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On the Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series
Death Becomes Her
The Role of Anita’s Necromancy
You’d think being the Executioner would be enough to warn the vampires off, but in the very first scene of Guilty Pleasures, Willie McCoy is sitting in Anita’s office asking for help. Apparently the undead are slow to take a hint. Anita ends the conversation by falling back on police protocol and her own personal rules. Anita doesn’t work for vampires, she kills them. Period.
It’s a good thing Anita has a code, because she’s about to progress down a nasty-looking path. Over the course of the books, the obstacles Anita encounters force her to up the ante—whether in terms of magic or her tolerance for violence—to cope with whatever emergency is at hand. Those crises are usually bloody. Each time she pushes those boundaries, she looks more like the monsters she’s fighting, whether they’re human or preternatural. Eventually the niceties of conventional morality start falling away. By Obsidian Butterfly she’s nearly level with Edward in the stone-cold-killer sweepstakes and has more monsters at her beck and call than a D-movie film director.
So why doesn’t all that power—both magical and plain old Edwardesque violence—push Anita wholly to the dark side? What’s stopping her from becoming the high priestess of lustful evil that Dolph seems to fear? The answer lies in who—and also what—Anita is.
Fun with Zombies
Anita does not begin life as an average, happy-go-lucky, white-bread kid—or at least she doesn’t stay that way for long. Anita’s mother—a first death that never quite gets laid to rest—bequeathed both dark beauty and exotic power to a daughter marooned in a blond, WASP, suburban household. This sets Anita apart from “regular people” from the very beginning. That and, um, accidentally raising corpses from time to time—a fact her father ignores and her stepmother, Judith, deplores. “I won’t go into details,” Anita relates, “but does the term ‘road kill’ have any significance for you? It did for Judith. I looked like a nightmare version of the Pied Piper” (The Laughing Corpse).
If there was any question in young Anita’s mind that her preternatural powers were morally suspect, that doubt is quickly confirmed. Early on, her father takes her to see her Grandmother Flores, a Vaudun priestess, to help her control her talents. Grandma’s response is that it’s “hard to be Vaudun and a necromancer and not be evil.” (The Laughing Corpse). Then, just to iron in the family neurosis, Anita is cut off from her mother’s kin for the good of her soul.
The “zombie queen” stigma was bound to leave a mark. There is no sense of freedom or self-abandonment in Anita. She enters adulthood with a fierce need for internal control that at times borders on repression. A church-goer, she doesn’t drink, smoke, or do drugs. She cringes at the idea of Catherine’s bachelorette party and doesn’t like the idea of being a bridesmaid any better. She doesn’t dance in public and, even twelve books later in Incubus Dreams, only agrees to do so at Larry’s wedding under duress. She’s obviously more comfortable with guns than her feminine side and hates showing anything resembling vulnerability or weakness. Notably, after a disastrous college affair, she has no appetite to risk that kind of rejection again. Until well into the series, Anita sleeps alone.
These uncompromising aspects of her character are significant, because her self-control is often what is challenged. Even more important: it’s her softer side she’s trying to protect by repressing, the one that does nurture and love; that’s often her saving grace.
She makes one large compromise, and that’s her profession. Anita learned early on that she has to use her animating ability or it will use itself, raising the dead at random. So, unable to reject her talents entirely, Anita becomes an animator but takes a carefully ethical path. She’s a pain in her boss’s rear end, but a straight-shooter with the clients and their deceased. Despite her abilities, she dislikes animators who abuse or exploit the dead and enlists Irving’s help to push for zombie-rights legislation. At the start of Guilty Pleasures, the Anita we meet has already laid the foundation for her future role in the preternatural community. The dead are a key part of her life and she treats them well—as long as they’re behaving themselves.
Equally significant is her job as Executioner. Anita has been taught from childhood to see her abilities as dangerous, so her affinity for the dead is paired with a need to police its power. Anita’s animating ability extends to vampires. This means she can guess their age and power, and she’s harder to hypnotize. In the opening scene with Willie McCoy, she sees them as creatures to be avoided or, if they get uppity enough, blown to smithereens. It’s not a huge leap to see how this parallels her attitude toward her own abilities. Anita keeps herself on a short leash. She demands the same restraint from the vamps as she does from herself.
From Animator to Necromancer
The dead waste no time in challenging Anita’s rules. She refuses to work for Nikolaos’s vampires, so they take her friend, Catherine, hostage through hypnosis. Typically, as adamant as Anita is about what she will and won’t do, a friend’s safety takes precedence and she takes the case. As a result, the Executioner becomes the vampires’ reluctant partner. This first adventure features a triumvirate of circumstances—a friend in need, Anita breaking her rules, and Anita gaining power (in this case, vampire marks)—that we see time and again throughout the books.
Narcissus in Chains contains another such example: Anita rescues the were-animals from Chimera, has—very uncharacteristically—sex with a stranger, Micah, when the ardeur rises, and forges a much deeper personal and mystical bond with the leopards. In The Killing Dance, despite her reservations about playing human servant, Anita agrees to form the triumvirate to ensure the safety of Richard and Jean-Claude, and discovers that she has the ability to raise sleeping vampires. It is often through risking herself in defense of another that Anita gains strength. In particular, when Anita allies herself with the dead, she increases her power.
The same pattern repeats when Anita runs up against the Vaudun priestess, Dominga Salvador, in The Laughing Corpse. This time we see Anita really come into her own, magically speaking, but on her own terms. At first Dominga tries to tempt Anita by offering to teach her all those things Grandmother Flores struck from the curriculum, but Anita’s not interested. She won’t seek power that she considers corrupt—not even when that magic could be considered her birthright. When Anita does finally break out of the role of vanilla animator, it’s because lives are at stake. As the battle with Dominga goes critical, Anita taps into her neglected necromancy at long last, embracing her connection to the dead. It’s a key moment; this deeper connection with her abilities is a leap forward in Anita’s phenomenal power growth. It also revives a long-standing question: Will a taste of Anita’s inherited talents send her hurtling to the dark side?
Not this time. Although Anita discovers just how great high-voltage magic feels, she does not go power-mad. What she’s seen of Dominga, who torments zombies, disgusts Anita. Her basic empathy for the dead keeps her from following that corrupt path. Instead she uses what she’s learned to be a better animator. If the forces of darkness want Anita’s soul, they’re going to have to up their game.
Blue Munin and Other Health Issues: Anita as Healer
After the Dominga incident, Anita’s on a roll. Each subsequent book sees her with an increasingly well-stocked magical arsenal, and by the time we reach Blue Moon and The Killing Dance, Anita is firmly entangled with the preternatural community and gaining new powers through those associations. What’s clear, though, is that regardless of what talents she acquires, her own necromancy remains her central power. In fact, it’s often her sympathy with death that draws new power to her.
Anita’s adventures with the Tennessee wolves is a case in point. The pack has tied their munin, the collective memory of their dead, to their lupenar with blood and death magic. The description of their lupenar in Blue Moon is striking: It has an old oak tree covered with the bones of their pack members. From the moment Anita arrives, she feels an affinity with the place, and she gathers strength from the munin when she makes her move against Colin’s rotting vampires. Those she doesn’t fry; she explodes them with Edward-worthy spectacle. With this incident, Anita shows that, despite her growing entanglement with other power sources, her necromancy is a significant force all on its own. If Anita wants to be a supernatural bad-ass, she can do that all by herself.
However, Anita does adopt other types of magic. A good example is Raina’s munin, which Anita is able to access through her connection to Richard and his wolves. It comes at a price: Anita is afraid it will tempt her to kill more easily. Because of Raina’s highly sexualized personality, it also is linked to lust, not an easy burden for the restrained Anita. But the munin has its uses. Anita raises it for the first time in Burnt Offerings, when she heals Nathaniel. Although the power summons a dark urge to crush his heart “until blood flowed and his life stopped,” Anita resists both violent and sexual temptation and channels the energy to heal his injuries.
This passage is another defining moment for Anita. She uses a potentially destructive power—one that urges her to use it for her own dark gratification—to give aid to someone else. Once she can focus it, Raina’s munin becomes, at least for a few books, one of Anita’s most valuable tools.
Since death magic is Anita’s home base, it’s no surprise that she is able to use her necromancy in a similar fashion. As soon as her triumvirate with Jean-Claude and Richard is formed, Anita learns that she can use her abilities to not only raise and control vampires when they’re asleep, but also to heal them. In The Killing Dance, she fixes Damian’s cut with her power, much in the same way she restores zombies to a living appearance. It’s telling that, to heal the living she has to harness an outside force, but to heal the dead, the ability comes from within.
The sudden development of this vampire-raising/repairing power gives Jean-Claude pause. After all, he’s discovered his human quasi-servant has the ability to make any of his people (and probably him) do whatever she commands while they’re snoozing. If Anita had a taste for practical jokes, he would be in a whole new undead hell. Anita enjoys the moment of Jean-Claude’s realization. She’s not immune to the satisfaction of finally having a hold over the Master of the City. However, Anita focuses her newfound ability on finding a means to heal Sabin. Once again, despite a major leap in mojo, Anita turns away from abusing her power over the dead—alas for fans of low comedy.
There is another way in which Anita heals, and it is far simpler and more primal than any of her other magics. A necromancer’s blood, like that of a lycanthrope, holds more power than a human’s for the vampire that consumes it. How willing Anita is to share that power changes over time. It’s a no-brainer that the Anita we meet at the beginning of Guilty Pleasures is unlikely to donate blood voluntarily. However, in Bloody Bones, Anita (after some internal debate) and Jason revive Jean-Claude by feeding him. In fact, they overdo it a bit and he becomes slightly drunk. In Blue Moon, at different times Anita saves both Damian and Asher. The image of Anita nourishing the vampires with her necromancy-laced blood is a striking portrayal of her complex intimacy with the dead. She does it out of love and friendship, but, as Asher observes, it also gives her power over those she saves. It’s only her intentions that keep the act benign.
Nec-Romance: Love Sucks, and It Bites, Too
Intimacy issues are front and center with Anita throughout the series. In some ways, Edward, significantly nicknamed Death, is easier for her to cope with because there is no question of sex between them. Anita’s quite content to have a quasi-sociopathic contract killer as a BFF. Edward might be scary, but their relationship is emotionally straightforward. It only starts to look complicated once he reveals his personal life. The fact that he has successfully found one underscores Anita’s own uneasiness when it comes to matters of the heart.
Personal relationships, particularly love, force the revelation of one’s vulnerabilities. For Anita, loss of control over herself and her powers—either through temptation or through more forcible psychic interference—is fraught with problems. Vampires are extra scary because they are master manipulators, and there is always the hazard that Anita might end up as the pet necromancer of an unscrupulous master.
Lucky for Jean-Claude that Anita likes him. Who else could have escaped unscathed while marking her as his servant, threatening her boyfriend, and otherwise making a total pest of himself? No one can make Anita cross her own lines in the sand like Jean-Claude. At the beginning of the series, she’s quick to remind him that he’s just a pretty walking corpse, but her defences don’t hold forever. Not only does he appeal to her as a woman, but her power responds to his nature.
Necromancy loves the dead, and the dead love it right back. This is made utterly plain by the rhapsodic way Anita describes her feelings for Jean-Claude:
I felt his stillness, a depth of quiet that nothing living could touch, like a still pool of water hidden away in the dark. In one crystalline moment, I realized that, for me, this was part of the attraction: I wanted to plunge my hands into his stillness, into that quiet place of death. I wanted to embrace it, confront it, conquer it. I wanted to fill him up with a burning wash of life, and I knew in that moment that I could do it, but only at the price of drinking in some of that still, dark water. (The Killing Dance)
The language sums up the push and pull between them. Jean-Claude comes to love Anita, but her powers are never far from his mind. More than once the question is raised as to who, in the end, will be the master and who will be the servant. His initial courtship of Anita is as much a pre-emptive strike as anything else.
As their complicated relationship takes shape, so does Anita’s bond with vampire magic. The longer she stays with Jean-Claude, the richer and more interconnected their preternatural skills become. The most influential gift he passes to Anita is the ardeur, which allows her to feed on lust. She becomes a succubus and, much to her embarrassment, she’s soon raising up more than zombies.
Life as a succubus has logistical challenges, including making enough whoopee to keep the members of her triumvirate, Nathaniel and particularly Damian, from fading away. The blending of necromancy and vampirism here is plain. It’s supposed to be her zombie-raising talents that animate Damian, but it’s feeding the ardeur that gives her the energy to keep him going. This is taken further when Anita improves Damian’s looks during the triumvirating process, which, in an oddly Darwinian fashion, gives him an increased ability to attract female attention and thus food. Jean-Claude links Anita’s necromantic and vampiric abilities when he identifies this “makeover” power as one of Belle Morte’s, although Belle could only use it on new vampires. He says, “[T]his is a new ability altogether… What if you have gained abilities through your necromancy that we cannot begin to guess at?” (Incubus Dreams).
Good question. Why has any of this power-hybridization happened, and why does it manifest the way it does? The connection between necromancy and vampires seems relatively logical given the death/dead connection, but the fact that the ardeur informs Anita’s blended magic is almost poignant. After all, Anita loves Jean-Claude, and her affinity is with the dead. Isn’t it logical that her hybrid powers, fuelled as they are with all of her will and passion, would find a way to nourish and enhance those closest to her? She’s turned every other power gain into a means of helping others. Why not this one?
In fact, the ardeur does mutate, allowing her to see the strongest need in someone’s heart. Consciously or unconsciously, Anita responds to those needs, as in her relationships with Micah and Nathaniel. Furthermore, whoever sleeps with Anita gains in magic—a fact not lost on Rafael, who begins to think the rats will lose out if he doesn’t stake a claim as one of Anita’s bedmates. She turns what is essentially a method of feeding into a means to protect and nurture.
Not that it’s all group hugs. Anita is still playing with monsters, and Grandmother Flores’s dire predictions about Anita’s magic hold a glimmer of truth. Despite the strength it gives Anita, combining powers with the vampires isn’t comfortable. Besides the whole succubus gig—an ongoing complication in Anita’s domestic life—the vampire/necromancer power blend gives Anita some very dark abilities. She sucks the life out of Chimera, she rolls Avery as well as any master vamp could, and she blood-oaths Malcolm’s entire flock. She seizes control of Augustine of Chicago—significant even if he was a willing victim. With Jean-Claude, she feeds off all of Augustine’s entourage.
While this über-necrovampmancy allows Anita to save the day time and again, its sheer force frightens her deeply. In the end, she’s so afraid of losing herself in power and harming others that she makes Wicked and Truth promise to kill her if she goes bad. All along she’s been the Executioner; now she’s seeking out someone else to enforce her sense of order if she can’t. The moment is telling, especially when one thinks back to that first scene with Willie McCoy, and how Anita was afraid to even look him in the eyes. She’s come a long way, but it wasn’t a comfy ride.
The degree to which Anita is spooked by her own power may seem extreme, but book after book she battles with two prima donnas of vampire evil, Belle Morte and Marmee Noir, who are prime examples of two of Anita’s greatest fears: how she could degenerate if she falls—as Grandmother Flores so desperately feared she would—to the temptation of her own dark talents, and the more immediate danger, that she could be lost to the control of someone willing to use those powers for their own nefarious schemes.
Belle Morte, or Beautiful Death, is, by virtue of her name alone, an appropriate adversary for a necromancer. Animators seem to have a particular affinity for Belle Morte, since both Anita and Larry, for an unexplained reason, can at times catch her signature rose scent when no one else can. She is a mirror for Anita—after all, Anita has Belle’s ardeur, her ability to call leopards, and is sleeping with quite a few of Belle’s men. The parallel is not lost on the vampire, who at various points in time tries to take the leopards and the men back.
But given Belle’s seniority in the vampire realm, is this perceived similarity/rivalry superficial? Is Anita a potential mini-Morte? The answer is yes in terms of power and no in terms of personality. Anita already gives Belle a run for her money, using necromancy to cast her out time and again. Whenever Belle attacks the people Anita cares for, such as Asher, Anita’s will to fight back just gets stronger. As Anita’s hybridized powers grow, it’s possible that one day she could defeat Belle outright. Where any true similarity stops is that Anita’s motivations are nowhere near the same as Belle’s. Anita may be pragmatic and ruthless, she may no longer buy into truth, justice, and the American way, but she’s not going to become a narcissistic nightmare. The very fact that Anita is prepared to die first at the hands of Wicked and Truth is proof enough.
Marmee Noir, the original vampire, is a different kind of threat. Unlike Belle, she doesn’t bother with seduction and power games. The Mother of All Darkness represents the ultimate loss of self. It’s not enough that Anita has to worry about sliding over onto the dark side; Marmee Noir wants to save time and simply take her over.
By Skin Trade it’s clear that possession is on the menu. Marmee’s physical body has atrophied during her long rest, and Anita is a prime candidate for a replacement vessel. After all, they share vampirism, cat lycanthropy, and necromancy, as well as other talents, such as the ability to break the bond between master and servant. No wonder Anita interests Mommie Dearest enough to rouse her from sleep. Marmee Noir’s own laws dictated that all necromancers be put to death, so it’s unlikely that as suitable a match will ever come along again, whether for full possession or as a tide-me-over snack-bar until she finds a less-intransigent host. It’s almost as if Marmee Noir is Anita with her darkest powers fully realized, ready to step into a fresh incarnation.
Marmee Noir’s effect on Anita is significant, in part because their similarities give Marmee a way inside. She touches Anita through her beasts, both by giving her the tigers and by landscaping Anita’s inner zoo, whether intentionally or accidentally, in the image of a primordial forest. If Mommie Dearest is redecorating the inside of Anita’s head, she’s definitely planning on moving in.
At the end of Skin Trade, it looks like Marmee Noir won’t get to carry out her scheme, but only future books will tell whether the Mother of All Darkness is truly out of the picture. We’re left with some interesting questions: Is the ultimate darkness that easy to kill? If her spirit was already separated from her body, where did the spirit go?
More to the point: At the rate Anita’s powers are growing, what will she become? Is Anita’s concern for others enough to keep her from heading down the highway to Evil Divadom? The answer is almost certainly yes, but the possibility of disaster is always provocative. After all, who could have predicted Anita’s journey thus far?
In Death We Trust
Anita’s necromancy is central to who and what she is from the start; for her, there never was a fully human existence. “All the monsters start out normal except me,” she ruefully observes (The Laughing Corpse). As a child, Anita’s family assumes her abilities are a precursor to evil, and that assumption has a predictable effect. Anita walls herself behind rules around her magic and her personal behavior. Those boundaries are, however. constantly renegotiated: Anita’s most significant gains are made when she invites the dead to become her ally. Through this alliance we see that Anita’s moral compass is not just a stumbling block en route to world domination. Anita treats the dead with respect. She loves and protects them. She sleeps with them. She’ll even feed them her blood to keep them vibrantly undead.
That affinity and affection keeps Anita from succumbing to the dark side. Just as well, because there’s no escape for her, according to the Mother of All Darkness: “The dead give necromancers no peace. We pester the poor things, because they draw us like moths to the flame” (The Harlequin).
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