The Great Big Anita Blake ReRead – The Laughing Corpse

Content warnings: ableism, sex worker shaming, abuse and abusive relationships, and racism.


the-laughing-corpse

The worst part about it was that she was right. I couldn’t just put a bullet between her eyes, not unless she threatened me. I glanced at the waiting zombies, patient as the dead, but underneath that endless patience was fear, and hope, and . . . God, the line between life and death was getting thinner all the time.

Anita after realizing that the zombies Dominga raises are sentient because she put their souls back inside their bodies. So far, this is the one thing that Anita won’t do. It’s a small comfort considering all of the things that she does do in future books.


I just want to get this off my chest before I go any further: The Laughing Corpse is a hot ableist mess.  On top of this second book in Laurell K Hamilton’s Anita Blake series continuing the trend of being ridiculously racist – specifically towards Black and Latinx people – it’s also full of the kind of ableism that shouldn’t even have existed in the Nineties when this book was published.

The premise in The Laughing Corpse is that there’s a rich man named Harold Gaynor that wants Anita to raise a corpse that’s over three hundred years old. As such a raising would require human sacrifice, Anita turns the job down and informs her boss (who somehow knows none of the terminology for the animator circuit despite managing a half-dozen of them) that he’s essentially trying to make them complicit to murder.

Afterwards, we see a spate of murders by zombies that all seem to point in the direction of a vaudun priestess named Dominga Salvador.

Salvador is bad news and uses her abilities to ensoul zombies in order to keep them from decaying, keeping them “alive” in order to make money and punish them. After some plot shenanigans and Jean Claude doing his best to convince Anita that she should be his human servant (again), we (including Anita) find out that Dominga and Gaynor have been working together, sacrificing humans in order to try and raise Gaynor’s ancestor’s corpse in order to get to some treasure.  At the end of the book, Anita basically get a power boost and raises an entire cemetery to do her bidding and kill the bad guys.

It’s a standard Anita Blake plot: people want to use Anita > Anita refuses to be used > murder > someone vulnerable and/or marginalized is compelled to help her > more murder > villain reveal > villain success > Anita triumphs and gains more power > Attempted quippiness at the end.

However, The Laughing Corpse has some serious issues that I just can’t look away from.

First and foremost is the ableism.

When I say that The Laughing Corpse is a hot ableist mess, I mean it. There’s so much ableism in this book that I wanted to go back in time and shake Laurel K Hamilton soundly. It starts with how there are two types of disabled characters in the narrative: “good” and “bad” ones. The split is bad enough on its own, but then if you look at the actual book, you can see that out of the three disabled characters who have some form of presence, two are evil.

Harold Gaynor, the main villain and someone that uses a wheelchair to get around for reasons I’m not sure are explained in the actual book, is complicit in the murder of several women. He preys on vulnerable disabled women and abuses them physically and sexually. He also specifically only dates disabled women because they’re “broken”, which means that the narrative pushes this disgusting fetishization of disabled bodies that I really don’t think should’ve made it to print.

Then, his current girlfriend Cecily is deaf. She’s also a sadist who literally gets off on torturing people – she prefers to torture women and since the only women around Gaynor are disabled…

The third disabled character Wanda. Wanda is the “good” disabled character. She’s the stereotypical “Sex worker with a heart of gold” trope trotted out to appease the audience but intrigue them with the fact that she’s in a wheelchair.

Here’s how she’s first described in The Laughing Corpse:

It was a black and white photo of a woman. She was in her twenties, long brown hair down in a modern style, just enough mousse to make it look spiky. She was pretty. I didn’t recognize her. The photo was obviously not posed. It was too casual and there was a look to the face of someone who didn’t know she was being photographed.

“Who is she?”

“She was his girlfriend until about five months ago,” Irving said.

“So she’s… handicapped?” I stared down at the pretty, candid face. You couldn’t tell by the picture.

“Wheelchair Wanda.”

I stared at him. I could feel my eyes going wide. “You can’t be serious.”

He grinned. “Wheelchair Wanda cruises the streets in her chair. She’s very popular with a certain crowd.”

A prostitute in a wheelchair. Naw, it was too weird. I shook my head.

Aside from the issues inherent in Hamilton’s writing (aka, she’s a mediocre writer), look at how Wanda is described. She’s so pretty that Anita is shocked to find out that she uses a wheelchair to get around. The idea of her partaking in sex work in order to make money is shocking and mind-boggling to Anita who, even to this day after knowing, loving, and befriending several sex workers, doesn’t seem capable of understanding that different people turn to sex work for different reasons.

So with Wanda, we get a double dose of oppression and awfulness. She’s subject to ableism in the narrative and mistreated because of her disability both by the “bad guys” as well as by Anita and Jean Claude, our “good guys”. And she’s also subject to endless sex-worker shaming from Anita as the narrative kind of allows Anita to goggle at Wanda as if she’s an exhibit and not a person – and of course, Anita never seems to understand or empathize with sex workers.

The last time that Wanda is referenced in The Laughing Corpse, Anita is mentioning that Wanda decide to work as a waitress rather than for Jean Claude in his comedy club “The Laughing Corpse”. It comes with the following snide remarks from Anita’s internal monologue:

I don’t know if she’ll make it or not, but with Gaynor gone, she seems free to try. She was a junkie whose drug of choice was dead. It was better than rehab.

On what level is that even acceptable to say?

First, Wanda was in love with Gaynor. They were in a relationship until Cecily showed up and then she left him once things started getting weirdly violent and abusive. She had already left him once before and had turned to sex work in order to make ends meet. Nothing about her experience in sex work showed that she was unhappy with that job aside from the things that led to it (Gaynor and Cecily’s abuse and the end of her relationship with Gaynor).

But because the Anita Blake series infantilizes sex workers, framing them as people who need to be saved or else they’ll die, we don’t get to see Anita treat her with the respect that she deserves.

Of course, to Anita who comes from a place of great privilege and who has, up until this point, managed not to get into any harmful or abusive relationships, she can’t bring herself to actually empathize with people who aren’t like her and who aren’t “strong” enough to leave relationships on their own[1].

This calls back of course into the Anita Blake series’ recurring theme where sex work is something that only two kinds of people enter into: The Bad Guys and the victims. These victims are almost always marginalized (they’re queer, they’re people of color, or they have physical/emotional/mental health issues) and they either need to be nudged out of the career path by Anita or one of her friends or they wind up dying.

Which is of course a huge problem.

What’s also a huge problem in another binary that The Laughing Corpse puts forward, one where Latinx people in the book are either good or bad.

Conveniently, the Latinx characters who are bad (or morally suspect) are ones who are “visibly” Latinx with brown skin and dark eyes and who are fluent in Spanish. Remember that Anita is biracial, but it basically only ever comes up when she’s opposite other characters of color and needs to remind them that she’s suffered because of her race (despite coding and “living” as a white person without acknowledging her conditional access to whiteness).

So when we see her positioned all pale and perfect opposite Dominga’s brownness and perfect Spanish, there’s something going on there that isn’t acceptable.

In The Laughing Corpse, the secondary big-bad Dominga Salvador and Anita’s mentor Manny are both Latinx characters who are painted negatively by the narrative because they use their power to a) make money and b) have used their power to kill before.

But that’s what Anita does too.

I mean, it’s an integral part of her character and a super important aspect of the plot that she uses her power to kill Dominga, Gaynor, and their henchmen. In later books, Anita raises the dead specifically to kill other people.

But Manny engaging in human sacrifice twenty years ago is a deal-breaker for her:

“You were not so quick to judge a few years back, Manuel. You slew the white goat[2] for me, more than once.”

I turned towards Manny. It was like that moment in a movie where the main character has a revelation about someone. There should be music and camera angles when you learn one of your best friends participated in human sacrifice. More than once she had said. More than once.

[…]

It was my turn to look away. “God, Manny, how could you?” My voice was soft now, not ordinary. If I didn’t know better, I’d say it sounded like I was on the verge of tears.

“It was nearly twenty years ago, Anita. I was vaudun and a necromancer. I believed. I loved the Señora. Thought I did.”

So we have a grown ass man in his forties apologizing to Anita for the things he did when he was her age, things that she will do or consider doing before the series is done. And in her case “love” isn’t the reason why she kills people or uses them as sacrifices[3], it’s her desire for power and control.

Note that Dominga is the worst influence ever. She succeeded in getting Manny to kill for her and she tries to metaphorically seduce Anita over to her side and way of seeing things.  And it’s all explicitly connected to her Latinness – how she dresses, how she looks, the hint of an accent in her voice.

And so Anita pings her as BAD which is true – she’s a murderer and complicit in zombie sex-trafficking crimes – but it also has a bit to do with how she’s portrayed in the narrative. (Also she basically uses a scattered handful of Spanish tossed in among her English, calling Anita “chica” and Manny “mi corazon” in a way that definitely others her.)

Another issue I have with the Anita Blake series – but this book in particular as it raises the issue – is how voodoo/vaudun is used and separated from its Haitian origins. As far as I can remember, only two characters are mentioned that could be Haitian (the Burke brothers) and one of them is dead before the book starts.

Meanwhile, Anita and Dominga both use voodoo/vaudun as necromancers rather than well… anything else. Look, I’m loathe to suggest Santeria as an alternative because there absolutely has to be a Mexican equivalent[4], but my god – voodoo/vaudun can’t be the only method for raising the dead in the Anitaverse.

And yet…

It is used by many of the necromancers that we see in the series and absolutely distanced from its roots and the Haitian people who created it and worshiped the loa. Talk about some major cultural appropriation!

On top of that mess, right before Anita actually meets Domingo the character Antonio (Domingo’s grandson) says something rude to Anita in Spanish (that is never spelled out so that I could translate) that is implied to be him propositioning her or insulting her. Of course, because Anita is described as a “China doll” despite her Mexican heritage, therefore every single (BROWN) man wants to get with her.

So honestly, the way Brown-skinned Latinx folk are treated in this book is a problem. It’s racist, colorist, and just plain uncalled for as the goal is to portray Anita as the most enlightened and progressive Latinx person and necromancer in the room.

There’s no actual point to the pissing contests between Dominga and Anita or to the reveal that Manny used to work with her as well as kill for her. These are all things that would only have mattered if Hamilton didn’t kill off her actual best bad guy in her only book appearance.

Ugh.

This book isn’t good at all. I have basically none of the nostalgia that I had for Guilty Pleasure left and then the connection with the characters is already kind of shaky. We’re on book two and I already find myself not caring about Hamilton’s characters.

The Laughing Corpse is not the worst Anita Blake book out there, but it’s also one of the most problematic out of the earliest ones. On top of the racism and internalized misogyny that the series is practically infamous for, The Laughing Corpse also has more than a fair share of ableism and sex-worker shaming that ignores the agency and desires of disabled characters in order for Anita to try and be their savior.

Which also isn’t new to the series, but since we don’t get another heavy dose of “I’m here to save sex workers” until Nathaniel is introduced… It’s something that stands out even more than usual.

The Laughing Corpse uses physically disabled characters and Mexican characters as bad guys. This is their text. It even more explicitly shows Anita using Haitian voodoo/vaudun without even a nod towards the originators of the craft or why they would have come up with it. And on top of that, the world building in this book is shoddy as hell.

Aside from a single fight scene – the one where Anita is attacked by Dominga’s zombies while sleeping – The Laughing Corpse isn’t incredibly interesting. Without a heavy dose of worldbuilding tidbits or interesting interactions with Jean Claude that don’t paint him as a creeper, this book falls flat in so many ways.


[1] We’re going to see more of this in later books when characters like Jade are introduced and then discarded because they don’t “fit” what Anita needs in a partner (a female character rescued from an abusive relationship that doesn’t want to obey Anita unconditionally).

[2] This is a euphemism for human sacrifice used repeatedly in the Anita Blake series. For some reason.

[3] But in the Anitaverse, Anita never actually gets to take the blame for her actions. Her violence, her sexuality? Both things that are cloaked in excuses because she has to kill people and she has to fuck other people. So I guess that because Manny wanted to help Dominga, he’s terrible, but it’s fine when Anita kills people in order to raise the dead, it’s self-defense and it’s acceptable. (It’s not!)

[4] As Santeria is Caribbean-based as well and specific to certain types of people from the Caribbean on top of that.

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About Zina

Zina writes about comics, nerd history, and ridiculous romance novels when not working frantically on her first collection of short stories and complaining about stuff. One day, she'll settle down and write that novel.
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