Jeff Mann’s A History of Barbed Wire is a Lambda Literary Award winning collection of short stories and a novella titled "The Quality of Mercy". In May, 2007, at the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival in New Orleans, I went to a reading of Lambda Literary Award nominees. After Jeff read part of his novella, I turned to his publisher, Greg Wharton of Suspect Thoughts, and said, “I want to review that.” What I meant was, “Where can I get my hands on this right NOW.”
How does Jeff make it seem so effortless to write such longing? I want to pour over these stories again to figure out how he makes brutality beautiful. Make no mistake, many of these stories, especially "The Quality of Mercy," are brutal, absolutely dripping with masculine power, raw with scent and ferociously wild, almost beyond the point of comfort, and yet they’re too compelling to turn away from.
"Snowed in with Sam" is a shorter, kinder version of "The Quality of Mercy." Admitting it’s all fantasy, Mann enjoys the company of a captive country singer he lusts after. Is his boy comfortable bound and gagged? Of course he is. It’s fantasy. Dishes shoved off the kitchen table in a fit of passion magically disappear without leaving a mess on the floor. It’s BDSM with a wink and a nudge.
"Captive" heads for darker territory and a recurring theme of Mann’s work in this collection – a sadistic top and a remote country cabin. But not just remote geographically, the real world is pushed far away by chains, gags, rope, sex, and servitude – sometimes willingly given, sometimes forced. The captive is given a choice though, and with little to pull him back out into the real world, he opts to remain where he knows he’s wanted.
Several stories in this collection explore the problem of kink and vanilla relationships. Vanilla is the steady, loving relationship filled with the unrelenting tedium of domesticity, kink is what’s missing. How they’re reconciled varies. In "Dionysus Redux," he gives into libido and cheats with a former student who is everything he secretly wishes he’d become. Bound, bent over a motorcycle, he lets rope take responsibility for his decision. While in "Daddy Dave," his vanilla lover not only witnesses a long, bruising scene with an experienced top, but finally, maybe, hopefully, begins to understand and even enjoy giving his lover the sexual experience he desires.
"Balsam Poplar Buds" speaks directly to the shame of desire. Having been raised fundamentalist Christian, I can understand how bondage can absolve the submissive of sin – another recurring theme in these stories. Once the rope is removed, though, that’s where this story shines. The guilt is heartbreaking, and like the narrator, you want to take the boy in your arms and protect his heart.
"The Quality of Mercy" redefines the term mercy fuck. While it brought to mind "Beauty and the Beast" and "Phantom of the Opera," the monster here is more frightening because he’s so real. This isn’t an easy read. It pushes way past safe, sane, or consensual. It’s erotic horror, veering far out of many readers’ comfort zones. Mann offers the darkest fantasy of Master and slave. Few writers, or publishers, would dare go there. But don’t deny that in the darkest corner of your soul, you haven’t thought how very hot this would be if only you could get away with it.
This book features a long forward by Patrick Califia. I was tempted to say, “Yeah, what he said,” as my review, but you probably expect more from me. I wish I’d read the forward after I read Jeff’s stories though. Not because it detracted from them, but because afterwards I wanted to talk about them with someone, and reading Pat’s forward would be the closest I could come to that. A collection like this makes me feel almost evangelical – fired up to spread the good word. The highest praise I ever give to a book is two statements: It kept me thinking for days, or, The stories stayed with me. This book did both.