The metaphoric symbolism of werewolves and vampires has been analysed to oblivion by contemporary society. Werewolves, with their monthly cycle of personality changes and their ability to transform into something unrecognisable, represent the dilemma of being human yet still behaving like an animal. Vampires, defined by a love of the night, an exchange of bodily fluids, and an aversion to religious symbolism, represent the attractive freedom offered by sexual irresponsibility. Consequently, it should come as no surprise that when these archetypical characters appear in the same work of fiction, conflict ensues.
Maybe it’s because I’m a dog lover but I can’t bring myself to dislike werewolves. Even when a werewolf is ripping out a virgin’s throat in a movie, I still keep thinking, “He’s just being a bit playful. Tap him lightly on the nose and tell him, if he keeps doing that, he won’t get any Scooby Snacks. Then give him a tummy rub and see if he’s got a waggy tail.”
Vampires are another thing. Vampires embody excitement and sexual freedom. In erotic horror they epitomise the lust in blood lust. In contemporary horror fiction it’s easy to see the threat presented by the vampire is analogous to the danger of sexual irresponsibility. Fuck without a condom and the exchange of bodily fluids endangers the frailty of human mortality. Fuck with a vampire and run a similar risk of personal catastrophe.
So, what happens when vampires and werewolves come together in the same story?
Well, in “Peacemaker,” the first story in Paige E Roberts’ Bare Throat, Naked Hunger, the conflict seems pretty well established before the start of the story. “Peacemaker”begins in media res, with a protagonist werewolf trying to get away from the human and non-human animals in the concrete jungle, to return to more familiar turf with plenty of trees and she-wolves. What starts as a simple tale of boy meets girl (or dog meets bitch) is complicated by the arrival of werewolf hunters. The potential relationship is further jeopardised when the hero discovers that the she-wolf of his dreams is also part vampire.
Bare Throat, Naked Hunger is efficiently written and should please fans of erotic paranormal fantasy fiction. Paige E Roberts is able to expand on the established vampire and werewolf myths and build fantasy worlds that are richly coloured and multi-layered and cry out to be explored further. In fact, if I had to make one criticism against this book, it would be that all of the stories left me wanting more. This is not to say that Roberts’ stories are not complete, or lack sufficient elements of horror or eroticism. This is my way of saying that each story in this anthology could have been the first chapter for a novella or novel. Roberts creates entire mythological universes, builds characters that fit within these unreal environments, and introduces the reader to one small aspect of their world.
This is illustrated most strongly in “Peacemaker,” where the tribes of skinwalkers (werewolves) are introduced to the reader, along with their history and the bleak outlook for their future. After such an immense creative effort in building this fantasy universe, Roberts could have expanded on this story to produce an epic work that explored more corners of this universe.
A similar criticism could be made against “In Service Immortal,” the second story in this anthology. “In Service Immortal” is the tale of a simple man and his devotion to a very special monarch. The symbolism of mythic fantasy and vampirism is skilfully worked into the narrative. The story is effective, erotic and entertaining. And, again, it would have stood well as the first chapter in a much longer story.If Paige E Roberts wrote this anthology with the intention of leaving readers hungry for more, Bare Throat, Naked Hunger is an absolute success.
Brushes, by M. Christian is a loosely woven series of idylls about the sexual union between the artist and his model, all artists here being male. We are given to understand that somehow painters must penetrate their models spiritually in order to render them on canvas. As one may expect, that leads to a good deal of penetrating on other levels -- except in those rare and poignant (if murky) moments when it does not. Leastwise, without the literal penetration, we wouldn’t have much of a book here, and I am not sure we do anyway.
Brushes owes something to Laurence Durrell and The Alexandria Quartet for its organization and its tone of breathless ennui. Mr. Christian’s characters all seem on the verge of exhaustion created by existential confusion and perhaps an excess of paint fumes in small Paris flats. All of the stories are loosely hinged to a Hemingwayesque painter named Escobar, who is forever overshadowing the lives of the others as an artist and a lover. He is mostly an illusion, however, in that his power lies in his painting, which the author never really elucidates.
Moreover, we are at a loss to understand this general malaise as everyone in this novel seems to have – unlike real artists – the means to subsist if not thrive, and they have plenty of free time to contemplate what they are doing, when they are not screwing. Some seem even to have time for it in mid-fuck. One young woman is so distracted by her existential state that she mistakenly fucks the caterer at a high fashion event. He seems agreeable enough when he is not talking about a wine as an “impudent little vintage,” and he is quite skilled in bed, but he is a real come down for her from fucking a designer. I suppose finding a straight male fashion designer in Paris or New York might be tricky, but why be such a snob?
In sum, the relationships in the book are much like French establishment cinema. You seem the same actors playing the same characters in a vague state of discontent that leads them to no particular solution. So like much of recent modern fiction, this book deals with people who have time to decide they have a problem and then to start worrying about it.
The style of the novel is engaging when grinding away at a sex scene. Much of the rest of it though, runs to self-indulgence as through sentence fragments and a kind of sheered off prose. Here is an example:
A wry smile on his ghostly self-portrait. ‘Better art by accident,’ he thought at his reflection. The gallery was closed for the evening, small incidental lights dully lighting the rest of the works hanging on its walls. Only one high-intensity beam shone, singling out the bright colors and mad streaks of that one painting. From the side, from a niche filled with a glass-topped desk, a man walked out. Dim in the closed gallery lighting, details were lost, but Philip could see he was big, not exactly heavy. Thinning gray hair. The posture, the age, of an owner -- not an employee. A small clipboard in one hand, short fingers curling around the edge. Philip couldn't see where the man was looking, but his shoulders and posture broadcast dismissal as he turned and walked out of Philip's sight.
Sucking his teeth in disgust, Philip went back to the Escobar. The gallery was a little out of his way, a stroll from the off-site Sorbonne classroom -- where he'd been substituting for a vacationing professor -- down the Rue Christine, and eventually to his little plaster box apartment in Montparnasse. Normally he wouldn't have turned that one corner, walked down that one avenue, to take himself past the pure white geometry of the gallery -- called, in supreme arrogance, ‘L' Art’ -- to look in the window.
Such prose is to some extent a matter of taste, but Brushes also does a lot of laborious thrashing around on the subject of painting mostly emulating the arduous style of ArtNews, mixed with the sort of agglomerated modifiers one hears in ART APPRECIATION 101. Thus we have this sort of thing when a character confronts Escobar’s painting for the first time:
It didn't have the passion of Picasso, the spectrum of Manet, the delicacy of Monet, the composition of Mondrian, the whimsy of Kandinsky, the elegance of Sargent, the tranquility of Hopper, the precision of daVinci, the strength of Michelangelo, the madness of Van Gogh, or the music of Cezanne. It was ineffective, clumsy, inelegant -- or maybe just ugly.
Even worse, for a novel about the Paris art world and its great collections, Mr. Christian does not seem to know much about them. At one point he confuses the water lilies of Monet, which fill the main floor of the recently reopened Musée de l’Orangerie, with some hitherto unknown ones by Manet. Canvasses by Auguste Renoir are said to be hanging in the Louvre, which is most unlikely as the Louvre is limited to works completed no later than 1848 at which point Renoir would have been seven years old.
The same applies to Mr. Christian’s understanding of Paris itself. He refers to an “arab quarter” in the city of which there is none. There are sections of the city and its suburbs where there is a substantial Moslem population who are of course not all Arabs, but he is conjuring some sort of closed Arab enclave. What is more, anyone who has followed Parisian social unrest in the last couple of years would know that.
Mr. Christian may regard these things as the right of authorial whimsy, but they are not. If you write a book focused entirely on painting with numerous references to the Impressionists of the late 19th century, you had better know that such works hang in the Musee d' Orsay, not the Lourve, with the exception of those that are in special collections (also not in the Louvre).
This sort of error about Paris is equal to a crime novel that might describe a car chase proceeding uptown on Fifth Avenue in New York City. It would be a short chase as everyone knows that Fifth Avenue goes only -- and very resolutely -- one-way, which is downtown. It spoils the book for the moderately sophisticated reader, and who else reads anything these days? That sort of blunder pervades Brushes.
Sven Davisson and his Rebel Satori Press are my MySpace friends, which means we are not friends at all, but share affinities through several degrees of separation. I saw the call for submissions for this anthology and was intrigued by it, but decided that while I’ve written a few surreal stories I could never sit down and write one on purpose. So I skipped the call and let it slide from my mind. If I had not had my tenuous links to Rebel Satori via MySpace, I probably wouldn’t have been reminded that Madder Love had been released. That would have been a shame.
I knew this anthology wasn’t erotica in the traditional sense when I asked to review it. That’s a confession, not an apology. Even the editor seemed a bit surprised that I wanted to review his anthology of surrealistic queer literature for an erotica site. He probably wondered if I got what he was aiming for. Queer doesn’t equal erotic, but when a group is defined by sexuality, sex is always part of the landscape.
Erotica is a slippery slope of definitions. “I know it when I see it” sums up my view, but since you won’t be reading these stories through my eyes, I’ll add that any story that uses sex or sexuality to explore a character is erotic to me. If you’re going to read Madder Love, you’re going to have to get past the idea of a quick payoff. These are words to be savored slowly. Wait for the complete visual to form in your mind before moving on. It’s a different kind of reading, absorbing words instead of consuming them, as with poetry.
Shaun Levin’s “The Yorkshire Adonis”and Sven Davisson’s “Dim Star Descried” are the closest to traditional erotica in this anthology. Tom Cardamone’s “Yolk” moved from sex at its most emotionally sterile moment to the point where it has meaning. The story I enjoyed most, though, was Peter Dubé’s “Echo.” It crept under my skin and gave me an uneasy feeling, as if I couldn’t quite see enough, but couldn’t get a better look no matter how hard I tried. Even after a third reading, the story seemed to hang in my peripheral vision and disappear when I tried to focus. Absolutely stunning, and unsettling.
Madder Love isn’t for everyone. Want some pat story that takes you by the hand and leads you through the familiar plot structure like a docent at the kid’s museum? Then don’t even try. Want a quick wank? Not going to happen here. This anthology may be just too far out there for you. But if you’re willing to try something different and stretch your brain, you may find the erotic possibilities of surrealism.
I've been looking forward to reading Open for Business for months, ever since the book arrived and took its place at the bottom of my stack of commitments. As I watched it move closer to the top of the pile, I admired its sassy cover - a conservatively dressed couple stretched out under a desk, obviously very busy. The book title is cleverly displayed in an uneven Courier font that looks just like the output of the old typewriter I used in college.
When I finally opened the book and read a few stories, however, I'll admit that I was a bit disappointed. The stories were sexy, fun, generally well-written, but they were so short! Each one was a hot little vignette, but there didn't seem to be anything other than sexual hanky panky to keep me interested. Characters were sketched lightly, with a very broad brush. Conflict was more or less non-existent.
Perhaps I'm too demanding, but even in a brief story, I want some meat, and I don't mean instances of the male organ. I’m looking for an original premise. I crave characters who are distinctive, with personal voices that make them seem real. I want some physical or emotional barrier that stands in the way of the consummation of their lust, or perhaps a plot twist that violates my expectations without being ridiculous.
Fortunately, as I read further, the stories began to come closer to meeting my admittedly severe specifications. "Headhunter," by C.B. Potts, was the first tale where I turned down a page, my method for reminding myself to mention a story in my reviews. A female exec from one investment firm takes a savvy lady from a competing company out for drinks. Of course they end up in bed, but on the way there's some wonderful repartee. These characters have substance, even though the story is short. And they are adversaries, at least at first, making the mutual seduction much more intriguing.
"You're making half as much money as you could be. We're familiar with Langston, and even with a generous year-end bonus, you're not going to earn fifty percent of what we're willing to pay you."
Cradling my glass between wide-splayed fingers, I said, "You're talking about half a million dollars."?
Meredith laughed. "Nice try. We're talking about three hundred thou--plus more chances for advancement than you'll ever get at Langston."
"Because I'm Chinese?" Sullyman's Pacific Rim division had been doing well lately. Very well.
"Because you're talented as hell. We watched the O'Hare purchase. It took balls to route that through Kenya. Not many traders would have sent that much money into Africa."
I smiled. "I have a soft spot for emerging market equity."
My next pick was Maxim Jakubowski's "In the Empire of Lust." There's no sex in this story, just the lustful imaginings of a manager with a corner office, about the various women who work for him. Well, actually, there is the narrator's lonely masturbation, but what brings the tale to life is the vivid, emotionally nuanced portraits Mr. Jakubowski paints of each of his subordinates.
I was quite enchanted by Rachel Kramer Bussel's "Secretary's Day." I normally enjoy her work, but this was the first story of hers that I'd read that was told from a male point of view. She managed to be quite convincing. "Secretary's Day" is a spicy exploration of female dominance, related by a young man who adores being used by a smart, powerful woman. There's even a lick of romance in the mix
Then there's the peculiar but engaging "One Cubicle Over," by Jeremy Edwards, about two people with nothing in common who nevertheless are sexually obsessed with one another. This tale of the triumph of pheromones over rationality is cleverly told, and despite its tongue in cheek tone left me with a big smile.
Savannah Stephens Smith offers "Lonely at the Top," the confessions of a female executive who fucked her way up the corporate ladder and enjoyed every minute of it. The narrator's no-nonsense voice and gutsy pro-sex attitude did not prepare me for the bittersweet ending, but then, I enjoy surprises.
Possibly my favorite story in the volume is "On the 37th Floor," by Tulsa Brown. Ms. Brown's characters are so sharply drawn, they cut you to the bone, and this story is no exception. She also has a sense of how where you come from influences who you are, a knowledge that plays a significant role in the plot of this sensual, celebratory F/F tale.
There are twenty two stories in this volume. Half a dozen of them really grabbed me. The remainder? They're not bad stories, not at all. The collection includes many acclaimed erotica authors. Lisette Ashton, Donna George Storey, Mike Kimera and Alison Tyler are all among my favorites. Alas, none of their stories in this anthology made me sit up in bed and go "Wow!" I enjoyed them, but I'm not all that likely to remember them.
Maybe I'm just reading too much erotica. Perhaps I've become jaded and overly critical. Or perhaps there are just too many anthologies coming out these days, and not enough stellar stories to fill them. I did notice, with some concern, that about a third of the stories in Open for Business were previously published in other anthologies -- including some by the same editor. At least one story I immediately recognized, and couldn't bring myself to reread.
Maybe we need some fresh blood. Or maybe we need to move away from the notion that the primary goal of erotica is to titillate or arouse the reader as opposed to telling a story or exploring some of the less obvious aspects of sexuality.
Or perhaps I should just get off my soapbox and finish this review, before I really offend my illustrious colleagues. As the saying goes, your mileage may vary.
The central characters in Vincent Diamond’s stories are all men who are often attracted to each other despite cultural differences and emotional baggage. These are men with intense jobs as undercover cops, animal handlers, jockeys or firefighters. Some are honest employees of unethical bosses. Sexual attraction is an unexpected spark that complicates their lives, but it also gives them joy and hope.
In a clear, unadorned style, Diamond describes a world in which men are often pitted against other men, but the desire that can lead to understanding and even love is a saving grace. Several of these stories show lonely, wounded men responding almost against their wills to other men who are equally complicated.
In “A Cold Night’s Sleep,” Sandy is an ex-cop who lives alone as a Florida park ranger and draws pictures of wild birds. A stranger arrives at his door during a storm that has knocked out the electricity. Sandy offers him shelter for the night and a hot shower. The stranger accepts:
“Thanks, man, I am fuckin’ freezing.” Tanner tugged off his wet clothing with the casual aplomb of a man used to locker rooms and barracks.
The sight of Tanner grasped Sandy by the throat, as if it were a beast. He stepped back into the shadows for a moment, his gaze moving over Tanner’s body, fine as a sculpture in a museum.
The two men have every reason to distrust each other, but they both need sexual relief and they are both attracted to each other. They enjoy what they each believe to be a one-night stand, but in the morning, they find that they can’t go their separate ways and simply forget each other.
The author, like the characters themselves, seems reluctant to walk away after one hot scene. Several of these stories are in groups that follow the same characters through several phases of their relationships, creating the effect of novellas. “A Cold Night’s Sleep” is followed by “Fire,” in which Sandy and Tanner join a group of Fire Academy trainees to cope with a practice fire which gets out of control in the wilderness park where Sandy lives. The fire is a clear metaphor for the excitement of a new relationship.
In an even more dramatic set of stories, police officer Steven goes undercover to investigate a man who organizes legal raves. This Canadian reviewer didn’t understand the scale or the intensity of the fictional investigation until I learned that the U.S. government “war on drugs” allows for everyone connected with the sale of illegal dope to be prosecuted—not only the dealer and the customers.
Steven knows before entering the rave scene that his sexual or emotional involvement with anyone there could become messy if he discovers dope, which seems likely. Without criticizing the law, the author shows Steven’s dilemma when he indulges in sex with a man who disapproves of illegal drug use but who could be arrested with guiltier parties as part of a sting.
These stories include most of the conventions of the romance genre: the occasional presence of rivals and other saboteurs, injury and illness as catalysts that draw lovers together as one nurtures the other back to health, Romeo-and-Juliet lovers from different sides of the tracks or the law who are both in danger, attraction between innocent newbies and older men with secret sorrows. The conventions are handled so smoothly that they don’t conflict with the apparent realism of the plots.
The dialogue in these stories seems just right. It comes from men of action whose expressions of desire usually make up in sincerity what they lack in poetry. Here Steven the undercover cop must tell Conrad the raver what he wants in order to get it:
Conrad turned me in the chair so he could straddle my legs. He kissed my forehead, my cheeks, my nose.”Say it.”
“Your mouth on me. On my cock.”
“Mmm,” the moan eased into a throaty growl from him. He held my face with both hands, the way he’d just held Jason. His eyes were dark, his pupils huge. He thumbed my eyebrows and nose, gentle. “What else?”
My cock burned, ached. A wet splotch of my pre-seed oozed out of me. I grabbed him hard, my fingers digging into his ribs, pulling him down onto my lap, grinding against him. He was heavy—over two hundred pounds. There was something unsettling about the size of him, how he could hold me down, how he could control me through sheer weight and force.
Unsettling and arousing.
“What else?” he repeated.
“I want you to fuck me.” I said it too fast, afraid that I’d swallow the words if I didn’t ratchet them out before my brain reeled them back in.
The stories about cops, criminals, bystanders in the middle, and convicted prisoners show a side of life that is rarely covered this well outside of crime and mystery writing. One of the most moving stories in this collection is named “Shepherd” for the central character, a man who was convicted of killing the gang member who murdered his father and who is confronted in the joint with the question: “Wolf or sheep?” He decides that becoming a sexual predator is as unacceptable as becoming a victim, so he decides to be a “shepherd,” a protector of the “sheep.” This story originally appeared in a prison anthology, Love in a Lock-Up (Starbooks 2007).
Another set of stories in this book deals with racehorses, the farm where they are bred and trained, and the men who train, ride and tend them as veterinary students. Here the author is still on firm footing, so to speak, in creating a particular atmosphere. An actual mating scene between a stallion and a mare reminds the human handlers (as well as the reader) of the sexual potential in every encounter between humans, as well as other members of the same species.
The last story in the book, “Irish Cream,” is a poignant tribute to a time before the Stonewall Riots, when sex between men had to be as furtive as other illegal activities. The narrator introduces himself: “I’m an old man now, one of the hard-core race crowd that hangs around at Tampa Bay Downs most mornings.” The narrator, whose surviving cronies all seem to be small-time crooks and ex-convicts, remembers meeting a handsome jockey named Liam, whose “voice was warm, with a lilt of Irish brogue in it.”
The chemistry between Liam and the narrator as a young man in the 1950s is so strong that a knowing look between them speaks louder than words. They check into a motel room under false names where they “did things that night I’d only seen on the pages of smut books.” They repeat the fun as often as they can, but make no promises.
The narrator has never forgotten Liam, although he has not seen him in years. The strength of his feelings after half a century shows that perhaps there is no such thing as casual sex between two men who understand each other.
Vincent Diamond has a knack for telling the stories of men who would probably laugh at the notion of writing about their sexual relationships. Whether or not you are into “rough trade,” this world is well worth a visit.