) rather than brujeria or santeria, no wonder the categories have become mixed up.

    However, if you read the earlier books, she got slapped down, hard, for her heritage; by a snotty little fiance and by her very Anglo stepmother, so no wonder she’s at war with it. One of her suitors is a werewolf at war with his lupine side, as well, so we have a theme here.

    Obsidian Butterfly was set in my home state, which Hamilton visited briefly for an awards banquet. Rumor hath it she didn’t like the food and apparently found it very hard to catch or appreciate the flavor of New Mexico. I guess we have to give her points for trying.

  2. says

    Hi Pat!

    I actually used “mulatta” because of the trope of the “tragic mulatta.” I’d call Tanis Half-Elven from Dragonlance and Deanna Troi from ST:NG other examples of this. I’m not sure why Hamilton went with voodoo instead of la santeria, especially since she did enough research to drop terms like “loa” and whatever all over the place.

    Laughing Corpse is the second book in the series. Does the first book (Guilty Pleasures) have the fiance subplot? I know that Judith as an evil stepmother is mentioned every book. Do we learn more about her in later books?

    With Richard, I get the impression that his conflict with his lupine side is framed really differently. Anita’s Mexican heritage is EVIL and his werewolf part is something he needs to integrate into his sense of self in order to be authentic. I don’t see those as being similar conversations.

    See, I liked Obsidian! I think it’s because Anita’s voice/disdain for New Mexico and Mexicans really came through and was so f*cked up I assumed the author was making the mixed race issue more explicit. Hearing that she just didn’t like the state makes me sad. :(

  3. SunlessNick says

    Anita’s Mexican heritage is EVIL

    Every time I hear about these books, I hear another reason tobe glad I haven’t read them.

  4. Gategrrl says

    I have to agree with you, Nick. Although, I’ve heard that the first four books are better than the later ones in the series, which go all-out into porn.

  5. Bebe Francois says

    Thank you Pat for your observation. As a Haitian American it seriously pissed me off that the villain wasn’t Haitian but Mexican and to my knowledge they didn’t do that sort of witch craft as much as they did santeria, etc. And I didn’t notice the whole passing issue but I totally see the light now. I’m glad I no longer read the books. I just wait for spoilers to see how the series will end now that I’m no longer brainwashed by the crapola LKH is passing off as literature.

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