The first time I saw Trebor Healey, we were in a master class at the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival. I’d just read his wonderful novel Through It Came Bright Colors, and I was too intimidated by his talent to talk to him. He laughed when I told him that later. While the intimidation is gone, the awe remains.
Not every story in this collection is erotic, but I have to mention “A California Death” and “A Boy and His Dog” as truly fine examples of the art of the short story. Not to be missed.
In the title story, “A Perfect Scar,” the narrator is drawn to the Vietnamese hood Tran for reasons he can’t explain other than faith. Tran doesn’t identify as queer, but that doesn’t stop him from fucking the narrator. Melancholy and fatalistic, the narrator sees clearly that Tran burns too bright to last long, but Tran’s charisma is inescapable.
Gilberto, conceived in a desperate attempt to save a marriage, is a beautiful boy. Then puberty hits. He’s disgusted by the changes he’s going through, and worse, he’s affecting people around him. Girls erupt into spontaneous orgasms. Pregnancy rates in his high school soar. Even his patient, saintly mother gets it on with a co-worker. When horns sprout from his skull and shaving his hairy legs three times a day fails to keep the fur in check, he runs for the hills, where he finally meets another “Faun” who can explain and accept. Anyone from Los Angeles may snicker as I did at the end when it turns out that Gilberto’s fled to Arcadia.
Deftly comedic, “Housesitting” is an irresistible tale of an anarchist who tries in vain to keep his politics from infringing on his cushy stint as a house sitter. If he were to examine his sex life closely, he’d probably see that he’s as opportunistic and callous as the people he despises, but of course he’s rationalized everything. That lack of insight isn’t limited to sex. He embraces anarchy while trying to contain it to convenient moments in his life. As events spiral out of his control, an anarchist should appreciate the beauty of the chaos, but he doesn’t. Adding insult to injury, he becomes a pop culture icon, his image emblazoned on t-shirts.
This collection was a true pleasure to read. I keep picking up the book and rereading passages, mesmerized. Thumbs up, but it deserves higher praise than that.
I have to admit I'm still reeling over the demise of Black Lace. One moment the UK boasts a prestigious publishing house of superlative erotic fiction, written by women and written for women. The next moment, the doors are being metaphorically closed and the publisher is explaining that the list will be closed for at least twelve months. Knowledgeable industry insiders have already pointed out that this is as good as the publisher's putting up a sign saying they've closed the shop for this particular imprint.
There have been some authors who argued that the Black Lace ethos of only publishing female authors was somewhat sexist. Regardless of whether a body is discriminating against men or women, it's still discrimination. To that end I can sympathise with that point of view, even though I think, in this instance, it had its advantages. Black Lace was an icon of female-friendly erotica and, in a society where women are still undervalued in the battle for equality, I was always in favour of a publisher who thoroughly supported female authors and offered a comfort zone of erotica that female readers knew had been written specifically and exclusively for them. Maybe it did have overtones of political correctness taken to a ridiculous extreme. However, if it gave just one reader an opportunity to enjoy well-written erotica through providing a safety-net of assurance that had been produced by a female writer, then it's served a valid purpose.
Dark Obsession by Fredrica Alleyn is a perfect example of why Black Lace should not have closed its doors. Dark Obsession is an erotic bildungsroman novel that explores Annabel Moss's journey from work-obsessed young-womanhood to sexual understanding, awareness and maturity. The content is explicit, arousing and stylishly written.
We open the story with Alleyn building background as Annabel is introduced as the rising protégé of two successful gay interior designers. Annabel is young, attractive and solely focussed on her work. She is trying to shy away from the responsibility of taking on the Leyton Hall contract but her employers believe she is more than ready for the challenge that this will present. Consequently, Annabel is shipped off to a large country estate where all manner of sexual shenanigans are taking place.
The hedonism within Leyton Hall is representative of the hedonism that the Black Lace imprint perpetually exuded. The sex takes place in a variety of decadent locations, from stables through to stylish stately-home bedrooms. There is a suggestion of borderline incest between the incumbent brother and sister-in-law that borders on being a revisitation to Wuthering Heights but with orgasms. There is an air of cool distance between the reigning couple who head the household, reminiscent of something from John Updike. And there are a wealth of salacious romps between minor characters as they revel in the general bonhomie of being centre stage in a well-written erotic masterpiece. Again, if we're going for a literary precedent, lets put this in the milieu of John Cleland.
As the story progresses, Annabel succumbs to the atmosphere of sexual egalitarianism that abounds at Leyton Hall. Because the majority of us mature into our sexuality it is only fitting that the character in this story develops her awareness of her place as a valid member of society through her developing interest and exploration of sex and sexuality.
As stated previously, the sex is constant, exciting and exquisitely written. Fredrica Alleyn knows how to press buttons. Fredrica Alleyn knows how to put a light to the blue touch paper and then stand back so we can enjoy the fireworks.For those who've never encountered a Black Lace novel before, Fredrica Alleyn's story would have previously been described as an ideal place to begin. However, now that Black Lace is no longer there, Dark Obsession has to be described as one of the last remaining chances to see the superlative standard this publishing house used to produce.
Sexual heat can run from a small, warm flame of comfortable arousal to a raging form of pyromania. The point is not so much that one is crazy for love or even for the sex that may go with it. It’s the heat itself that drives you nuts, the mad lust for warmth that centers your mind and body on immolation by sensual sensation.
Playing with Fire anthologized by Allison Tyler offers a brisk array of relatively short, hot stories on that theme. They are not so much about the lust for fire itself, as they are narratives about the heat lust creates. That theme is frequently interposed with the temptations of sinful sex, which includes the perverse, the self-denigrating, the adulterous, and the masochistic. As every good Christian knows, fire is a moral purgative, or so they believe. It cleanses the soul while excoriating the body by punishing wayward flesh.
Ergo, we get this sort of statement fairly often from characters who wish to expunge one act of sensual misbehavior through another. Here is an example from “Trial by Fire” by Bella Dean:
I wait for Sean to order me and I do what he asks. His tongue is foreign. Broader than my husband’s. Wet and sweet and forbidden. I am entering the territory of whore, leaving saint behind. I broaden my stance and let him suck my clit until I grab his shoulders to keep from falling. I come in a rush of shame and redemption.
Her husband it seems, who is now looking on, is both elated and exhausted judging from his audible exhalations. It is hot stuff to be sure, but what it really has to do with purgations, whores and saints is decidedly unclear. As in many of these stories, the characters are really playing fire games with each other because it gets them off. They like the illusion of punishment along with the bounce of coming extra hard.
These stories work that notion very well, and I can’t see anyone but an authentic sourpuss niggling over the moral dichotomy between what the characters are telling themselves and what they are actually doing. It would be like telling a geek in a funny suit at a Trekkie convention that he is not really going to, “boldly go where no man has gone before.” He knows that. He is getting off on the hype.
Some of these stories artfully allow the characters themselves to become wisps of erotic fire as in “White Heat, White Light” by Shanna Germain. Her character describes herself thus:
I travel with the speed of light on winged sandals until I am there. In from of him, fierce and free in my summer dress. In the wind, my hair whips around my head. It makes untamable snakes with pretty patterns.
She is an ephemeral thing of passion that will quickly disappear as the fire in her abates.
In matters of style this book ranges from the lustful to the lurid. I am at a loss to know how you can be “fierce” in your summer dress, but “fierce” is a word that seems to have been co-opted of late by PC cant. Kristina Wright in “Where There’s Smoke,” on the other hand, makes wonderful ironic use of erotic confession, where the outcome is a tasty reversal of the tiresome reconciliation we had at first anticipated. The give away is that this possessive but less than thrilling male comes home early from the golf course. How can men pursue this dreary polyester amusement when this amazing female furnace of delights is spread wide for him at home on the Barcalounger? Short forms are used well here, the best of which is “Texas Hot” by A.D.R. Forte whose hot and humid effort is really one paragraph.The balance of the stories are clit-stroking, cum-choking, hot and smoking fucking with an inordinate amount of cock sucking. One does wonder with all the complaining one hears these days about the politics of sucking cock and particularly swallowing cum, that it is so prominent and detailed a feature of these stories. Nonetheless, all that suction does make for lively reading even if the outcome is always the same. That’s all perfectly fine, making Playing with Fire both steamy and fiery, as promised.
We're all guilty. All of us authors, I mean. We take a personal experience, an actual erotic encounter, and turn it into a story. We burnish it. We perfect it. Then we offer it to the world, usually pretending it is fiction when in fact it's the truth, retouched with fantasy.
Pleasure Bound purports to be a book of true confessions. I am not willing to go out on a limb and guess which stories are “real” and which are not. It's a continuum anyway. Every erotic story contains at least a germ of personal truth. Some of the stories feel more genuine than others, but that could reflect the author's craft as much as the reality of the experience.
So I'll treat all of the contributions in Ms. Tyler's volume as fiction and review them as such. As my husband often claims, “There's no such thing as reality.” Especially when you are talking about erotica.
Possibly my favorite tale in the collection is Alison Tyler's own “Stickler for Details”. The author/narrator contacts a Dom for research purposes. He chides her for using capital “I” in her emails to refer to herself, and she's justifiably annoyed. When she finally meets him, however, his presence overwhelms her:
He was there, waiting, his silver hair brushed back from his forehead, his suit jacket open over a stark white shirt—no tie, no frills, crisp and smart as Courier font. From his gaze, I realized that I no longer had to worry about my Is or my eyes, because the sense of submissiveness fell over me like a cloak. I didn’t have to think about how to behave…I wanted to be his with a capital H… When I pulled up a chair at the table, when I said my greetings, when I brought out my notebook—every gesture about me whispered of my desires. Every story I’d ever written had led me to this point.
Okay, I'll admit that I'm ready to believe this tale. It was too heartfelt not to be true.
Another standout is Teresa Noelle Robert's “Big Hands.” It's one of the few stories in which the female is dominant—at least for a while. Jim is tall, dark, handsome and built so solidly that he was one loincloth and some archaic weaponry away from being a fantasy barbarian warrior, just the sort of guy to give a girl a spanking she'll never forget. But Jim has other ideas, and they turn out to be as arousing as the narrator's original notions.
Having maintained my own long distance BDSM relationship for more than two decades, I identified strongly with “The Visit” by A.D.R. Forte.
“How would you like to be fucked here?”
I was exhausted and filthy from traveling for more than a day. My back ached and my eyes hurt, and I hadn't eaten except for the lone hot dog in Chicago and countless bottles of caffeinated soda.
I looked at him and my breath caught in my throat.
“Yes,” I said.
“Yes what?” he asked as he came to stand before me, and I took a deep breath. It scared me that it came so easily, that we'd picked up our old ways so seamlessly.
“Yes, Sir.” And I was trembling as I said it. “Please.”
The emotion is genuine. Never mind the facts.
Other standouts include Shanna Germain's “Deal”. Ms. Germain paints a gritty portrait of a last semester in high school, two couples playing cards, the narrator fucked and near strangled by the other girl's boyfriend and loving it all. “Mr. Smith, Ms. Jones Will See You Now,” by Malcolm Harris, gives us a blow by blow (literally) account of a man's visit to a dominatrix--a visit funded by his wife. The story succeeds in convincing the reader that BDSM is the road to physical as well as mental health, at least for some of us. Annette Miller's “Do I Look Like I'm Joking” is a humorous and arousing tale of a husband pushing his wife's limits. “Bound to Act,” by Brooke Stern, incorporates more extreme submission and suggests that in order to be an effective actor, you literally need to let go. Thomas Roche's “Ghosts of the Wildflower” is smart and sharp and slightly wistful in its portrayal of a compulsive liar who happens to adore bondage.
One of the things that I appreciate about Alison Tyler's anthologies is her willingness to explore the darker side of BDSM. Some stories in this volume—Sophie Valenti’s “On the Mend,” Tess Danesi's “Tears of All Kinds,” Stephen Elliott's “Once More Beneath the Exit Sign”—dwell more on the sadism component in the acronym. I don't necessarily prefer stories of really rough sex myself, but I know that they're part of the power spectrum and I applaud Ms. Tyler's discernment in including them in her books.
I am not talking about a lack of consent here. Mercy isn't in Marc's vocabulary—and for that I'm thankful begins Ms. Valenti's story. That sums it up. Some people crave a level of pain beyond what I'd seek. For some, real fear is truly arousing. Ms. Tyler recognizes this, unlike some editors who shy away from the darkness and treat BDSM as a kind of game.
Pleasure Bound is another exceptional collection of BDSM fiction--or is it fact?—from a daring and sensitive editor who clearly understands her topic from personal experience.
This collection of nineteen vampire stories manages to enchant the reader, despite the glut of vampire fiction on the market. In these stories, the restlessness of modern travelers (mortal or immortal) meets the claustrophobic despair of static characters, like solid ghosts, who are trapped in particular places and old habits. The mortals in these stories are not the only ones who feel an ambivalent desire for the strange and exotic.
Here is Marta, the vampire narrator of Remittance Girl's story, "Midnight at Sheremetyevo:
Ever since I joined the family, the annual journey to Zurich to arrange our legal and financial affairs has fallen to me. I'm the only one left of us who still loves the cold, the only one who yearns for a nice crisp snowy night.
On her way to Zurich, Marta has to spend several hours in an almost-empty Russian airport where she meets a delectable young man who is drawn to her like a moth to a lightbulb. Both of them suffer as a consequence of their mutual attraction; dark romance doesn’t get much better than this.
Thomas S. Roche's story, "Wait Until Dark, Montresor," is also a traveler’s tale. The narrator gives detailed instructions to the reader, who presumably wants to meet a waif-like vampire author who lives in a room over a coffee shop. This route could be traced on a map:
The town of San Esteban is best reached by car on State Route 13, which slips off Interstate 101with subtlety, implying it doesn't wish to be noticed. Watch for the exit south of Ukiah, make your pukey, carsick way through the Coast Range and be sure to stop for an espresso and a home-baked brownie at Space Cowboy's shack just past the Chatelaine Reservoir about half-hour past Bargerville.
This story is as much about an otherwordly road trip in California, the state that has drawn so many of the curious and the hopeful from other places, as it is about star-fucking, or a cult of celebrity.
Other stories about rootless travelers include Maxim Jakubowski's story, "The Communion of Blood and Semen," in which an English writer who travels too much to form long-term attachments meets the female vampire of his dreams in cyberspace:
We'd met in Manhattan. On, of all places, Craigslist, the Internet Sargasso of obscene desire, barter, thievery, fakery and false identities.
Strangely enough, this romance has a happy ending.
Several of these stories are set in particular cities, all shown at night (of course). Lisabet Sarai, an American living in Thailand, uses local color to good effect in her story, “Fourth World.” When two English-speaking male tourists meet a glamorous Thai woman whose motives aren’t clear to them, one explains the local culture to the other in terms that could apply equally well to the culture of supernatural beings:
An Aussie friend of mine says that Thailand is ‘fourth world’ – a world where laws and logic are indefinitely suspended. Where anything can happen, and usually does. It’s a surprising place.
Madeleine Oh’s “Nightlife” is set in nineteenth-century Paris, where an apparent lady of pleasure picks up a sad man who drinks alone while recording the nightlife of his city in his art. The perceptive reader recognizes him as an actual person who became as immortal in his own way as the lady is in hers.
"Cutter" by Kristina Wright is set in the night world of Las Vegas, which attracts risk-takers. It seems like a logical place for the meeting of a self-destructive young woman and a hungry but compassionate male vampire.
These stories manage to squeeze fresh juice (so to speak) out of the traditional themes of vampire fiction. Probably the most obvious theme is the erotic exchange of vampire and mortal victim as a metaphor for Dominance/submission or sadism/masochism, and the confused desire of the “victim,” which is usually more obvious to the mind-reading vampire than to the self-ignorant mortal. In “Red by Any Other Name” by Kathleen Bradean, the roles of vampire as Dominant and mortal as submissive are neatly reversed as a professional Domme with human limitations responds to a telephone call from a mysterious male submissive whose taste for blood is expressed in a series of words for red, which are never spoken aloud.
Besides traveler’s tales, stories set in exotic locales and stories about the giving and taking of blood as power exchange, there are stories here in which bloodlust is a metaphor for addictions of various kinds and stories in which vampires function as eyewitness guides to the historical past.
The most powerful story (in this reviewer’s opinion) about bloodlust as addiction is “Once An Addict . . .” by A.D.R. Forte. In this story, a centuries-old female narrator (who is obviously a vampire) forces a modern man whose life is spiralling downhill to kick his habits and return to life and health, despite his resistance. Only when he has come to need her presence as much as he once needed mind-altering substances does she tell him why she chose him. They develop a mutual addiction:
I catch sight of us sometimes in mirrors, once with him behind me, his cock tight in my ass, and his bleeding wrist pressed to my mouth, our eyes glazed with euphoria, with the high.
The symbiotic relationship of vampire and mortal in this story points to a central irony in all the stories here that could be classified as romances with happy endings: even though vampires live parasitically on the essence of human life, several of these vampire characters fiercely preserve the lives of their mortal lovers even when those lovers are suicidal.
In “Blood and Bootleg” by Teresa Noelle Roberts, a debutante of the 1920s tries to distract herself with sex and illegal booze from the pain of losing her beloved twin brother in the Great War of 1914-1918. A handsome German guest appears at her birthday party, and responds to her hatred of “Huns” by letting her know that he has survived other atrocities in other times and places. In effect, he puts her grief in perspective while offering her consolation if she has the courage to accept it.
Singling out individual stories in this collection is hard because each of them is effective in its own way. However, one especially memorable story for me is the one lesbian story in this collection: “Devouring Heart” by Andrea Dale. In this heartbreaking tale, the good intentions of both vampire and mortal can’t make up for the communication gap between them. This relationship makes a valid-enough metaphor for real-life relationships in an incestuous lesbian community, and the story seems true to its literary roots.
The grandmother of such stories seems to be Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu, a novella about a young woman who exerts an apparently magical (and harmful) influence on her female friends. It was published in 1872, approximately a generation before Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
The one story in The Sweetest Kiss which seems out of place is “Kiss and Make Up” by Lisette Ashton, a kind of dark dirty joke about a vampire seductress who provokes her mate, Dracula, by seducing an innocent new male vampire who is unable to resist her charms or to realize that she has played this game many times before. Vampire humor is not a bad thing, but since it tends to debunk the tradition of vampires as objects of dread and desire, its appearance here undermines the mood that has already been set up.In general, the quality of the writing in this book is vivid and hypnotic. Anyone with an interest in vampire erotica is likely to find at least one favorite story in this batch.