Cleis Press’ annual Best Gay Erotica anthology has a unique approach. Editor Richard Labonté culls the submissions and sends the first cut on to a guest judge, insuring that there will always be a fresh perspective on the selection. This year poet and novelist Emanuel Xavier puts his stamp on this consistently outstanding anthology series.
When Emanuel first contacted Erotica Revealed about a review, the request came to my email rather than our usual submissions address. Thinking swiftly, I shouted DIBS! and snatched it out of the queue before anyone else even knew it was available. I suppose I should feel a twinge of guilt for that. Let me check. Nope.
Arden Hill’s “My Boy Tuesday” was a good choice for the first story. Yes, it’s a hot BDSM tale guaranteed to get your attention in all the right ways, but what I enjoyed the most about it was how fresh the character was. This was no stereotypical leather daddy. He wears his fingernails long and painted and has a closet full of drag clothes. Make no mistake though; this genderqueer top is in charge. This story puts you on notice that what follows won’t be predictable or part of the same old erotic routine. It also shows that despite the reputation of this genre, writers of erotica produce quality stories that can make you think as well as get you off. Be prepared for both.
Tickle torture is one of the BDSM variations I rarely see in lesbian or heterosexual erotica, but it crops up in gay erotica occasionally, so there must be an audience. My cousin once sat on me and tickled me until I got sick. (All over him. Hah! Served the bastard right.) so I know how sadistic ticklers can be and how quickly a victim can be rendered helpless. Obviously that killed any erotic potential for me, but Wayne Courtois’ “Capturing the King” will probably fascinate anyone into extreme tickling.
Horehound Stillpoint captures the essence of online cruising - the frustration with flakes and picture collectors- in “Donuts to Demons” with breathtaking precision. Yeah, I’ve heard the litany of complaints about CraigsList personals from friends, but never distilled into prose like poetry. Although I’ve seen Horehound’s name many times before, I had to flip back to his bio to verify that hunch. Ah yes, he’s a poet too – it shows in his writing- although he quotes dear friend Trebor Healey’s work instead of his own. But after this sharp, funny intro, the story takes a meditative, bittersweet turn into memories of the real man who got away, or who was too elusive to be caught. This may be the story that had Emanuel Xavier “...curling into bed with my cats.” Deftly delivered, this was one I went back to after I finished my initial reading.
One of the frustrations of reviewing an anthology is picking just a few stories to highlight even though there’s a lot to talk about in this offering. Charlie Vazquez’s “Rushing Tide of Sanity” is an incredibly hot BDSM scene. Tim Miller’s “Sex Head” has me vowing to catch one of his performances. (He’s listed a guest at the Saints and Sinners Literary Conference in New Orleans this May. Maybe I’ll get lucky and see him there.) I first read Jeff Mann’s “Snowed In With Sam” in his collection A History of Barbed Wire. If you haven’t read Jeff’s work, this is a good introduction. If you have, you’re probably a fan too. Shane Allison’s “Confession Angel” is a series of short scenes that flow together beautifully to create a larger picture in a mosaic of memory. Jason Shults’ “Minimum Damage, Minimum Pain” is about the guy who, thank god, got away, but oh, how his boy energy lingers in the mind late at night when you reach for the lube. In “Funeral Clothes” by Tom Cardamone, it’s a sad race to see who can abandon the relationship first. And if you like a story dripping with summer sweat and the heat of public sex, Andrew McCarthy’s “Underground Operator” is sure to get your pulse racing.
One of the strengths of this year’s Best Gay Erotica is the depth and breadth of characters that reflect gay lives not often featured in stories. I’m sure this is due in part to Emanuel Xavier’s guidance. These are not token tales, though. Each one had to make Richard Labonté’s first cut. As Emanuel points out in his preface, it’s difficult to prove any anthology truly contains the ‘best’ work out there, but in my opinion, this edition is pretty damn close.
Best Lesbian Erotica is an annual anthology first launched by Cleis Press of San Francisco in 1995 to fill a gap in the published erotica of the time. This year’s edition includes fresh stories with the hallmarks of the series: much sensory description, including juicy metaphors and a high concentration of explicit sex, gender-play, and more-or-less realistic plots (few fairy godmothers or other supernatural elements and no guaranteed happy endings).
As this year's guest editor explains in her introduction, these stories are a departure from a certain school of lesbian erotica, especially poetry, which sprang from the lesbian-feminism of the 1970s and was loaded with "tons of dolphin and mango imagery." There is not a dolphin or a mango in sight here, nor do any of the characters in Best Lesbian Erotica resemble cats or flowers: two other worn-out cliches in lesbian written and visual erotic art.
Several of these stories blend intense sex (often with a Dominant/submissive flavor) with vividly-described physical and cultural settings into a gestalt which is greater than the sum of its parts and which seamlessly combines plausible action with symbolism. Certain stories feature specific settings which are integral to the general effect.
Catherine Lundoff's "Spoonbridge and Cherry" (reprinted from her own lesbian story collection, Crave: Tales of Lust, Love and Longing) is about a three-dyke sexual adventure on a whimsical, giant sculptural image of a spoon with a cherry, designed by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen for an outdoor sculpture garden in Minneapolis.
Isa Coffey's "The Bridge," despite having an over-used title, is a fiercely distinct description of an encounter in a car on the Coronado Bay Bridge in San Diego, which seems to have a magically aphrodisiac quality. The two women in the car are a white femme and a black butch who passionately explore each other’s limits before they learn each other’s names, and they are soon joined by a police officer and two interested onlookers. The excessiveness of the multi-woman pileup on the bridge is made convincing by the narrator's response to the sounds of traffic, the full moon above and the restless water below.
Aimee Pearl's ironically-named "Where the Rubber Meets the Road" is about the allure of rubber and leather at the Folsom Street Fair in September in San Francisco. In keeping with the setting (a daytime display of fetish and BDSM paraphernalia, available to all onlookers), Pearl’s story is about playful exhibitionism and experimentation, not high-stakes challenges or compulsions.
"And the Stars Never Rise" by Missy Leach takes place in the media-conscious culture of West Hollywood; it involves being stalked, “hosed” (secretly photographed without one’s consent) and photographed in a sexually-compromising situation as punishment. It would work well as an X-rated episode of “The L Word”, the lesbian soap opera set in Los Angeles.
D.L. King's "A New York Story" is a haunting tale (literally), set in a brownstone in the Greenwich Village of yesteryear, and it refers to a history of closeted lesbian desire. The building, which feels like home to a single woman who lives there for most of her adult life is essential to a relationship which could actually last forever, in extreme contrast with the immediate, get-it-while-you-can flavor of the tricks in many of the other stories.
Peggy Munson's "The Storm Chasers" is set in an atmospheric small town where Pennsylvania meets Ohio, where Amish teenagers plunge into a "storm" of extreme sexual experience during "Rumspringa ('running around'),” described as: “the window of time when they can break the Amish rules before deciding if they want to get baptized."
Munson's stories have appeared in Best Lesbian Erotica every year since 1998, and her style has come to seem characteristic of the series. Here she demonstrates her ability to capture characters in a few deft sentences by describing Ellie, an Amish girl hell-bent on worldly knowledge, from the viewpoint of the baby dyke who wants her:
". . . suddenly, she puts the tip of her sneaker over mine, rubbing the rubber together. Burn, I think. Burn rubber. I'm thinking about masturbating in my bedroom with the plastic handle of this big pink makeup brush I fuck myself with, listening to albums she has never heard: I want to bring her into my world. But we just stay there, poured into molds of ourselves hardening, our breathing startled by its perpetuity."
These girls are simultaneously rebellious and representative of their generation and their backgrounds. Like the other characters in this volume, they want more than simple sexual release, and they are more than their demographics.
As usual, several other veterans and rising stars of lesbian erotica are here: Rachel Kramer Bussel, Radclyffe (owner of Bold Strokes Books, a lesbian press), Betty Blue, L. Elise Bland (Mistress Elise, former pro-domme and stripper from Texas), D. Alexandria, Shanna Germain, Jacqueline Applebee, Alicia E. Goranson, Roxy Katt, Tamai Kobayashi, A. Lizbeth Babcock, Valerie Alexander, Anna Watson. Amazingly, several other stories in this volume are first publications by novice erotic writers with talent. Each story has its own appeal, and all deserve to be carefully read—assuming that readers can be intellectually pleased by the kind of fiction which is intended to distract the mind.
Best Lesbian Erotica has spawned imitative series from other publishers and helped to inspire the cross-fertilization of lesbian fiction in various genres (erotica, romance, mystery, suspense, fantasy, sci-fi, history, biography, etc). These stories can’t satisfy every taste or adequately address every issue that arises in real-life lesbian social space, and some readers would undoubtedly have made different selections from the mass of submissions which pour onto Tristan Taormino’s desk every year. However, the series continues to be innovative and genuine, and the stories tackle the raw, messy stuff of lesbian life with exceptional literary skill. Ya gotta read this stuff.
I shouldn’t really read romantic novels. It’s not because the genre is usually prohibited by Erotica Revealed’s review policy. I’m a rebel who can read what the hell I like (and, of course, I asked DLK’s permission first). I shouldn’t read romantic novels because, sometimes, my manly tears can be so strong they make my contact lenses come out.
And One Breath At A Time is, first and foremost, a romantic novel.
However, cast aside your assumptions and presuppositions about the “prohibited genre” and settle back into the sultry world of passion and punishment that Gwen Masters has created. One Breath At A Time is the simple story of what happens when boy meets girl. However, Gwen Masters is a gifted mistress of erotic storytelling and the simple idea of boy meets girl becomes something extremely powerful in her skilled and capable hands.
Kelley, the story’s heroine, encounters Tom in the first chapter. Tom is hot and Kelley finds him irresistible. The fact that his kinky tastes match her own deviant appetites means that this is a marriage made in heaven. The blossoming couple soon discover that their unconventional tastes are perfectly suited.
(I should make a note here that I’m not frowning on kinkiness. I have been accused of being kinky in the past and I have never seen it as being a slur. The truth is, I was once with a partner, we were having vigorous sex in a vaguely unconventional position, and she said to me: “You’re a sick and depraved individual.”
I said, “Wow! A talking sheep!”
However, that incident has nothing to do with this review or Gwen Masters’ excellent novel!)
One Breath At A Time is a deftly told story. The heroine and hero are painted as believable people. Both of them come to the story with their own personal baggage and the plot develops as they grow closer together and grow further from the pasts they are each leaving behind. It isn’t easy for either of them. But their adventures in the bedroom (and the kitchen and the wilderness, and the gym etc.) help cushion the problems they face in building a new life.
Without wanting to give too much away, Kelley has a natural tendency to be submissive while Tom is more naturally dominant. This aspect of their relationship is boldly foregrounded when Tom rides Kelley roughshod across a picnic table shortly after their first meeting. The theme of dominance and submission is later expanded on with a variety of paddles, whips, floggers and a cat o’nine tails.
Except, like it is in real life, the powerplay between this couple isn’t quite so neatly defined. Kelley is certainly submissive for Tom – but she is also sufficiently confident to make her own demands and occasionally hold the relationship’s reins.
After the delicious scenes of her submission to Tom, and the exquisitely written elements of her sexual punishment, I have to admit one of my favourite parts of this book came from Kelley taunting her eager soul-mate about the prospect of a potential threesome.
Not that a book of this strength can be reduced to a series of favourite scenes. Meeting Tom and Kelley, watching them grow together and stretch each other’s boundaries, was a total experience rather than a collection of cumulative encounters.
Did it make me weep? A good romance doesn’t always have to be a tear-jerker. Admittedly, I had a box of tissues close at hand while I was reading, but they weren’t there for tear-jerking. Overall, I have to admit that One Breath At A Time was a satisfying love story, beautifully told, and with some powerful, passionate (kinky and clever) sex.
Of course I shouldn’t have been surprised by the quality of Gwen Master’s novel writing. I’ve been a big fan of Gwen’s short fiction for ages now. Her "Confession" in He’s on Top, is a wonderful portrayal of a realistic couple dealing with a new way to overcome the ennui of a staid marriage. "The Craziest Thing," in Hide and Seek is another example of how Gwen is able to take real people and present them in erotic circumstances that defy the dull and dreary conventions of vanilla relationships. ("The Craziest Thing" is reprinted in J is for Jealousy).
Seriously, if you’ve not encountered Gwen Masters’ writing before it’s time to broaden your horizons and get to grips with a man who knows his own mind and a woman who minds her own man. And One Breath At A Time is just the place to make that acquaintance.
Personally, I think One Breath At A Time, with its strength, passion, credibility and sexual ingenuity, is how every contemporary romance should be written. Kelley and Tom are presented as living breathing human beings. Their appetites defy normal conventions (but the same can probably be said for the majority of people reading this review). Kelley likes Tom to play rough – and he can. Kelley doesn’t mind having ties, toys or Tom’s friend in the bedroom. The variations on the familiar theme of sexual pleasure are all used to enhance their relationship. As this story’s focus is fixed on a burgeoning romance, it makes sense that the couple’s appreciation for alternative satisfaction is central to the plot.
If you’re looking for well-written fiction, that dares to venture into the edgy world of extreme sex, you can’t get much better than Gwen Masters and you can easily get there with One Breath At A Time.
The minute I started to read Shar Rednour’s Foreword to this collection, I realized that I was the wrong reviewer. I have an anti-sweet-tooth. At age two, family legend claims, someone gave me a lollipop and I didn’t know what to do with it. I could live for months without ever craving dessert. When I do want something sweet, it’ll be fruit, or crême caramel, or maybe ice cream, certainly not something gooey or chocolatey. Never (alas dear Rachel) have I yearned for a cupcake!
I’ve engaged in the traditional sexual experimentation with whipped cream. I’ve been as turned on as anyone by the famous eating scene in the classic film “Tom Jones.” For the most part, though, my personal sexual proclivities do not tend toward the sorts of sugary adventures portrayed in this book.
My overall feeling after finishing Sex and Candy is that the book is not up to the usual standards of Rachel Kramer Bussel’s collections – for instance the amazing He’s on Top: Erotic Stories of Male Dominance and Female Submission, which I just finished reading.
Even though Sex and Candy includes many of my favorite erotica authors, the majority of the stories felt superficial: sweet, sticky, sometimes nasty romps without much plot beyond the avid consumption of the focused confection. What I can’t decide is whether this is a realistic view of the collection, or whether it’s conditioned by my own personal tastes.
I’d suspect my subjectivity was the cause, except for the fact that the book does contain two completely wonderful stories that follow the theme, but take it much further and deeper than most of the contributors. Shanna Germain’s “Kneading” left me in wet, astonished awe. It is lyrical and tough, intense and original, featuring characters so far from the stereotypes that I guarantee you, too, will be amazed. The editors showed great wisdom in using a quote from this tale as the introductory blurb for the collection.
“At home, I don’t let her touch me. There is only this: my fingers tangled in her thin apron strings, cascade of cotton and flour against the floor, Macy’s dark arms iced with sugars and spice. My recipe is simple: Macy and me, hands and skin, kneading and heat. ‘The best recipes just taste complicated.’ This is something I plan to teach her.”
Equally fine, in a different way, is Donna George Storey’s “Six Layers of Sweetness.” The tale is as carefully constructed as the dessert in its title. Sharp, spicy layers of physical desire alternate with more subtle emotional flavors. Ms. Storey is an expert chef, and it shows.
A few other stories in the book have bent over pages, meaning that I felt they were worth mentioning. “Cling,” by Tenille Brown, is the delightfully tongue-in-cheek tale of a mature woman who can’t quite bring herself to give up her lover even though she knows he’s not “marriage material.” I enjoyed Bianca James “Green Chile Chocolate” largely because her “Chile man” so completely matched my image of male sexiness. R.Gay’s “Other Girls” is a carny romance, shot through with the wistfulness of a man who’s always just passing through. And Catherine Lundoff’s “Phone, Sex, Chocolate” offers a sticky, poignant look at a hopeless lesbian fantasy:
“We make plans for lunch next week and you sign off with some flippant comment about beauty sleep. I drop the phone, sending both hands between my legs to rub soft chocolate on my clit in tight, firm circles. I imagine you in your power suit, taking me on your desk with expensive chocolate dripping onto your memos and I come hard, my back arching against the couch.”
If you like sugar, if you think that having sex in a pool of fudge or on a bed of crushed cupcakes is hot, if you’re turned on by eating marshmallows from between your lover’s breasts, or sticking a peppermint candy cane into one of your lover’s orifices, then you’ll love this book. If you’re like me, someone who could live the rest of her life without caring if she ever tastes chocolate (and I realize this sounds incredible to some of my readers), Sex and Candy might leave you a bit hungry.
D. L. King has drafted a fairly horrifying but still amusing work of BDSM fiction that runs the gamut from ridiculous sexual desperation to low-level criminal coercion. This novel is perhaps best characterized as eroto-medical science fantasy. It is as though one had entered the rarefied world of TV advertising. Everything is very sexy, form fitting, and all the equipment works.
I am obliged to point out here that King is the editor of Erotica Revealed and a colleague. As you will see, that has not hampered either my judgment or my frankness in looking at this novel. Erotica is a small world and those who write for this site should have the use – as well as the abuse – of its services. There is as yet no other site that offers literary criticism of erotica at this level. Call that vanity if you like, but the comment arises from several decades of experience as a published critic and editor in the arts.
The clinical research for King’s book seems careful and intensely precise. Each anal adjustment and scrotal manipulation is defined in close anatomical detail. Indeed, the Greek goddess, Melinoe, whose function was to terrorize humans, seems to have reached institutional form here. Amid the occasional old style flogging, far more advanced and exquisite punishments are employed by these pleasure/pain-obsessed femdoms. At the same time, The Art of Melinoe owes much to the horror theatre of the Grand Guignol enhanced by a lot of odd emotional detachment. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, everyone is constantly fairly happy at Club Melinoe, because all conflict has been erased. Those who do not measure up – literally or figuratively – are simply dispatched back to the ‘real’ world.
It is a perfectly integrated book that seamlessly presents a world of serio-comic agony enhanced by techno-clinical bliss. The narrative is very powerful in its ability to hold you. For me that is, in part, a function of how profoundly unnerving the book is; and then too, the ways in which delicate male body parts get forcibly held. We are gratefully spared the usual nonsensical rationale of female domination with its tedious diatribe about female superiority. These women are in charge because they want to be, and so do their boy toys. It gives them a chance to accommodate their sadistic tastes. Femdom rhetoric be damned; they are having fun.
In The Art of Melinoe, We again meet Ray, a diffident and malleable photographer who was the focus of King's first novel, The Melinoe Project. The setting is the mythical Club Melinoe, a femdom haven that is part residence, part resort, and part amusement park with very exotic rides. It has some resonance with the giddy island in Exit to Eden, but where that is a monochrome exercise in erotic fantasy, King uses her locale as a mirror – and at times a parody – of the world the novel creates. Like The Marrying Kind, King again uses an isolated female dominated community full of oddball amenities suited to female tastes, coupled with a great use of deadpan humor.
At times you get the feeling at Club Melinoe that Harriet (and ozzie, under close discipline and instruction) have set up a BDSM holiday camp. At other moments, you find yourself wondering if both Huxley and Orwell would not be freaked out by the soft-spoken, ham-fisted minxes who run this joint. It is not their gender per se that makes these femdoms scary. It is rather their state of mind, which could be characterized as a state of abandon. The people in charge at “Camp” Melinoe never ever doubt themselves. They shove in the well-greased, ever-larger butt plugs and turn up the electrodes. Then they go off – all playful girls together -- to the club breakfast bar for a fruit smoothie.
King's fiction is embedded in subtle humor; characters who are out of sync with conventional reality; and high tech, wacko hyper-sex. In the femdom world of Club Melinoe, the ladies are so fascinated with their advanced gear that they lose all sense of ethical proportion. In the case of one Melinoe psychologist, Dr. Westgate, sexual power leads her to criminal assault. She is brought up short by the leadership of Melinoe, hut the reader wonders why she is not beaten to death fairly slowly with a shovel on ethical grounds. In the Mafia, she would be. Her actions not only threaten the whole artifice of Club Melinoe, they are right up there with waterboarding and other such crimes.
It does not, and should not, matter if the males enjoy the abuse they suffer at Club Melinoe. Clearly they do, and that is their sexual right, but at this club men have lost the capacity to say ‘no.’ Even if they have abdicated that right as a choice, the ethics of such an arrangement are indefensible among conscious people. On the other hand, the point of having the club seems in part to remove the obligation to choose. That is a pleasure many modern people crave in the myriad of meaningless choices we confront every day. In that sense King is walking an edge of ambiguity that at once makes the club inviting and terrifying. It is free of the anxiety of choice and it is filled with the pleasure of fulfilled impulse. If you feel like it, do it.
The larger abstract issues of the club’s ethos – sexual and personal -- have all been worked out at the top, set down and articulated in a set of rules. It should be perfectly efficient, but of course it is not. Such tactics never are perfect, because they cannot be. It is impossible, as the instance of Dr. Westgate shows. D. L. King’s novel asks if a conscious being can fully and actually submit to another to realize their sexual desires? Can we ever fully suspend free will in favor of pleasure? How do we really discern the line between play and coercion especially if part of the pleasure is being coerced? For those who really want to be sexually enslaved, is it possible in a rational society? When does deeply committed play become the abdication of personhood?
These are unobtrusively insinuated inquiries. King does not stop the flow of the hermetic narrative to invite an outside eye to question. It is that very seamlessness that invokes the reader to ask, “Hunh, what the hell is going on here? What are these people really doing to each other? Where’s the referee?” In that sense King may have bested Huxley and Orwell.
The true distancing factor in King’s narrative is humor, which is very low key in addressing the frequent ironies of life at the club. For example, the staff of male slaves (stud muffins all) are recreational equipment for women who are often vain, vacant, arrogant, brutish, or downright stupid. These ‘Feminitrices’ of the club are, however, always presented outwardly as perfect, and none doubts that she is – ever – anything less. They may natter about the details of life, but they do not question themselves. It is only after witnessing their antics that the reader asks questions and draws conclusions. We ask the questions that the characters do not.
Ray winds up in the loving arms of his mistress, the perky and ebullient Sunny. He also becomes bejeweled and mutilated male version of O. O finally stands as a mute work of art – and possessed object -- in her owl mask. Ray is a marked trophy and happy to be so. One wonders about his fate when his looks and sexual powers begin to flag. He does not. He has embraced a cheery, mindless serfdom to Sunny with stimulating massage, balanced nutrition and all the ejaculations he can muster on command.
In that sense, the sex, BDSM, and raison d'etre of this book have no direct reflection of the reader's experience of these things in life. They are instead nightmarishly muted dream images of such things. The characters inhabit the strange dimensionality of comics like the paintings of Lichtenstein. The book is a satirist’s take on the fantasy worlds of BDSM porn. What would happen if the world of Exit to Eden were rendered into physical and sociopolitical fact? How many dimensions could it have, and what would it be like?
The novel defines gender in its own unique way. All Melinoe males speak in the manner of hale-fellow well-met undergraduates who eschew the peculiar refinements of their mistresses' speech. They are buddies and fellow inmates of an underclass. They are all just, good-hearted 'regular guys' who enjoy being bound, whipped, stretched, tyrannized and electrocuted. Hey, Dude, whatever floats your boat, right? These men have a trained indifference to their abuse and, one wonders, to their abusers. They often seem on the verge of such bromides as, 'no pain, no gain.' They are not quite macho because they are so submissive, and yet not quite stupid either in their impish defiance.
At times they seem to wink at the whole deal when the women are not around. Their emotional connection to these women is so rote, regimented, and refined that one wonders how any real attachment could form. Everyone is centered on the male erogenous anatomy as equipment, particularly the penis and anus, in order to derive the maximum pleasure from their use. Male thoughts are disposable dross. Thus men are conditioned to stay tumescent for at least all their waking hours in case a hard dick is needed as toy or an appliance. One hopes these men are not subject to embolisms.
It is the equivalent of keeping an anus or vagina ready, lubed and pried open for constant readiness and instantaneous use, rather like a greased tool. That would seem to apply whether the surrounding person is awake, willing, or aware of what’s “up.” As vessels of female pleasure, these men are all young, pretty and fit. Like the Playboy mansion of old, no one bothers to read much at this club. Who has time? Ray, at one point, reels in exhaustion when faced with the intellectual challenges of watching daytime talk shows.
It’s not that these male or female Melinoans are characteristically dumb, but that their lives are so hermetic that they feel no need for reflection much less independent thought. Ray instantly apologizes any time he finds that his cerebrum has accidentally engaged, and he has come to a contradictory thought to what Sunny has laid down as policy.
There is no question of rape here. These men consent to their lot eagerly whether they understand it or not. The issue of free will, however, is both perplexing and deeply disturbing. The art of Melinoe rests on a consensus of submission. It is a regimen of gently enforced, seductive vacancy. Ray, the 'hero' is afraid of the staff psychologist, Dr Westgate. He deeply distrusts her. His trepidation is regarded as aberrant and merely symptomatic like a skittish animal. The ladies know best. The Art of Melinoe is a nightmare explication of American Momism.
How does that cohere with a work of rollicking super-enemas and gaily electrified testicles? The dark side of this book is key to the book's humor, which has genuine menace to it. The Marx brothers are only funny if they teeter at the edge of the pathological. How much mayhem might Harpo really commit? It's important that we never really know his limits; and what's more, neither does he. The Art of Melinoe constantly tweaks our credulity with whatever gross expulsion or ecstatic torment is next. If Harriet Marwood is the supreme mistress of intimate personal and protracted suffering, the Ladies of Melinoe are scary because, like the legendary governess, they are equally full of themselves.
Melinoe is also a trifle silly. Stripped of its stainless steel glitter, it is a league of secret sexual obligation among this band of beautiful and effortlessly wealthy female sadists. It is also a form of the Elks Club or Skull and Bones. Their standing as women and their sisterly bond takes precedence before their common obligation to reason and humanity. These women do not have or need ethics; they have each other. One wonders if there is a secret handshake like the Raccoon Lodge.
Girls are tidier than boys so the excess shit and cum are flushed nicely away, but the quotidian burdens of power remain. The ladies are compelled to guide, maneuver and patronize the males like five year olds. They often sound as much like baby sitters as whip wielding high tech dommes. And why not, given that they seem to enjoy that role just as much.
As an example, early on in the book, Ray finds himself trapped in a chastity device put on him by Sunny. It's aim is to make tumescence excruciating, a practice the Melinoe ladies find highly amusing despite the obvious danger of killing the interest altogether. Ray finds himself with a towering erection that puts him in such agony that he is reduced to pounding on his own caged dick to reduce his suffering, but alas, to no avail. The scene is as ridiculous as it is hopeless, but once endured, Ray confesses his attempt to ejaculate to Sunny and raises no objection to the device. Instead he confesses his earlier discomfort with adolescent shyness as though his predicament had been somehow self-inflicted. Sunny benignly forgives him for suffering, and domestic bliss settles over them like a deep impenetrable fog once again.
D.L. King has a subtle and exacting sense of humor, which we have seen in her other works. Sexual compliance in King's world is always more than you bargained for. It is juxtaposed between a velvet trap and a grueling seduction. Her characters tend to occupy her world with a circumspect, comic ambivalence. Doubt is not much of an issue, but one is always a little on guard. Doubt at Melinoe is what our psychologists now call 'inappropriate behavior' which in reality stands for 'inconvenient dissent.'
In King's world, the mistress is always right and the measure of that is the satisfaction of the vagina by all means physical and psychological.