These days romance rules the publishing world. Romance is the fastest growing segment of the industry. Every day, it seems, a new romance e-publisher opens calls for submissions, hoping to cash in on the romance bonanza. I just read (I'm writing this review in May) that Amazon.com has announced their very own romance imprint.
The romance genre has diversified and matured, admitting explicit sex, kink, GLBT characters, ménage and more. It has become far less stereotyped and constrained than it was even a decade ago. However, one firm requirement remains, written more or less in stone. All romance must have a happy ending. The protagonists must overcome the obstacles that separate them and have at least some prospect of a delightful future in each other's arms.
Of course, in the real world, relationships aren't necessarily like that. Furthermore, erotic intensity isn't necessarily linked to that sort of happy connection. Freaky Fountain's outstanding volume Bad Romance explores love affairs that would make the average romance author throw up her hands and run away screaming.
The contributors to this collection aren't afraid to explore the darkest aspects of desire. They break taboos left and right. The book includes incest (both consensual and non-consensual), rape, physical abuse, humiliation, drugs, cutting and castration, as well as more conventional BDSM scenarios. It's not for the faint of heart. I do not believe that the authors were aiming at shock for its own sake, though. As suggested by the sub-title, these stories actually do focus on the relationships between the characters. The relationships may be painful, twisted, frustrating, even deadly, yet they still fulfill some need. The characters know they should walk away, but they don't. Lust, and sometimes love, overwhelms reason and they find a kind of release in spite of all the darkness.
Practically every story in the collection is exceptional in both conception and execution. Jeanette Grey opens the book with the amazing “Bleeding Red,” the story of a painter and his former model, how they devour and destroy each other but cannot let go:
There's the sound of glass on the pavement, the ground littered with tiny shards. I can still see them on the back of my eyelids as they close, and then instead of ice, there's heat. Groaning into a kiss I know will only hurt me, I stare into blackness and taste hot skin. I feel tongue and teeth, and I bite down on his bottom lip, exulting at the tang of copper salt.
More subtle, but equally devastating, is Chris Guthries “Three Days in Summer.” It begins with a woman begging for a man's attention and ends with her discarding him. Over the course of the story, the power shifts, as the woman satisfies her yearning to be abused and the man becomes dependent on her submission.
“Maleficent” by Lydia Nyx is probably the most depraved tale in the collection and yet one of the most arousing, in spite of its violence and copious bodily fluids of every sort. The story is a compelling reversal of the vampire-meets-soulmate trope so popular in normal romance. Homicide detective Darius is seduced by an infinitely cruel and kinky dancer in a club. In Jordan's presence, under his tutelage, Darius discovers how savage and perverted he can be. The bloody finale is horrible yet compellingly erotic.
Jordan dropped to his knees in front of him. A dull blue light shone down from somewhere up above – blue, like they were under water, drowning. The light gleamed on Jordan's hair and filled his freakish eyes...The light glinted on the silver rings Jordan wore – a skull, a cross, a jagged winged dragon. He watched Jordan's tongue slide around the head of his cock, the tip hard and pointed under the ridge, the flat caressing the rest, then all of it sliding past his lips, into the molten recess of his mouth. All sensations were amplified almost to the point of pain.
Not every story in Bad Romance reeks of this sort of drama and evil. Some, like Anya Wassenberg's “The Affair” and S.L. Johnson's “Love Letters” focus on the banal but very real pain of attraction in the face of incompatibility – the way we sometimes seek out exactly the wrong person. “Sam and Jessie” by Ben Murray is a funny tale of two lovers who fight constantly despite their mutual affection and lust, each striving for the upper hand. It remains humorous even when the real nature of their relationship is revealed. Maxine Marsh's “Coma” portrays a “relationship” between a bereaved doctor and a woman who is immobilized but retains some level of consciousness – a truly extreme case of being unable to communicate with one's lover. Ryder Collins' “Her Heart is a Screen Door, Too” is a strange, almost poetic description of a woman who is always victimized yet remains open to love:
These are the things that Homegirl remembers from that night; these are not the only things that happened and some of them may not have even happened because Homegirl's been so drunk she's hallucinated from the drink like Toulouse-motherfucking-Latrec at least twice before that night. So it's possible that some of it's all made up.
It's possible, but I know it's not made up.
One feature of this anthology that I particularly enjoyed were the “afterwards.” Each story is followed by the author's bio, plus some comments on the genesis of the stories. I found some of these almost as fascinating as the tales themselves.Bad Romance will not be to everyone's tastes. It will offend some readers, not only because of the extreme scenarios it portrays but also because it most definitely does not qualify as “sex-positive” erotica. I'm not really comfortable myself writing the sort of violent, dystopic tales featured in this collection. Actually, I feel a bit guilty that I enjoyed the book so much. But I couldn't help it. Bad Romance is both outrageously hot and a literary treat.