I used to take pride in being able to judge a story from the viewpoint of its intended audience, even if I myself didn’t share those particular tastes, but The Kiss of Death has been a real challenge.
I do admit that there are elements to the story that I can appreciate; the underlying premise of an immortal vampire who draws his strength from the sexual energy of others is scarcely new, but it can be serviceable for erotica. The old “fangs in the neck” routine seems to be reserved here for recruitment, while sex (often augmented by exotic aphrodisiacs) is the real source of nourishment; I never thought that the blood connection was particularly sexy, anyway. The descriptions of settings are often well done, from rituals in Dymastic Egypt to the ruined Cathedral in Whitby (with a reference by one character to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, of course) to the various set-pieces arranged for the orgies held in an abandoned country house. Winterbourne, once used for training British intelligence agents during WWII, has become an exclusive bordello protected by the fact that its clients are all rich and powerful and politically connected—as well as the presence of an immortal vampire (the Master) imprisoned inside a magical crystal in a sepulcher in a bricked-up room in its cellar, with enough power remaining to manipulate and prompt the bordello’s owner, and even, fueled by the ambient erotic energy, to take over the owner’s body for limited periods of fun and games.
So far, so good. And even better is the depiction in the middle of the book of how the Master, wandering the world after his soulmate, Sedet, has been imprisoned and hidden away by rival Egyptian priests, passes some of his time as Rasputin corrupting the Czarina (no wonder they couldn’t seem to kill him!) and then in Sicily as tutor to Aleister Crowley’s crew of nouveau-occultists, and finally as advisor and personal sorcerer/fortune teller to Hitler, a thankless job since Hitler would never belief his warning or take his advice. I could appreciate a whole book written around this premise, especially the part where Allied sorcerers trap the Master, imprison him in his own magic crystal, and wall him up in the cellar of Winterbourne. WWII with dueling sorcerers! What’s not to like?
My problem is that by the time I got to any of these interesting bits, I’d been slogging through so many repetitive, florid, bloated, adjective-overladen sex scenes that if I’d been able to use the traditional editorial red pen on the manuscript it would have looked as bloody as any vampiric orgy. Yes, the main point of erotica is to arouse the reader, and plenty of sex is just what’s expected, but I had a hard time imagining the audience for this particular jumble of sex scenes. I have nothing against orgies. In reading about them I prefer a focused point-of-view character to provide a sense of participation, rather than a flailing mass of body parts in cameo appearances, but I can see that the idea of being an observer could be titillating, even though the paying participants are, for the most part, made deliberately unappealing. Would even aging stockbrokers fantasize about aging stockbrokers team-fucking a well-paid whore? This may be part of the general thrust to make uninhibited sex feel “evil” enough to give the reader that pleasurable frisson of being naughty. The repeated claims of “No limits! Nothing is forbidden!” don’t seem to result in any new, creative perversions, just the old dishes reheated and served again and again.
The most original erotic encounter, in fact, occurs in the research room of a public library, between the only two characters who are developed at all as three-dimensional human beings, and who seem to be potential foils for the Master. It was a relief to find people one could conceivably root for after the stream of color-me-evil cardboard villains.
So what’s my problem, aside from some awkwardness of continuity? I’m a language junky. Too many “love-shafts,” “carnal lances,” “bags of love juice” (on males) and “torrents of love juice” (from females) even when love clearly has nothing to do with it. Too much repetition, and, when an attempt is made for original metaphors, too many that made me either laugh or cringe. Breasts like “juicy amber fruits” with nipples like “twin stalks” isn’t all that bad, until you see the terms “rising stalks” and “burgeoning stalks” applied to masculine appendages. The difficulties with portraying prolonged, ever-increasing lust are noticeable when at one moment a man’s “wild electric eel” is “thrashing” against his belly, and a few moments later, with even more provocation, it merely “twitches compulsively.”
Kiss of Death is part of a series called Modern Erotic Classics, and I suspect it was written quite a bit longer ago than the 2008 and 2012 dates for its recent publications. I may be judging it by unfair standards. The author may well have been deliberately trying for the style of, say, Bram Stoker, although Stoker, fortunately, did not attempt full-blown erotica. I was curious enough to do a bit of research, and discovered that Kiss of Death has a sequel published in 1993, The Phallus of Osiris. I admit to being glad of that, because I’d been about to close with a warning against getting too fond of the relatively good guys (or girl and guy.) In fact, in spite of all my ranting about the less stellar aspects of the book, I might well read the sequel if I come across it, to see whether good sex and love prevail at last. At least it’s not called The Burgeoning Flower Stalk of Osiris.