Like a Corset Undone is an anthology of steampunk erotica that has the undeniably lush, pungent, laciness of upper crust Victorian stroke fiction a la The Pearl. A fair number of quasi-feminist buckles are swashed as ladies in stays and bloomers get the upper hand over lubricious tumescent men. Male readers, however, will not feel either slighted or abused by their dainty victories. The sex here is as steamy as the era it represents, one in which the superhuman power of gargantuan machines still dazzled enough to make the mechanistic release of steam feel orgasmic.
Some of the ladies as in “Adventures Underground” by Cartmine Bligh connive prettily to suffer the lash, as is their secret wont, and there is a general sense of extremely naughty, if not piratical, fun about the entire book. These stories are to my mind more Edwardian than Victorian. They take place after the actual Industrial Revolution when people began to contemplate the larger meaning and possible refinement of machines, not just to create more of them. The prose style is universally suited to about the year 1900, and as such is usually a cut above our contemporary grunt and scratch style of the early 21st century. These writers know about gerundives and the complex sentence. So basically, the news for readers is good.
This is my first adventure in steampunk. The challenge of this new and rather unformed genre is that the author is obliged to create a double anachronism. Some concept of present or future technology has been displaced into the past prior to its actual creation or refinement. Thus airships (dirigibles?) may dominate the skies in the hands of cross-dressing pirates who use electric pistols, (which seem to be sort of hyper stun guns) as in “The Sky Dancer” by R. E. Bond and “Skyway Robbery” by Angelia Sparrow and Naomi Brooks.
This latter story has a Munchausen quality in that Robin Hood’s descendent has taken up piracy in an air ship as he battles the Edisonians, another corps of techno-pirates. Once a raid on the enemy airship is successfully completed, Robin hungrily falls to a lengthy and detailed rimming and buggering of Will (Scarlet?). That happy event is interrupted by the entrance of Robin’s girlfriend, Marian. She intrudes upon the scene in drag, nether parts still dripping from the excitement of the fray. Thus she is ready to join in celebrating the Captain’s captivating cock. It is reported in fact to be larger than Little John’s fighting staff – a likely story, eh, girls?
The trick of doing steampunk well is to make all these temporal collisions both necessary to the story, and exciting inclusions. Steam engines per se are pretty dull unless you get off on such things, no matter what they are attached to or whatever bizarre function they are set to perform. The danger lies in simply writing Victorian porn with some murky science fiction thrown in for effect or to meet the editors’ Call for Submissions. Good and bad examples appear in this volume.
Then too all these airships and sundry other machinery that populate these fictive skies must be belching massive quantities of carbon fuel exhaust, a problem that seems not to trouble these authors at all. In short, it is as though they find the Industrial Age a sort of divine intervention in human affairs, with none of the demonic effects we now know to be the case. They forget that it took half of the 20th century to clean up a fair portion of the soot left in Europe from the 19th.
One area that seems particularly irksome is the tendency to explain all sorts of anomalies by the fact that character X is from an alternate universe and thus able to do and think all sorts of things ordinary Victorians do not. Without some explanation of how or why this person is around, the effect is that of a bad deus ex machina, a simple cheat to get the problem off stage.
The other pitfall of steampunk is applying the mental habits of the late 20th Century to that of the late 19th. Few of these writers seem to have made it to the 21st. While I am perfectly willing to accept the post-modern dictum that history is not the study of group think, I am also aware that economic conditions and oppressions of empire impel people into certain point’s of view. I am all for the exception in such matters but the author has to justify his/her choices, not just post them like surprise counterindications about the past. It’s a tricky problem.
Some authors here solve the anamolies very well, like Roxy Katt, who describes her voluptuous female characters as the literal embodiment of the zeppelin in “The Zeppelin Raiders””
Ah, but the feature of the suit that had immediately arrested Constance’s attention was not the voluptuousness of breast and buttock, nor the claustrophobic cocooning of the suit’s design, but the tightly armored groin covering which was a kind of metal dome or codpiece – an enormous one – tightly fastened to the form fitting suit. “Mother ,”Constance had said, “if I may be so bold, “ she gestured between the legs of the suit not quite managing to suppress an involuntary giggle, “What on earth…?
Probably the best way to look at these stories is as outsized fantasy – erotic fairy tales -- with a nod to science fiction for the fun of it. I don’t see how anyone can go wrong with Like a Corset Undone as the title alone is an invitation to the most luscious fantasy. It just requires that the reader take it as that, and not demand too much in the way of actual history or science as its basis.
The longstanding relationship between sex and death is best exemplified by the phrase la petite mort: the small or little death that is the French metaphor for orgasm. Roland Barthes suggested that la petite mort was the chief objective for reading literature. More explicitly, and especially in terms of Gloria Vanderbilt’s Obsession, la petite mort exemplifies the binary duality that is the quintessential nature of sexual passion. On the one hand there is the life-force and vitality that inspires the procreative/reproductive urge, wherein sexual arousal is manifested and all life energies begin. Conversely, there is the massive expenditure of energy that mimics the termination and expulsion of all life resulting in that much vaunted experience known as la petite mort. This duality, supported by other seemingly insurmountable paradoxes, is the central theme of Gloria Vanderbilt’s Obsession.
A slender tome, Obsession deals with the aftermath of Talbot Bingham’s death and the subsequent effects of his passing. His wife, Priscilla, is devastated by the loss. More distressing for Priscilla is the journey of discovery she must undertake to come to terms with the dual life Talbot appeared to have lead during their marriage.
And, constantly, the reader is faced with the conflict of binary oppositions as the dead male continues to control the live female; the frigid wife encounters the libidinous widow; and the truth comes face to face with the lie. Queen bees and worker ants; monogamy and polygamy; masters and slaves: are all used as metaphors for the conflicting nature of binary opposites combined in a single relationship.
The resonating impact of these dualities is relentless. Exploring the contrasts between frigidity and passion, fidelity and promiscuity, and faithfulness and fecklessness, Vanderbilt teases the reader with shifting perspectives that show each of these binary opposites is never more than the converse side to the same coin.
A great expanse of this story is narrated in the epistolatory form. Again this reinforces another duality (the spoken word in written form) followed by the conflict of first person narratives interspersed with expository commentary from an omniscient narrator. As Priscilla reads letters that weren’t intended for her eyes, the story also raises the conflict of what should be known and what should remain unknown.
If ever two were one, it could be said of Priscilla and Talbot Bingham. How charmed Priscilla would be to hear the couple described in this Victorian manner, conjuring up old-fashioned valentines with quaint phrases entwined by ribbons and hearts, bordered by paper lace. For to her, image was all: childless by choice, proud to devote her life “constructing,” as her architect husband might say, “brick by brick,” castle-high topped by a banner proclaiming to the world the success of their partnership.
Tellingly, the story opens with the omniscient narrator’s explanation of the closeness shared by Talbot and Priscilla: so close that this pair are commonly perceived as a single unit. Talbot and Priscilla flourish beneath the neologism Talcilla: a blending of their names to label their Maryland estate and the name of Talbot’s fellowship of architects.
The dictionary defines ‘Obsession’ as: Compulsive preoccupation with a fixed idea or an unwanted feeling or emotion…
The key word here is ‘unwanted’ which again returns us to the duality of an emotion that embodies an overwhelming desire, even when that irresistible preoccupation is essentially unwanted. It is that ‘unwanted’ emotion which fuels Priscilla’s story as she is buffeted between desire and disgust and ignorance and knowledge on her journey toward self-actualisation.
Ultimately, Vanderbilt suggests that obsession can be overcome by an acceptance of the dual nature that fuels this irresoluble conflict. However, this richly layered narrative should leave the reader returning to the text to search for deeper meaning. To quote Joyce Carol Oates from the back cover of the novel:
In her new novel, Gloria Vanderbilt has created a remarkable tapestry of human passion – an interior world of highly charged erotic mysteries that teasingly suggest, but ever elude, decoding. Obsession is a poetic tale on the nature of possession and obsession.
Writing fetish stories is an art and a challenge. For this writer/reviewer, sex is a symphony of sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and especially tactile sensations. Fetish stories isolate one aspect of the whole gestalt and describe it as a complete, satisfying experience which might not include genital contact -- or at least fucking (to put it crudely) is not the primary goal.
Rachel Kramer Bussel has edited (and co-edited) a whole spectrum of fetish anthologies, including collections about lingerie, rubber, feet/shoes, crossdressing, spanking, and previous collections about watching and being watched. The number of possible approaches to any particular fetish, as expressed in these anthologies, seems to be unlimited.
This anthology includes eighteen stories by an interesting mix of veteran erotic writers and newcomers to the field. Although none of the scenarios literally involves show biz, putting on a show (a planned display, intended to be watched by an audience) is one of the themes of these stories. The various show-offs and watchers, some of whom take great risks to get their kicks, shed light on the erotic basis of the performing arts.
Several of these stories are set in cultures that feature particular forms of sexual display. "Rosse Buurt" by Geneva King is set in the famous "red-light" district of Amsterdam, where sex workers lure passers-by from display windows. In this story, a female tourist is especially attracted to a particular woman in the window, but she has qualms:
My panties dampen, just a little.
I promptly feel ashamed. While I've had my share of one-time encounters, the thought of buying sex bothers me. To be honest, I probably did pay for it each time: a drink to loosen up the cute girl in the bar, dinner at a nice restaurant; all money out of my pocket and there wasn't even a guaranteed payoff at the end of the evening.. .
She [the woman in the window] widens her stance, so I get a good look at her body. You like? she seems to ask.
I like. I like it a lot.
On the last day of her trip, the narrator gives in to temptation.
"Clean and Pretty" by Donna George Storey (known for her stories of Americans in Japan) follows a white American woman who has been introduced by a charismatic Japanese businessman to a particularly "clean" form of prostitution: she masturbates in a shower for paying viewers who cannot touch her. "Clean and pretty" is described as a rough approximation of an almost untranslatable Japanese word, kirei.
"Calendar Girl" by Angela Caperton is set in the late 1950s, a time when men could channel their interest in female bodies into amateur photography, and young women who loved being watched could model for them in "camera clubs." Desi, the heroine of this story, is inspired by the sight of a particular image in a "girlie" calendar in the garage where she works in the office:
All through that spring, sometimes when she was alone in her room at home, Desi stripped her clothes off and imagined posing. . .
Sizing herself up in the mirror, Desi thought she compared favorably to April [the image on the calendar]. Her breasts were bigger, with little dark nipples instead of pink points, and her waist was tight and curved, sexily, she thought, above the swell of her hips. From the back, her bottom was high and firm, rounded and symmetrical as a perfect olive, golden where the sun had never touched her. But what held her eye and tempted her fingers was the patch of silky fur that covered her treasure--Mom's name for her pussy.
A real girl, Desi thought, and slipped her fingers through the satiny moss, but a goddess too, sacred to men, naked and made to be worshipped.
This scene reminds me of the powerful moment in The Picture of Dorian Gray (thinly-disguised gay novel of the 1890s) when the formerly unself-conscious young man, Dorian, sees his own beauty in the portrait painted by his admirer, a male artist who magically transfers Dorian's soul to the canvas.
Most of the stories in this book feature male-female couples, but the eroticism of watching and showing off is complicated: the watcher can either desire or identify with the one(s) being watched, and the performers are usually not particular about who sees them. "Glass" by Nobilis Reed features a convoluted set of relationships among at least four people: Mira (a security guard who likes watching impromptu activity in a parking lot through the monitor), Lucy, Chris (a man), and an unnamed man who is Chris's fellow-voyeur in the bushes while two women (Mira and Lucy?) put on a show in a bedroom window. Each of the characters seems to have a fluid sexuality, which is not only triggered by watching, but by watching others watching them.
This story suggests a painting of a team of artists painting their own portraits.
Several of the stories deal with the spread of modern surveillance systems. In “Audience Participation” by Elizabeth Coldwell, a female narrator named Kat explains her boss’s plan to bring a British company into the 21st century by setting up a webcam. Chris, the hot male techie whose job is to make this happen, invites Kat to join him in his own digs to watch the office after-hours. As Kat and Chris enjoy their mutual seduction, they are delighted to see something unexpected on the screen: their stiff-necked boss with his pants down.
Workplace seduction is also featured in “Superior” by Monica Shores, but in this case, the theme of watching and being watched seems less crucial to the plot, in which a classic lady boss torments and seduces her besotted male underling. This is one of several traditional seduction stories in this collection. While not completely stale, these stories could as well have appeared in half a dozen other erotic anthologies.
Two of these stories, both well-written and memorable, seem especially off-theme. “Ownership” by Craig J. Sorenson is a grimly funny, realistic tale about a young man in the military who is itching to get laid, and is instead forced into the role of an observer who can watch but not touch anyone but himself. This story is as much about gender roles and miscommunication as it is about watching and performing. “Missing Michael” by M. March is a heartbreaking gay love story involving three good men who each get to tell the same timeless story from a different viewpoint. This story could be classified as m/m paranormal romance, and it is haunting on several levels. While it does involve watching and being watched, it is very different in tone from the surrounding stories.
In “The Theory of Orchids” by L.A. Mistral, a horticulturalist with the discreet charm of a male geek (like that of an authoritative voice-over) offers an attractive woman a presumably scientific explanation of the relationship between watcher and watched: live beings, including orchids, change in undefined but definite ways in response to being observed. Of course, the man and the woman, a budding exhibitionist, test this theory together and find it valid. They have each gone to Florida to get away from their ordinary routines, and they are literally showered with orchids when they attract attention from other tourists.
Each of these stories deserves to be read (or seen), but limited time and space prevent me from doing them all justice. The diversity of this collection is part of its strength. While few readers are likely to love all these stories equally, few fans of erotica would find all of them to be a waste of paper. For those who would like to understand the fascination of the theme – and perhaps, like a sensitive orchid, be coaxed into full bloom – this book would make a good instruction manual.
In his introduction to Rough Trade, editor Todd Gregory mentions that most people aren’t exactly sure what the term means. The easiest definition of rough trade is sex for hire, but it also evokes danger, violence, and the seedier side of the tracks. The contributors to this anthology have different takes on the theme, which keeps it interesting.
“The Fratboy and the Faggot” by Aaron Travis is one of two stories Gregory says he asked for. A sophomore has been watching his graduate student neighbor through the blinds. When he’s caught, the neighbor invites him over for a discussion about frathouse hazing. The tale of sexual sadism doesn’t scare him away, so the former fratboy invites a couple brothers over to act it out. Rough? Oh yes. Deliciously so.
“Daddy’s Boys” by Nic P. Ramsies, “Close to Home” by Adam McCabe, and “Under the Table” by Dale Chase are different twists on how guys got into the sex for hire game. Chase’s construction worker moonlighting as a sex worker identifies as straight, while the young guys in “Daddy’s Boys” and “Close to Home” aren’t as complicated.
In “Hiring David” by Jonathan Asche, a couple hires a hooker to help celebrate their anniversary. David ends up being more of a therapist for the couple than a hooker, but in the real world, most sex workers probably do. If your fantasies run to hookers who like their clients too much to charge, try “Giovanni” by Logan Zachary and “Wrestler for Hire” by Greg Herren. “Josh in Frisco” by Greg Wharton wins the proverbial heart of gold award.
If you prefer something a bit grittier and realistic, “Tricked” by Jonathan Asche has one of the best anger fucks I’ve read. If that doesn’t sound hot to you, well… read it.
Can guilt be as redemptive as love? In “Blueboy” by Kelly McQuain, Michael is slowly succumbing to AIDS. A new boy on the streets propositions him, but he admits he has no money. All he has to offer are donuts and orange juice. The kid, who he calls Blueboy, takes him up on the offer. From then on, every time Blueboy is kicked out of his brother’s house, he turns to Michael for shelter. When Michael turns the boy away, Blueboy commits suicide. Michael tries to die, but Blueboy’s spirit is either haunting him or trying to save him and won’t let him go.
Although the theme is rough trade, the stories in this anthology are varied enough that you’re bound to find something that works for you. Some keep the mood light and everyone has fun. Other tales are darker. A few cover kinks from wrestling to Master/slave dynamics. Anchored by outstanding stories contributed by talented writers, this anthology gets a strong recommendation.
It's tough to say anything original about vampires. I'd estimate that at least 20% of the ebooks rolling onto the 'Net each month feature blood drinkers of some sort or other. Of course, most of these beguiling monsters are not lesbians (though quite a few are gay). Cecilia Tan's collection gives lesbian vampires their day in the sun (metaphorically speaking). All in all, these tales succeed remarkably well in providing a variety of scenarios and styles, taking the classic themes of love, blood and death and ringing some exciting changes.
Possibly the most creative tale in the book, and one of my personal favorites, is Lori Selke's "At the Pageant, the Vamp". The vamp of the title is none other than Theda Bara, super-star of the silent screen, whose dark allure captivated her generation. "Men fall at her feet like cherry blossoms," Ms. Selke writes. "She consumes her lovers to the bone. The century is still an adolescent, and she is the ultimate expression of the era's New Woman: independent, predatory, sweet and deadly as a poison flower's kiss." When the diva is asked to judge an international pageant of female "vampires," however, she discovers that she is just a pale imitation of the real thing.
"Till Death," by Fran Walker, gives us a lesbian vampire couple with relationship problems that seem all too familiar. The nameless narrator gets turned on by danger. Her girl Valerie is more cautious and can't give her what she needs. The silences, the half-truths, the recriminations, are achingly realistic despite the paranormal nature of the characters. There's a happy ending, though, involving a wooden stake.
Cat Rambo's "The Queen of Goth and Sugar" begins: "Some people read palms; I read groceries." The queen of the title is an elegant vamp with a taste for candy, who obligingly helps the narrator escape from her abusive boyfriend as well as provides a sample of vampire sex.
"A Sunny Sky," M. Johnson's tightly-written contribution, revolves around two dykes, one of whom has a huge crush on the other. Against a background of nicely orchestrated BDSM, Ms. Johnson spins a satisfying tale of female power and lust.
Sacchi Green's story "Jessabel" is set post-Civil war, where a woman living as a man discovers the girl she loved and lost to death dancing in a saloon. The dialect and the emotions in this story both ring true.
Meanwhile, Jewelle Gomez' tale, "Hope on the Mississippi: 2025," paints a future in which individuals struggle against corporate dictatorship and an ex-slave turned vampire returns to meet the grand-daughter of her human lover.
The awkwardly-titled "When Not to Be Receives Reproach..." by Elizabeth Thorne, is a philosophical tale in which Moira tires of eternity and chooses to become mortal. After this decision, she encounters her long-time vampire lover Celia. Their coupling, a moment snatched from time as Moira ages, is poignant and intense.
"Strange Bedfellows" by Moondancer Drake gives us another battered woman, this one a vampire fleeing with her children. Sari, a woman of the Wolfen clan, harbors her, loves her and helps her to free herself from her abusive mate.
Not every story in the book deserves praise. Several struck me as contrived and over-written. One had an appealing start but became so confused and incoherent that I really didn't get the point. No collection is perfect, however, and this one includes some exceptional stories that balance the less successful ones.
Furthermore, even the stories that I liked less offered some creative premises: a fallen angel ravishing an innocent at the altar; a trio of lesbian vampires pulling a bank job; a vampire and a werewolf matched by a computer dating service.
Creating a vampire tale that doesn't get lost in the crowd is a challenge. I know, because I've tried. Women of the Bite offers more surprises than you'd expect from this somewhat over-exposed genre.