Today I am launching a spruced-up second edition of my most recent short story collection, Kiss-Off the Devil. The original version hasn't sold well at all. Unsurprisingly. I knew that these darker, more literary stories would be a tough nut for many readers to crack, and yet, I am more confident about the quality of the writing now than I was at first publication a year ago. The problem may have been my original foreword, which went into torturous detail about what the stories were not--not porn, not romance, not strictly literary, nor even erotica in its broadest commercial sense, though there are strong erotic elements in all the stories. I was overly apologetic about this; too concerned with "improper observers" taking offense at my work; worried over what conclusions readers might draw about me personally. No more! I proudly offer the new foreword for your consideration.
I must have a dark side if I am to be whole
The stories in this collection won’t be for everyone. This is a given. A writer cannot please all the peple all the time, especially when he or she writes about sex. There’s always somebody out there itching to take offense, jonesing to be outraged; looking for any excuse to stampede the moral high horses, or let slip the dogs of some imaginary culture war. Always somebody bombastically bewailing the wretched state of our times—often getting paid good money to tell us what we’ve come to— decrying the moral dry rot in society as evidenced by the coarsening of language on TV sit-coms, easy access to internet porn, or the latest teenage dance craze— even as horrific violence and chronic systemic injustice barely rate a raised eyebrow. Always somebody, invariably too close to power for comfort, demanding that books and film uphold a simplistic, knee-jerk reactionary movie-of-the-week morality in which sex—especially celebratory sex outside of “traditional” marriage— is always a sin, and those who enjoy it are punished accordingly without fail. Always somebody somewhere—perhaps even at the back of our own minds—enforcing the notion that art needs to be “socially acceptable”—predictable, comfortable, sterile, chaste— and that fiction “needs to be nice.”
But truth—which is, after all, the ultimate object of fiction—isn’t always nice. Nor would a world in which everyone always told the unvarnished truth have much use for literature. As it is, our present plain of existence is rife with secrecy and deceit, and we must invent stories in order to tell ourselves the uncomfortable and often-convoluted truths society would silence. It is through fiction in its most subversively potent form that we expose the great lies of our time and unmask the venial fibs of unexamined everyday existence, revealing, through the voices of imaginary people, real-life hypocrisy for all it is.
Indeed, if we would dig down to the roots of human folly we should expect to get our hands at least a little dirty. But the beauty of transgressive fantasy, as a character in one of these stories, The Why in Everything, points out, is that “we can go visit that dark place, go there and come back without getting physically banged up or mentally fucked up.” We can safely explore the very things that make us most uncomfortable, and ask ourselves why we react and feel the way we do upon our return. And when we ask why, inevitably we begin to grow, taking a step towards self-awareness and enlightenment.
“Our inhibitions can be quite useful,” the narrator of All He Surveys tells us, “Thinking about the choices we face is not a bad thing . . .
. . . but when we let our inhibitions do our thinking for us we’re in trouble. When we attribute too much importance to these rather primitive psychological defense mechanisms they begin to impede our intellectual and spiritual growth. Treating them as if they were some sort of moral imperative, existing purely for some higher spiritual purpose which must be heeded under any and all circumstances, we willfully ignore a whole world of valuable experience and knowledge, finding it all the more difficult to realize our full potential.
And besides, challenging our inhibitions can be a thrill in and of itself, as the title character of Becoming Roxanne explains:
And there’s that Beauty and the Beast thing again. It’s like an automatic turn-on deep down inside of my gut. Like the more inappropriate or different a guy is the more I can’t resist fucking him. The real thrill’s in overcoming my hang-ups; the more out-of-my-league some guy is, the wilder the ultimate rush of getting it on with him.
Sometimes, even more often than those perpetually-outraged talking heads would have us believe— people in the real world do things simply because they are pleasurable, and there need be no other reason. As the insatiably curious, hypersexual heroine of Detour: Alternate Timeline would have it:
Love is love, and sex is sex. And sometimes if you’re lucky you get to have sex with somebody you love . . . Other times—most of the time, maybe— it’s one or the other. Love’s a lot harder to find than sex, and the two things don’t always line up the way we’d like them to. Sex—lust— comes and goes; people who love each other can wear out their physical attraction. If we insist on always having love in the equation, the world’s a much colder place. We all end up a lot lonelier . . .
* * *
If the nine short stories in this book were made into movies they would probably end up being rated somewhere between R and NC-17. Not so much for graphic content (though there is a fair amount of that) as for “adult situations,” the frank exploration of certain subjects still considered taboo by a society deeply in denial. It’s less clear as to where those movies would be screened. In some cinematic limbo, I suspect, halfway between the art house and the grind house, never wholly at home in either venue. A tough sell in any case, though I hope there are at least a few intrepid, open-minded patrons willing to pay the price of admission, if only to be entertained for a little while.
Terrance Aldon Shaw