Sunday, December 4, 2016

Review of two erotic horror anthologies: "Touched by Death" and "Whispers in Darkness"

Erotic horror has become one of my favorite subgenres over the last several years. Thus, I was delighted to encounter two relatively recent anthologies featuring dark, imaginative storytelling conveyed in superbly stylish writing with the occasional flash of genuine inspiration. These are editor D.M. Atkins’ 2012 collection Touched by Death and J. Blackmore’s Whispers inDarkness: Lovecraftian Erotica from 2011.

I have previously remarked here on the psychological kinship of horror and erotica, though, I think, the notion bears repeating. Both horror and erotica invite readers to delve the dark places within themselves, grants them license to ‘step outside the bounds of socially acceptable behavior’, and embrace the transgressive without returning home (as one of my characters puts it) “physically banged up or mentally fucked up.”

Touched by Death (ed. D.M. Atkins)

These ten stories run the stylistic gamut from breezy contemporary romance and urban drama to darker, scarier—more morally ambiguous—Gothic and steampunk-inspired tales. Whatever flavor one’s in the mood for is readily available, from Luna Lawrence’s Raven and Crow, where Edgar Allen Poe uses ‘electrical science’ to resuscitate the corpse of a woman’s recently-deceased lover, to Cold Love by Ruth Black, where resurrection is achieved more directly, by dancing naked on the grave of one’s departed boyfriend, and Claryssa Berg’s Deep Water Grave, a fairy-tale of a drowned sailor returned to land. Death itself turns out to be an adept pickup artist in Anabeth Leong’s marvelously imaginative and poignant Less Than a Day, and Kailin Morgan’s Stone Cold Heart.  E.E. Gray’s Brush With Death is a rather sweet contemporary M/M romance in the lighthearted vein of a ‘haunted apartment’ story, while Ann Gimpel’s Witch’s Price uses the backdrop of World War II to tell the story of a doomed American GI in the treacherous snows of the Italian Alps. A dissolute rock musician and his reluctant lover encounter death and ecstasy in Theda Black’s powerfully concise The Band Plays On. Jane Potter’s stylish and disturbing Atropa Belladonna chronicles the psychological torments of a woman at once enthralled and revolted by the attentions of an obsessed vampiric entity. Peter Tupper’s  The Charge of the Soul is a clever and affecting twist on the zombie mythos with the author’s signature erudition and the subtlest tinge of melancholy that makes the story all the more relatably human.


Whispers in Darkness: Lovecraftian Erotica (ed. J. Blackmore)

This collection from 2011 comprises eight consistently excellent erotic stories, all inspired by the work of H.P. Lovecraft, probably the greatest horror stylist since Edgar Allen Poe. Editor J. Blackmore is candid about the ambivalence of Lovecraft’s influence; the famous author’s infamous xenophobia and overt racism are problematic to say the least; his seeming fear of everything, very much including sex, was sublimated into a relatively small, albeit bleakly transcendent oeuvre, though it is extremely difficult at times to separate this very-flawed man from his art. It’s a safe bet Lovecraft would not have approved of this collection—certainly not its focus on the erotic—as in many ways, it is an intentional dissection of his own literary soul, the apotheosis of fan fiction in an age that claims to have cast off inhibition, yet still cannot deny the ember of primal dread that gutters deep within its core.

The collection opens with Bernie Mojzes’ Ink, a masteful, funny, and outrageously (wonderfully!) creepy-sexy mashup of hard-boiled detective fiction and Lovecraft’s elder-god mythos. Peter Tupper challenges Lovecraft’s racism head-on in Koenigsberg’s Model with the tale of a bigoted bibliophile who meets his match in the exotically mysterious owner of an antique book shop. Kannan Feng offers a gothic fairytale in A Reflection of Kindness,  while Angela Caperton’s Shiek cleverly unfolds a story of occult goings-on in 1920s Hollywood. Annabeth Leong’s The Artist’s Retreat is a broodingly atmospheric albeit probing character-driven story that builds to an explosive denouement. The Dreams in the Laundramat by Elizabeth Reeve returns to Lovecraft’s Miskatonic University in Arkham in a delectably bookish bow to Japanese hentai (tentacle porn). Monique Poirier’s The Flower of Innsmouth gives readers an elegantly-narrated take on the Victorian “creepy old house full of strange relatives” trope. Finally, When the Stars Come by Alex Picchetti returns to the realm of stories like The Dunwich Horror and The Color Out of Space, when a farm girl becomes the willing bride of an ancient extra-terrestrial deity.   

Sheer pleasure from beginning to end, every story in this collection is above average.

Enthusiastically recommended!

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Review of 'Steering the Craft' by Ursula K. Le Guinn

NOTE: EftBB is dedicated to improving the universal quality of erotic writing. While Ursula K. Le Guinn's Steering the Craft is not specifically geared to erotica, it will be, I think, invaluable to many erotic authors.  (TAS)

“Craft enables art” Ursula K. Le Guinn tells us in the introduction to her Steering the Craft: A 21st-Century Guide toSailing the Sea of Story. “There’s luck in art. And there’s the gift. You can’t earn that. But you can learn skill ... You can learn to deserve your gift.”

Overflowing with valuable insight and inspiration, Steering the Craft is among the best single-volume works on writing I’ve ever read—and I’ve read a lot of them over the decades, positively devouring anything I can get my hands on.  If Stephen King’s wonderful On Writing is a helpful and encouraging introduction to the subject—call it Writing 101—Le Guinn offers a more advanced and rigorously focused 200-level course that will be most helpful to those already-experienced writers in search of self-improvement and a more acute understanding of how story works.

There is a difference, Le Guinn tells us, between the kind of  straightforward expository prose we all learned to write in school, and the language of effective fiction—a distinction far too many aspiring storytellers have yet to grasp. The important thing for a writer, she says, “…is to know what you’re doing with your language and why.” She then proceeds to enlighten us in the most pleasing of ways, gently but firmly, never dogmatic, often with humor, stressing fundamentals without coming off as a snob or a “correctness bully”. “To break a rule you have to know the rule,” she says. “A blunder is not a revolution.”

Le Guinn challenges received and conventional wisdom at every turn. For instance, where Stephen King tells us that “the road to hell is paved with adverbs,” Le Guinn gently insists that adjectives and adverbs “add color, life, and immediacy … They cause obesity in prose only when used lazily or overused.”  And again, she points out, “It’s a myth that short-sentence prose is ‘more like the way we speak’ … The marvelously supple connections of complex syntax are like the muscles and sinews of a long-distance runner’s body, ready to set up a good pace and keep going.” And there were so many more wonderful, refreshing observations throughout the book, I found myself obsessively marking and underlining to a point where my copy could never be resold—not that I would ever part with it!

I very much appreciate the way Le Guinn draws parallels between music and prose, stressing the essential importance of rhythm and the physical sound of language: “The similarity of … incremental repetition of word, phrase, image, and event in prose to recapitulation and development in musical structure is real and deep.” Elsewhere, punctuation is brilliantly demystified as it is likened to the use of rests in a musical score.

The volume is designed as a workbook, and includes a number of skill-enhancing exercises, with copious examples of the various concepts discussed, drawn from classic works from the Brontë sisters to Dickens, Hardy and Virginia Wolfe, always with fascinating, trenchant commentary from Le Guinn.

Steering the Craft is a treasure! Enthusiastically recommended. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Review of 'The Innocent's Progress' by Peter Tupper

Peter Tupper is one of those writers whose work I actively seek out. His name on a story is a virtual guarantee of rewarding literary experience, originality, craftsmanship, and illumination on many levels. I first became aware of his writing through the short story Upgrade, which was included in the Gabrielle Harbowy-edited Jacked In: Transhumanist Erotica. In my 2014 review of that superb anthology, I wrote:

Upgrade is a beautiful, melancholy, elegiac but ultimately uplifting tale of one man’s final memories of physical sensation before transitioning to a new form, leaving behind and transcending the body in order to become a being of pure intellect. But not abandoning human curiosity.  “When there is no possibility of loss,” Tupper tells us, “action becomes trivial. Even if we can’t die, We can feel fear, and feel even more ashamed because of that fear. We need to try new things. We need to find something that scares Us.”

The story stayed with me in a powerful way, and I simply could not rest until I'd read more. Earlier this year I was able to download Tupper's erotic steampunk masterpiece, The Innocent's Progress as well as two collections, each including one of his short stories; these were Whispers in Darkness: Lovecraftian Erotica (edited by J. Blackmore) and Touched By Death (edited by D.M Atkins). Tupper's story The Change of the Soul from this latter anthology is also available separately. I will offer a more in-depth review of the two collections in a later post, with due attention paid to the other contributors as well. 

I should also note that Tupper has recently published an important work of nonfiction, Our Lives, Our History: consensual master/slave relationships from ancient times to the 21st century which will no doubt be of interest and considerable value to those writing historical BDSM erotica. 

At first glance, The Innocent's Progress is a hodgepodge of tenuously connected short episodes. Only later on does the tight interlocking structure of the whole become apparent. And what a world Tupper builds! Drawing on true historical elements, characters, contemporary art and literary landmarks viewed through a haunted stereoscope, this is the nostalgic past portrayed as dystopian future; erotic visions filtered through Victorian fun house mirrors and classic steampunk. The novel casts a cynical beam on its setting, an empire in decay, bereft of optimism, morally reactionary, stratified along lines of class, gender and race, hypocritically repressive wherever sex is concerned. In short, a world rife with seething conflicts and, thus, ripe with dramatic possibility. The characters cast odd shadows, like actors standing before flickering gas footlights on a stage. Indeed, stock-players of an ossified  comedia de l'arte meet no-less rigidly typecast avatars of Victorian 'decency' in the titular opening chapter, engaging in a form of ritualized prostitution off stage. There is always a tinge of melancholy and regret, a sense of loss and foiled aspiration tugging at the heartstrings. But there is adventure--of a cozy sort--flashes of levity like sparks from a fantastical machine as our view of this at-once familiar and strange world gradually expands with each subsequent chapter, 

In The Pretty Horsebreaker and Spirit of the Future, we meet the irrepressible Miss Ccri (based on the notorious Catherine "Skittles" Walters) as she endeavors to do a good turn for the widow of a famous explorer and hero of the empire. (Captain Braen bears a striking likeness to the great real-life translator of the Kama Sutra, Sir Richard Francis Burton, while Lord Hough, Braen's rival and fellow collector of all-things erotic is, as the author informs us in his notes, "a hybrid of Richard Moncton Milnes, later Lord Houghton, and Henry Spencer Ashbee. The oily middleman, Mr. Wycke is a barely disguised Oscar Wilde). Famous literary characters appear in Tupper's world as well: in The Impurity, Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is re-imagined sans the original's rigid black-and-white dualism with a rather delicious BDSM element, and a macabre love triangle involving servant girl Mary, at once "angel of the house and dominatrix."

Probably my favorite section of the book, the virtually self-contained  Delicate Work, is Tupper's moving and mature twist on Oliver Twist, the author's self-described attempt to "put the punk back in steampunk". Tangwin, a teenaged orphan living in a vast prison-like institution for 'wayward girls' uses her innate inventor's skills ultimately to escape, but not before finding something wonderfully like love with the most unexpected of partners. For all the seeming lack of sentimentality in its telling, Delicate Work is deeply affecting, and one is left marveling at how the author so skillfully puts us into the setting, and the very soul of his characters.

Beautifully written, fastidiously researched, exquisitely brought to life, The Innocent's Progress is enthusiastically recommended.

Monday, November 7, 2016

TAS talks about dialogue at Stupid Fish Productions

TAS talks about dialogue in his short story Making Hay from the Rose Caraway-edited anthology For the Men and the Women Who Love Them. You can also read an excerpt from the story included with the article.  

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Review of "Auletris: Erotica" by Anaïs Nin

Auletris: Erotica

The publication of something new from none other than Anaïs Nin is itself the stuff of stories, akin to the live capture of a unicorn, or, at the very least, the discovery of long-buried pirate’s gold. It is an occasion to rejoice and once again make pilgrimage to the shrine of that great mother-goddess, the self-described “madame” of modern literary erotica. What a transcendent thrill to hold this book in one’s hands and read that glorious, hypnotically rhythmic, dream-spinning prose that was and is like nothing else.

What we know and take for granted today as literary erotica would be utterly unimaginable without the work of Anaïs Nin. Yet, as editor Paul Herron tells us in his concise, densely informative introduction to Auletris, the author “didn’t take her erotic writing seriously…” Famously paid a dollar a page by a private collector for her now-classic tales, the writing of which she rather dismissively likened to forays into “literary prostitution”,  Nin’s erotica was heavily edited for posthumous publication. Delta of Venus appeared in print shortly after the author’s death in 1977. Little Birds followed in 1979. One of the stories in Auletris is the unedited version of Marcel, which appears, severely pruned back, in Delta of Venus. The other story in this new volume, Life in Provincetown, has never before been seen beyond private circles: only five copies of Auletris were produced, the original typescript and four carbons, which were “bound into books by the Press of the Sunken Eye” in 1950. This new edition, according to Herron, “is reproduced as it appears in the original (typescript) minus misspellings, typos, and minor formatting problems, allowing the reader to see Nin’s words as they were intended for the collector.”

And what extraordinary words they are! Everything we have come to love and revere in Nin’s work is here: the writing is, by turns, poetically inspired, sublime, sensuous, cerebral, steamy, trangressive, disturbing, psychologically searing, and joyfully sumptuous in its amoral abandon. As in this passage from Life in Provincetown, a kind of prose-rhapsody on themes of sexual frustration and voyeurism:

She laughed like someone plunging into too cold water, and gasping, and then feeling the warm reaction and the new sensation… She laughed as if pleasure were new and beginning to invade her. Ah … ahh … came her voice in the darkness. If he could have seen her move he would not have been as clearly aware of her pleasure. He felt this pleasure of hers rippling through his muscles. The walls were so thin he could feel it all in his body. Ah … ahh … There was a silence. This silence disturbed the Portuguese more than anything. What could keep her so still after her rippling and open pleasure? What caress could silence her suddenly, as if too profound to cause an exterior proof of joy?

Or this from Marcel:

Last night after reading some of Hans’ writing, his sensual themes, I raised my arms over my head. I felt my satin pants slipping a little at the waist; I felt my belly so vividly; I felt my belly and sex so alive. In the dark Hans and I threw ourselves into a prolonged orgy. I felt that I was taking all the women he had taken, everything that his fingers had touched, all the tongues, all the sexes he had smelled, every word he had uttered about sex, all this I took inside me like a big orgy of remembered scenes, a whole world of orgasms and fevers, and I devoured everything as Hans and I were devouring each other in a dark banquet of teeth into flesh, and flesh soldered together by currents of ever-returning desire.

So far, so magnificent. Yet it would be dishonest to say that Life in Provincetown, for all its beauty and narrative surprise, is a perfectly finished work. More a promising chunk of literary ore not fully refined, the series of small erotic episodes that make up the whole can feel disjointed at times, even somewhat perfunctory, though this might be expected from “writing to entertain under pressure from a client” as the author herself described it, something that had to be turned out in a terrible hurry. Yet, make no mistake, had Nin cared to apply her brilliant, painstaking perfectionist’s attention to the polishing of this work, it would—I have no doubt—be among the greatest, most daring pieces of erotic fiction to come out of the twentieth century.

Wholeheartedly, passionately, deeply, madly, joyously recommended!

[Note: Happily, Amazon has now released this title from the unsearchable oblivion of its 'adult section' after wasting over a week in a misguided and utterly hypocritical effort to censor, suppress, and limit access to the book.  The title is readily accessible from Barnes and Noble and other sources. See this insightful commentary on censorship of the book, as well as further information about these issues at Skyblue Press.]

Auletris: Erotica (from Amazon)
(or from Barnes and Noble)

Sunday, October 9, 2016

"The Seven Seductions" (Chapter 18) by TAS

NOTE TO READERS: this will be the last serialized chapter before The Seven Seductions is published (sometime in 2017 if all goes well). I've already done a fair amount of re-writing on previously posted sections, and the book will undoubtedly undergo still more changes before final publication.

I have always been a restless seeker of perfection, much to my own  perpetual discomfort; but sharing the story so far on EftBB has helped to motivate and spur me on. With about 25 chapters completed to date (approximately 75,000 words) and at least 11 more to go, a point-of-no-return has been reached. There is no question remaining in my mind that Sister Mary Chastity's story must be told, and the novel that revolves around her life brought to a satisfactory conclusion. I may take my time getting there, but I promise it will be worth the wait. Thank you for taking this leg of the journey with me. Hopefully, we will meet again in the final chapter.

This post also offers the ultimate cover reveal for the novel. I've long felt that this is the perfect cover image, but have toiled to figure out a text placement that was at once infinitely eye-catching while 'safe' within the imposed limits of 'decency' demanded by the largest publishing platforms. Feedback on the cover, as well as the story are always welcome.

And, as always, enjoy!


The Seven Seductions

Chapter 18

“So, this is your place.”
      “Yep.” Magic held the door for her. “Welcome to Chez Melchoir-Parks, occasionally also known as The Hermitage—or, this summer, my Vacation Fortress of Solitude.”
“It’s really nice.” Mary Chastity turned around slowly to take in the scene. “The stone and the wood, the exposed beams—everything’s so natural and inviting. I love the French doors, and the open staircase in the middle of the room. It’s kind of rustic, but sophisticated, too, like an English country cottage combined with a 1920s-style bungalow. Very interesting. Very eclectic.”
“You have quite the eye, Chaz.”
      “I don’t know about that,” she said, “but House Beautiful is a big hit in the convent-school library, and, being assistant librarian, I get first crack at it every month. You said this was your folks’ place?”
“Mm hm. My family’s owned it going back quite a ways. Used to be part of this artist’s colony called The Settlement, built about 1880—that big stone two-storey was the original main building with these other smaller houses sort of clustered around it. The paths going between then all form a great big star pattern that’s visible from the air. Look! Here it is—”
He pointed to a framed photograph on the wall.
“Oh my—” Mary Chastity crossed herself.
“It’s called a pentacle,” Magic anticipated her question. “Just your perfectly-innocent ancient earth-united-with-sky symbol. Pretty sure this was a long time before the Satanists turned it upside down.”
“Uh huh?”
“And, if you look at the photo, you can see the way the trails along the lake shore join to form what looks like a huge stick figure. The big circular path going around The Settlement here is the head, see? Going south, the swimming area would be at the end of the short right arm, and the Russo’s place would be over here on the left—except it hadn’t been built when this picture was taken.”
“Oh, neat!
“Anyway, the colony itself went belly-up about the time World War I broke out, but the founding family stayed on, and a few of the artists were able to buy the smaller cabins and keep them as summer houses; passed them on to their kids and those kids grew up and passed them on to their kids, and so on right down to now. I guess I come from a long line of people who really like to draw.”
“That’s fascinating.” Mary Chastity took another look around the room. “Magic? The reason I came today is because we need to—”
“Talk? I know.”
“Do you?”
“About last night, yeah. And we will. But first, I want to show you my art.”
“I really can’t stay too—”
“It’s just upstairs in the loft.” He bobbed his head towards the ceiling. “Got my drawing board set up in the study area, along with my stereo.”
“You have records?”
“Oh yeah—and we are talking records, not CDs. I prefer vinyl. Warmer, more intimate somehow.
“What sort of music?”
“All kinds. A lot of older pop stuff: jazz, prog rock, electric blues. Most of my dad’s classical collection, too: Bartok and Stravinsky, Beethoven, Mozart, Wagner—”
 “Wagner?” She brightened. “Like music from the Ring?”
“Yeah. I think there’s an old LP of orchestral highlights from some of the operas. Forest Murmurs is definitely worth a listen.”
“Really?” She tried to recall the corresponding Rackham illustration.
“Absolutely.” He ushered her towards the stairs. “Shall we have a look?”
“That would be fine. But then we really do need to—”
“Hey, there’s something I’ve been curious about.”
 “And what’s that?”
 “I always thought nuns traveled in pairs whenever they went outside the convent.”
      “A lot of the time, yes, that’s true,” she said, “for spiritual support, for physical safety—”
      “Or one nun makin’ sure the other nun don’t get none?”
      She ignored the joke.
      “I had to get special permission from the mother superior in order to be on my own for a while. I’ve been granted this time to study and write, to work, to reflect and pray—ora et labora as the Benedictine motto says—so long as I’m being productive and doing something for the greater good. Actually, there’s a tradition of cloistered religious going off by themselves to live as hermits. Probably the most famous modern example would be Thomas Merton, who wrote The Seven Storey Mountain—”
      “Uhhhh ... drawing a blank,” Magic said.
      “Really? So you don’t know everything after all?”
      “Never said I did.” His blue eyes twinkled. “Where were you?”
 “It’s quite unusual for anyone under 40 to be allowed this kind of dispensation—it’s almost unheard of in my order.”
“But why?” he asked. “I mean, what was it that made you want to be alone?”
“Lots of things,” she said. If I tell him the truth, he’ll never believe me.
They stepped up into the attic-loft, a single finished room defined by the graceful geometry of the cottage’s deep hip roof, lending the artful impression of coziness and airy wide-open space without contradiction. Varnished book cases lined the lower walls all the way around, ingeniously built-in to accommodate the slope of the gables. Halfway along the west wall, a group of four old-fashioned casement windows illuminated the alcove of a hipped dormer, itself the size of a small room, dominated by an oak pedestal bed. Magic gestured towards a corner where a drafting table had been set up under a skylight. “I like the natural light in here,” he remarked.
“What are these?” Mary Chastity pointed to a clothesline anchored between two slanting rafters. A row of oversized white pages hung on wooden clothes pins.
“Story-boarding mostly—you can see that none of them have been inked yet—trying to avoid continuity errors and stuff. Ideas for different characters, conceptual doodles, daydreams translated to paper.”
“What about this one?” She gestured towards a particularly busy page that hung near the desk, a crowded study of undraped female torsos in the style of the Venus di Milo.
“Narrowing down my ideas for the heroine,” Magic said.
“Have you seen all these women... ”
“Nude? Yeah, most of them.”
      “Did they pose for you?”
      “Some of them. I drew a few from memory.”
      “Memory? Of what?”
      “Do I detect a hint of jealousy?” He stood close behind her a short way to the left.
      “Why didn’t you draw their faces?” She turned her head to glare at him across her shoulder.
      “That’s not what the study was for. I was trying to get a feel for the way a woman’s body moves when she’s walking or running or doubled over in pain. When she’s struggling or fighting or making love. It’s so my drawing would be consistent each time I rendered the main character—you’d be surprised how big a problem that can be in a graphic novel—but also to portray the other characters as distinct individuals. I mean, if I sit down and draw a woman’s breasts out of my imagination, they almost always end up looking the exact same way—I suppose I have a preconceived notion about what constitutes the perfect pair of tits—but that can get kind of boring...”
      God please! Her nipples had begun to tingle like someone responding to the sound of their name. Please, change the subject!
“So what’s your story about?” she asked.
      “Promise not to laugh? It’s about this woman being pursued by a sex demon. But it’s more than that—look; the story starts on the page down at this end of the line. This creature—this entity—has a serious hard-on for the heroine—her name is Kye—but she resists him, tries to run away from him even though he seems to be everywhere and always ends up finding her wherever she goes—”
      How is this possible? How could he know?
      “See?” he said. “Here’s the demon’s shadow. I don’t fully reveal his face until near the end—trying to keep things mysterious and scary, like—”
      “Who’s this?” Mary Chastity poked at one of the panels where the shapely heroine, stripped down to tank top and panties, was crouching on her ankles, slashing the air with a knife,  her ponytail twirling like a lasso above her head. “Who was the model?”
      “Oh ... Jims. You know? Jamie—”
      “I remember.”
      “She’s a natural,” Magic said. “A lot of fun to work with.”
This is not the conversation I’m supposed to be having …
Magic went on.
“So, eventually—see here?—Kye hooks up with a guy who teaches her how to fight the demon. Turns out the guy is a rogue angel named Variel, not good enough for Heaven, not evil enough for Hell, and he’s been stuck on earth for centuries. This woman—Kye—reminds him of his past love who was corrupted by the same demon back in the Old West. He tries to resist the urge to fall in love with Kye because he doesn’t want to see the same thing happen again.”
      “Sounds rather Biblical,” Mary Chastity said, “and sort of romantic, too.”
      “Could be.” Magic shrugged. “Gram’s the one who came up with the basic outline for the story. We tweaked it some, dialed up the sex a little and the action a lot, then I started drawing. The part I’m working on now is where Kye and Variel have to travel to Hell together to find a weapon that will destroy the demon once and for all. Lots of twists and turns.”
“Interesting—” If I tell him the truth now, he’ll think I’m making fun of him. “—you’re very talented, obviously.”
      “Thanks. I was hoping you’d notice. Could I ask you another favor?”
      “The worst I could do is say no,” she said.
      “Would you sit for me?”
      “Sit? You mean pose? Like those other women ... naked?”
      “Not necessarily,” he said, “though—gotta be honest—it would help me out quite a bit if you were. See, I need a model for Kye’s sister.”
“Oh, I don’t know, Magic—” Why am I even listening to this?
      “She’s an important character. Doesn’t show up often, but her part is essential to understanding what makes the heroine tick. She’s probably the only other person Kye truly cares about—”
Say what you came to say and leave…
      “—and it’s important to show Kye caring about somebody other than herself,” Magic said. “The story won’t work if she’s completely on her own and doesn’t need other people. Not to go all literary-snob on your ass—sorry—but the sister represents Kye’s heart.”
      “What?” Mary Chastity turned quickly—all the way around this time—staring up into Magic’s eyes with an intense, searching look. She inhaled sharply—lungs filled as if in preparation for some important pronouncement—only to think better of it and turn away again.
      “Spoken like an English teacher,” she muttered, “and I should know.”
      “Well?” he asked.
      You know better. And you’re only going to make things worse by pretending otherwise. Say what you came to say and get it over with! Tell him your not interested! Tell him! Tell him now—
“Wouldn’t Jamie’s cousin be a better choice?”
 “Bree? She’s already in the story as a set of identical triplets—part of the demon’s harem.”
“And what about your other friends?”
“Daffy shows up as a pole dancer in the club where Kye works. Melanie’s a streetwalker who spies for the creature. Seems like everybody wants to be a sexy minion.”
Maybe because nobody has any shame ...
      “What happens to her—the sister?”  
      “We’re not completely sure yet,” Magic said. “The demon goes after the sister when Kye rejects him at the beginning of the story. Pulls out all the stops trying to get to Kye through her. Ends up driving the sister insane. She ...”
      “She kills herself—”
      Oh my God ...
“Throws herself off a tall building. It’s the thing that finally convinces Kye to seek Variel’s help.”
      How could he possibly know about—?
      “The sister shows up a couple more times either as a ghost or in a dream. Later, they meet her tormented soul down in Hell. She gives them clues about how to find the weapons they’re looking for.”
      It can’t just be a coincidence—
      “Gram and I have been going back and forth about the character. He thinks that when Kye finally defeats the demon, her sister is redeemed—restored to life the way it was before—”
      “What do you think?” she asked.
      “I don’t trust happy endings,” he said, “they always seem kinda phony and … forced to me. Sure, it’s tempting to bring a character back from the dead, especially one that you really like, but, ultimately, it’s pretty lazy storytelling. Dead’s dead and that’s life.”
      “And what’s the sister’s name?” Why? Why did you ask that question?
      “I’ve been thinking about that,” Magic said. “Can’t seem to come up with anything that works. I need a nice, sweet, ordinary-sounding name that isn’t too hard to spell and—”
      “How about Dawn?” she blurted it out, flushed with sudden embarrassment. 
      “Huh. Yeah. That could work. Definitely. So ... about my question?”
      You’ve already said too much. Stop this ... now!
      “I’ll think about it,” she said.
      “OK. That’s fair. Just so you know, though, I am under a deadline.”
      “How long do you have?”
      “I’d need to know in a couple days.”
      “Alright. I’ll consider it and let you know.”
      “Thanks, Chaz. I really appreciate it—oh! I nearly forgot!”
      “Hang on a sec.” Magic dropped to his knees like a man about to propose. He reached past the startled woman’s ankles, scrounging for something on the floor under the drawing board. “Here we go ...” He handed her a box.
      “Shoes?” Mary Chastity giggled.
      “Chic but not too terribly impractical.” He stood up. “In case you ever need to fit in. C’mon. Open ‘em up.”
      Mary Chastity lifted the lid and pulled back the tissue paper inside. She cuaght her breath at the sight, a pair of flat-heeled Mary Janes, understatedly stylish with blue sequins, a single strap over the wide-open top, and a decorative bow just aft of the toe. “They’re...” Beautiful! No one’s ever given me anything like this before. I love them! “… really nice.”
      “Thought you’d like them,” Magic said. “They’ll look really nice on you.”
      “Oh ... no, I could never.” She closed the lid and handed the box back to him. “It was a lovely thought, but I can’t accept them.”
“I think you know why.” Mary Chastity bowed her head, not daring to look at him directly. It was all she could do to quiet her breathing. A cold knot had begun to tighten in her stomach, a feeling—impossible to ignore—of slow disintegration from within. “I’m afraid I may have given you the wrong impression these last few days—and that’s my fault, for which I do owe you an apology. I ought to have exercised better judgment and not allowed things to happen the way they did ... especially last night—”
“No! Listen to me. The truth is, I’m not available to you—not in the way you want me to be. This is what I’ve been trying to tell you this afternoon. I can’t be casual and shameless and free like you and your friends. I’m not on vacation. I’m a grownup, and my mind needs to be someplace else.”
“I’m sorry, too,” Magic spoke gently. “I didn’t mean to come on so strong.  I get so into my head when I’m working on my art, it’s as if everything around me has to fit into the context of the world I’m trying to create.”
      Exactly the way I feel when I’m writing my story...
      “I like you, Chaz—”
      “Don’t, Magic. You mustn’t—”
      “Mustn’t what?”
      “It’s not right for you to feel ... that way about me—”
“What way is that, Chaz? I will not apologize for liking you. I definitely won’t apologize for finding you attractive. You don’t have to like me back, but don’t try to tell me I’m wrong to feel the way I do. And don’t take my feelings as some kind of insult. They’re not. They’re just my feelings, nothing more, nothing less. They’re not meant to inconvenience you.” 
“But they do,” she sighed.
“That’s not my problem.” There was no hint of reproach in his voice.
      “Please, Magic, try to understand: it’s not you. I’m just not used to somebody...”
“Liking you for you? Finding you attractive?” He stroked her cheek. “Chaz! You’re beautiful, you’re intelligent and you’re mature. You’re interesting to talk with and you’re fun to be around. What’s not to like? What’s not to be attracted to? Geez! If I thought even for a split second that you were interested ... that you wanted—” He nodded towards the bed.
Oh ...” She stepped back, mortified, blushing to her roots.
      “I wouldn’t hesitate.”
“Please don’t say that.”
      “Did I hit a nerve?”
      “Sorry,” he said. “Want me to kiss it and make it all better?”
      She smiled in spite of herself.
      “I like you, too, Magic, even though it’s wrong for me to say so. Part of me wishes things could be different. As it is—” she willed the words to her lips “—I don’t think we should see each other again.”
      “If that’s how you want it.”
      “It’s not what I want—”
      “Do you even know what you want, Chaz? Have you ever asked yourself what it is you really, truly want?”
      “Every day—” she tried to sound strong “—but it doesn’t matter. I made a promise. My desires are irrelevant.”
      “Which isn’t the same as saying those desires don’t exist.”
“All I know is that you and I come from different worlds,” she said. “I feel like a fish out of water in yours, and you’d surely drown in mine.”
      “So ... basically you’re saying that you’re the little mermaid?”
“I ought to be going, now, Magic.” She still could not look him in the eye. “I wish—no! I can’t ...”
“But you could still change your mind, right?”
“I don’t think so. Sorry.”
“Three days,” he said. “I’ll wait for you as long as I can. You know your perfect for this—”
“Goodbye, Magic.” She turned to leave.
“Later, Chaz.”

Sister Mary Chastity followed the chalk-stone path that marked off the grounds of  the old artist’s colony like a circle of sacred protection. She had never taken a close look at the surrounding neighborhood before, and a long walk was as good a way as any to deal with the things that troubled her. The houses—“cabin” was an old-money misnomer—looked as if they’d been thrown down into the woods like dice in a titanic game of Yahtzee, sitting at odd angles from each other and the shore, about a hundred-fifty yards apart. A network of narrow walkways ran between them through the woods to form—she now knew—a great five-pointed star with the big house at the center. Things were close enough for friendly social intercourse, yet far enough apart to discourage neighborly incest. Solitude was as easy to find as interesting company in that obscure neck of the woods.
“This whole thing has been a huge mistake.” She repeated the phrase to herself like someone reciting the Rosary, as if saying the words often enough might inspire her to believe them.
But why is it a mistake? she thought. It’s not against the rules to have a friend...
Even a friend who thinks about you … that way?
“And what if he does? Should I shun him because he’s imperfect? Because he’s human?”
This one doesn’t need your help.
“But maybe I need his. Maybe there’s something he’s supposed to teach me.”
Dangerous ground, sister. Have you forgotten what happened last time you rationalized your desires like this?The last time you let your selfish urges drive you?The last time you couldn’t bring yourself to say no?
“I remember everything—I’ve never forgotten any of it. Life would be so much simpler if I could.”
 And was it worth it? The absolute certainty of a fleeting moment’s carnal abandon purchased with months of doubt and dread, years of guilt, a lifetime of remorse?
“That was all … a very long time ago,” she said. “And how has pushing the world away gotten me any closer to heaven in the meantime? How has being cold ever made me warm?”
Have you missed The Nameless One so much?
When was the last time the creature made its presence known? How long has it been?
“I don’t know … seven years?"
And do you think that’s a coincidence? Why does the beast choose this time, this place, to reveal itself again? What’s changed? Who’s changed? Tell me, sister! Admit it to yourself!
“I don’t know why … it … came back.”
But I think you do know, sister. Not one sign of that witch’s filthy spell-born abomination in all these years—nary so much as a brimstone fart—until you arrived here after begging to be allowed to go off on your own.
“What are you saying?”
Don’t you see? Isn’t it obvious? It’s you! You’ve reawakened this curse. You’ve summoned the demon.
“That’s impossible! That thing’s brought nothing but suffering and death to me and my family. Why would I ever want to bring it back?”
You’ve been calling to it—inviting it—with the lustful intentions of your heart. You’ve been secretly hoping it would find you again inasmuch as it has … unfinished business with you.
“I don’t believe that! Not for a second!”
Search your heart, sister. The intention has been there inside you all these years, growing in the dark like a tainted seed. It began to take root, not on that first night when the man-child carried you to his bed, nor on that afternoon  when you pretended to pledge yourself to him in that heathen ceremony. Nor even in that moment when Tyge laid his hands on you, branding your flesh with his bestial desires. No! It was in that fateful half-second when you first gave yourself to him in your heart.
“I know what happened. I was there.”
And only a few short hours later, at Weeping Rock, when you flaunted your body for all the world to behold…
“It was the last time I was ever going to… I knew I’d never have sex after that morning. And I did feel sorry after it was over—about the way I’d treated Pig. I never meant to hurt him—not like that. He really did love me in his own twisted way—”
You had a funny way of returning that love, didn’t you?
“What’s the point of bringing that up—or any of it—now? I had my dark night of the soul. I came to grips with what I’d done. I knew I couldn’t run away. I availed myself of the sacrament—emptied myself completely—sincerely confessed ...”
Truly? Everything?  No, sister, even in your soul’s hour of deepest peril, when your own salvation hung in the balance, you could not bring yourself to confess all. You knowingly held back the last full measure of truth, omitting any mention of the creature…
“And who would have believed me if I’d gone into the confessional with a story like that? Do you think Father Mark would have granted me absolution? I’d have been accused of making a mockery of the sacrament—told that I was crazy, or possessed, or both. They’d have chained me up in a cellar and tried to perform an exorcism. Under the circumstances? I told as much of the truth as I possibly could—”
Still conveniently leaving yourself a bit of wiggle room—keeping the door open just a crack. And now? The creature’s gotten back in just as you’ve known it would—just as you’ve hoped it would—all along.
“That’s not true!”
Admit it, sister: You are a liar and a fraud—a disgrace in the eyes of God.
“How can you say that?”
Shameless, impenitent, weak!
“I’m not!” Mary Chastity clenched her fists, eyes screwed shut against a rising rage.
No better than a whore!
“Don’t you dare say that about me!”
Why not? You said it about yourself, remember?
“Please! Leave me alone!”
Face the truth, sister. You. Are. Damned.
“No! I’m! Not!” The young nun cried aloud at last. “I’ll never believe that!” 
“Never believe what?” Someone tapped her on the shoulder.
“Oh!” Mary Chastity nearly jumped. She had been standing still in the middle of the path, oblivious to her surroundings as she carried on her ghostly debate.
“Chaz?” Jamie Rosenberg spoke with the mildest hint of a Texas drawl. “It’s me, Jims—remember from the party last night? And this here’s my cousin, Bree. Everything alright?”
      “Sure, I—”
      “Need anything?” There was a modish undertone of ennui in the other girl’s voice, deeper and throatier than Jamie’s. Some conscious effort had gone into rounding off the sharper edges of a typical upper-Midwestern twang. “We were just going for a swim. Thought we’d drop by Magic’s place for a little—”
      “Give him a hard time,” Jamie said. “He gets uppity if we don’t put him in his place every once in a while.”         
      “Wanna come with?” Bridget smirked. “It ought to be fun …”
      Mary Chastity gaped at the pair, still only half comprehending. Jims’ long slinky frame was brazenly shoehorned into a skintight cream-fluorescent one-piece suit, held in place as much by will power as the tenuous strap at the back of her neck. A plunging v-shaped vent ran down the front and center between her magnificent breasts, less protruding and pendulous than broad and almost too-perfectly round, like a giant pair of luscious funnel cakes. Her long black hair was gathered into a simple chingon that Mary Chastity recognized from Magic’s drawings. If anything, Bree’s tank suit was even tighter than Jamie’s. She was shorter than her cousin by several inches but no less shapely. The jet black of her maillot might have been chosen to match her vibrant dark eyes or the shimmering raven tone of her straight bobbed hair. No wonder Magic had multiplied her in his imagination.
“So,” Jamie said, “Magic rope you into posing for his comic book yet?”
“Don’t worry, he will,” Bree said. “It’s just a matter of time. Nobody’s getting out of here this summer without getting naked for him at least once.”
 “I hear Daffy was kind of pissed about being turned into a pole dancer,” Jamie snickered.
“I think she was more upset about not actually getting to do a pole dance for him.” Bree wrinkled her nose. “Mel’s the one who should really be mad—I mean, an evil hooker?—plus the fact that he drew her from memory and that’s what he came up with! On the other hand, what else was he supposed to do? She’s been coyly avoiding his yummy little tush ever since that topless make-out session of theirs last year.”
“I understand a highly-collectible Muddy Waters LP was employed as an aphrodisiac in that particular seduction.” Jims’ laughter was lusty, full throated.
“I hadn’t heard that.” Bree and Jims had begun to walk again, drawing Mary Chastitty along between them. “Magic’s just lucky Ian’s in Japan right now, otherwise I’d be avoiding him, too.”
“Ian’s Bree’s boyfriend, Chaz,” Jamie explained.
“At least for the time being,” Bree sighed. “I’ve told Magic in no uncertain terms not to get any ideas—”
“‘Cause that always works out so well.” Jamie poked her cousin in the ribs. “Exactly how many times has it been, by the way?”
This time I mean business,” Bree insisted. “I am strictly celibate this summer. A nun’s got nothin’ on me!”
Sister Mary Chastity covered her mouth, though neither of the girls seemed to notice.
      “You say that now,” Jims teased.
      “I do,” Bridget agreed. “But hey! A girl has to at least pretend to put up some resistance before she gives in to the inevitable. I admit it! All he’d really have to do is give me “the look” and I’d be saying ‘Ian who?’ before we dove into a little topless makeout session of our own—no offense, Chaz.”
      “None taken. What’s the look?”
      “Shall I tell her or do you want to?” Jims asked.
      “It’s this subtle—”
      “—but completely irresistible—”
      “—expression he uses to close the deal with his …”
      “Say it! His conquests.”
      “A combination of those melting baby-blue bedroom eyes—”
“—along with those gorgeous, sensual, half-open lips—”   
      “—and that’s all you’ll remember when you wake up beside him the next morning.”
      “Damn! I think I need a cold shower,” Jamie said.
      “Or a quick dip in the lake.” Bridget pointed south towards the swimming area. “Whatever it takes to stay focused. I need to get about six more canvasses painted before school starts—a lot of new stuff for my portfolio.”
      “And I’ve still got some serious youth to corrupt before the end of the week,” Jims let out a joyous whoop.  “I think today’s lesson will be all about giving head under water!”
      They had arrived back in the vicinity of The Hermitage.
      “I really ought to be getting home,” Mary Chastity said.
      “Aw! Come on in with us for a minute,” Jamie said, “help us get a good rise out of the magic man.”
      “Maybe some other time?”
      “Well, OK,” Bree seemed, if anything, even more disappointed than Jims. “But Chaz? Feel free to stop by the big house any time you’d like some company—”
      “—or some good, honest, just-us-girls conversation,” Jamie said. “It’s always fun to have another hen at the party—”
      “Nice fresh dirt on you-know-who,” Bree said. “Though, between us we can probably tell you everything there is to know about him—”
      “Whether you wanted to know it or not,” Jamie laughed again. “Whatever! A little gossip never hurt anybody.”
      “Buh-bye!” Bree turned to go, offering Mary Chastity a gratuitous view of her pertly packaged behind, wiggled ever so subtly, all talk of celibacy conveniently forgotten. The girls strolled off, arm and arm. Jims bumped her hips into Bree’s, setting off a curvacious chain reaction as the cousins disappeared around a bend in the trail.
And now you know why nuns travel in pairs.

The thought made her smile. The warm summer breeze caught the edge of her skirt, the fabric, wafted upwards, molding itself into the space between her thighs as if she were being groped by an invisible hand, gentle but insistent, and Mary Chastity was all at once aware of a subtle inkling of wetness there. The sensation drew her back into the moment, recalling her to herself, a reminder that she was present here, in spite of all admonishments, a woman, real and very much alive.