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.
Whispers of the Flesh is the third volume in Louisa Burton’s Hidden Grotto series of erotic novels. In 2008, I reviewed the first two books in the series, noting that they were carefully crafted and highly entertaining. Entertainment and relatively wholesome titillation appear to be Ms. Burton’s objectives in this series, and Whispers of the Flesh succeeds in achieving these goals at least as well as the previous installments.
The series is set in the mysterious valley of the Grotte Cachée, hidden in the mountains of Auvergne, France. Despite its isolation, the valley has been inhabited for long ages by a variety of peoples. It houses sacred altars among ancient oaks, a marble bath house decorated with outrageous erotic sculpture, a volcanic cave with a healing spring and psychotropic vapors, and the medieval chateau where generations of seigneurs have lived out their lives over the centuries.
The valley is also home to a quartet of immortals whom the seigneurs have sworn to protect and serve. Inigo the satyr is a happy-go-lucky ambisexual with prodigious genitalia and a libido to match. Lili is a stunningly beautiful Mesopotamian goddess who requires sexual congress with mortals in order to survive. Elic is a Norse demon who can assume the shape of either male or female in order to couple with humans of either sex. Finally, Darius is a djinn with the power to assume animal shapes and to heal. He is cursed with an irresistible sensitivity to human emotion; if he senses a human’s desire, he cannot help but fulfill it.
The earlier books were structured as a series of vignettes jumping back and forth through time. Through privilege or chance, humans would visit the chateau and be drawn into the sexual games and intrigues of the four “follets”. The follets need a continuous supply of human lust. The lord of the Hidden Grotto is committed to providing this. Across the centuries, the chateau has played host to innumerable seductions, orgies, slave auctions, and mock satanic rituals. The humans involved rarely come to understand that their primary role is to fulfill the sexual requirements of the immortals. Nevertheless, they usually leave sated, and often wiser, for their experiences
Whispers of the Flesh offers a slightly different structure. The action occurs in three time periods: the eighteen twenties, the early nineteen seventies, and the present. However, the stories are intertwined. Back in the nineteenth century, a rigidly chaste Jesuit arrives at the chateau, ostensibly to complete a landscape design plan but actually to investigate persistent rumors of demons and black magic.
At the height of the hippie era, a clot of young pleasure seekers converge on the valley for a week of sex, drugs and rock and roll. Among them is the future wife of the current administrateur, the seneschal whose descendants over the ages have organized life for the seigneur of the Grotte Cachée.
In the present, the adminstrateur Emmett Archer lies on his deathbed, suffering from aggressive pulmonary fibrosis. His daughter Isabel has arrived at the chateau to spend what are probably his last days, and to contemplate how to refuse the responsibility of taking over his hereditary position. She cannot bear to spend her life serving the young seigneur Adrian Morel, for whom she harbors an impossible passion. Also visiting is Hitch, an old comrade of Emmett’s from the days of the Vietnam war.
Each thread of the tale influences future events. To avoid revealing to much, I won’t say anything more about the plot. However, the new structure of this novel gives it a different rhythm than the previous books, in some ways more effective.
When I reviewed the earlier books, I commented that the characterizations of the follets seemed less fully realized than those of the humans around them, partly because they do not involve themselves emotionally with their “victims”. I found Whispers of the Flesh more satisfying in this regard. Both Darius and Lili reveal themselves more fully, especially in their interactions with the priest David Beckett. Elic and Lili, lovers who cannot physically consummate their passion, suffer from jealousy and remorse. And Isabel, a woman from the outside world despite her familiarity with the follets, has some serious conflicts with them.
Although it delves somewhat deeper into the immortals’ history and motivations and even has intimations of tragedy and death, Whispers of the Flesh still struck me as a light-hearted romp, full of extravagant sexual excess enjoyed mostly for the pleasure of it. The two exceptions are Lili’s seduction of Beckett, who struggles against his own vows of chastity, and Isabel’s apparently doomed coupling with Adrian. Both of these scenes offered an emotional intensity lacking in most of the sexual interactions.
Ms. Burton’s sex scenes are a lot of fun. Also, the entire attitude of this series is emphatically sex-positive. Sex almost always produces favorable outcomes.
On the other hand, my personal notion of eroticism requires something more than just mutual pleasure. For me, a story needs to have some sort of edge to be erotic. Something more important than a climax needs to be at stake. Thus, though I found Whispers of the Flesh to be entertaining, it was only occasionally arousing. This of course is a personal reaction. For some people, the very notion of unbridled sexual activity is exciting. The follets gleefully violate taboos left and right. For some readers, this will be a turn on. I may just be jaded.
In any case, Whispers of the Flesh offers safe, sane, diverse and diverting sex, set in an historically-convincing environment laced with just the right amount of magic. If this sounds appealing, I recommend the book highly.