To me, “steampunk” has always brought to mind Victorian idealism – and repression – blended with a lovely mix of H.G. Wells or Jules Verne. It’s often a tough combination to do well and adding erotica into the mix seems like it would be quite difficult.
Happily, D. L. King gathered a group of authors up to the challenge. In the introduction, King describes this lovely contradiction of the Victorian culture – so incredibly wound up, so guarded and hidden between such lovely – and tight – clothing; and yet they give birth to some great erotica. Whether that’s despite or due to the Victorian culture of women’s hysteria and gentlemanly actions, the reality is those Victorians definitely had their thoughts about sex. Shall we add in steampunk creations and see where this takes us? Yes, please.
The collection is aptly titled Carnal Machines. It would be easy to get lost in the devices of this ersatz era – they could so easily steal the show – but it is that the tales don’t do this that makes the collection shine. I’m a firm believer in the strength of narrative in erotica, and it’s obvious the authors in this anthology are cut from similar cloth. The devices are indeed carnal, but it’s the characters who take you there.
Case in point, the opening story, “Human Powered.” Teresa Noelle Roberts gives us a woman inventor who believes she has found a way to store the power created by sexually frustrated women, but the device needs tweaking. Unfortunately, a woman of the times can’t go about discussing such matters, and so she brings it to the one man she feels she can trust – her late husband’s former engineering partner. The slow boil between the two characters – and our heroine’s desire – tells a story perfectly set in this time period, and has a wry smile to deliver at the end alongside the sex.
“Sleight of Hand” by Renee Michaels, gives us a lady thief. Cassie is a character that’s wonderful to read, coming up against a style of lock that challenges her skill set, and leaves her at the clutches of a man she knows all too well – her husband. The uncovering of the reasons behind her fall to thievery and their broken marriage parallel his seduction of her with his clever inventions, and the end result is satisfying on both levels.
I daresay my favourite of the collection was Tracey Shellito’s “Lucifer Einstein and the Curious Case of the Carnal Contraption.” Here we have a fantastic heroine in Lucifer and her silent sidekick, Earnshaw, who read as a kind of Holmes and Watson of a cheekier bent, and who come across a mystery in a series of devices designed to mete out pleasure for those most in the need – but who could be the one behind these gifts, and what could be the motive? This story was laugh-out-loud enjoyable for its banter, and the series of steampunk devices – each more tuned to the individual’s needs than the last – was teasingly delightful.
The machines themselves, however, aren’t limited to steampunk dildoes – and here is where the cleverness of the authors D. L. King has collected is obvious. Kathleen Bradean’s “Lair of the Red Countess” leads a gentleman explorer to a device designed to bare his soul to the phenomenally wicked lady of the house. “Infernal Machine” by Elias A. St. James was somehow tender, funny, and sexy all at once, as a pair of young men try to figure out what a particularly complex chair-based machine might do. While Elijah worries that his Sasha might be leaving, he focuses his efforts on the confounding chair, to delightful – if unplanned – results. In “The Treatment” D. L. King gives us an ever so slightly darker story, where a woman has found a unique way to use the vigour of young men to her own ends, and the dialog here is witty and sharp. And in “The Succubus,” Elizabeth Schechter gives us a delicious voice – the device itself – which operates as an entire floor of a brothel and definitely yearns for company of the most erotic sort.
D. L. King has gathered stories from a world I’d love to visit. If only I could find my ornithopter...
I have nothing but admiration for how well the authors in this anthology carried off the theme. There’s no real sense of repetition – each story is a fresh taste – characters ranging from thieves to sky-ship captains and even Dr. Watson pays a visit; settings run the gamut as well, from trains to brothels to space; and the journey is a worthy one to take.
The Coming Together anthologies are probably one of the worthiest causes in contemporary literature. To date the single author collections have included M. Christian, Rob Buckley and Remittance Girl, edited under the aegis of the incomparable Lisabet Sarai. Anthologies of erotic short stories, that benefit charitable causes, allow readers to contribute to something worthy and enjoy the pleasure of erotic literature all for the same price. It’s like chocolate flavoured sex with a bonus of cash presented at the enormously satisfactory conclusion: it simply cannot get any better.
The proceeds from Coming Together Presents C. Sanchez-Garcia will benefit the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN). RAINN is the nation's largest anti-sexual assault organization. It operates a national hotline, educates the public about sexual assault; and leads national efforts to prevent sexual assault, improve services to victims and ensure that rapists are brought to justice.
But Coming Together Presents C. Sanchez-Garcia would be worth buying without the benefit of supporting a worthy cause. Coming Together Presents C. Sanchez-Garcia is a bloody good book.
Because this is a collection of short stories, I’ll begin by saying that the quality is consistent and high, even though the approach varies in a range of eclectic styles and considered approaches.
"Rough Draft" is a perfect example of this eclectic approach, beginning in the style of a letter to a men’s magazine and starting to reveal the sexploits of a just-turned-eighteen narrator in the typical fashion of an ‘I-can’t-believe-it-happened-to-me’ exposition.
Sanchez-Garcia understands the reader’s needs and expectations. As the narrative is turning to the anticipated central sexual encounter, the author ends the first segment of the story and continues it as an example of fin de siècle erotica, complete with expository dialogue and the characteristic reliance on adverbs. The transition is abrupt, snatching the reader from the comfort of the established narrative with an abrupt reminder that the content is a fiction. And again, once the reader has continued in the fin de siècle, and become suitably immersed in the narrative, Garcia-Sanchez again stops the story and begins in another genre: fantasy erotica.
The playfulness of this approach is amusing and entertaining. More than that, because the central characters in each story are essentially the same, the illusion of the varying narrators suggests, despite the change of genre and styles, the events have the coherence of a thinly disguised truth. Seriously, this is an innovative approach to story-telling that surreptitiously breaks the fourth wall of the reader/writer divide by demonstrating the multifaceted nature of fiction contrasted against the perpetual constant of truth.
Or consider the second story in the anthology: "Natural Acts." This is a short excerpt from close to the opening of the story.
On the little kitchen table, next to a cold cup of coffee, a book of marine biology is lying open. On one page is a color photograph of a female deep-sea Anglerfish. She is large and bulbous, with unnatural teeth like a heap of translucent swords. A long rod of flesh dangles down with a glowing ball at its end. A very small male Anglerfish is fused into her belly permanently, like a benevolent parasite. On the other page, there is a color photograph of a limpet, which has anchored itself to a blue rock. There are other limpets fused to the top of it, like a small stack of party hats. Next to the book of sea life, is a thick copy of Dante's Divine Comedy. The young man's friend DeEtta has been writing to him, extolling him to read Dante, so that they can discuss death. "To understand Christian afterlife mythology, you have to know Dante," writes DeEtta, in impassioned handwritten letters. "It all comes from Dante." But the idiot howling of the young man's flesh for sex has drowned all thought.
This expository paragraph shows us the reading interests of the central character – a sexually frustrated individual who is trying to sleep and deny himself sexual release. And, as most readers will know, trying to sleep and deny oneself sexual release is a little like trying to juggle soot: it’s never going to happen.
As is to be expected in "Natural Acts," the protagonist falls into a torpor of dreams, and the dreams are fueled by the images from his recent reading material. This produces a contrast between the traditional corporeal human desires with which most readers could identify and the ‘natural acts’ of his fantasy. These are presented in a diverse contrast of narratives that are disquieting and remarkable: redefining desire and arousal in new structures that defy previous expectations.
If you’re not familiar with the work of Sanchez-Garcia then this title is an ideal introduction to his writing. If you are familiar with this author, then Coming Together Presents C. Sanchez-Garcia should already be at the top of your have-to-have reading material.
If anyone here doesn’t recognize the name of Tanith Lee, she is a legend among fantasy writers and the author of over ninety novels. Her work has been attracting a cult following since the 1970s, when she sold her first book to DAW Press. Her tales are elaborate, but her words are as carefully chosen as precious jewels. Her eccentricities can be forgiven.
As an example of her quirks, she claims that this collection of stories was co-written by two other people. In “Meeting the Garbers,” Tanith Lee claims:
I first met the Garbers in the 1990s; that is, I met Esther [who then ‘wrote’ two books], and her brother, Judas. Anna didn’t turn up, though she subsequently sent me a polite and kindly note.
Why Anna chose to send the author a note instead of “turning up” is a mystery. None of the Garbers (two Jewish sisters and their half-Arabian half-brother, who spells the family name differently) is real. They are two or three alter egos of Tanith Lee.
All the stories in this book include same-sex relationships, so the use of several writing personae (including that of a gay man) serves the illusion that these stories are based on the direct experience of characters other than the author.
One theme that runs through this book is the contrast between youth and age, or between the chutzpah of the young and the world-weariness of those with more experience. In "Black-Eyed Susan," supposedly co-written by Esther Garber, young Esther goes to work as a maid in a shabbily genteel, nearly-empty hotel in a French town in winter. A silent woman with coal-black eyes can be seen walking down the corridors from time to time. Esther wonders if she is a ghost or simply an illusion, but comes to suspect that she is the younger spirit of an old woman who is part of the history of the hotel. In her prime, the dark-eyed woman was sexually attracted to women--like Esther.
In "Alexandrians," Judas Garbah remembers his neglected childhood in Egypt, and the male friend of his mother who noticed him and explained something:
I'll teach you two new words. A woman who loves another woman is called for an island, Lesbos, a Lesbian. But a man who loves another man is called for Alexander, who was the son of a god, and loved men, and for his city by the sea, Alexandria. . . . Will you be an Alexandrian, Judas?
Judas was unable to answer that question at the time, but as an adult, he remembers this conversation and the tingling touch of the man who paid attention to him.
None of these stories includes explicit sex, but eroticism runs all through them, and desire is shown to be the stuff of life. Yearning for the body and the soul of another person is shown to be the thread that connects the present with the past as it offers a way to transcend each person’s essential isolation.
The title story, "Disturbed by Her Song," is the most haunting. Few writers could describe a one-sided crush at such length so movingly. Georgina, a minor singer/actress, first meets fellow-actress Sula Dale when both are in their twenties. Georgina is impressed with Sula's performance in a classical Greek play. Georgina tries to cultivate a friendship with her, but Sula doesn't respond. Over decades, Georgina dreams about Sula and wishes she could sing for her. After several unsuccessful relationships with other women, Georgina writes a play for Sula to star in. Sula is grateful for the work, but doesn't seem to remember meeting Georgina before.
The key to the puzzle of this non-relationship is provided by an older man in the theatre world, someone Georgina respects. He tells a story within the story:
“Once upon a time,” Marc said to them. . . “there was a princess, outside whose high bedroom window a nightingale sang every night from a tree, a pomegranate, or perhaps a blossoming plum.
“While the nightingale sang, the princess slept deeply and well. . . However there came a night when the nightingale, for reasons of its own, did not sing but flew far away. In the morning the princess summoned a gardener and commanded that the tree be cut down. He protested, saying the tree was young, healthy and fruitful. But the princess would have none of that. She told him that all that one previous night a nightingale had perched in the tree, and her sleep had been very much disturbed by its song.”
The group of friends who hear this story in a restaurant discuss its meaning. Years later, Georgina remembers the conversation and realizes that she and Sula have each been a kind of absent presence for each other.
Tanith Lee's fiction always has the uncanny quality of dreams and fantasies, even when it seems to take place in the real world. She tells teaching stories whose lessons seem to hover somewhere just out of reach. If you haven't read her work before, you've been deprived.
Fans of BDSM know that Alison Tyler can deliver wonderful stories in an anthology, and Slave to Love is no exception. With stories featuring fem sub, male sub, gay, lesbian, and gender-bending lovers, there's a story in this book for everyone. I, as usual, have a few favorites, but you'll probably like other stories for other reasons. There's a lot to like here.
Nice and BDSM are words that most people wouldn't put together, but most fans of BDSM recognize that there's often underlying sweetness in many BDSM stories. There's nothing wrong with that. I (public confession!) like love, tenderness, and emotional connection. However, in the hands of a skilled writer, an edgy story is a welcome break from all the nice. Marilyn Jaye Lewis' “Daddy's Girl” was one of those stories that I felt a little guilty for enjoying so much while part of my brain was flashing "this is so disturbing" alarms. Michael Hemminson's “Betty's Bottom” wasn't quite as edgy, but it still had bite, and it wasn't at all "nice." Thanks to Alison for including these stories.
Fans of fem sub will find plenty to interest them from names they recognize, including Debra Hyde's “Ever on Edge” and Thomas Roche's “Under My Thumb.” I don't think I've seen Cate Robertson's work before, but after reading “Sonnet,” I'm sure we'll be seeing more of her stories in future anthologies. Fans of lesbian stories will enjoy Jean Roberta's literate “Down Below.” (I chose to put this with fem sub because the narrator is the sub, but there's a fem dom too, so fans of either scenario will be satisfied here.) “Everything That You Want” by C.D. Formetta, translated by Maxim Jakubowski, stuck a real chord for authenticity with me. I also enjoyed Mia Underwood's “The Real Prize.” Alison Tyler is a big name in erotica for good reason. She consistently delivers hot stories. Her contribution, “Well Trained,” is no exception.
Fans of male submission have several choices too. N.T. Morley's “Divorce Proceedings” is angsty but hot, while Xavier Acton's “Unlike the Others” captures the feeling of a crush very well. “Five Bucks a Swat” by Christopher Pierce features a gang spanking in a gay bar, for charity! Props to Christopher for such cheeky fun. (Sorry. I couldn't resist.)While you may be thinking that I must have already mentioned every story in this anthology, there's so much more by wonderful writers such as Saskia Walker, Shanna Germain, Rachel Kramer Bussel, Michelle Houston, R. Gay. Vanessa Evans. Julia Moore (there's a freaky little bit of naughty fun for you), Erica Dumas, Sophia Valenti, and Sommer Marsden. In sports, they'd call that a deep bench. In an anthology, I call it a "you can't miss" lineup of powerhouse talent.
Erotica exists to fuel fantasy. PhD student Laura understands this only too well. Her extensive collection of BDSM lesbian erotica might be valuable in its own right, but Laura cherishes her books mostly because they are the closest she can get to the experience of surrendering to a powerful and demanding mistress. She lives in a sexual vacuum, a submissive without a dominant to serve, until Adele, a university acquaintance, offers to introduce Laura to her own mistress Jeanne.
Wealthy, stylish, cool and self-assured, Jeanne embodies all Laura's fantasies. Laura quickly realizes that her reading has hardly prepared her for the realities of a D/s relationship. Jeanne tests both Laura's patience and endurance. The young graduate student makes mistakes. She disappoints and occasionally disobeys her mistress. However, Laura's intelligence, enthusiasm and unfailing trust gradually convince Jeanne to accept her service. The dominant pushes Laura to new limits, discovering an unusual level of personal satisfaction in her interactions with the novice sub.
Jealous, insecure and vindictive. Adele turns out to be the snake in this BDSM paradise. Her machinations ultimately threaten not only Laura but Jeanne as well. In confronting Adele and her cohorts, Laura and Jeanne draw closer to one another, building a relationship based not only on the exchange of power but also on love.
The Collectors is a fast, smooth read, written in clear, unpretentious prose. Laura's first person narrative allows the reader to taste her excitement and uncertainty when she gets the opportunity to trade fantasy for reality. Jeanne is appealingly flawed, so sure of herself that she's astonished when the Society of doms and subs that she founded turns against her. Unlike some fictional dominants, she is far from omniscient. Expert at reading the reactions of a submissive, she's barely in touch with her own deeper needs. Her emotional susceptibility to Laura seriously disturbs her.
Despite these positive factors, overall I found this book unconvincing and a bit shallow in its portrayal of BDSM. Laura's submission was just too easy, with none of the fear or conflict I would expect from a total beginner. Jeanne's immediate attraction to Laura also struck me as implausible. Most importantly, I didn't personally feel the intensity of most of the BDSM scenes in the novel. The narrator tells us that she's aroused, that her deepest desire is to please her mistress, that she's just had the most explosive orgasm in her life, but somehow I couldn't identify. Something about the exposition seemed to distance me from Laura's emotions.
Laura repeatedly emphasizes the difference between the erotic books in her collection and the actual experience of submission. In fact, many of the scenes in this novel follow common BDSM literary formulae. There's even a luxurious country house, a sort of modernized Roissy, where lesbian dommes bring their subs to share with one another and where new members of the shadowy Society are initiated.
Finally, some of the BDSM activities in this book struck me as unrealistic and even unsafe. In one scene, Jeanne binds Laura in a contorted position and then uses her as a footstool while watching two movies in a row – a duration of more than four hours. This would surely cause damage due to constricted blood flow. In another segment, a sub is suspended above the floor in a backwards-bowed position by a rope that pulls her head back by her ponytail. Perhaps this is feasible, but it sounds like a recipe for spinal damage to me. After spanking, caning, bondage and ass-fucking, Laura mentions that she's “sore” - I would have expected that she could barely move.
Of course, BDSM erotica focuses on fantasy, not fact, and sometimes requires a suspension of disbelief. Extreme scenarios can be a powerful turn-on, even when they could never really be enacted. If a reader stops to take note of an unrealistic or dangerous scenario though, that shatters the erotic illusion. This occurred more than once for me as I was reading The Collectors.
It may be that my standards for BDSM erotica are more exacting than some readers'. Overall, though, I found The Collectors to be something of a disappointment.