Real and Unreal
"It began with small things," claims the nameless third-person narrator of "Kink," a story about a woman who seems to have a dull-grey life until a pair of spike-heeled leather shoes make her feel like "a woman no one could ignore." These shoes lead her to "the boots: full-length black leather ones that ran up her thighs." At first her boyfriend is intrigued until he realizes that the boots arouse her more than he does, and then he leaves. His absence leaves a hole in the woman's life, which is filled by an increasing leather wardrobe. She finds a leather bar and gets adopted by some of the "bears" (large, hairy men) who hang out in that urban den. The woman's quest for ecstasy shows a momentum, which could lead her to heaven or to hell -- or to one, then the other. Eventually, her new life in the bar leads her to a biker dyke who understands her fetish and who gives her the satisfaction she has been seeking.
Most of the fifteen stories in this collection begin with small things and escalate quickly until each lesbian central character reaches nirvana, enlightenment, disillusionment or death. It is hard for a reader to guess at first where desire will lead. "Be careful what you wish for" seems to be one of the themes of this collection.
So many of the author’s stories (not only in this book but in various anthologies and in her earlier collection, Night’s Kiss) feature magic and the supernatural that even her more realistic plots seem to shimmer with a pinch of fairy dust. In “Anonymous," a woman receives text-messages from an unknown admirer who encourages her to put on an impromptu sex show in front of her window. In this retelling of the ancient myth of Eros and Psyche, the narrator considers making an effort to discover the identity of her mystery voyeur, but then decides against it. She thinks: "Sometimes not knowing is the best part." The excitement of the unknown is so convincingly described that the reader tends to agree with the narrator.
The realistic stories in this collection could be considered tribal, since they all sound like anecdotes that are passed around in lesbian communities: the myths of lesbian culture. For readers who are unfamiliar with such stories, they are likely to seem like visits to a foreign country. For lesbian readers, these stories shed light on situations we have all heard of, but which we might not have analyzed in the same ways.
When the author is not exploring the strangeness of the real world, she explores the strangeness of the strange. “Spec fic,” as it is broadly defined, is this author’s forte, and the most imaginative stories in the collection are this reviewer’s favorites.
Lundoff reworks the conventions of sword-and-sorcery, of international spy capers, of Westerns, of romance featuring shapeshifters, and of sci-fi, providing a smorgasbord of styles and plots. In the fantasy realms of these stories, women play all the roles which have traditionally been played by men. For some readers, of course, that is the major appeal of a collection of lesbian stories.
While the author’s command of various genres is clear throughout the book, the emotional tone of these stories varies enormously. Some of them seem like witty spoofs of literature set in male-dominated cultures. Other paranormal stories in this collection are more genuinely poignant, suspenseful or eerie. All of them center on the mysteries of desire, not only for sex as a quick release.
The one werewolf story is named “Leader of the Pack.” This title, apparently a reference to a rock song of the 1960s about a Romeo-and-Juliet relationship which ends tragically, reminds the reader that the author is influenced by popular culture as well as by literature. This reviewer was also reminded of a witty werewolf story which appeared when Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype by Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes was a bestseller in the early 1990s.
In Lundoff’s version, the “leader” is a female werewolf in the old West who serves as the town sheriff by day and leads a pack of wolves (some of whom seem to be real wolves) by night. In true canine tradition, the leader dominates the pack, including her devoted submissive lover, a waitress in town whom she turned into a werewolf with a love-bite. Like very closeted leatherdykes in a hostile environment, the two female werewolves are in danger of being exposed and killed by human males. The climax of this story is as dramatic as the climax of the rock song by the same name. This story is entertaining, but its cultural references make it hard to take seriously.
The tongue-in-cheek quality of the werewolf story also appears in the fairy-tale takeoff, “The Hands of a Princess.” The hands of the title are not dainty and deft with an embroidery needle, as one might expect, but large, competent and legendary as lesbian sex organs. The princess’ mother, the Queen, had similar hands and a similar reputation among her servants and bodyguards. Will the princess really enter a diplomatic marriage with the man who was chosen for her? Or will she subvert an official tradition in order to continue enjoying “personal services” from the women who serve her? The answer is not hard to guess.
The title “Medusa’s Touch” is misleading, since it seems to refer to the Greek myth of Medusa, the snake-haired monster who turns men to stone. The story by that name, however, contains no magical man-hating dykes. The “medusas” are hair-like wires that are embedded in the brains of space pilots, who can use them to fly spacecraft by their thoughts alone. The author is a computer specialist, and the technology in this story could be seen as a more exciting version of the kind she deals with in the real world. In the story, an amoral dyke pilot-for-hire explains with a leer that the medusas can be used for more than official work. As in other space operas, the central characters must survive by their wits during the Corporate Wars.
A more obvious spoof of spy stories is “The Old Spies Club,” in which the repeated attempts of the two central characters to take each other out of the game is their version of flirting. Loathe to give it up when they reach retirement, a group of them have set up the club of the title.
Arguably the darkest and most gripping of these stories is “Emily Says,” which was previously published in an anthology of literary erotica. Emily is an invisible, irresistible lover who continually distracts the narrator from caring that her relationship with an actual woman (who has human limits) is quickly going downhill along with her life. Like a stranger picked up in a bar, Emily has no last name and no personal history that she is willing to reveal, but the narrator is unable to hang onto her sensible reservations in the face of overwhelming pleasure. The real-life girlfriend’s anguish is palpable.
“By the Winding Mere,” which reads like a prose ballad, conveys the flavor of oral history. The narrator is the daughter of a family of warriors, the only survivor of a battle over coveted territory with a rival clan. The battle-maiden must seek the witch who can heal her if she wishes to live, but she is very conscious of her duty to avenge her male relatives, who lie unburied until she can return to them. The witch, however, has an alternative value system, and she challenges the narrator’s concept of “honor” much like a pacifist feminist confronting a military dyke. Is it really honorable to kill and risk being killed? Is there no better way for a strong woman to avenge her slaughtered kin than by shedding more blood? The narrator herself has no answer for those questions, but she vows to find one.
The final story, “An Evening in Esteli,” raises similar political questions in the realistic context of Nicaragua in 1988, where an international swarm of leftist volunteers have come to support the popular regime. In an atmosphere of hope, solidarity and risk, a lesbian volunteer from New York is fascinated by a multiracial, multicultural woman journalist who grew up in “the States and Spain” and has lived in “many other countries.” A wall mural showing women coffee pickers with hopeful expressions serves as an icon for the New Yorker, who hopes that her relationship with the glamorous woman-of-the-world can also ripen and bear fruit.
In general, this collection shows a remarkable range. All the stories contain sexual heat in various degrees, but following the trajectory of each plot to find out what happens next is such a pleasure in itself that using these stories simply as masturbation material would be to miss out on the distinct appeal of each one. This book is highly recommended, and would make a good gift for any fan of lesbian erotica.
Much has been made of the fact that hetero males are captivated by lesbian images and behavior. You bet. I would add that I am particularly captivated when it comes to a collection of stories like Night’s Kiss by Catherine Lundoff. No one could fail to be charmed by at least half of these stories, which are rich with authentic flirtatiousness. In other cases, you may find yourself not only fascinated as well as disgusted – in the most pleasurably disgusting sorts of ways – by some of the gamier ones.
On the other hand, when her characters want to be charming they are positively and genuinely cute. As any girl will tell you, genuine cute is not easy to do, nor does it undermine strength of character. The total package in this little book is a series of often strange and unusual settings replete with the most convincing and appetizing sex.
In fact it would be reasonable to assume that there won’t be a dry pair of panties, drawers, or thongs on anyone in the house where this book is read, regardless of the gender of the readers. There is truly someone or someTHING for everyone -- in this regrettably slim volume -- from hot vamps to vampires and even an entity that may have beamed down from hitherto undiscovered parts of the solar system. There is even a zaftig pirate-lady complete with bad breath, who engages in pratfalls while subduing her wayward lover. Well, don’t all pirates have bad breath?
Ms. Lundoff has two important gifts that make her work exceptional. The first is that she builds a real sense of environmental atmosphere whether she writes about the streets of Florence, the weather in Paris, the surreal tackiness of Vegas, or some sewage-strewn alley in 19th century London. The smells, tastes, and sights of the world shape her characters’ responses to their environment so that we experience them too. That draws us into the romantic/erotic/sexual event whether it proves to be arousing, appalling or, as is often the case here, both.
When she tackles Jack the Ripper in “An Incident in Whitechapel” the dripping foulness of London at the time is captured wonderfully as a source and a surrounding to the bloody doings. In such a context, the lesbian flogging that takes place seems to fit right in to the slimy slum-hideousness of the whole. It’s very sexy if you like that sort of thing.
And the thing you like most about Ms. Lundoff’s work is that it is not half-hearted sex. It is not manipulative sex. It is not politically correct sex. The description is neither gauzy not mechanistic, but organic to the fictive world she creates. Perhaps the best (?) of these is a little number she calls “Phone, Sex, Chocolate” in which the narrator is obsessed with inserting bits of chocolate in her orifices (all of them, mind you) as she engages in the grossest sort of fantasy phone sex with her reluctant lady lover. Even at it’s most off putting, the result is a highly authentic release. Unconscious obsession becomes the hot, fluid stink of sex. Getting off for the narrator is like a suppurating wound expelling pus.
Secondly, Ms. Lundoff has a real sensibility to the sensual landscape of the female body and the way in which it arouses both sexes, which I think it does. The female body is the object of desire, just as it is the focus of the erotic gaze and in story after story here we are invited to travel over that smooth, tactile terrain in the most exacting detail through the hungry eyes of the narrators. Generally they are the pursuer rather than the pursued, the punisher rather than the punished, but not always. In any case they are alive to the sensuality of the female aura even if it comes to them in the last moment of their lives.I don’t see how anyone could fail to have a good time with Night’s Kiss, though it could do with a few more spankings. Yes, a few more sound spankings would be nice…and described at greater length. Mmmmmm…. Thumbs up and as far as they can go, too.