Mitzi Szereto’s In Sleeping Beauty’s Bed is a handsome collection of fairy tales published by Cleis Press. This is one of their best produced and edited books to date. Traditional folk/fairy tales (and some authored stories) have been reworked by Ms. Szereto with her unique vision and sexual zest. Each story is preceded by a brief literary history and interpretation of the original. The book is highly eclectic and therefore both appealing to your naughty bits and intellectually engaging.
From the outset, let me say that Szereto has a wonderfully creative and deft command of English. She can elaborate where others merely complicate. That makes for a degree of sensual pleasure in reading her thoughts all on its own. Equally important is the fact that she has seriously researched and thought about the fairy tale as erotic art. I think writers of erotica have always felt a natural pull toward the folk tale because its themes seem as basic, organic and natural as the sex they want to explore in prose.
The fairy tale is not so easy a nut to crack though, and the insertion of sexual specifics can often seem a gratuitous appendage. As any devotee of “Fractured Fairy Tales” on Rocky and Bullwinkle can tell you, they work precisely because the original form has been so lovingly, but totally, ruptured in the form of a burlesque. Szereto wants to hold onto the pungent earthiness of the originals and she pretty much gets there.
The folk tale is closest to the fable or parable, both of which are closed forms that are intended as instruction, rather than a more lyric form of literary engagement. You don’t argue with Aesop; you get it or you don’t. Sometimes, like “Hansel and Gretel” the lesson is about very hard truths of a bitter and greedy world that can reduce its inhabitants to cannibals. So in its original form, the folktale is often far more suited to the theatre of Bertolt Brecht than Walt Disney.
Following 19th century efforts to bowdlerize folk tales into what we now think of as fairy tales, Disney leaves in a lot of sexual innuendo, but cuts out the actual sexual contact. He relies on the adolescent shiver of frustration rather than the mature sigh of satisfaction after orgasm. The result is that I am still trying to see up Tinkerbelle’s skirt, as I was when I was eight. What a little tease she is, don’t you think? And what gives with Snow White of the plunging neckline and her seven little friends in tight pants? They must have gotten a lot tighter mooning over her glass “coffin.” Disney is the master of the bloodless, odorless, crankyless menstrual cycle. It’s not that easy to do either, but it can also make for rather creepy and unnatural images of human relations.
Every culture has its folk/fairy tale tradition and Szereto has searched a lot of them in compiling her wonderful book. What she so clearly understands is that these forms are the way that people in an every day world deal with the things that frighten them, entice them and/or both. They are the stories of the power we fear most because it is beyond our control, and of deep sexual yearnings that are in us all. They are there even when sometimes we do not realize they are there. Fairly tales deal with our common, deep sense of truth.
My favorite story in the book is “The Swineherd” which she has adapted from Hans Christian Andersen. Her analysis is original, insightful and thought provoking. Her reworking of his story is a charming and very exciting game of sexual provocation. The low seduce the high in a most clever and sensual way. That power is then subsumed by the high mastering the low in the form of mutually willing and delicious BDSM play. It hardly fails to please that during this erotic struggle, handmaidens are regularly spanked and caned as pretty princess feet are stamped in feminine frustration. Szereto can even make girlish pouting sexy, which is no small accomplishment.
Of late my reading tastes have lead me back to the 19th century if only because writers of that time were not afraid of words as a medium for complex feelings, and by extension, exploring the complexity of love and eroticism that words can reveal. Szereto will not seem like a museum piece to any of her readers, but she is gifted with the sort of eye that sees many facets on a jewel.
The other thing that I truly love about this book is that it is in no way cynical, but it makes no attempt to idealize the human condition. People are not presented as trolls, but even princesses can have eager little hands that are too bent upon sheer acquisition. Gadgets, toys and shiny baubles can blind them to true love’s ardor. In Szereto’s world the scales are often lifted from their eyes, by the brisk application of a male palm to their luscious bottoms. Thus balance – even a rough, country balance – is restored. Men in Szereto’s world do seem to think with their dicks, but she does not mind that quality in them. Actually from her descriptions of them, she seems quite fond of dicks herself. We are thus relieved of the boring burden of political correctness, which is by its nature antithetical to art. People are not designed to think about sex in one sanitized way, and art is about giving people a route to what they really think.
I have to applaud this book as a milestone in a very difficult area of literature. If for no other reason, folk tales have been perfected to their uses like well worn steps that so many people have traveled in an ancient staircase. For a single author to make her own rendition of them requires a unique level of talent and respect for the original.
Had Dorian been anyone else, he might have been content with his new existence. Life had been pared down to a beautiful kind of simplicity, and for some it might have been enough. But the pressure of his lust had been building like the pressure inside the volcano that hovered over the valley; an explosion was imminent. The catalyst that finally triggered it would need to be masterfully executed, for he had to make up for many arid years of self-denial.
Donning the humble peasant’s garb that had become his daily attire, Dorian set forth on foot for the mountains, looking like a man with nothing but the clothing on his back and only his wits to guide him. He had no purpose or destination in mind, yet his feet seemed to be leading him somewhere. The first night he slept rough, awakening as dusty and dirty as the impoverished beggars who occasionally traveled through the towns and villages. His shabby appearance, combined with a
few words of Quechua, aided him well enough to locate a bed on the second night. The fact that it was located inside the monastery he had heard about gave rise to a plan that would be a masterpiece of corruption. It came to him the moment he saw the young monk working in the vineyards. The frank purity in the man’s broad brown face cried out to Dorian to sully it.
It’s a sad truth that we live in a society that celebrates youth and beauty over experience and substance. Many people believe this is symptomatic of modernity, and cite examples from football and music and the entertainment industry. The truth is: our society has always been this fucking stupid.
Oscar Wilde’s original title, The Picture of Dorian Gray, illustrated this point to a Victorian audience on its release in 1891. The Faustian themes of a man selling his soul in exchange for eternal youth are unmistakable and clearly struck a chord with the readership of the day. The themes obviously struck so much of a chord that zealous editors butchered the title before sending it to print and Wilde still had to apologise for the remaining content.
As Szereto explains in the preface:
In writing The Wilde Passions of Dorian Gray, it has not been my intention to “re-imagine” the original work or revise it by filling in the blanks, but rather to continue from where the tale left off, bringing Dorian Gray out of Victorian London and into the present day, with several stops along the way. Obviously, I have had to take some liberties with the original text, altering the incident of Dorian’s purported death in order to allow readers to follow him through time. What I did not alter was the nature of Dorian Gray’s character. Wilde portrayed him as a sexual profligate and, yes, even a murderer. For Dorian to live on, he needed to become progressively more debauched from when we last saw him, descending into an abyss of degeneracy that perhaps Mr. Wilde himself would never have envisioned.
The Wilde Passions of Dorian Gray is an exciting and compelling continuation of the original story. Szereto’s Dorian Gray is profligate, wanton and debauched. He strikes the reader initially as a character who lives for the thrill of satisfying every unfulfilled appetite. His debauchery knows no limits as he pursues the extremes of experience in every field.
“My lovely little whore, your body never lies to me,” Dorian whispered into the dainty swirls of her ear. He felt her interior clench in response and knew that her battle had, indeed, been yet another artifice designed to put coins into her purse. He couldn’t altogether blame her. In all likelihood Madame Cherie paid the young ladies in her employ a pittance of what she took in for their services. Perhaps he would be extra generous tonight and leave Celestine with an amount equivalent to the pleasure she provided, though he’d make certain that she earned it.
Dorian spent himself once, only to continue without cease, working toward his second climax as Celestine’s passions pulsed hotly against his immersed flesh. Just as the pressure in his testes became too much to bear, he heard a muffled cry from below. It was followed by his own as he released himself inside her. Hot tears flowed in salty rivulets down Celestine’s pleasure-flushed cheeks, leaving pale tracks through the rouge painted on her cheeks. Had Dorian seen them, he might have mistook them for tears of suffering rather than what they truly were—for by then Celestine’s feelings were such that she believed she could not live without him.
Dorian’s demands for new experiences take him around the world. His invincible immortality allows him to endure extremes that we mere mortals could never tolerate. But still he wants more. He is not content with male, female, hermaphrodite couples or orgies. He yearns for the satisfaction that can only come through redemption from his sins. Ultimately, perhaps, Dorian Gray is acknowledging that experience and substance are superior to the passing falsehoods of youth and beauty. Then again, perhaps that’s only one possible interpretation.This is strong writing, as is to be expected from a celebrated author of Szereto’s calibre. The title excites where it needs to, relays a compelling narrative, and continues the story of one of literature’s most enduring characters. Definitely worth the read.