These 27 stories are brief, crisp and snappy. Like a box of breakfast cereal, each contains a surprise: an internet "friend,” met for the first time in real life, turns out to be different (but not worse) than expected, a kick-ass babe turns out to be transgendered, a formerly-predictable spouse or lover puts the crackle back in the relationship, a person who has done wrong is horribly punished in a way that is only made clear in the last line of the story. Several of these pieces are "flash fiction:" half-page stories that are complete in themselves.
The design on the cover of the book is part of the surprise. Inside a large black circle below the book title, the reader is told: INSIDE 20+ stories you can read anywhere OUTSIDE a subtle cover. On a white background, black dots and squiggles and gold stars appear to be randomly scattered. This image invites the reader to wander through the book, picking up anything that looks interesting, while wandering past oblivious strangers in public space.
The theme of "surprise" is consistent throughout, which means that it would be hard to identify any other theme. There are characters of all genders, ages and races in this collection. The settings vary. Most of the couplings are heterosexual, but not all. There is some relatively mild BDSM, and all the stories are "realistic" in the way that truth is often stranger than fiction.
In general, the shortness of these stories works to their advantage. There is little writerly self-indulgence or digression here. In some cases, the writer "tops" the reader by delaying the resolution while steadily building tension. Every plot looks tightly-constructed.
Unfortunately, not all the stories are equally well-written. In "Temptation Like a Muthafucka," Alicia C. McGhee's attempt to capture the sound of grass-roots dialect leads her into awkward tense shifts, misleading modifiers and a jumbled sequence of events. Here is an example:
His eyes scaled up and down my appeasing frame as I watched him watching me through my shades. T-bird opened the passenger door, sliding into the seat with a stack of CDs, letting the bass carry on through the cul-de-sac road.
The plot of this story is both plausible and intense, but the writing style is a constant distraction.
The list of author bios shows that novice writers are thrown together with competent professionals in this book, and that is one of the surprises. Several of the contributors write in other genres as well as erotica, and the influence of fantasy, sci-fi and horror tropes is evident in
their work. One hilarious story, “Adam Gets Perspective” by Kyoko Church, is about a male professional writer’s need for sexual relief in order to meet a deadline: “The first draft of his manuscript was due to his publisher in two months.” His resourceful housekeeper, a no-nonsense professional herself, finds a way to use distracting noise to help him reach his goals.
In several of these stories, the surprise is physical, and it can be summarized in a punch-line. “Detachable Penis” by Stephen Smith is self-explanatory, and it seems like a heterosexual variant of “Blue Light” by Stephen Saylor (a.k.a. Aaron Travis), an eerie classic of 1970s gay-male porn. “Addiction” by Felix Baron has a female heroine with a sexual “problem” that is parallel to that of Linda Lovelace, heroine of another classic of 1970s porn, Deep Throat (novel and movie). “Enhancement” by Theodore Carter is a male fantasy focused on male anatomy.
The stories based on a single plot twist or a physical quirk are entertaining and generally lightweight. Unusual body parts, especially those that are detachable and have wills of their own, are also characteristic of fantasy and horror literature, and they suggest both a fear of dismemberment and a fear of losing self-control. Stories about women who literally can’t live without something that only men can provide seem to be part of a locker-room tradition in which “porn” appeared in magazines that were written by men for men and literally sold under the counter.
Other stories in this book are more complex, and contain surprises with far-reaching consequences. “Goddard’s Curse” by Paul L. Bates appears at first to be about a man with insomnia, but his condition is gradually revealed to be more sinister:
Each tick of the clock resounded like a thunderclap. Goddard sat stone still, his eyes peering across the gloomy living room at the desolate cityscape framed above the bookcase. As always, he made an effort not to look at the offending timepiece.
It’s 2:45, he told himself against his will.
And then he receives an expected telephone call from an anonymous female voice: “I hate you. I hope you rot in hell. Fuck you, you selfish little prick—fuck you to hell.” Goddard has so many women’s names in his little black book of past and future “conquests” that he has no idea who she might be. Goddard is a very recognizable man who is shown collecting enough bad karma to keep him awake for the rest of his shortened life.
“The Senator’s Perfect Wife” by S.T. Clemmons is another bone-chilling story that is hardly erotic at all, since the sex in it is not consensual and not satisfying for the central character. This story would fit with other tales set in a dystopian future in which convicted criminals are punished and controlled in ways that are currently not possible.
“Leslie Goosemoon Rides Again” by Giselle Renarde is one of a whole series by this Canadian author about characters with unconventional gender identities AND non-mainstream ethnic/cultural identities who don’t appear to be walking stereotypes or sex jokes. The title character in this story is thoroughly human and sexy without working at it. Other writers who strive to write erotica “outside the box” (but from a Politically Correct viewpoint) could learn from Renarde.
“Old Flames” by Keesha Marie is hot in every sense. Although fire is becoming a tired metaphor for sexual passion, the various types of fire in this story shed light on the various reasons why the woman in this atmospheric story is drawn to the man who comes through a rainstorm to hold her in the warmth from her fireplace, and why she is uncomfortable with their relationship.
This collection is definitely worth reading, and you can read it openly on the beach, the bus, or the plane. Keeping a poker face when you reach the surprise in each story might be harder to do.