Content/Trigger Warning: References to sexual violence, sex work/er shaming, and well… a snuff film in the text that I describe in medium detail. I still can’t believe it was in the book. I cover the ableist language in the title in the bonus section alongside a bunch of other stuff that I found frustrating about the novel, but that wasn’t related to my angle.
Lycanthropes are nothing if not practical.
— Anita, woefully understating the circumstances behind a snuff film released into the US Underworld. Lycanthropes aren’t practical. If anything, in the Anitaverse, they’re largely actual monsters.
While the previous Anita Blake novel introduced lycanthropes on the large scale, The Lunatic Cafe is the novel that really introduced some of the messed up facts of life as a shapeshifter in Anita’s world.
The one main question that The Lunatic Cafe appears to ask throughout the narrative is whether or not shapeshifters are truly human (like “we” are). It’s a question asked in almost all of the shapeshifter focused books in the series and one that tends to glean different answers depending on the novel and the characters essentially posing the question.
In this book, the answer is… kinda, sorta, not really.
Shapeshifters are human, The Lunatic Cafe tells us, but only a little. They look like humans, but they’re really just wearing a human costume and you can, according to Anita, tell that they lack some sort of innate “humanness” whenever they’re under pressure. This pressure includes sexual arousal, fear, dealing with violence, and hunger.
Basically, whenever a shapeshifter experiences any significant form of emotion, their human mask starts to slip a little.
Anita’s grasp of what humanity should look like is colored by the fact that she’s clearly viewing these beings along a binary of human-not human that is placed against the monstrousness of violent characters that she’s had to take down.
The first shapeshifter that we see in The Lunatic Café is Anita Blake’s werewolf paramour Richard Zeeman. Richard, somehow the “werewolf next door” in the narrative, is this absolute babe of a werewolf who works as a science teacher by day and is embroiled in a violent power play within his pack at basically every other time.
Richard, to Anita, is more human than the vampires that she’s had to work with. He’s infinitely more normal than Jean-Claude, the Master Vampire of St. Louis that seems to think that she owes him her love and her body. Jean-Claude, by virtue of being an old-ish vampire with oodles of power at hand, comes across as more visibly inhuman than the dude that turns into a werewolf a couple times a month.
Same goes for St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Irving Griswald who Anita describes as looking “jolly and harmless” in The Lunatic Cafe. When he’s first introduced, Anita makes a point of talking about how darn harmless and innocent he looks and back in the first book, when he was introduced Anita’s realization of his inhumanity was a total shock to her.
Irving and Richard can’t be as bad as the villains she’s fought and killed. They’re basically human.
Throughout the course of reading the Anita Blake series, one of the things I’ve come to realize is that author Laurell K Hamilton sees the world in binaries. Everything is an either-or situation to her and that shows in the way that she has Anita see the world around her. When it comes to the humanity of the supernatural beings around her (and the cops, can’t forget the cops), Anita exhibits this narrow binary way of thinking that leads her to be surprised or even distressed by any reminder that the people around her are a little more than human.
I’ve never understood the way that Hamilton has Anita respond to the various supernatural beings in her world.
Aside from a handful of examples, almost every supernatural being that she meets started out as a 100% human being. Zombies, most shapeshifters, and all but like three vampires were all human before they became the Other that Anita has a hard time figuring out how she feels about them. She has Anita look at the people in her world with this “human until it does something weird” mentality and it’s kind of well…
Anita is, at this point of the series, a simple animator. She raises the dead.
However, what makes her any more human than of the beings she comes into contact with in St. Louis? What makes someone who can raise and control the dead human in the first place? Who gets to decide what an “innate” humanness is and that some people just don’t have it?
At the start of The Lunatic Cafe, there’s a scene where Anita is on her way to meet Richard at the theater for a performance of Guys and Dolls and she spots him waiting in front of the theater.
I caught a glimpse of Richard standing in the far right corner. At six foot one he is easier to spot across a crowded room than I am, at my own five foot three. He stood quietly, eyes following the crowd’s movement. He didn’t seem bored or impatient. He seemed to be having a good time watching the people. His eyes followed an elderly couple as they walked through the glass doors. The woman used a cane. Their progress was painfully slow. His head turned slowly with them. I scanned the crowd. Everyone else was younger, moving with confident or hurried stride. Was Richard looking for victims? Prey? He was, after all, a werewolf. He’d gotten a bad batch of lycanthropy vaccine. One of the reasons I never get the shots. If my flu shot accidentally backfires, that’s one thing, but being furry once a month…No, thanks.
Did he realize he was standing there searching the crowd like a lion staring at a bunch of gazelles? Or maybe the elderly couple had reminded him of his grandparents. Hell, maybe I was giving him motives that were only in my suspicious little brain. I hoped so.
Later on, in the same chapter (like a page or so away), after they greet each other, Anita thinks to herself that:
I thought about asking him if he’d been thinking about eating that elderly couple, but didn’t. Accusing him of murderous intent might spoil the evening. Besides, most lycanthropes weren’t aware of doing nonhuman things. When you pointed it out, it always seemed to hurt their feelings. I didn’t want to hurt Richard’s feelings.
Let’s break this down, folks.
Anita is on her way to meet her new boyfriend and she’s running a bit late. So he’s out front people-watching while he waits for her. Instead of taking his absolutely normal behavior as just that… normal behavior, Anita immediately rushes to assume the worst of her boyfriend when she catches him watching an elderly couple moving slowly through the crowd.
“Was Richard looking for victims? Prey? He was, after all, a werewolf.”
What’s Anita trying to say here, that werewolves are always on the hunt for victims?
Well… yes. That is exactly what she’s thinking and it’s to the point that she actually considers asking him about it after they greet. Minutes have past, the couple has moved on, and you know what’s still on Anita’s mind? Whether or not her sweetie has a hankering for some human flesh.
Look, if you’re not sure that the guy you might love is about to go full on Hannibal Lecter on the elderly (and if you’re not comfortable asking), maybe you shouldn’t date him?
However, more worrying than that is the fact that she had those thoughts in the first place and then… doesn’t let them go. Anita and Richard hug and kiss. They cuddle in the cold. And the whole time, Anita is apparently trying to fight against her desire to ask him if he, like Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, sees humans “Happy Meals With Legs”.
I’ve written potential datefriends off for daring to dislike fan fiction or for saying that Dick Grayson isn’t one of the best DC superheroes. I’ve straight up walked off mid-conversation because the people I was speaking to had mediocre opinions about things I loved. But here Anita is, speculating that the man she loves might want to eat the elderly and might be fantasizing about it in public and she just…
Goes into the theater with him without bringing it up because she didn’t want to hurt his feelings.
Anita’s view of humanness and her fear of the other play out repeatedly in The Lunatic Cafe and come up against one of the series’ major plot problems: the Anita Blake series wants to have viewers question who the “real” monsters are but isn’t quite sure about the answers itself.
Anita frequently fights for well… supernatural civil rights, clapping back against in-series racism that tries to excuse the way supernatural beings are treated in Anita’s world. She argues for their humanness and points out that they’re not the only beings capable of monstrosities on the regular basis.
However, many of the crimes shapeshifters and other supernatural beings perpetuate are crimes that only they can do.
In The Lunatic Cafe, a significant subplot sees bounty hunter Edward riding into town in order to avenge the dad of a young woman whose murder during sex was distributed as a snuff film.
It becomes a crime that only a shapeshifter can do because the height of the film centers on a shapeshifter shifting, killing the young woman, and then eating her with the other participant in the film.
The novel describes it in explicit detail.
Anita has already killed the one participant in the snuff film by the time Edward makes her watch the video and she kills the second in a future novel. The thing about this is that both of the shapeshifters involved in this snuff film are honestly and obviously menacing.
The werewolf who does the killing blow, Alfred, is introduced as instantly hostile to Anita. He wants to hurt her for challenging him/his Alpha’s orders and not bowing to his superior werewolf-y power. Anita feels fear and distrust the moment that she sees him and she reaches for her gun immediately.
The second shapeshifter, who joins in the feeding, is a leopard shifter named Gabriel who is another monster. He too is introduced via language and imagery that shows that there’s something not quite right about that man.
“We don’t need a human to help us.” This from a man who sat with one other. He had hair cut just above his collar, so curly it looked like fur, or maybe…Naw. He had thick eyebrows over dark eyes, with heavy, sensual features. The Rat King’s lips may have seemed kissable, but this man seemed made for nefarious deeds done in dark places.
His clothing matched his face. The boots that he had propped on the table were of soft, velvety leather. His pants were of shiny black leather. The shirt he was almost wearing was a muscle tank top that left most of his upper body bare. His right arm was covered from elbow to fingers in leather straps. The knuckles had spikes coming out of them. The hair on his chest was as curly and dark as the hair on his head. A black duster coat was thrown across the table beside him.
After Alfred is killed, Gabriel drinks his cooling blood because… he can?
When I stop to look at the characters in the Anita Blake series, I notice that even in Anita’s close group of friends and lovers, many of the supernatural beings in her life are monstrous in some way. A majority of the shapeshifters and vampires that Anita comes into contact with are rapists, abusers, murderers, and/or misuse their power to control or enslave others.
And they can only get as far and do as much evil as they have because of their supernatural abilities.
Throughout The Lunatic Cafe there are several instances, even after Anita witnesses the snuff film, that she shows this beyond binary way of thinking when it comes to the humanity of supernatural beings. She keeps trying to be like “they’re humans just like us and don’t deserve to experience any oppression” in one chapter while in the next, you’ll have her questioning the humanity of shapeshifters over the smallest of slights or running out to chase the next human-eating shapeshifter that’s slaughtered their way through St. Louis.
We’ll see it in later books more readily, but The Lunatic Cafe has a lot of that “shapeshifters standing in for people of color” nonsense that too many urban fantasy series gravitates towards. Through Anita’s eager and innocent eyes, you get all of these allegories for therianthropy or vampirism that connect it (and what they experience) to:
- Coming out of the closet/being outed as queer
- Having HIV or AIDS
- Being a person of color subject to racist aggression.
However, the series at no point acknowledges one simple fact: those three groups of people are marginalized and oppressed because of baseless stereotypes and cruelty about their sexuality, an illness they have, and/or their ethnicity.
NOT because people like them can and do eat people on a regular basis.
For every single “this werewolf was killed unfairly by her husband who hated her lycanthropy” story in one of these novels, you have about a dozen other stories where a shapeshifter or vampire does something so horrible that it’d require all the trigger warnings to talk about.
It’s not the character’s fault that the narrative is both heavy handed and uneven in its messages about humanity and monstrosity.
This is… just how Hamilton writes.
I feel that by the end of the novel, we’re supposed to question the thin line between man and monster and look critically at how full human beings are responsible for committing all of these atrocities (and are in some ways “the real monsters”), but like…
The matter still stands that this book sends some majorly mixed messages about shapeshifter humanity.
Oh, and that Anita has a weird idea of what humanity looks like in the Other.
- The book’s title The Lunatic Cafe is like clearly casually ableist. Part of the series’ problems with the Other and Othering humanoid supernatural beings is that so much of the awfulness they do is connected to ableist approaches to mental illness (like socio- and psycho-pathy are tossed around like confetti). We’re supposed to go with the etymological connection here, connecting the LUNAtic Cafe to the werewolf pack that runs it (and much of the city), but let’s be real folks, Hamilton could’ve used a bunch of other words in lieu of “lunatic” to make the lunar connection but well… she didn’t.
- I didn’t want to talk about the plot more than I already did on twitter because that’s really not the most interesting part of the novel, but one day soon I’m going to write two separate posts about how the Anita Blake series constantly portrays sex workers as perpetual victims pressured doing something degrading AND how the series is basically wannabe cop competency porn that ignores the atrocities law enforcement agents in the US commit on an hourly basis.
- With the sex worker stuff specifically, TLC has the alpha female of the werewolf pack forcenot just her wolves, but other shapeshifters into appearing in pornography to appeal to… weirdos that like bestiality but don’t want to be arrested for buying that content. When she put two sadistic shapeshifters together in the one film, that’s how we got the snuff film.
- There are like four rapists introduced in TLC and only two of them are killed by the end of the novel.
- Jean-Claude is such a fucking creep in this book. He blackmails Anita into dating him andRichard (giving him “equal” time after Richard proposes to her despite the fact that Anita doesn’t like him) and I’m not sure how anyone is supposed to find that behavior as romantic…
- Anita is 24 in this book. She reads like a middle aged woman. Her dialogue, her views on social issues (and sex), and the way she talks about children… I know this book came out in the mid to late nineties, but I’ve read other books in similar genres that didn’t have their young adult protagonist read like she’s been around for decades longer than we think. (And it’s not on purpose because “old soul” Anita would be actually interesting instead of annoying… this is just how LKH writes her dialogue…)