No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Wednesday, June 01, 1994

The Laughing Corpse -- Laurell K. Hamilton

Summertime in St. Louis, and the stench of undead flesh rises to a cloudless sky as Anita Blake, animator extraordinaire, hunts down a killer zombie with a taste for single-family homes. Anita has a few suspicions as to who may have raised the zombie. There's a murdered animator's goatee'd brother; a voodoo queen who raises the dead for fun, profit and sexual depravity; and a crippled millionaire who's offering Anita a million dollars to perform human sacrifice (the only way, apparently, to raise corpses more than a century old).

Anita is not without problems of her own. Added to the inevitable occupational hazards such as villainous bodyguards, restrictive police procedures and far too many early-morning crime scenes, there's those peculiarly feminine quandaries - how to remove blood stains from fluffy penguin toys, where to find a silk shirt that'll conceal a shoulder holster, and how to pick up a crippled prostitute without attracting undue attention. And Jean-Claude, the master vampire of St Louis who featured prominently in Guilty Pleasures, is still sending Anita flowers ... It is to Anita's credit that often these problems seem to worry her more than the simplistic violence demanded by her job.

Guilty Pleasures was a fast-paced, gory thriller which presented Anita without explication. In The Laughing Corpse, Hamilton gives us a few glimpses of Anita's childhood, which add considerably to our understanding of her rather repressed personality (although not of her fondness for fluffy penguins).
"I had a dog when I was little; like most kids' dogs, she died. We buried Jenny in the back yard. I woke up a week after Jenny died and found her curled up beside me. Thick black fur coated with grave-dirt. Dead brown eyes following my every movement, just like when she was alive ... I know dead when I feel it. See it. Call it from the grave."
It's this affinity for the dead which makes Anita the best animator in town, in demand from the police department and the criminal fraternity alike. And she is grimly determined to use her supernatural powers for good rather than for evil, facing down each moral dilemma as it appears. As a staunch Episcopalian (converted from the Catholic church when they excommunicated all animators), Anita practises judgement rather than forgiveness: despite the fear engendered by supernatural creatures, it's the human characters who are truly evil, and they who suffer at Anita'a hands.

Despite the title - which is actually the name of a bar - this isn't a comedy, at least for the dead (though there's some sick farce as Anita and her Spook Squad colleagues attempt to come to terms with another increase in the body count). Hamilton, however, has a keen eye for goriness and shock value. The Laughing Corpse is entertaining and suspenseful, but not in the same league as Guilty Pleasures. Maybe zombies are more difficult to portray as appealing, positive role models; maybe they just don't have the pulling power of vampires.