The very name Susie Bright would seem to thumb its nose at the whole notion of literary substance, but then there’s that other nom de plum, e.e. cummings. They share in common the ability to elevate and rarify a fairly hoary literary form to create a work that belongs among the literary canon of the last decade. In this instance, I refer to Ms. Bright’s Bitten, an anthology of “dark erotica” that exceeds any work of this kind that I have read since the inception of Erotica Revealed.
In every story, the authors have taken some cliché of fiction, usually gothic in nature, and turned it out with a new lining, a new feel and entirely penetrating sense of style. Humor balances gracefully with cutting surreal horror in “The Resurrection Rose” by Anne Tourney. What is more, as is generally the case in this volume, the narrative has a genuinely erotic effect on the reader. Partly that is a matter of how the subject is manipulated, but equally important is the elegant and sexually fluid style.
To my delight the book itself is an oddly sensual object to handle even in paperback. The cover art is a dark and sensuously raised representation of a snake in greens and purples. The edges of the pages have been burnished with some sort of charcoal silver substance that makes them smooth to the touch and easy to turn. Those who can remember 19th century books, which were often leather bound and burnished at the edges, will take tremendous pleasure in just touching this book. It is silky, slick and has an interesting texture.
It may seem odd to extol a book ‘as object,’ but if you have occasion to handle lots of less thoughtfully wrought texts, as we all do in the age of the computer, the feel of this book is worth noting. Plaudits indeed should go to Chronicle Books. What’s more, why not? I read erotica primarily for pleasure. Why shouldn’t the caress of the book itself be as pleasant as the fantasies it creates?
The authors in this book have an amazing ability to connect the sense of touch with the experience of reading. Sera Gamble’s “The Devil’s Invisible Scissors” is the best case in point. What more innocuous cutting tool is there than scissors, especially a tiny pair of shears? But have you ever caught your skin in scissors and felt their bite say while grooming a pet or cutting something thick and hard to penetrate? The cuts can be both painful and surprisingly incisive. The shears in the story nestle between two delectable breasts, so the libidinous imagination hums into gear at the contrast of textures. You want to see these little scissors and touch them, but in the back of your mind, you surely know better. That is real dramatic tension in fiction because it invades the body of the reader.
None of these stories fail to engage the reader even though they do so at a widely divergent set of levels. In “The Witch of Jerome Avenue” Tsaurah Litzky perfectly captures the unique and sea driven atmosphere in that part of Brooklyn, the borough in which I live. She has blended the voice of its streets with the nuanced character of her heroine.
The most outlandish offering in Bitten is “Get Thee Behind Me, Satan” by Ernie Conrick in which the hero, Mr. Morgenthaler, has decided that, “he wanted to forgo their usual dinnertime rituals and have a sudden, impolite encounter that ended with the fertilization of Mrs. Morgenthaler’s esophagus.” It is a tale of downtown Manhattan; an area where I lived for many years and apparently so has Mr. Conrick.
His version of life there has a hilarious murderous tension that all New Yorkers feel when waiting for the “F” train to come and wondering if there will be a square inch of room for them to squeeze inside. So dense is life for us in Gotham, and so bizarre the mix of people, that it does not seem outrageous at all that the laws of physics might be set aside and some totally new cosmic mayhem unleashed by our pent up sexual desires. I will not spoil the story by giving more specific examples.I think it fair to say that all the stories are strong and unique in this book, and thus something is there for every erotic or literary taste. You may even develop some new ones.
A few years ago, my dear friend Seneca Mayfair wrote a wonderful erotic story entitled “The Bookseller's Dream,” which was published in my Cream anthology. The heroine in this story, Alexi, has a book fetish; she loves to touch books, smell them, rub them all over her body until she comes.
X: The Erotic Treasury would have had Alexi wet in an instant. Bound in claret silk patterned with a swirling floral design halfway between William Morris and Georgia O'Keefe, with gold lettering embossed on the spine and thick, smooth pages, the book is heavy enough to secure my teetering pile of manuscripts, but not, of course, too heavy to read in bed. It comes in a slip box decorated with the same pattern, with a bold X carved out of the front so that silk shows through.
It's a tasteful and beautiful volume. It's not, in Seneca's words, a “one-night stand book.” Susie Bright and Chronicle Books were brave to publish it now, at the hefty price of $35, at a moment when the world is reeling from compounded financial catastrophes. On the other hand, for that price you get forty stories, three-hundred-sixty plus pages. Less than a dollar per story. And rest assured, nearly every one is more than worth the cost.
X is a rich collection culled from Ms. Bright's illustrious decade and a half as editor of the Best American Erotica series. Aside from its impressive size and elegant presentation, it is notable for the uniformly high quality of the writing and for the diversity of themes and styles.
Michael Dorsey's “Milk” offers the dreamy eroticism of a young Russian man confronted with the essence of femininity. Anne Tourney's astonishingly perverse “Full Metal Corset” explores the irresistible beauty of pain. “Slow Dance on the Fault Line,” by Donald Rawley, takes a stroll through a night-time carny world in which the ugliest man may be the one to fulfill your true desires. Matthew Addison's gentle fable “Wish Girls” is a meditation on the pitfalls of fantasy.
The book includes raw encounters with strangers (Paula Bomer's “On the Road with Sonia”) and couples' games on the edge (“Yes” by Donna George Story and “Red Light, Green Light” by Shanna Germain). There's tear-inducing romance (“Valentine's Day in Jail” by Susan Musgrave), irony (Robert Olen Butler's “Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot”), humor (“Gifts from Santa” by Tsaurah Litzky and “Loved It and Set it Free” by Lisa Montanarelli) and gory horror (Vicki Hendricks' “Must Bite”).
A few of these stories have happy endings, but most conclude ambiguously, some even tragically. Many offer life lessons. In Susannah Indigo's “Ratatouille,” a man learns that if he tries to hold on to his perfect lover, he'll lose her. In “God's Gift” by Salome Wilde, a horny rock-and-roll idol known as a womanizer is reincarnated as a vibrator. “Inspiration” by Eric Albert is an exceptionally raunchy fantasy spun by a man at the request of his partner who is on her deathbed.
I spent more than two weeks reading this book. This was not a consume-it-and-throw-it-away collection. I couldn't tackle more than two or three stories at a sitting. I wanted to savor each one, not rush on to the next.
My one complaint about this book is that, despite its stylistic diversity, it is overwhelmingly heterosexual. Among forty tales, there are only two or three with lesbian themes or activities, and no gay male erotica at all, aside from Carol Queen's rowdy reminiscences of a Mexican bathhouse. Clearly, as an editor, Ms. Bright has the final decision on what to include. However, the slip box boasts “If there's only room for one book on your bedside table, this should be it.” I don't think that it is fair to suggest that this book represents the full range and richness of literary erotica available today. This is Ms. Bright's selection, and it presumably reflects her tastes. Other editors (including yours truly) might have made different choices.
Overall, however, X: The Erotic Treasury succeeds admirably in its objectives, offering a double helping of stories that are both sexy and thought provoking. The volume would make a wonderful birthday or anniversary gift.Time to start dropping hints to someone you love.