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.

Laurell K. Hamilton
Jennifer Silverberg
Laurell K. Hamilton
Laurell K. Hamilton at her favorite local cemetery, Bellefontaine in north city. "I haven't set a book there," she says. "I don't want to go there for work."
Jennifer Silverberg
Laurell K. Hamilton at her favorite local cemetery, Bellefontaine in north city. "I haven't set a book there," she says. "I don't want to go there for work."

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.

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