Black Lace, an imprint of Virgin Publishing in the United Kingdom, now owned by Random House, is erotica by women for women. The stories contain a lot of sexual description and are mostly heterosexual romances with happy endings. The themes of the anthologies are broad and fairly conventional by now. Unlike quirkier collections from smaller publishers, these stories belong to a recognizable brand: well-written, effective as one-handed reading, but light on character development and philosophical analysis. These stories challenge the persistent double standard of sexual morality which still limits women's sexual choices, and they deserve to be read for this reason alone. Fiction which seriously challenges or illuminates the status quo needs to be found elsewhere.
As the saying goes, it is what it is. The Black Lace novels and anthologies continue to occupy a worthy niche between traditional “porn” (badly written and edited, cheaply produced, intended to be used once and thrown away) and literary erotica which thoughtfully probes, as it were, the significance of sex in the complex context of life. Black Lace books generally seem free of clunky prose, grammatical or technical errors, and they are attractively produced. I think of them as a verbal equivalent of Devon cream: an English treat which is irresistible, though not especially nutritious. Sex fantasies don’t get much better than this.
The theme of Liaisons is secret or uncommitted sex: trysts between lovers who are married to other people, lightning-strike attraction between new acquaintances, the consummation of seemingly hopeless crushes. This is a fruitful topic for both fantasy and tragedy, but all the stories are contemporary and realistic, loosely speaking, and all the characters seem to benefit immensely from their liaisons.
The jolly stories of adultery feature devoted, trusting husbands who never seem to guess how they are being deceived by their horny and clever wives. There are also several stories about the traditional male teacher-female student hookup, although in one case, the heroine's encounter with a younger, lustier and more honest man enables her to realize how her older, married lover (formerly her tutor) is exploiting her. In the cleverly misleading "Men" by Charlotte Stein, a woman "confesses" to her current lover that she has had memorable affairs with a variety of very different men -- yet the lover has no reason to feel jealous. "A Stroll Down Adultery Alley" by Portia da Costa is not about adultery at all, and the sexual attraction between the unlikely hero and the divorced heroine looks like a sign that they were made for each other.
The voyeuristic thrill of fantasizing about a mysterious stranger before acquiring carnal knowledge of him is evoked in two memorable stories: “The Woodsman” by Charlotte Stein, and “Glamour” by Carrie Williams. “The Woodsman” is set in a contemporary English forest, but it evokes hairy, half-wild men (or the “Green Man,” the spirit of the woods) in traditional tales and artwork, as well as the unspoken prohibitions in them. (The narrator knows that if she spies on her strange lover, or invades his privacy, she will be punished.) In “Glamour,” a young Polish immigrant to London earns her living as hotel maid although she is actually a musician from a country that is too full of them. Her life is lonely and frustrating, but she relieves the tedium by fantasizing about the important man whose room she is assigned to clean, and who never seems to be there. Eventually, Marta learns what makes him tick, and why he needs her as much as she needs him.
“Archeogasms” by K.D. Grace and “Junking” by Alison Tyler are very different stories, but in some sense they each deal with the fascination of the past. In “Archeogasms,” a woman archaeologist leads a team of researchers who are exploring a cave which is rumored to be the site of ancient fertility rites. She is surprised to learn that the man and woman in her team who grope each other in semi-public places enjoy watching her watching them, but the central scene in this story is not a threesome. When a curious male journalist interviews Dr. Allegra Thorn, she invites him to join her in the cave on the Summer Solstice, where they are both enlightened in several ways.
“Junking” by Tyler, the perky chronicler of sex in Los Angeles (“El Lay”), is about a distinctly American kind of historical research in the form of bargain-hunting for the artefacts of retro pop culture. Fiona the heroine runs a second-hand shop for which she is always seeking out merchandise while she lives with her yuppie boyfriend, a man who neither shares nor understands her passion for “junk.” He remarks: “There’s a fine line between ‘broken in’ and broken down,’” and this statement applies to his relationship with Fiona as well as to her former taste in men, who always turned out to be missing important parts (honesty, loyalty, job skills, a plan). On her search for good, well-preserved items, Fiona meets another “junker.” He is a good, well-preserved Dom who is outfitting a garage “dungeon” with used items that can be adapted to other purposes. Fiona has met her match.
“Advanced Corsetry” by Justine Elyot is a more elaborate and tightly-laced BDSM fantasy told by a custom corset-maker who loves her craft. She is approached by a man who orders a corset for his “wife,” a woman who seems to be under orders never to speak. Following the “husband’s” instructions, the corset-maker is able to arouse the “wife” in unmistakable ways, but a disturbing question about the consensuality of the “fittings” hangs in the air. When the corset-maker is almost excited enough to ignore her own concerns, the “wife” breaks her silence to reveal her true motives. This story is essentially a lesbian romance to which a man has been added as window-dressing.
The best and most intricate of the lot, in my opinion, is “Table for Three” by A.D.R. Forte, in which two men and a woman explore their feelings for each other at a beach resort. The shifting currents of visual attraction, jealousy, exhibitionism and self-discovery are convincingly and poetically described in sections which jump from one character’s viewpoint to another’s. Eventually, the reader becomes intimately familiar with all three characters as the woman character learns that she can watch the interaction between male lovers without being shut out of a “gay” scene. Here she has the last word:
“It’s over. But it’s just begun.”