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.
Sexy outfits are an important element in much modern erotica, especially in stories that focus on fetishes. Leather and lace abound in that genre, and they have been named in book and song titles. (Readers of a certain age could probably hum along with me.) So does Rachel Kramer Bussel's latest clothing anthology unpack the same old wardrobe of push-up bras, thongs, tight pants and stilettos? Not exactly.
This collection of "crossdressing" stories is really more about gender-based role-playing than about clothing as such. The power of the clothes in these stories to make characters think, feel and behave differently than they usually do recalls stories about enchanted garments such as Cinderella's ball gown conjured out of spider webs by her fairy godmother, the "sorting hat" in the Harry Potter novels, cloaks that make their wearers invisible and battle-wear that makes them invulnerable. "Crossdressing" as defined in this anthology is a traditional concept, based as it is on the notion that men and women live differently, and that dressing as a member of the "other" gender is akin to shapeshifting. This book is about the deeply erotic implications of "drag."
Stories about males dressed as glamorous women could be expected in this book, but there are less predictable scenarios here as well. Despite the revolution in women's fashion which has made it acceptable for women to go almost anywhere in pants (trousers) and every other item of dress formerly reserved for men, the women in these stories who deliberately dress "as men" for specific purposes find that the experience changes their consciousness as well as their image. In Elspeth Potter's fantasy story, "The Princess on the Rock," the hero who comes to rescue the princess from a fearsome sea-monster is a woman dressed in the garb of a fairy tale soldier-of-fortune. Needless to say, the hero gets the girl, especially since making her less "pure" (and thus attractive to the monster) is part of the rescue strategy.
Several of these stories play with the notion that a relatively butch woman (especially a dyke) who puts on feminine dress is in "drag." In Andrea Miller's story, "Tori's Secret" (reprinted from Best Lesbian Erotica 2006), the narrator carries out an elaborate revenge scheme by pretending that she has always been a butch in disguise in order to outdo her ex-lover in the art of casual seduction. In "Tough Enough to Wear a Dress," by Teresa Noelle Roberts, a lesbian progresses from being a closeted teenager in a ruffled 1980s prom dress to "coming out" in college in leather and ragged denim to dressing up in a custom-made man-tailored suit to going out on a hot date in an ultimate gender-bending ensemble.
In the daring "Beefeater," by Lisabet Sarai, a heterosexual English girl fulfills her lifelong desire to wear the historic uniform of her uncle, a Yeoman of the Guard, by promising to give her cousin Phil the sex he wants in exchange for his help. The invasion of Uncle Geoff's closet for several illicit purposes excites both young lovers to fever pitch.
The stories about men who dress in feminine frills range from light and sunny (Rachel Kramer Bussel's "A Cute Idea," in which a young man agrees to wear his girlfriend's silky underwear) to poignant ("Higher and Higher" by T. Hitman, in which a frustrated man in a dead-end job and similar marriage finds the "dudette" of his dreams) to tragic ("The Sweetheart of Sigma Queer" by Simon Sheppard, in which a crossdressing young gay man is sexually used by a succession of men who regard him as a joke).
The theme of sneaking into forbidden places wearing "inappropriate" garb continues in stories about men, since "women's" clothing is generally more taboo for men than vice versa. In "More Than Meets the Eye" by Stephen Albrow, a businessman loves wearing women's lingerie under a suit. After defeating his corporate rival in a ruthless takeover bid, the character shows his alter ego, "Suzy", by taking off his masculine business armor in the men's lavatory, where the rival is allowed to "win" sexually.
In "Down the Basement" by Ryan Field, the narrator explains:
"One Halloween night during my senior year in college, I went to a costume party in a broken-down frat house, dressed as a character I'd been inventing for months--years, if you really want to get technical. I looked like any normal guy in college by then: short, sandy blond hair, blue eyes, white polo shirts, and khaki slacks . . Most people would never have guessed that I was gay or that I had a secret passion for lipstick, earrings and very high heels."
The narrator is invited to descend literally into an underworld of drunken frat boys who all seem to think he is a sexually-available girl. He worries about what they will do if and when they discover the truth, but one of them already knows.
Several of the stories deal with complex currents of lust among three or more characters, both crossdressers and their significant others. In a story about another Halloween party, two heterosexual couples explore their gender-variant sides when a husband and a wife change genders for the evening. Helen Boyd, the author of this story, also wrote two autobiographical books (My Husband Betty and She's Not the Man I Married) about her crossdressing husband.
Several stories deal sensitively with the fear and hostility shown by characters whose sense of sexual identity is shaken by a partner's fantasy or by the attractiveness of a fellow-partier in drag. In the final story in the collection, "Some Things Never Change," a lesbian in Vancouver (the Canadian version of San Francisco), learns to accept the two spirits (butch and femme) in herself and in her girlfriend. Each persona has its own wardrobe, and both are equally valid. One of the themes of this anthology is the well-worn saying that before you can judge another person's actions, you must walk a mile in his/her shoes.
Throughout this collection, clothing is the tangible symbol and entrance-point into various states of mind and soul. These stories show that "drag" still has the power to shock the most sexually experienced observers, and to work magical transformations on everyone involved.
It’s often said that beauty is only skin deep, but usually this is just the whining observations of ugly people who are trying to make themselves feel better after a bad experience with the mirror. Beauty is a revered and quantifiable commodity. Many people long to be considered beautiful or, if that’s not possible, they seek the company of beautiful people in the hope they will be considered beautiful by association. I know this is true because of the number of fuglies that hang around me in the hope that some of my divine brilliance will shine positively on their Quasimodo-like features.
Fuglies, for those of you who don’t know, is a collective noun used to describe people who are fucking ugly. It might sound like a cruel way of dismissing individuals and overlooking their inner worth, but I’ve always found that doesn’t matter with ugly people. And some of my adoring friends are real mingers. One friend’s face could not look more like a dog’s arse if his nose became a waggly tail. Another friend has the sort of features that mean she only receives party invitations on Halloween.
I tolerate the repulsive presence of these fuglies because, as well as being superbly handsome, I’m also beautiful on the inside and I take pity on pathetic charity cases with their heads from the Horror Channel. But please, don’t start thinking I’m a saint. I do have some minor flaws. I’m obscenely modest and far too self-effacing.
However, that’s enough about me and my gorgeousness. I only mention my legendary good-looks (and my incredibly altruistic nature) because Enthralled is a novel about one man’s obsession with a stunning beauty. In fact, it’s more than an obsession: it’s an overwhelming obsessive compulsion. The story’s hero, Matthew Crawley, sees the gorgeous Jasmine Del Ray and his need for her is instantaneous. This initial meeting is the catalyst for a self-destructive adventure of Herculean proportions.
To describe Matthew Crawley as the story’s hero is possibly misleading. Matthew works in a dull job and lives a dull life. He endures an acceptably grey existence and has little that is remarkable or heroic within his life until the story begins. But as his tale progresses, and Matthew surrenders himself to the indifferent Jasmine Del Ray, he displays a heroic dedication to servitude. In that regard, Matthew bursts through the boundaries of what could ever be considered acceptable and shows himself unequalled in his heroic devotion to this beautiful but barbaric bitch.
Enthralled is a cleverly executed story in that it takes the fantasy theme of male submission and makes the narrative shockingly real. Unlike the typically fictional exploits of servile men, Matthew is a credible individual in frighteningly believable circumstances. He does the nine-to-five routine. He eats, sleeps, drinks and wanks. He works with a woman who is vaguely fanciable but she’s not nearly the Goddess he longs to worship. His undoing/salvation (depending on how you perceive male submission) only comes when he encounters the cruelly good-looking Jasmine.
For want of a better word, Jasmine is probably best described as a bitch. No. That’s unfair. There are two words that better describe her: she’s an absolute bitch. She’s attractive – and she knows she’s attractive – and she associates with the sort of beautiful people who wouldn’t ordinarily give Matthew the time of day. When she notices Matthew’s interest her first reaction is amusement and scorn. Her second reaction is to tease and exploit him – simply because she can. Her third reaction, not surprising considering the realistic feel of this story, is to toss Matthew aside and forget about him.
Perhaps, in the real world, the story might end there. But Matthew is heroic in his need to be near Jasmine and that heroism is matched by his obsessive desire to be a part of her life – no matter how small or ineffectual. Her rejection of him only marks the proper beginning of the story.
And Matthew plots.
Eventually, Matthew’s efforts and persistence pay off and Jasmine consents to let him be her whipping boy: literally, figuratively and regularly.
Ordinarily I’d offer a warning at this point and say that Enthralled is not for the faint-hearted. Matthew subjugates himself beneath Jasmine. Jasmine, being the absolute bitch that she is, takes his suffering to some pretty vicious extremes. The couple complement each other in his tireless need for her humiliation and her easy ability to push him down to the next level.
And then down to the next level.
And then down to the next.
If you enjoy credible stories of female domination and male submission, then Enthralled is going to satisfy on many, many levels. Well-written, credible and exciting, Enthralled delivers the goods in excitement, eroticism and energy.
If I had noticed Love at First Sting on the shelf at a bookstore, I probably would not have picked it up. The main title is awkward and derivative, the subtitle makes the book sound like frothy porn, and the olive drab cover, featuring a blurry, corset-clad torso, is hardly compelling. If I hadn't been asked to review the book, I probably would not have read it. This would have been a shame, because this collection is one of the best erotic anthologies that I've encountered in a long time.
I read a lot of BDSM, partly from personal interest and partly because as a reviewer I've been pigeonholed (accurately, perhaps) into the "kinky" category. Alison Tyler's new volume is a refreshing contrast to some recent anthologies that focus on the more recreational aspects of spanking, bondage, and other perverse sports. The stories in this collection (with a few exceptions like Lisette Ashton's frisky "Bound to Kill" and "The '76 Revolution," a sweet tale by Nikki Maggennis) concern themselves with the darker side of dominance and submission. Temptation, obsession, guilt, fear, ecstasy and revelation - these stories crackle with serious emotion. These are not about "play parties".
In Teresa Lamai's breathless "Small Windows," a man and a woman are drawn together by mutual needs that neither can fully understand, or control.
"I have one cell phone just for his calls. When it vibrates, I drop everything. I feign sickness if I have to. I once left court and ran twenty blocks in the fog because there were no taxis. I thought my heart would burst.
Each time he opens the door the fugue starts again. I know once I see him I'll feel the shock in the solar plexus, the painful flash of heat behind my pubic bone that sears out all other questions, that cauterizes my mind until it's closed and quiet. With Josh I'm a starfish, spread flat and writhing gently, mindless and swollen and tingling."
James Walton Langolf's raw and lyrical "Abraham" begins:
"She is his Isaac laid out on the hood of his Ford - open, bared to his blade."
The tale continues, a fierce conflagration of a fuck between a man who's lonely and a woman who's desperate, but all the roughness ends in redemption - "the rain is washing her clean."
In the quieter darkness of Alison Tyler's "The Kiss," a master deliberately traps his sub in an impossible situation by forcing her to disobey him, and then makes her suffer the consequences.
Vida Bailey's "Torn" features a severe older woman and the disobedient young man whom she's tutoring. She tans his hide to improve his motivation, but the focus here is not on this classic situation, but on the dominant tutor's reactions and regrets:
"She watched his back; his long legs walking down the lane, away. His stride was more careful than the one he had come with. He was tender. Tears rose in her eyes. If she could she would keep him tied, to her bed, to her body, to move within the circle of his warmth and have him smile a smile that was for her only, secret, teasing and possessive."
Silence is Golden is perhaps the best story I've ever read by the prolific Rachel Kramer Bussel. When she is bound and gagged, a talkative woman learns to really pay attention:
"The silence rang in my ears as I came, the absence of sound coaxing me over the edge as saliva pooled in my mouth, my burning wrists took the imprints of the rope, and I reveled in his fast, hard, hammering thrusts. When we were done, there was no need to speak."
Two other tales that deserve special note are Sommer Marsden's "She Looked Good in Ribbons," and Brooke Stern's "The Art of the Suture." The former is a beautiful, intense account of two strangers meeting for the first time to fulfill their most cherished fantasies. The latter is a highly original pseudo-historical tale which may be the most perverse in the entire collection, even though it includes no graphic sex.
My favorite piece in this book is Donna George Storey's "Blinded." A woman and her lover stumble together into an escalating series of games involving a blindfold. Their physical communion masks the misunderstandings between them, which climax when he seems to be threatening to kill her. The story is an amazing roller coaster of emotions: lust, terror, uncertainty, silence, anger, love. I was shaking when I finished reading it.
Dominance and submission have been claimed by popular culture, and tamed into bedroom games played with fur-lined cuffs and whips made of feathers. Undiluted, in its original form, though, BDSM is strong stuff. A few stories in this collection were too rough, too cruel, for my personal tastes. Overall, though, Love at First Sting recaptures the thrill and the terror of genuine power exchange. Readers who have no experience with BDSM may find it confusing and disturbing, or possibly enlightening. Initiates are likely to recognize themselves in these stories.
The answer to the title of Erica Scott’s collection of stories, What Happens to Naughty Girls? is quite obvious, and that is perfectly all right. They get spanked, of course, after consciously or unconsciously, or semi-consciously having worked themselves over the knee of some firm but luscious hunk.
Ms. Scott’s book is amiably clear about what she is doing and the results are charming, sexy, earthy and direct. She includes fourteen stories that are semi-autobiographical fantasies about spankings that she claims to have been given or thought about getting. Given the spanking details, we are pretty sure she has done just that. The stories are the lively, no-nonsense misadventures of more or less the same girl/woman getting her bottom warmed. In fact they are pretty much the same story with different window dressings, but she makes no pretensions to doing otherwise. Thus finding out what happens to naughty girls is a predictable, effortless jaunt if you feel a spanking is what they need most. She certainly thinks so.
The femme figure is always naughty, cheeky, arrogant in an adolescent sort of way, and/or bratty, often has bad judgment or is possibly drunk, but she is never mean or tiresome. She may well be cranky, horny, or just in the mood to make trouble. Her characters discover that they think spanking is sexy despite their suffering derrieres.
On the other hand she wants the spankings to lead to sex after genuine punishment for being naughty. Okay. Fair enough. In fact, the spankings often seem pretty extreme as they extend from the lengthy application of an enraged male palm to more alarming use of a hairbrush or strap. We worry about her poor bottom. Still, both Erica and her behind soldier on bravely until her body betrays her arousal. Then of course the focus shifts to a sort of gauzy, romantic sex. That’s fine too.
In short, Erica, in all her various forms, gets what she wants and her pussy does too, even though she complains that it damply betrays her inner feelings when being spanked. It does just that and we are not unhappy about it. Just how naughty can such a girl be after all? Having worked that hard to get spanked, she really deserves some more tender attention.
Ms. Scott is a very straightforward, likeable writer though her work discloses nothing much about the inner life of her characters or, by extension, herself. Her men are all paternal, clearly very hot numbers to her way of thinking (and why not?), and beyond that largely ciphers. They do what she wants which is to be very dominating for an hour or two, spank her soundly, screw her attentively, and then hit the road.
As such What Happens to Naughty Girls? is an oddly feminist work. Nothing that happens in it is beyond the control of the female characters all of whom provoke and orchestrate the action. The Ken-doll spankers hardly seem to sense they are being manipulated even when they are told as much. So what one likes about this book is that while all these spankings must be very painful, they are exactly in the form she wants them. She is never in any danger, never truly bullied more than she wants, and she retains throughout the attitude of a darling little wise ass – who really ought to be spanked.