On the warm, moonless night before Halloween, 65 people huddle around a campfire at Eureka's Wild Canid Survival and Research Center in the middle of the woods. Deeper in the darkness, wolves prowl and a horned owl hoots overhead. It is a night for telling scary stories, and few people in America are better at it than the petite woman standing in front of the fire.
She is Laurell K. Hamilton, and for the past fifteen years she has enthralled her readers with tales of vampires, werewolves, zombies — and one very tough woman who works to keep them all in line.
"Can you give us a hint about the book you're working on now?" one woman asks.
Hamilton laughs. Sparks from the fire illuminate her curly brown hair and glint off her reading glasses. "I'm not very good at giving
hints," she says. She pauses and her audience leans forward expectantly.
"Well," she says finally, "the new book is called Skin Trade and it begins with Anita getting a severed head on her desk. I can't decide if it comes through the postal service or FedEx. Can you send body parts through FedEx in this country? Anyway, it's an invitation to Vegas."
Anita, of course, is Anita Blake, the St. Louis-based vampire hunter who is the star of 16 of Hamilton's 26 books and an old friend to most of the crowd here tonight.
"Did you go to Vegas?" someone else asks.
"I made four trips," Hamilton says. "I have to make one more, to see the stuff tourists don't usually see, like the police station and the morgue. Did you notice I don't put morgues into my books much?" The crowd hums an affirmation. "I don't like going to the morgue," Hamilton continues. "I don't like dead bodies."
This is an interesting confession from a writer whose characters have amassed the largest body count in literature, outside of war novels.
"Did you know that librarians have a new way of classifying your books?" asks another young woman, a library student.
"I know some shelve them in horror," Hamilton replies, "and some in science fiction. I go by what's on the spine, which is 'New York Times bestseller.'"
Hamilton, 45, has in fact written ten New York Times bestsellers. There are more than 6 million copies of the books in her Anita Blake series in print. Her latest book, Swallowing Darkness, came out earlier this month and is part of her other best-selling series about Merry Gentry, an American fairy princess. Preorders have already made it one of Amazon's 30 top-selling titles.
Hamilton clips a book light to a copy of Swallowing Darkness and begins to read in a soft voice. For the next hour and a half, the wolf sanctuary is quiet, save for the fire's crackle and the wind rustling through the trees. Finally, there are groans of disappointment, when, after reading nearly 50 pages, Hamilton snaps the book shut.
Although she didn't realize it at the time, Laurell K. Hamilton had her first inkling of future success as a sophomore at Marion College (now Indiana Wesleyan University) in Indiana. That was the year she was expelled from the creative-writing program for being a "corrupting influence" on her fellow students.
She was accepted to the program as a freshman on the basis of two stories: one about vampires, and another in the style of horror master H. P. Lovecraft. All went well the first year. "But in the second year, the instructor and I started to butt heads," Hamilton recounts. "She declared that all genre was trash. She wanted us to write straight fiction. I refused."
By the middle of the semester, half the class had abandoned literary fiction for mysteries, Westerns and romances. "They were doing genre," Hamilton says proudly, "because I wouldn't bow down."
Hamilton tried to argue that literature and genre weren't necessarily incompatible. Weren't C.S. Lewis' Narnia books fantasies, and couldn't A Christmas Carol and Hamlet be classified as ghost stories?
"But then," says Hamilton, "I pushed for Moby Dick as a monster movie. She sliced me, diced me and spread me on toast. She told me I would never succeed. She crushed me."
Chastened, Hamilton switched to biology, but continued to write. "It worked out," she says. "Now I realize she didn't try to crush me because she thought I wouldn't succeed, but because she thought I would." She grins. "I've corrupted millions."
Last summer Blood Noir, the sixteenth book in Hamilton's Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter series, hit No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list. There are Anita comic books and plans for a movie or a TV series. And there are thousands of fan websites, including an Anita Wikipedia and a legion of role-playing games.
The Merry Gentry series isn't doing so shabbily, either. The initial print run of Swallowing Darkness was 200,000 copies, and there are a half-million paperback copies of the first book, A Kiss of Shadows, in print. "My agent says she's never heard of anyone having two best-selling series before," Hamilton says. "I'm it."
Success has led to a punishing writing schedule: one new Anita book every spring and one new Merry in the fall. And as the two series have progressed, the books keep getting longer, routinely weighing in at 1,000 manuscript pages.
Susan Allison, who has edited the Anita books the past six years, credits Hamilton for creating the subgenre of paranormal fiction: a blend of horror, mystery and romance. Now, almost all best-selling romance novels feature vampires and werewolves, but, notes Allison, "Laurell was there first."
In the words of USA Today, "What The Da Vinci Code did for the religious thriller, the Anita Blake series has done for the vampire novel."
Hamilton has a slightly more acerbic take on her role as a trendsetter. "If imitation is the greatest form of flattery, I'm as flattered as I want to be."
"I'm not the kind of writer who can read a guidebook and write a city," Hamilton says. "I need it to be solid. Since I live here, the Anita books are set here. I love St. Louis. It's home. I get to drive around and bury bodies." (For the record, Hamilton's favorite local boneyard is Bellefontaine Cemetery. "Give me angels weeping to heaven," she says. "And weeds. Weeds are pretty.")
"St. Louis is a combination of a big city, the country and the suburbs," Hamilton continues. "You have the Fox Theatre and then, half an hour away, there's trees and wilderness. There's no other city like that."
Hamilton moved here from Los Angeles in 1987 with her then-husband, who'd found a job as a computer programmer. She discovered St. Louis' potential as a setting later that summer after attending a bachelorette party on Laclede's Landing. "It was perfect," she recalls. "The river, the narrow streets, the cobblestones. It was a happy accident." In the Anita books, the Landing is known as the Blood District because so many of the clubs are owned by vampires.
In later books, Anita buys her coffee at V.J. Coffee & Tea on Olive Boulevard, complains about the traffic on I-270, tracks serial killers in Wildwood, visits a bondage club in Sauget and goes on a date to the Fox, which both Hamilton and Anita consider the most beautiful building in St. Louis. Hamilton tries to use real locations as much as possible, though she makes exceptions for places that might pose dangers to overenthusiastic readers.
"In one of the books, Anita had to swim through an underwater cave, which is very dangerous," Hamilton explains. "And then at one signing, a couple of people came up to me and said they were tracking Anita though St. Louis and the cave wasn't where I said it was. They would have gone exploring in that cave!"
Hamilton lives in a secluded corner of south county with her husband, Jonathon Green, her daughter, Trinity, and two pugs. She writes on the second floor of their newly renovated home in a large, light-filled office with exposed wooden beams and pale-blue walls, a color she says stimulates her creativity. She has four desks, so if her writing stalls, she can move to a different space. When the writing is going badly, she sits at the desk facing the wall. "I sit there to block out distractions," she says.
She works in two four-hour blocks during the day while her daughter is at school. She starts at 8:30 each morning and stops when she completes her daily allotment: four to eight pages.
Green and Darla Cook, Hamilton's personal assistant, help her with the non-writing aspects of being a writer, like answering fan mail and maintaining the computer system. Green also helps plot out the Anita comic books. Both have learned to gauge how well Hamilton's daily writing is going by the music they hear coming from her office.
"She usually picks one CD for each book," Green explains. "Of late, she's been using more heavy metal and hard rock. If it's not going well, she plays musicals. And if it's really not going well, she plays Christmas music."
Not many questions at Q&A sessions surprise Hamilton anymore. She stands at the campfire waiting, and, sure enough, one of the most oft-asked inquiries comes out of the darkness: "Where do you get your ideas?"
Hamilton takes a deep breath. "My writing comes from a place of deep emotional pain, which is limitless," she says. The sad facts of her childhood are already well known to most of her fans: Her parents were divorced when she was a baby; she never knew her father; her mother was killed in a car accident when Hamilton was six years old.
"I never had that feeling of immortality as a teenager," Hamilton says. "The death of my mother took that away from me. My sense of safety was gone."
Hamilton was raised by her grandmother, Laura Gentry, in Sims, Indiana. She was the only kid at school without parents. "I was terribly not typical," she says. Gentry didn't drive, which added to Hamilton's sense of isolation.
At home, her grandmother told her Ozark ghost stories and together they watched horror movies on TV. Hamilton liked the vampires, and particularly enjoyed one film called Vampire Circus. "I preferred things that could eat and feed off of people. It was visceral. The danger was more real." (Strangely enough, upon viewing the film as an adult, Hamilton realized its lead vampire resembled Jean-Claude, the master vampire in the Anita books.)
At fourteen, inspired by Robert E. Howard's Pigeons from Hell, she wrote her first story. "It was a grisly tale," she remembers. "There was a large family and I slaughtered them all, except for the baby. It crawled into the woods to die. It was torture porn. I showed it to my grandmother and uncle. They weren't horrified. They patted me on the head and let me go on."
It was then she decided to become a writer.
From the beginning, Hamilton took her work seriously. "By the time I was seventeen, I was turning down trips to the beach because I owed myself pages."
"Laurell always wanted to be a commercial success," observes Sharon Shinn, a friend and member of Hamilton's writing group. "She'd rather be successful than win a major award."
In college, despite the creative-writing program debacle, Hamilton began sending out stories. She sold her first in her early twenties, and her first novel, Nightseer, when she was 24. It took more than four years to publish. "I held it in my hands on my 29th birthday," says Hamilton. "It was very cool timing." By then, she had already moved to St. Louis and started writing Guilty Pleasures, the first book in the Anita Blake series.
Nightseer didn't sell well enough for the publisher to buy the sequel, but it made a lifelong Laurell K. Hamilton fan of Jonathon Green, who first read it in 1993 as a senior at Windsor High School in Imperial. "I thought it was a really good fantasy novel," he says now, "and I read a lot of fantasy novels. The characters captivated me."
That year, he met Hamilton for the first time, at a signing at Name That Con, a science-fiction convention in St. Louis. Hamilton was still married to her first husband at the time and considered Green nothing more than a devoted self-described fanboy; they didn't begin dating until 2000, after her divorce.
"In the beginning," she recalls, "only four people came to my signings, Jon and his friend Andrew [Kuhlmann] and Darla [Cook] and her husband, Jack." Green and Cook remain her two biggest fans.
Her other source of support and encouragement in those years was her writing group, the Alternate Historians, which she formed with six other writers soon after moving to St. Louis. The group recently celebrated its twentieth anniversary. "It was incredibly valuable as a beginning writer," Hamilton says. "I didn't know what worked. My first book worked, but then I couldn't sell the next two. We'd call each other up at odd hours to talk about writing."
It took "two years and 200 rejections" before Hamilton sold Guilty Pleasures to Penguin Putnam. "Everyone loved it, but no one knew what to do with it," she remembers. "The horror publishers thought I should try to sell it to the science-fiction or fantasy publishers, and the science-fiction publishers thought I should try the mystery publishers. From the moment it came out, it was a slow build, not a blockbuster."
"Publishers don't put a lot of marketing money into a new series," says Martha Kneib, another member of the Alternate Historians. "You have to build a readership. Plenty of good books languish. You catch the tide or you don't."
"The fifth book was when Anita really took off," remembers Cook. "That was three years in. A writer like Stephenie Meyer, who had a bestseller with her first book, is the exception, not the rule."
"The numbers kept on growing," says Susan Allison. "Sales have been enormous. Blood Noir was No. 1 on the New York Times list for four weeks. Her previous three have all been No. 2."
"It used to be I would write a book and no one cared," Hamilton says. "There wasn't a pressing need. Now my publishers are more serious about me getting the book to them. I don't buy into the hype," she adds. "No one is as wonderful as all that."
Hamilton's best-known and best-loved creation remains Anita Blake, the vampire hunter. Anita and Hamilton have been working together for more than twenty years now, although Anita is still only 29.
"Anita came from LA," Hamilton remembers. "It was a very isolated period of my life. My husband had a job. I hadn't yet found one. I knew nobody, felt totally alien. I went to the local library and started reading mysteries, Robert Parker's Spenser series, Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky. In all those books, the men got to cuss and shoot and have sex casually. The women would shoot, too, but they always felt really bad about it. They rarely cussed and had sex offstage.
"I thought it was really unfair. I wanted to level the playing field. But I knew writing a mainstream mystery would bore me. So I gave myself a lot of toys so I wouldn't get bored. I looked at the world and wondered: If vampires were all real, if we had to deal with them, what would change?"
In Anita Blake's world, vampires have civil rights, thanks to a Supreme Court case, and have learned to control their bloodlust. Anita's world also has werebeasts — not just werewolves, but wereleopards and weretigers and werefoxes, that transform when the moon is full. Unlike vampires, they are social outcasts unless they manage to keep their identities secret.
Anita herself is an animator: She has the power to raise the dead and, in her day job, resurrects corpses to settle legal matters. She is also a licensed vampire executioner and moonlights as an investigator for the supernatural division of the St. Louis Police Department.
Unlike the heroines of other popular vampire novels, most notably Stephenie Meyer's Twilight, Anita doesn't depend on her vampire lover to rescue her from tight situations. She's small but tough, foul-mouthed, and she always packs a pistol and a wisecrack. In the later books of the series, she has a lot of vividly described sex with a dazzling array of lovers — eleven at last count — including vampires, wereleopards and a werewolf.
"There's nothing embarrassing about writing a sex scene as long as everyone is enjoying themselves," Hamilton says. But she makes sure Anita is responsible about taking her birth-control pills and insists that all the male characters wear condoms. At one point, an orgy gets put on hold while the men fumble through their pockets for protection.
Although Anita lives in a fantasy world, Hamilton does serious research to make it believable. Her background in biology helps in working out the logistics of werebeast transformation. She interviewed St. Louis police officers to learn about crime investigation and also to understand more about Anita's psychology. "I wanted to find out what it was like to take a life, but only in the line of duty. You lose parts of yourself, unless you're a sociopath."
Hamilton has also become something of an expert on firearms. In all her years of writing Anita, she says proudly, she has made only one mistake: "A human body cannot be cut in half with an Uzi without a mushroom clip. Once I found out, I had it changed."
Hamilton took some inspiration for Anita from her own life. "Anita and I were similar in the beginning," she says. Both are five feet three inches tall. Both have dark, curly hair and lost their mothers at an early age. Both speak bluntly and have a dry sense of humor.
"Robert Frost said a poem is like an ice cube on a hot stove," Hamilton says. "It has its own momentum." The same is true of Anita Blake. Author and character frequently clash when Anita refuses to go along with a planned plot development. "Anita always surprises me," says Hamilton. "I've learned to take my bets off the table."
Hamilton has slightly more distance from Merry Gentry, the heroine of her other series. Merry is a fairy princess, but Hamilton's fey are not tiny sprites like Tinker Bell. They are tall and elegant, ferocious and sexual. The series chronicles Merry's fight to take her rightful place as the fairy queen. For the first few books, Merry was more willing than Anita to go along with Hamilton's plots but in Swallowing Darkness, she, too, began to revolt.
"Laurell's fun to be around when she's fighting with her characters," says Cook. "She gets so mad!"
"If a character is alive and real enough to argue with me," Hamilton says, "I figure it's their life, not mine. I get pissy, though, if they throw off my book plot." But she still has trouble killing characters.
"The first person I killed, in Guilty Pleasures, I only knew a few sentences beforehand," she explains. "I was horrified. I had to stop writing for a few days. After that, Anita made me promise I wouldn't kill anyone she was attracted to. But now she's dating everybody! In real life, you lose people, but in fiction, you can save them. You can always rewrite. In real life, dead is dead."
When Hamilton finishes her reading, the audience at the Wild Canid Survival and Research Center leaves the campfire and walks along a path that plunges them deeper into the woods. It's time for the wolf howl.
Tentatively at first, then more loudly, the crowd joins the rangers in howling into the darkness. It takes several minutes of coaxing ah-wooos, but finally the wolves respond with a chorus of eerie howls, mingled with a few yips from the puppies that sound like ghostly laughter.
Hamilton's fans are impressed, but the wolves are forgotten as soon as they enter a Quonset hut near the campfire where there is cocoa, Halloween cookies and Hamilton, who will be signing copies of her books and raffling off autographed copies of Swallowing Darkness. Hamilton has forged an unusually close relationship with her fans, thanks to frequent readings, charity events and a blog she updates almost every day.
She also has a website that sells a staggering array of Anita and Merry paraphernalia, including silver vampire necklaces, T-shirts that read "I Vant Too Peck Your Neck," and fanged rubber duckies that fans often bring to readings for Hamilton to sign.
"Most authors are incredibly shy," Cook says, "but Laurell doesn't mind a crowd. She loves talking to her fans and getting feedback from them. She'd miss it if she couldn't have it."
"Sometimes it gets tiresome being Laurell! K! Hamilton!" Hamilton admits. "Once I went out to do some research without any makeup. I didn't look very special, and people got on the 'Net and trashed me. I'm a writer. It never occurred to me to have accountability for my appearance. People want you to look special as a way of explaining why you're like this and they're not. They want you to look like the magic is there." So Hamilton obliges with eyeliner and bright red lipstick and foundation that covers the circles under her eyes.
But she still disappoints some readers. Because Hamilton looks and talks like Anita, fans expect her to be Anita. "If I could do it all over," Hamilton jokes, "I would make Anita a blonde."
The confusion sometimes becomes annoying. In the fall of 2001, just before they were married in a Wiccan ceremony, Hamilton brought Green along on tour for the tenth Anita book, Narcissus in Chains. This book is a pivotal one in the series: Anita breaks up with Richard the werewolf for good and begins sleeping – and living – with two wereleopards, Micah and Nathaniel. Some fans immediately concluded that Hamilton based the novel on her divorce from her first husband and subsequent engagement to Green. They were furious.
"I was puzzled," says Green. "More people blamed me for breaking up the characters in the novel than they did for Laurell's divorce."
"People reacted as if I had dumped their favorite brother," Hamilton recalls. "I've never been able to kill the rumor that this book is about my real life."
Anita's living arrangements in Narcissus in Chains and subsequent books have made Hamilton an inadvertent spokeswoman for the polyamory community. "I'm one of the most practical romantics," she says.
"My husband and I actually talked about having a third adult in the house. Economically, why not have a household with three incomes? It's very practical, except for the whole human thing. The thought of finding another person who doesn't bug the crap out of me boggles me. And with every person, you add another heart to tap-dance around."
Anita is a lucky woman: All her lovers possess remarkable size and stamina. Some fans are envious. "They want inches!" Hamilton says. "They ask how well-endowed Jon is. They ask for phone numbers of Anita's men!"
It is because of this sort of intrusiveness — and the numerous men who proposition her at readings — that Hamilton always travels with security, which she pays for herself. Because of problems with stalkers, she no longer reveals exactly where she lives or the age of her daughter.
"This one weirdo wrote from prison," Cook recounts. "He said he loved Laurell and wanted to marry her. The woman he stalked and raped and beat — he no longer wanted to be with her. I forwarded the letter to his parole board."
"I have a new goal," Hamilton says. "I never want to appear on Jerry Springer or be the inspiration for an episode of Law & Order."
The majority of her fans, Hamilton is quick to note, are "the best in the world." She receives 100 e-mails every day and 100 letters per week; her monthly fan club newsletter, "News to Die For," has 3,500 subscribers.
"I've lost track of the number of people who've told me they got out of an abusive relationship because Anita wouldn't takeit," Hamilton says. "Women don't understand they don't have to be victims. It shocked me. I was raised to be strong to survive. I didn't realize people were so hungry for someone to tell them how to be strong."
Back at the wolf sanctuary, Hamilton obligingly chats with fans, signs their books, poses for pictures and agrees to join a ghost-hunting society. She has helped raised more than $3,000 for the wolves, all in all a good night's work.
But tomorrow morning she'll be back at her desk trying to steer Anita Blake through another series of adventures. "She's going to be hunting killers and trying not to sleep with anyone new," Hamilton promises. "She's tired and so am I."