Louisa Burton’s first book, House of Dark Delights, is an erotic fantasy set in a place which is literally enchanting. She has followed it with Bound in Moonlight, a collection of three stories, or novellas, which resemble a set of Russian wooden dolls, each containing a smaller doll down to the tiniest in the center. Each story takes place in a different historical period and each is referred to in a later story. In fact, the sexual imagery of objects hidden in other objects recurs throughout the book.
In a letter to her devoted French lover in 1922, a fictional American woman admits that she is the anonymous author of a scandalous novel published in 1903:
"Suffice it to say that “Emmeline's Emancipation” is something of a roman a clef. Which is to say, the events described in that book actually happened, more or less. I changed the names of everyone involved, of course, and altered some details to make it more entertaining and more difficult to identify me as the author. The most major change is the setting. It didn't take place in Scotland. It was a castle in France called Chateau de la Grotte Cachee."
The Castle of the Hidden Grotto, as it is called in English, seems to have been built in ancient times (at least in its original form) over a vaginal cave, which is a pipeline to inexhaustible sexual energy. Grotte Cachee resembles various real-world sites believed to be sacred because they are built over natural energy centers. The chateau is the "real" setting for each of the stories in this collection, and everyone who accepts an invitation to visit the place falls under its spell.
Snippets of "Emmeline’s Emancipation" are included with the author’s explanation of what “really” happened when she arrived, as a naïve American heiress hoping to meet up with her titled English fiancé, and found him busily enjoying two women at once. In the discovery scene, the fiancé is not at all apologetic, and he warns “Emmeline” that if she breaks their engagement and cheats him out of the immense dowry promised by her father, he will make sure that she never gets another proposal from anyone who “matters.” To top off his arrogance, the fiancé makes fun of “Emmeline’s” large picture hat, which looked like a fashion statement when she put it on, but which has been drenched by rain before her arrival at the chateau.
Years later, “Emmeline” recounts how she was rescued from emotional devastation by a seductive man who seemed to be a permanent resident of the place, and who showed as much interest in her pleasure as in his own. She was “liberated” from an Edwardian double standard and from the cold-blooded convention of marriage as a financial transaction. As a worldly-wise middle-aged woman in the 1920s, “Emmeline” is proud that she has never been bought or sold in marriage.
Ironically, the successful author’s French lover has proposed to her, and he is the man who matters most to her. Her letters to him while she recovers from a skiing accident show one side of a playful debate about how a man and a woman can best maintain an honest, satisfying relationship.
The middle story, “Slave Week,” is prefaced by a quoted passage from “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” by Lord Byron (circa 1812), and it is set against a background of the Napoleonic Wars. It shows the desperation of a proud young woman who is left with no respectable means of supporting herself, and her situation is both melodramatic and believable. The reader is reminded that “ruined” maidens were regularly fished out of rivers in that time, and that their fate was usually blamed on themselves. Financial considerations are unavoidable, and Caroline, our heroine, is eventually rescued from death, shame and starvation, but there are enough twists in the plot to prevent the story from being a conventional romance. During a secret week of debauchery at Grotte Cachee, Caroline is enlightened in several ways, and so is the gentleman who both rescues and torments her.
This story is the darkest and most gripping piece in the book. The two central characters both have depth, and they have both suffered from outrageous fortune before they meet. Cliff-hanging suspense is provided by the likelihood that these two people would rather continue to nurse their wounds in secret than surrender to love. The BDSM activities are not unusual (for modern readers of erotica), but the sex is emotionally intense.
The last story, “Magic Hour,” is bittersweet. It is set in current times, but it shows that hereditary roles and a sense of responsibility can still prevent a young man and a young woman from following their hearts. Isabel, a young innocent, somewhat like the Emmeline of yesteryear (and who seems to be named for a character in a novel by Henry James), stumbles onto the set of a porn movie version of Emmeline’s Emancipation, being filmed at Grotte Cachee. One of the stars is described as “Brigitte Bardot meets Edith Wharton.” Isabel is amused, but she is more interested in her childhood friend, the young lord of the castle who inherited the title of Seigneur on the death of his parents. Now that both of them are adults, he shares some of the secrets of the place with her, including the reason why he can never run away with her and why certain things happen as they do.
All three stories are elegantly written, and they give an impression of being just a sampling of the rich history of Grotte Cachee. The sex tends to be heterosexual, aside from a few couplings glimpsed on the sidelines and the existence of a being who seems able to change genders at will.
The charm of these stories is in the conception of sexual fantasy as an exclusive, luxurious and timeless place to which the author has given each of us an engraved invitation. Presumably, the kinds of sex that happen there are limited only by the imaginations of the visitors. This reader hopes that the energy of Grotte Cachee will inspire the author to continue the series.
A year ago, I reviewed Janine Ashbless’ Burning Bright, the sequel to Divine Torment. At the time, I commented that I was curious regarding the main characters’ history. In Burning Bright, we learn that both Myrna and Veraine had betrayed their peoples and their destinies for the sake of love, but little more. Thus I was delighted to receive an invitation to read the volume that details the adventure that brought Myrna and Veraine together.
In Divine Torment, the warrior Veraine, scion of a great general of the Irolian empire and a slave girl, is dispatched with his army to protect the vassal city Mulhanabin from the devastating attacks of a fierce Mongol-like horde of nomads. Mulhanabin, an ancient stone edifice at the edge of the desert, is the demesne of the Malia Shah, the Yamani goddess of destruction, pestilence and chaos.
The latest incarnation of the Malia Shah is a copper-haired, dark-skinned girl trained to disregard both pain and pleasure in her quest to escape from the cycles of rebirth. She becomes Veraine’s obsession from the moment he sees her, yet she appears to be serious and aloof, insulated from mortal concerns. Whether performing ceremonies of human sacrifice or enduring the disgusting worship of the eunuch head priest Rasa Belit, she remains unmoved. Yet she dreams of overwhelming passion in the arms of the Sun, experiencing in her visions the annihilation of individuality that is the essence of godhead.
Not much happens after Veraine arrives. The Horse-Eaters attack the temple-city and Veraine’s army, though desperately outnumbered, defeats them, assisted by an earthquake invoked by the Malia Shah. Rasa Belit attempts to murder Veraine and of course fails. Veraine witnesses the Malia Shah’s bloodthirsty rituals, yet his horror is not sufficient to kill his desire. Finally, the two fated lovers come together, in a marathon coupling that leaves them bruised and sore, yet completely unsated.
Only when they are discovered does it become clear that both of them have thrown away their present lives for the sake of their love. The goddess, caught in the blasphemous act of fucking a mortal, is interred in her room and left to die slowly. Rasa Belit prepares to carve up Veraine’s genitals, slice by tiny slice.
I will not reveal any more of the plot, although the existence of the sequel obviously means that both protagonists survive.
I have very mixed feeling about Divine Torment. The early chapters are bland and lack coherent structure. Random sex scenes occur to liven things up, but the plot seems to limp. The Malia Shah is more an absence than a character. Her primary attribute is her cultivated lack of emotion, which makes her seem other-worldly but hardly the figure to ignite such desire in an experienced cocksman like Veraine. Of course, they are destined soul-mates, so perhaps no justification is required. Nevertheless, I found it difficult to care about his obsession because it seemed arbitrary and implausible.
The last seventy five pages, on the other hand, pulse with passion and drama. When Veraine and the Malia Shah are torn apart, the full weight of their choice and its consequences crashes down upon the reader. The worst aspect of their individual punishments is their separation. This is high romance, well-executed, with the emotional intensity that I’d been waiting for through the earlier sections of the book.
In my review of Burning Bright, I praised Ms. Ashbless’ ability to vividly portray differing cultures and exotic locales. Divine Torment does not measure up in this regard. I never really developed a clear sense of the temple and its precincts. Although Mulhanabin lies in the desert, I never felt the dryness in my nostrils, suffered under the parching sun, saw the dust swirling in the narrow lanes of the city. The religion of Mulhanabin borrows heavily from the Hindu cult of Kali. It was audacious of the author to make her goddess frightful and cruel rather than beneficent, but the theology is hardly original.
And yet, when I go back and re-read selected passages of the novel, I find thoughtful, well-crafted prose. I don’t fully understand why my overall reaction is so luke-warm:
"I feel the fly tickling across my thumb onto the back of my hand. The sensation is like a line of light drawn across a dark place; I can’t ignore it. The feeling is there. It is an insect, so I should be irritated and flick it away. But if it were not an insect, if that same sensation were a fingertip drawn across my skin by a man, would it be pleasure I felt instead of irritation? It depends on which man. The meaning is not in the feeling, it is in my response."
. . .
He is not the master of his flesh. He has not learned that significance is a habit of mind. I was taught long ago that it is not necessary to give meaning to sensation. Pain does not matter any more than pleasure. Lust is not more significant than an insect itch. The marks on the scroll do not have to be words. If you look at them, they are just marks.
But, she thought, the poem is beautiful.
I do not want it to be lost when the priests die."
I leaf through the book and find pages like this, quiet and glowing insights into the mind and heart of the girl-goddess. Perhaps it is because they are so quiet that they made so little impression, on my first reading. Perhaps it is because they are scattered, unpredictable, among the rough actions and unreflective decisions of the brave but somewhat boorish Veraine.
Perhaps if I reread the book from the start, I’d find more that I missed.
As this is an erotica review site, I probably should say something about the sex scenes in Divine Torment. What shall I say? The first such scene in the book, a frolic involving Veraine and two slave girls, screams “gratuitous sex”. It neither furthers the plot nor reveals character. Other scenes have more to redeem them. The second, a tale of sexual discovery and torment recounted by Veraine’s cultural attaché Rumayn, has the virtues of illuminating Yamani superstition and cruelty. There is a male-male scene, in which Veraine inflicts his frustrated lust upon his handsome and willing chariot driver, and a breathlessly intense coupling between Veraine and the Malia Shah that turns out to be a dream. There is a brothel scene, and a prison/bondage scene, and a wonderfully kinky and repulsive scene in which the high priest grovels at the goddess’ feet. If you are looking for sex, this book offers quite a bit, but in some cases it is not well integrated with the plot.
Finally, I am left with confused impressions: searing passion and mundane lust, unearthly wisdom and ordinary confusion, divine fate and mortal blindness. I think I must recommend that readers form their own opinions.
I wish I lived on Fascination Street.
Actually, I wished I lived anywhere that didn’t have the problems that are my current neighbours. It would be wrong to say I hate my neighbours. Hate is such a strong word. And the word hate doesn’t properly express the way I loathe, detest, despise and revile the obnoxious bastards.
Obviously, the feelings are reciprocated. Adolf and Eva, as I like to call them, share the same deep-seated animosity for me that I harbour for them. It all started from a simple misunderstanding. Adolf (the one with the toothbrush moustache and the stiff military gait: the female half of our neighbours) called on me as I was rushing out of the front door on an important trek to the tobacconists.
“Your dogs have been barking!” she exclaimed.
“That’s right,” I agreed. “When they start meowing we call them cats.”
“Can you keep them quiet?”
I paused before answering this one, and possibly looked a little retarded as I tried to understand what she meant. It’s probably one of the dumbest questions I’ve ever been asked. For outright stupidity, it ranks alongside the world-class no-brainers like, “Do you want a beer?” or “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?”
“Can I keep them quiet?” I repeated.
I was wondering if she thought I released the dogs into the back garden each morning and told them, “Run outside, my pretties! Bark as loud as you can! I adore the sound of shrill yapping on a morning!”
“Of course I can’t keep them quiet,” I said patiently. “That’s why they bark all the time.” I stared at her with an expression that said one of us was incredibly dense. In fairness, I hadn’t yet decided which one of us that might be.
“Well try!” Adolf insisted. And then she slammed the door.
I was tempted to give a Nazi salute but I’m a mature adult and beyond such juvenile reactions. So I just shouted, “Suck my balls, Adolf!” and tried to forget about the incident and go on with my business.
The main problem with neighbours is, as much as you try to ignore them, the bastards are always living next door to you. Adolf and Eva made several attempts to keep the dogs quiet, most notably by shouting, “Stop barking,” whenever the dogs barked. The rationale behind this tactic baffled me. Our dogs bark at a number of things. Helicopters, cars, unexpected noises and people shouting: “Stop barking.” Clearly Adolf and Eva put a lot of faith in the dogs’ intelligence (believing the creatures would understand and obey their command) and very little faith in my intelligence (believing I hadn’t ever thought to tell them, “Stop barking!”)
For amusement I changed the dogs’ names whenever I was within earshot of the neighbours. “Come on in, Himmler!” I’d cry. “Goebels! Mussolini! Fluffy! Stop barking at Adolf and Eva.”
They retaliated with a noisy protest, playing loud Christian music until all hours of the afternoon, disturbing my concentration and generally making me worry that they could be putting the “mental” into Christian Fundamentalism.
I intend to take our neighbourly dispute to the next level once I’ve hooked up loudspeakers to an adjoining wall and can feed the soundtrack from one of my favourite porn movies into their bedroom at an ear-shattering volume.
Not that I’d have any of these problems if I lived on Fascination Street. If I lived on Fascination Street I’d brandish my copy of the Fascination Street Codes of Conduct at my neighbours and simply remind them to obey the rules.
Fascination Street is the latest title from Bridget Midway, author of Adam and E-V-E, C-A-I-N and A-B-E-L, Walls and Suburbia (amongst other titles). Published by Phaze Books, Fascination Street is the everyday story of a young couple, a new house and a host of horny new neighbours.
Grant Valente and Zora Hall move into Fascination Street and, before they’ve finished unpacking, they notice that something about their new location is different. Subtle things give this away, like the blowjob happening on the driveway across the road from them; like a neighbour walking in on them while they’re having sex; like the welcome basket that includes porn DVDs, handcuffs and whipped cream. Grant and Zora finally get the message when they’re invited to a house party and the neighbours begin to raunchily frolic in front of them.
And that’s when the story properly begins.
Without wanting to give too much away, Fascination Street is built on strong foundations of love. Grant and Zora both concede it takes a lot of love for a couple to enjoy the social side of their new address. Their neighbours each seem equally besotted with their own partners – even when they’re engaged with extra-neighbourly activities. And they all acknowledge that it takes a lot of love to forsake the security of monogamy for the sensual pleasures of swinging with the neighbours.
But Fascination Street is more than just a love story.
Bridget Midway plunges Grant and Zora into the trappings of this sublime suburbia and allows them to explore, enjoy and expand as the story develops. Bridget’s sex scenes are exciting and detailed without being salacious. Her characters are fresh and multifaceted. Bridget’s characters have a multicultural diversity that truly makes this novel stand out from many others I’ve read tackling similar themes.
Grant and Zora’s doubts about joining in with the constant party of Fascination Street are credible, and their adventures with their neighbours are explicit, entertaining and distinctively rendered.
If you’re blessed with neighbours as beautiful as those on Fascination Street, and if you’ve ever wondered what sort of things they might enjoy: Fascination Street and its "Codes of Conduct" could provide you with the rules you need to properly enjoy your neighbourhood. If you’re cursed with neighbours like Adolf and Eva next door to me, Fascination Street could give you the insight into how good life might be once you’ve forced them to move house.
Politics and the Body
This critique of Sex for America: Politically Inspired Erotica edited by Stephen Elliott is a long essay because that is the only way to do justice to a book as important as this one. It is a complex collection of short stories published by Harper Perennial. For those made impatient by length, this anthology is a definite thumbs up. For those who want to know why it is, the answer is neither simple nor brief. Let me say that I don’t always agree with the politics articulated in this book, but in the main I find the authors’ vision compelling if not haunting.
These stories are not charged by any standard ideology. The premises that fire these authors reflect the breadth of our time against the backdrop of art and culture. The stories rise from the deep passion, irony and thought that under-girds good polity. All the writers show genuine intellectual depth. It is revealed through deeply felt, organic insight rather than rhetoric or slogans. Their work resonates with myriad aspects of popular culture from music, comics, tattoo parlors, science fiction, romance novels, pornography, the ‘new’ journalism, and the sleazy Times Square sex shops with their sticky floors before they were made into shilling stations for hard core Disney. We are reminded that real democracy is messy.
At the same time these stories employ imagery evocative of artists such as Lichtenstein and Rauschenberg, or writers like Joe Orton, Kafka, Dick Farina, Margaret Atwood, and Dostoyevsky. Some of these stories sing with the enigmatic pull of Bessie Smith, Tom Waits, or Bob Dylan. They reach that far into the psyche because they explicate sexual behavior as a direct parallel to the way we treat each other as social beings. That juxtaposition is the natural fulcrum of politics. Sex for America is an absolutely unique work of political art, and demonstrates what is so sadly lacking in much of what passes for art now.
As such these stories may represent the first important American fiction of the 21st Century because they are written with the terrible clarity of writers who will allow themselves nothing less than to look at our wounded nation each day with new and open eyes. What they see is mostly a future landscape of betrayal, crime, and depravity brought about by the dominant political philosophy of the last thirty years. Yet they attack their work as writers with deliberately abrasive and deft humor, gritty acceptance, cynical hope, and a sardonic willingness to face the real perversity of modern America: tyranny.
No author here holds themselves as the righteous superior of the America around them. These are not Birkenstock liberals. That is the special power of these stories for they do not excoriate those in power without freely admitting that their characters put these leaders in charge and abetted them by their own indifference and timidity. In that sense, this is a very unforgiving book, and from my point of view, it’s about time. Unlike almost all other American erotica, it is not a retreat from reality but a brutal and imaginative advance into it. It is as hard and relentless as the people who made America what it has become.
All twenty-five stories have strength and strong merit. The quality of the writing varies but the presence of insight does not. Some of the writers are far better masters of style, but none is less than gifted. In some cases you can see that their talent has not yet fully caught up with their complex vision, or that their ideas have not gelled to full resolution. We have a right to expect such clarity from short forms, even if the story must resolve into ambiguity. On the other hand, these writers are tackling a complex task.
Complexity is the touchstone of this collection. The first story by Jerry Stahl, “Li’l Dickens,” is a grimly hilarious confession of a man who is hopelessly drawn to have anal sex with Dick Cheney in the backroom of a rural gun shop. In nauseating detail the narrator describes his arousal over the various aged, sagging parts and dysfunctional peculiarities of the Vice President’s body and mind. He is hypnotized by Cheney’s delusional will to power compared with the unprepossessing facts of who and what the Vice President really is. Cheney here is a Nietzschean monster – a clown version of Reinhard Heydrich -- obsessed with his own mythic destiny and his psychosexual right to control the fate of others. By the end of the story, the narrator is as awed by Cheney’s ‘testosteronic’ magnetism as he is revolted at having ever touched the Vice President with his fingers, much less his cock.
These stories are filled with necessary blood sacrifice, some sexual and some apocalyptic. In the recent film “Pan’s Labyrinth” we saw that once Fascism had taken root in the body politic of Spain, there would be no escape from the suffering of scouring out the disease. Like “Pan’s Labyrinth,” Sex for America shows that aim is not simply achieved. Mr. Elliott’s anthology delicately reminds us to be careful so that in killing a political monster we do not become him. Justice and honor cannot be conveniently set aside in the name of justice and honor. The Second World War led a generation to that elegant and terrible truth. Though we apparently learned nothing from Viet Nam, we may be getting the idea at last in Iraq.
In this book, the two wars in Iraq make clear that innocence, faith, hope, integrity, youth, courage, and honor cannot simply wash away the corrupting power of imperialism. Anthony Swofford’s, “Escape and Evasion” presents us with a gay Marine who is inexplicably compelled to rape other men because he has the skill, the training and the physical power to do so. He is charming, straightforward and even likeable as he recites his crimes with a fatalistic sense of inevitability. He does what he does because he can.
He in no way claims he is a victim, nor does he give the impression that he ever possessed the power to divert his own sexual violence. What he lacks is any awareness of the proportions of his crimes. He does not understand his moral violation of another’s individuality. He has turned his comrades in arms into his toys and targets.
Would he be this person had he not joined the Marines? Who knows? But the nature of war and soldiering certainly enabled him to become what he is. What is the basic political lie here? What we want of soldiers in war is not restored order. That is most particularly the case in wars of conquest. We want enough directed, ferocious anarchy to win. Justice is irrelevant. Those at home -- especially those in power -- deny this by sentimentalizing war. Those doing the fighting know otherwise, or they are the first to die. Victory washes away the victors’ sins.
All of these stories anatomize the growing American tendency toward fascism. Fascism rests on sentimental nationalism bolstered by unreason. That usually takes the form of Dr. Goebbels’s Big Lie, or one of such magnitude and arrogance that it is the hardest to refute. Witness for example, “Mission accomplished.” Fascism favors a glorious, mythic past that must be restored. It calls for heroic sacrifice so that we will ignore the unsatisfactory present. Fascism rides on dark mysteries and rituals that only the select are permitted to understand. Secrecy becomes the heart of national security. The aim of the individual is to be accepted by the few in power. The price of acceptance is intellectual submission, so the system builds on itself.
In Jami Attenberg’s “Victory Garden” we meet a teenage couple who are driven by a post apocalyptic system of bizarre totalitarian legal codes for social and sexual conduct. The background of the story is one of ruin and decay in which the fondest memory of the young, no matter how dimly understood or even remembered, is the gas driven automobile. It is the sacred totem symbolizing life. Like the boys worshipping the rotting pig skull in Lord of the Flies, it is utterly feckless, nihilistic misdirection.
Fascism is either evil because it is mindless, or mindless because it is evil. Either way it makes no difference on the ground. One thing this book makes clear is that fascism does not have to wear its name and bear its runes and sigils to be what it is. It can in fact be quite homespun and banal if not good fodder for comedy a la “Spring Time for Hitler.” Drums and martial threats may enhance Fascism, but it works by embracing unreason as an excuse to control even the most intimate regions of the body. As Beria and Karl Rove always knew, authority gains far more power from under your bed than from the bully pulpit.
Mr. Elliott’s anthology of short stories is a landmark of erotic art. It reveals the organic nature of our government’s erosion of our freedom and our constitution. The free market has replaced the social contract. Competition is virtue while cooperation is suspect. Iconic ideologies (religion, advertising, creationism, globalization, capitalism etc.) are held up as systems of moral ‘truth’ in order to obscure the meaning of truth itself.
The most damaging part of that cycle is self-delusion. “Measure A or B, or Me?” by Alison Tyler is told from the perspective of a politically indifferent wife who wants her local-issues obsessed husband to fuck her. They make a wager -- which she loses (or wins) and he hammers her with iron enthusiasm up the ass. It is a little more than she bargained for but a very lively fuck, and so they make another round of bets to keep on fucking. It is a disarming, playful piece.
However, Mr. Elliott follows it immediately with “The Candidate’s Wife” by James Frey in which a young liberal Capitol Hill staffer cannot resist fucking the wife of a right wing Republican in the reeking men’s room of the staffer’s local tavern. Even when it is clear that they are both in bed with their own personal devils, she will not break it off. She returns to the bar for more screwing to the tune of the urinals. Yet it is she, no matter how driven, who clearly has the upper hand. With each fuck she compromises him by the force of her awareness. Coercion is an easy by-product of her satisfaction. It is a useful bonus. He is rendered a moral cipher, a thing of pure appetite, a consumer.
The two stories together illustrate that innocence is no defense in politics precisely because it is self-delusion. What you don’t know can hurt you, and so not knowing is no excuse. Thus we are all responsible for the way things are. No matter how passive we may be; no matter how naïvely hedonistic, we are all guilty when we allow tyranny to overtake reason and obedience to transcend debate. Eventually, it is the nature of Fascism to demand control of our bodies, our passions, our thoughts and perhaps worst of all our dreams.
These stories make various responses to that demand. Rick Moody’s “Notes on Redevelopment” posits an America that is divided by secessionists between those who want the narrow sexual confines of Christian fundamentalism versus those who seem to be driven to organized debauchery. Both are examples of the price of extremity, which twists the natural impulses of our sexuality into ideological tics and quirks.
Michelle Raymond’s “Milk” presents us with a woman who suckles enemy guerillas in a sweating jungle hut. She is a covert operative of the American government. She is feeding them poison milk from her own breasts, an act that gives her deep sexual satisfaction. In doing so she is also poisoning both them and herself. Her body has become a perverse sexual instrument of foreign policy.
She feels herself ennobled as a vessel of disease. Like Salome in Oskar Panizza’s play “The Council of Love,” her deep erotic appeal has been turned into a source of infection. Her seductive power is based on an emblematic maternalism. Ms. Raymond has created an excruciating take on “Mother, Home, and Apple Pie.” It is a relief that she blows aside some of the fog of sentimental nonsense, because it clears the way to see our lives anew.
In politics as in love and art, we are not the sum of what we have been, or even what we are. We are only and entirely what we can become. Thus we are limited essentially by what we can imagine. Those who glorify war and conquest become masters of empire. Thus those who would fulfill a fictive national destiny find the rule of law an intolerable encumbrance. They plead that only disloyal malcontents object, when the fulfillment of that destiny reaches beyond civilized or humane behavior.
Once tyranny takes control, the easiest course for most of us has been to turn away from the social contract, and -- emulating our masters -- become creatures of dumb appetite. Tyranny uses fear and isolation to produce cringing obedience and a smothering silence. One good way to do that is to harass the free expression of sexuality as the Bush Administration has religiously done. At the same time, they issue tacit permission to those who cooperate to indulge themselves as they like. Those are the methods of gangsters, pimps and insider traders. The individual simply disappears into the system.
Nowhere have I seen that better illustrated than in Nick Flynn’s “A Crystal Formed Entirely of Holes.” The premise of the story is that in some future dystopia, a cure is found for all the ills of the body from cancer to the bits of yourself you just don’t like. They can be literally erased by a crystal composed entirely of holes. The presence of this absence moves from a medical treatment to a mass fetish until the ultimate sexual charge is to be pierced through in so many ways that daylight shines through you. Your allure is the degree to which you are not there. You are no longer a body with various enticing and useful, sensual, fuckable holes. You are at last a hole surrounded by the remnants of your being.
No doubt Mr. Flynn is playing with the current fashion for piercing and hacking at ourselves to create erotic mutilation, Flynn’s story goes well beyond that. His characters engage in erotic worship of their lover’s disappearance, as well as their own. The less they exist, the more they love themselves. Visible corporeal beings have gone out of fashion. What more could a dictator want than a nation of the disappeared? They are still able to work and to breed, but essentially they are phantoms suited only to serve his/her narcissistic fantasies. What the tyrant really loves most is himself and by extension, the absolute imposition of his world view.
In “A Crystal Made Entirely of Holes,” penetration – not orgasm or procreation – becomes the ultimate sexual experience. Thus the most basic thrust is a celebration of annihilation. It is ritualized into inflicting a ceremonial wound, and it can be repeated again and again and again in the presence of your lover’s yielding absence.
In another age, these themes would have been better treated in a novel, but Sex for America makes use of the short story as the medium of delivery for our time. Erotica lends itself to short forms by its intense nature. Beyond that, however, this is a book of coherent but extremely jarring fragments. It presents American society as a horrific downward journey that began with Richard Nixon’s election. An obscene circus emerges populated by lies and distortions, blunders and crimes, until we have become the freak circus clowns dancing around the center ring at the end of Federico Fellinni’s “8 1/2.” A constant diet of unreason and artificial sentiment lead to total disconnection from reality.
It is at that point that we are tempted to say, “Ah, fuck it.” Why not just relax, service your own flesh, and get out of it what you can? Is it even possible to be worse than George W. Bush? Less articulate? More desensitized? Yes, of course it is, but it is hard to imagine. Like the authors of this book, it takes active thought and a fair amount of energy.
They show us that no matter how much you get used to the threats, bullying, terrorism, and constrictions of tyrants, their grip can always get tighter. Unopposed, those in power wrap their hands around the core of our being and slip their fingers into the secret places that make us who and what we are. They penetrate and violate what makes us human. We realize that we are disappearing as surely as our appetites and dreams have been coerced and perverted. We can, however, change the world. You can start by reading Sex for America.
Palmprint Publications specializes in, appropriately enough, stories of corporal punishment. Sixteen of the Best is an anthology of sixteen prize-winning stories from their adult discipline competitions 2003 through 2006. As Sarah Veitch points out in her afterward, these stories won because the punishment was the focus of the story. No little smack on the bottom qualifies.
There’s something undeniably alluring about the ritual of punishment. The miscreant, the punisher, and the reader all focused on what is about to happen as the erotic tension builds. The young lady is pulled over a lap. Her sins are calmly recounted and the inevitability of her punishment is discussed while she is in this vulnerable position that only heightens her humiliation. Her skirt goes up and her knickers go down, exposing the bottom. Maybe she squirms and begs. Maybe she tries to maintain her dignity. Composure and dignity are the first things to go when the hand, paddle, or crop is applied firmly to the backside.
Not all of the stories in Sixteen of the Best are about women being punished. Nor are they all set in Headmaster’s office. Two are set in the Lucky Seven Saloon somewhere in the wild American west, one in a women’s jail, one in a police station, and many are domestic discipline.
I remember reading Tulsa Brown’s incredible “Goddess” when it was first posted to the Erotica Readers and Writer’s Association’s story time workshop. Then, as now, there was nothing to critique about this femme domme story. I hadn’t thought about it in years, but within a few sentences, it all came back, and I was overjoyed at the chance to read it again. This tale of a homicide detective reaching out to his pro-domme for help finding a killer still mesmerizes.
“Rubios – The Colour of Rubies” by Mark Ramsden was written with such sharp humor that I may have to search out his other work. His editor allowed him too many incomplete sentences, but how irresistible is this?
“She came into my life when I was looking for someone to kill my ex-husband. Too much information? Well, it was only a passing phase. I’d rather have him alive these days. That way he’ll suffer much longer.”
The narrator quickly decides that Svetlana isn’t Russian Mafia as she claims to be and that she should be punished for the lie. Svetlana’s backside is inured to harsh punishment however, and it just about defeats the narrator.
Anyone who belongs to the Kinky Teacher’s Club should know better than to steal from them. But the pressing need for a small loan to tide her over to her next paycheck proves to be too much temptation in Jean Roberta’s “How Not to Manage Debt.” Here we have the familiar idea of teachers meting out punishment, but not in a school setting, and on the bottom of one of their own. For someone who grew up in a time when teachers could still drag us into the coat room and take out their frustrations on us with a cricket bat, the idea of a teacher tasting a bit of the whip is a satisfying bit of fantasy revenge.
Several of the stories featured miscreants who obviously did not learn a lesson. In Kit’s “Disobedience a la Carte,” a woman carefully calculates each bit of willful disobedience against the punishment she craves.
“I calculate every stroke of my disobedience. It’s a little like counting calories, though more dangerous, more of a gamble and far more fun: place, time, means and method are all up to him, and hand action isn’t counted so I never know entirely what I’ll get.”
Similarly, in James Baron’s “Beloved Birch,” he deliberately commits an act of vandalism in front of a policeman to earn the birching he desires. The anticipation and planning is as much a part of his sexual fantasy as the punishment, and the only lesson he seems to have learned at the end was that it was worth it to have his fantasy fulfilled.
If you’re a fan of corporal punishment, this anthology is the perfect book for you. Every story centers on a bared bottom and the abuse it receives. The rituals are lingered over with lavish attention. No matter how much pleading and crying goes on, the punishment is carried out to its inevitable end.