Sunday, December 27, 2015

Christmas Present--a short story by TAS

Christmas Present

I turn my head to the left, tacking into the slipstream of memory, and she is sitting on my lap just as she did that Christmas night of . . .

My beautiful cousin Karen is 17 again. I see her in the festively form-fitting holiday sweater she’d been given that morning, a red-plaid midi skirt and a pair of high ‘mod’ boots that were all the rage in that swinging decade so long ago. She lays her head on my shoulder, humming breathily, telling me her teenaged dreams in that wonderful, unpretentiously mature voice of hers; soft, low and smoky, the simplest sigh a seduction.

Karen was older than me by nearly two years, an age difference that would have seemed like an impossibly unbridgeable gulf with anybody else back then. Yet our innocently incestuous fascination had only grown stronger with age and protracted absence. We seldom saw one another—our families were not especially close— but even in my callow 15-going-on-who-the-hell-cares self-absorption I could see that Karen had blossomed into something truly extraordinary; a woman full of sensuous mystery, cool and reserved, yet passionate, too; as vibrant and full of fire as her poinsettia-red hair.

We had escaped together that night with her older brother Bill and some of his friends from college, itching to be out of our grandparents’ house with its colorless, tasteless, joyless atmosphere of piety and boring, unremittingly claustrophobic ‘square-ness.’ Our much-younger cousins—however-many-times-removed— were the favorites on whom the adults lavished the lion’s share of attention along with almost all the gifts that had been so copiously hoarded beneath the tree the night before. Now the little ones wallowed in the squalor of seasonal abundance, drowning in ‘stuff’ they didn’t need and would probably never play with more than once.

“Can you believe it?” Karen sniffed, “One of those little brats got four identical Barbie dolls—four of ‘em! There are starving waifs in China for Pete’s sake—”

“Jealous?” my cousin Bill teased.

“Heck yeah! All I got was this lousy sweater!”

“It’s the thought that counts,” he said.

“At least you got something,” I added, only half jokingly.

“Most of that junk’s going to end up at the Goodwill store inside of six months,” Karen said, “They won’t even get around to removing the cellophane.”

“Somebody will be happy to get it eventually,” Bill said quietly.

“Eventually,” I echoed, however weakly, trying to keep the natural tone of weary cynicism out of my voice, as I’d been warned that it tended to turn people off.

We were on our way to the movies, as far away from reality as possible. The most recent snow had fallen a week earlier and was looking anything but Christmassy, plowed up into gray hillocks along the frigid avenues, still just barely white enough on top to reflect the incandescent opulence of restored Victorian mansions where vulgar footprints never disturbed the pall of impeccably curated holiday cheer.

“I remember this street,” I announced apropos of nothing, “I used to think those houses were haunted.”

“Weird!” Karen winked at me from the front passenger seat, “To me they looked like fancy dollhouses. I always pictured the people living inside them as characters from The Nutcracker.”

“And I’m weird?” I decided not to speak my mind at that moment. Our banter was pleasant; breezily insouciant, feather-light. What was the point of spoiling the mood? What sense in burdening these virtual strangers with my pain?

For I had been there before, riding in the back seat of my father’s ancient ’47 Buick, my 4-year-old nose pressed to the window as I looked out on the desolate rows of darkened houses. The car lumbered along those bleak, late-night thoroughfares, passing beneath the arching vault-work of barren branches, the outstretched fingers of tall, black trees that lined the road like sentries in the underworld, casting their twisted shadows beneath the hazy, half-starved moon. It was the week between Christmas and New Year’s and I imagined waves of melancholy, disappointment and abject loneliness radiating from over the thresholds, reaching out for me as if recognizing a kindred spirit, trying to draw me in and swallow me up. Only rarely did I sense a weak ember of contentment or anything like genuine, simple happiness—certainly not from my parents, stiffly distant in the front seat like a pair of misanthropic manequins, nursing their mutual discontent in seething silence.  

I’d always been a rather sensitive child—too sensitive for my own good as far as my father had been concerned. The subject had actually been broached during the last big fight my parents had just prior to his walking out on the family once and for all that terrible Christmas ‘Eve when I was 7. “You better find a way to toughen that little sissy up,” he’d shouted at my mother, his parting shot half threat, half warning as he made for the door, pointing a prophetic finger in my direction, “unless you’ve got your heart set on having a half-mast flag-waving faggot for a son . . ."

Despair had been the perpetually uninvited guest in our home at Christmas ever after, a presence deeply felt but never openly acknowledged, hovering above our cursory, sullen revels, ever jealous of joy. My mother had mostly withdrawn into herself, leaving my baby sister and me to our own devices. Christmas was just another day on which to contemplate disappointment, like the anniversary of a tragic death in the family or the memorial of some momentous military defeat; the perfect excuse to schedule a few extra hours of grief and blame.
“Here at last!” Karen announced brightly.

We met Bill’s friends inside the theater. The movie was Valley of the Dolls—anything to scandalize the grownups— the main floor was packed and there was some debate about whether Karen and I would be allowed in, even with Bill there to vouch for us. Finally, a dusty velvet rope was parted and we were ushered up the broad, spiraling ramp of the old movie palace’s grand promenade to one of the disused boxes on the third level.  

The dim-lighted compartment was already crowded when we arrived.  Karen and I shared one of the less-than-cozy love seats along the side wall under a gilded antique sconce, but soon more people arrived and she scooted onto my lap to make room for another couple.

“Hope this is OK,” she smiled down at me, “Don’t want to make you uncomfortable or anything.”

“No. It’s fine,” I lied and left it at that.

Some of the kids were sharing a marijuana cigarette, passing it from stranger’s hand to stranger’s hand like a casual communion. Karen took a practiced hit and handed me the joint with a blasé matter-of-factness that somehow didn’t surprise me in the least. I tried to follow her example, drawing the acrid smoke deep into my lungs, only to choke on the effort of holding it in.

I was suddenly convinced that everyone in the place had turned their eyes in my direction, annoyed by my all-too-obvious lack of cool. Coughing and hacking, I was sure some pimply-faced subaltern would shortly be shining his flashlight in my face, informing me that I was required to leave the theater at once.

Of course, my cousin found the whole thing hysterically amusing. Karen’s reassuring laughter was mellowing music to my ears; the sound of her giggles like champagne bubbles merrily bursting as they tickled the inside of a tipsy reveler‘s nose. She smiled at me, stroked my cheek and tousled my hair.

“You’re really cute. You know that, Michael?”

“You too,” my reply seemed to echo and reecho inside my head until I wasn’t sure I’d even spoken the words aloud.

“You’re so sweet.” She leaned in to kiss me on the forehead and I became aware of the pattern on her sweater; the white field of gaily-ornamented Christmas trees stretched and distorted around the flowing curve of her bosom, the latticed weft and warp of the yarn, the promiscuous bend and coil of every twisted skein. Enchanted, I extended a curious finger to explore a single tight-wound column, tracing its wooly pathway slowly downward through warm latitudes of red and green and white, cognizant of my trespass only after it had been committed. 

“Is this what you were looking for?” She took my hand and cupped it over one of her breasts.

“Mm . . .” I was confused. My curiosity was more intellectual than sexual, yet, under the influence of cheap cannabis and the sheer novelty of being wanted, my better judgment seemed to be floating off into space like the smoke from the smoldering tip of that sacramental reefer. It hardly helped when the lights went down a second later. We necked with blissful abandon through most of the movie, reluctantly breaking contact only when the final credits flashed across the screen, the houselights came back up and I could no longer pretend that the bulge in my trousers had been for her—not inasmuch as I had been imagining myself with her brother the whole time.

I turn my head again, no longer remembering, yet nonetheless considering the memory of that Christmas night so many years ago. I don’t know why I should look back on that particular episode with such abundance of sentiment. Yet, recalling it now from across the yawning abyss of decades, I perhaps begin to see what my younger self could not.  

It was Bill who asked me if I wanted to go out with the older kids that night; Bill, with his quietly magnetic social grace, beautiful in the unselfconscious simplicity of his charm; Bill who laid his big warm hand on my shoulder and invited me to be part of the group. No one had ever noticed me before. No one had ever gone out of their way to include me in their plans. I’d never known what it was to feel acceptance, the easy, convivial give and take of the ebullient crowd; that wonderful, buoyant sense of living in the moment without care of what might lie beyond, neither looking forwards or backwards; simply being.

But it was Christmas and I was in love for the first time. 

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

TAS' 'Turn Me On--Tell Me a Story' series

Just in time for the holidays, all three titles in TAS’ Turn Me On—Tell Me a Story series of steamy sampler anthologies are available for free download from Amazon, December 23 through 27.

Newly updated, this anthology includes a complete short story 'Sleeping Dogs and Southern Comfort' (from ‘Six Erotic Tales’), excerpts from the up-coming collection 'Stories Out of School', and generous selections from the novels 'A Song for the Girl with the Almond Eyes' and 'The Seven Seductions of Sister Mary Chastity'.  Finally, for dessert, a collection of bawdy limericks.
The novels and stories excerpted in here began life as imagined conversations. What would smart, sexy, articulate people talk about if they were free to think and say whatever they liked? Smart people want pretty much the same thing as everybody else; they just want to deconstruct their favorite episodes of 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' or quote William Butler Yeats while in the process of getting it, undoubtedly bandying about one of the great Irish poet’s most famous pronouncements while gently maneuvering their partners into bed; “sex and death are the only things that can interest a serious mind.” 

These stories have the sex part covered, and one of them even delves into death at the end. The characters have decidedly serious minds, always actively engaged, yet most of them are people you might imagine hanging out with and talking to, or fantasize about making love with. They are the sort you wish you knew in real life, and not just because they don’t mind if you fantasize about making love to them—in fact, they hope you will.

Seduction comes in many forms; the subtlest looks and gestures, a virtually imperceptible nod of the head, the tiniest hint of moisture on the lips, a furtive movement of the eye, the slightest flutter of lashes. Seduction is a would-be lover’s hot breath on the back of your neck, the wordless hum of a deep male voice rippling through your body like a giant vibrator.

Explore the many forms of seduction in this new updated edition featuring two complete short stories, ‘A Girl from White City’ (from ‘Kiss-Off the Devil’) and ‘Three Lies Before the River’ (from ‘Six Erotic Tales’) as well as substantial excerpts from ‘Mr. Friday’s Midlife Crisis’, ‘Summer of ’69’, and the novel ‘A Song for the Girl with the Alond Eyes’; stories that will arouse, enlighten, inspire, entertain, and, yes, seduce.

Brand new, this third sampler of  recent fiction and poetry is organized around the theme of humor in erotic storytelling.  Sometimes, that humor is fairly black, approaching the macabre with a good strong does of the meta to go with the dark jollies. The seven stories and one poem in this book offer sometimes mordant, open-eyed forrays into the realm of the transgressive, with perverse twists and turns, leading to bizarely ironic denouements, worlds-removed from anything resembling the traditional Hollywood happy-ending.

All the stories here are complete and unabridged. Contents include the title story from ‘Kiss-Off the Devil’ along with ‘Muse in the Neon Twilight’ plus four micro-stories from TAS’ up-coming collection ‘The Moon-Haunted Heart’ as well as the hilarious ‘Royally Screwed’ (think Steeleye Span meets Mel Brooks). The collection is rounded out with the never-before-published naughty narrative poem ‘The Tale of Vanessa or: The Lusty R.N.’

Sexy, creepy, silly, fun, ‘Turn Me On—Tell Me a Story 3’ makes a perfect, easy introduction to the teeming world of erotic imagination that is the mind of Terrance Aldon Shaw.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Best of 2015

Do I really need to write a preamble after four years in which, clearly, nobody ever actually reads my introductions? Very well; I've never been one for banging my head against a wall, so let's get right to it: Here are my choices for the best titles in adult fiction from 2015--at least, the best ones that crossed my desk or e-reader since December of last year. As always, the books are not ranked--this is NOT a top-five, -ten or -one-hundred list. Yet, in looking at these titles I can only say: Wow! Was this ever a great twelve-months for erotica! No wonder compiling this list is one of the most enjoyable and rewarding blog-related activities of the year.

Erotica for the Big Brain's Best of 2015

Twentysix (Jonathan Kemp)
Addictive Desires (Big Ed Maggusun)
Katie in Love (Chloe Thurlow)
Libidinous Zombie (ed. Rose Caraway)
Generation Game (Secret Narrative)
One Night Only: Erotic Encounters (ed. Violet Blue)
The Gentlemen’s Club (Emmanuelle de Maupassant)
Lips Like Ice (Peggy Barnett)
Aphrodite Overboard (Richard V. Raiment)
Counsel of the Wicked (Rebel Mage: Book 1) (Elizabeth Schechter)

The Bloody Chamber: 75th Anniversary Edition (Angela Carter)

twentysix (Jonathan Kemp)

A great book (as fantasy author Kelly Link puts it) “[lights] up the readerly brain and the writerly nerves.” A great book (I say) kindles magic fire in the imagination and sets the heart and mind ablaze. A great book does what the best drugs are supposed to do; liberates consciousness from the conventional, opens up new worlds; flings wide the doors of perception (and, yes, the reference to Aldous Huxley and Jim Morrison is intentional); sets an unapologetic match to everything you ever thought you knew about reading, about writing, about dreaming, about life itself. It's true that over time we may forget the little details, but we never forget the way a great book makes us feel. We never forget the way it inspires us.

British author Jonathan Kemp’s twentysix is a great book.

The twenty-six very-short stories in this debut solo collection of m/m erotica are ostensibly arranged, as the title suggests, like a child’s alphabet, but with decidedly mature literary ambitions and an undeniably grownup sexual sensibility. The language is beyond impressive, though Kemp consciously expends a great deal of it to lament the very inadequacies of language, the impotence of mere words confronting the sublime nexus of thought and sensation. 

But Kemp is also keenly aware of the limitations society itself imposes on language, and, by extension, on the expression of genuine emotion, muting the honest, full-throated cry of passion, love, lust, desire, joy, And while at times the narrator may seem to channel Bataille and Barthes as he reflects on broad and lofty themes, he does not look away from the seamier vision of life as actually lived, embracing it in all its pungant banality and deep fractal chaos. Sometimes it seems possible to choke on this wild surfeit of language, this sumptuous banquet of experience, as one might gag while joyously deep throating a magnificent cock.

Jonathan Kemp’s twentysix is emphatically, ardently, passionately commended and, once again with feeling, given my highest recommendation!

* * *

Addictive Desires (Big Ed Maggusun)

“There’s a richness of experience where desire and addiction collide,” Big Ed Magusson tells us: 

This richness is rarely explored in erotica because it challenges one of the core principles of the genre—that sex is good. The problem is, sex is big. Our moments of naked wanting are too large to be restricted to simply the good. They’re too broad to even fit into the dichotomy of good and bad. The vastness of sexual experience cannot be remotely categorized, labeled, or defined. The erotic is meant to be experienced—if not in person, then through the stories told by others.

The twelve stories in this bold, surprising, sometimes shocking collection will certainly challenge those readers too long addicted to the jizz-stained tropes and dog-eared familiarities of mainstream erotica, those diffident souls afraid to venture too far beyond the narrow comfort zone of fossilized genre convention. Addictive Desires is not an 'easy' read or a quick stroke, and, for once, the 'adult' label is not some smarmy, cynically-applied euphemism. This is, quite literally, a book for grownups. 

“I enjoy stories about misfits”, the narrator of Old Dogs tells us, and he himself is a kind of archetypal misfit, like many of his fellow characters. At their most starkly realistic, their stories can send us reeling, dredge up the messiest, most painful memories, or trigger terrifyingly vivid flashbacks. To admit the horror that lies within, to come face to face with one’s demons, to be hollowed out in order to be filled with something healthier if not to be healed, whether in the relative safety of therapy or in the scary, spontaneous wilds of everyday existence, may be the most profoundly painful and deeply humbling experience of one’s life. In the end, anyone strong enough to admit his past wrongs, the hurts he has inflicted and can never again not feel himself, is faced with a stark choice; if we use our past as an excuse to shrink from life, we will end up having never lived. (So it is for Gordon, the narrating main character of Every Seven Seconds, who misses out on the possibilities of real human connection because he wastes too much time lost in fantasy—this story, the first in the book, has the feel of a fable, complete with an ironic 'moral.')  

For many, including myself, writing can be a very effective form of therapy. Some writers manage very well to sublimate their fear and anger, the ugliness of their own self-loathing pasts into something cathartic, edifying, and hopeful.  But this process, too, is not an easy thing, it can be knotty, excruciating, soul-wrenching, despite the slick craftsmanship and assured professionalism of the end product.  Probably the best, most original stories in this collection are also the toughest ones to take.

White Knuckles is a masterpiece of inner monologue. The reader eavesdrops on a young man’s  ethical and physical conflicts as he argues with himself about whether to take advantage of a faithless “friend” who lies naked before him, drugged and passed out at a frat house party. This writing is highly realistic, morally complex,  and light years beyond the simplistic 'angel on the shoulder' device. As Magusson remarks in his afterword: “That speedball mix of emotions? It includes rage”, and he has brought that rage home with devastating effect.

Methadone may be one of the bravest pieces of writing I’ve ever encountered—and one of the most singularly disturbing. A man who molested his daughter, struggles with his unquenchable obsession for her, going so far as to hire a roll-playing sex-worker to reenact his crimes. We are disgusted and sickened by this man, and yet, by the end, we cannot help but feel a certain sorrow for him, even a tinge of pity for his helplessness, his utterly pathetic plight. This is one of those stories that should be read widely, but very probably won’t be given the wider public’s dread of conflict and controversy.  For all its sickening horror, it is a story that needed to be told, though its effects are grimly haunting, deeply sobering, saddening, and, for some no doubt, it will stir up a good deal of anger.   

Yet there is no dearth of light here as well. My favorite story in the collection is probably Wolf, an insightful, realistically positive portrayal of a successful older man who must keep his sexual appetites at bay “one day at a time”. “My place isn’t here, but it’s where I am,” he tells us. Where he presently is is at his son’s wedding, and the story follows him through the chaotic and joyful day, looking back on the sordid defeats and strengthening struggles of his past while revealing the temptations that still spring from it like toxic weeds in the present. The ending is positive and uplifting, and, after reading it, I am convinced that Big Ed Magusson is a man with his eyes wide open; a storyteller with the brutally honest sensibility of a realist, along with the hopeful idealist's abundant empathy; a writer with an abiding sympathy for humanity, and a powerful gift for illuminating the fraught, bewildering complexities of the human condition.  

* * *

Katie in Love (Chloe Thurlow)

A masterpiece on many levels; Katie in Love is a romance that transcends the surly bonds of genre tropery; a trenchant novel of ideas that skillfully entertains; an acutely-observed comedy of manners in which even the shallow characters are imbued with a certain sympathetic depth; a classic Bildungsroman (novel of education) with clever nods to Herman Hesse, Anais Nin, Vladimir Nabokov, Albert Camus, Georges Bataile and George du Maurier, the creator of Svengali. Author Chloe Thurlow seems to have taken Mahler’s notion of the symphony to heart, ingeniously applying it to a work of literature that is “like the world, containing everything.” If this is 'erotic romance,' it is erotic romance with an awe-inspiring intelligence.

And what is it that turns a work of smart, broadly appealing fiction into 'erotica?' The author and editor M. Christian says that erotica is fiction in which the author “does not blink” or turn away with distaste or discomfort when it comes time to describe the sex act. An amorist at heart, Thurlow has, for all practical purposes,  given her readers an accessible, first-rate literary novel that “does not blink”; a work in which sex is treated as an essential element of a compelling story, not as some unpleasant afterthought or demeaning literary chore. 

At first glance, a basic description of the plot is not especially promising: A handsome physician with a clouded romantic past hooks up on New Year’s Eve with an attractive, if slightly self-absorbed writer of erotic fiction. The doctor is a dedicated do-gooder, working in the Third World with the poorest of the poor, and he must shortly return to his frontier practice after a short holiday in London. The sex is better than good, and there is clearly a spark between these two—or, at least, the heroine thinks there might be. But, of course, there are obstacles, both real and imagined, trivial and serious, to that proverbial happily-ever-after, and therein lies the tale. 

This could easily serve as the framework for almost any potboiler romance—I sometimes suspect that certain authors keep a template on their computers in lieu of an outline, making it fast and easy to fill in a set of blanks, different names and slightly altered details here and there to suit. It’s the way such basic plot-skeletons are fleshed out that, in the end, makes the difference between the merely amusing and the genuinely enlightening, the disposable and the indispensable, the generic remainder and the future classic; ultimately separates the hackish has-been from the undisputed mistress of her craft.

This is highly original storytelling of breathtaking assurance and awesome craft. Especially impressive is the way the author integrates essential backstory into a highly-elaborate, almost symphonic structure, gradually revealing her character’s pasts in a kind of grand, sweeping arc —wholly visible only at the end—expertly overlaying and bridging the narrative of the here-and-now.  And yet again, as in any well-conceived symphony, the intimate phrases, the solo passages and moments for small ensemble are as deliciously memorable and moving as the mightiest tuttis.

There is no forced conflict here, no contrived melodrama. Katie’s self-doubt may be de rigueur in the genre, but this is not the shallow, formulaic wool-gathering of the typical romantic heroine fresh out of central-stereotype casting. For once, we are treated to genuine introspection. This author respects her characters too much to treat them like mere ex machina plot facilitators or pawns—and she gives her supporting players a chance to shine as well, portraying them as real people with real passions and real things to say, rather than convenient constructs, employed to inject odious or disagreeable alternate points of view into the story, thus eschewing preachiness and propaganda—the conjoined-twin buzzkills of otherwise-intelligent storytelling   

Thurlow’s writing is very much like her main character;  moody—by turns melancholy and reflective—beautiful, sensuous and cerebral. This is “writer-ly” writing to be sure, the sort that stirs serious critical buzz and garners shelffuls of prestigious literary awards—or would if life were fair. Not that there isn’t a good deal of authorial absolute certainty here—the sort of “let me dazzle you, dear reader” assertions brooking no contradiction that judges for those awards seem so thoroughly to adore. One sometimes gets the sense that Katie is as much the author’s thinly veiled personal  avatar as her creature. And yet, there is a depth to all her characters—a feat in itself—but, even more impressively, a sophistication—a real, complex dimensionality—to the world they inhabit, a compelling richness that transcends the banal mechanics of genre scene-setting.

As the stunning—and stunningly clever—heroine of Katie in Love reminds us, the great 20th-century English literary critic Cyril Connolly once said “whenever you start writing a book, you must set out to write a masterpiece . . .”

In this endeavor, Chloe Thurlow has  succeeded most admirably.

* * *

Libidinous Zombie (ed. Rose Caraway)

What a treat! And what a great trick, too; bringing together eight of some of the best—and best known— authors in the business for an anthology of erotic horror that is simply fucking brilliant; highly imaginative, consistently well-crafted, diversely colorful, scary, entertaining, sexy—oh so sexy!— and just plain fun. I suspect that Libidinous Zombie will become part of many readers’ annual Halloween tradition alongside Jack-o-lanterns, candy apples, recitations of Edgar Allen Poe, and a tour through the local haunted house.

Horror and erotica are sisters under the skin. At root, both forms are transgressive, setting out to elicit strong visceral responses by stepping outside the boundaries of acceptable, ‘polite’ behavior.  As W.J. Renehan suggests in The Art of Darkness, “. . . horror fiction effectively lifts the constraints of social, sexual, and moral codes for our entertainment." In the early 21st century, the zombie has captured and dominated the collective imagination like few other paranormal entities, and it’s not difficult to understand why. The zombie plays on our most fundamental apprehensions, fears and phobias; vast armies of dead things that don’t know they’re dead, corpses that won’t stay buried; a contagion from which no one among the quick is immune, no matter how watchful or cautious, normal or righteous, well-prepared or healthily paranoid. The undead evoke our reflexive disgust, forcing us to confront some of our most deep-rooted taboos; cannibalism, ghoulism, necrophilia, pure animal appetite without consciousness or conscience; social decay and anarchy. 

But what if a spark of self-awareness remained? A hunger for more than meat? A desire to consume human flesh in a very different way? Heightened senses, telepathy, even acute emotional awareness—albeit often confused by instinct? What could more effectively lift the constraints of normality than the quasi-necrophilic notion of sex with a reanimated corpse? For that matter, what would happen if a zombie girl—perhaps a little more than halfway through the change— walked into a butcher’s shop and applied for a job? (Rose Caraway’s claustrophobic, moody Devil Winds in which the hot late-August Santa Anna winds of southern California become a virtual character in the drama.) What if the last two survivors of a zombie apocalypse and a subsequent tsunami found themselves drifting out to sea on an improvised boat, only to discover that one of them might have been bitten before casting off?  (Tamsin Flowers’ harrowing, darkly sensual The Only Girl in the World)

Of course, more things other than zombies populate these pages. There are succubae and serial killers, werewolves, demons and vampiric wraiths, all brought to vivid, terrifying, luridly undead life by this hyper-creative cadre of writers. Jade A. Waters’  The Lucky One figuratively borrows a page from Todd Browning’s Freaks, with its portrayal of a paranormal sideshow complete with werecarnies, a thigh-dampeningly charismatic ringmaster, and audience volunteers for a live sex exhibition like no other. Something wicked and very sexy this way comes when a handsome doctor finds himself locked up with the inmates of an early-20th-century mental asylum in Mallin James’ shatteringly twisty, highly satisfying Alice in the Attic. Allen Dusk’s neo-gothic Damaged Melody conjures a storm of dark images while leaving a fair amount of mystery beyond the margins—enough to keep readers guessing long after the final paragraph.  Raziel Moore’s Spell Failure plumbs the occult with an intense, vividly-imagined, extended scene of demonic ravishment and a frightening cautionary tale of misinterpreted desire and good intentions gone horribly awry. Remittance Girl scores a very effective literary trifecta in The Night That Frank Scored, skillfully melding horror, erotica, and a wry comic sensibility in a delicious, macabre-ly tongue-in-cheek re-imagining of the demonic-sex mythos, featuring a somewhat cynical, mind-reading succubus who picks up an apparent loser in a bar, only to change his life in the most unexpected and amusing of ways.  Janine Ashbless’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice closes out the collection with an equally-scintillating story about a succubus; this one held captive by a well-heeled occultist. Needless to say, all kinds of horrifyingly orgasmic wackiness ensues when the master foolishly leaves his horny young assistant in charge for a week. Sheer prurient bliss!

* * *

Generation Game (Secret Narrative)

This collection of short erotic fiction is a book that many of us have been waiting for all our lives, a happy surprise, even if it arrives possibly just a little too late. As a young blade, perpetually obsessed with “older women”, fifteen or twenty years my senior—sometimes even more mature—I might well have killed—or, at least, done something jaw-droppingly rash—for a sexual mentor like the one in these lithe, literate, compellingly steamy stories. More’s the pity that, now in my late-fifties, this sixtysomething goddess probably would have nothing to do with the likes of me anymore. Ah! If youth knew! If age could! 

In any case, it’s long past time somebody offered so frank and artfully-written a declaration of mature desire in this terminally youth-obsessed culture of ours. Secret Narrative offers an honest, deep-probing character study, untainted by the prejudices of youth, the willful ignorance and blatant denial that brands sexually active adults over a certain age as pervs, dirty old men, MILFs, DILFs, GILFs, trouts and cougars.

On the other hand, if we are to be labeled in any case, why not simply turn and embrace the labels?

The truth is that desire evolves, tastes become more sophisticated—or sometimes ferociously simple—the mature pallet craves what young taste buds are incapable of sensing. Age perceives time differently than youth, and can be more deliberate in going after what it wants. But the flame never truly burns out, though our bodies sometimes betray us, gravity takes its toll, and experience etches its history of stress, pain, and laughter in our very flesh. 

The five stories in this little collection artfully interlock to form a satisfying narrative totality. The writing is elegant and engaging for the most part and, on balance, Generation Game is among the most deeply satisfying, thoughtful, perceptive, and pleasingly, deliciously mature erotic reading experiences of recent memory. 

* * *

What a treasure trove of great erotic writing! The consistent high caliber of these nineteen short stories makes One Night Only one of the most enjoyable and rewarding  collections to come our way in quite some time. Editor Violet Blue clearly has an eye for quality, along with a gift for effective organization, arranging the contents with an uncanny 'right-ness' reminiscent of a great filmmaker—then again, she was undoubtedly inspired.

The unifying theme here is the one night stand; those breathless, fleetingly ephemeral yet utterly unforgettable sexual encounters that often occur by chance, occasionally nurturing regret, but seldom recalled without a tinge of nostalgic delight. So it was in the reading, as well. It would be difficult to choose a favorite from among so many fine pieces, though several do stand out in my memory, reverberating in those sections of the brain that delight in a brilliantly turned phrase, not to mention an increasingly cantankerous and picky reptilian core.

I was immediately hooked by Alison Tyler’s Seeing Stars with its vividly imagined main character, a lonely ticket-taker in a decrepit all-night movie palace who ends up taking a chance on a handsome patron. Fast-paced and thrilling, Kev Henley’s Chasing Fate: Exige is a Frank-Miller-esque tour de force of bad boys up to no good, fast cars and the even faster women who love both. Performance Art by the gifted Cynthia Hamilton takes a more cerebral tack, but is no less viscerally satisfying in its steamy denouement wherein two visitors to an art museum momentarily become part of one of the exhibits:

Jan Darby’s Maid Service delves the notion of 'invisibility,' that is, the unspoken assumption that 'the help' is to remain discreetly out of sight and out of mind. Yet when a guest at a business hotel “notices” the pretty housekeeper, all notions of class hierarchy and propriety are temporarily forgotten.  Donna George Storey’s Hole In Your Pocket evokes a delectable torture with its poignant and powerfully titillating story of lust suddenly requited when a decades-long Platonic relationship explodes into the physical realm. Austin Stevens’ Belle de Soire,  D.L. King’s Whore, and Kristina Wright’s Just a Little Trim are aptly sly and equally satisfying in their portrayals of frisky professional women out for a thrill. 

Rachel Kramer Bussel’s Rock Star Rewards is a scintillating character study of a tough lady rocker on tour with her band, a woman who knows what she needs and has the means to get what she wants. The game of chess was never so sexy or sensually intense as in Abby Abbot’s absorbing and well-imagined Tournament, and in Three Pink Earthquakes, Thomas S. Roche’s gritty, phrenetic style is perfectly suited to the story of a down-and-dirty ménage encounter under a table in a bar.


* * *

The Gentlemen’s Club (Emmanuelle de Maupassant)

The first volume in a projected series, The Gentlemen’s Club is a breezily diverting evocation of late-Victorian Britain, replete with its stifling hypocrisies and cruel sexist double standards. In the context of a fairly light erotic entertainment, Maupassant manages to elucidate the sexual schizophrenia of the period, when impossible ideals of female purity were rigidly—often sadistically— enforced, even as men were free to follow their 'natural' proclivities within certain boundaries of discretion. I was happily reminded (and hurried back to re-read) sections of John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman, specifically Chapter 39, which narrates a night of Victorian debauchery in exquisitely researched detail. Fowles’ Ma Terpsichore’s with its classics-themed live sex shows is very much of a piece with Maupassant’s eponymous establishement (compare Chapter 13, Divine Couplings). Her evocative descriptions of the seedier side of late-19th century London put me in mind of another truly great work about the period, Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s graphic novel From Hell (1989-1996) in which the very redolence of the times seems to rise off the printed page. 

Considerably less suspension of disbelief may be required to enjoy The Gentlemen’s Club than one might suspect. While Maupassant seems careful to avoid the all-too-common anachronism of contemporary feminist attitudes in Victorian women (unlike, say, Philip Pullman in his Sally Lockhart quartet), she is able to draw on the rich, real-life examples of  independent, freethinking women of the period who would not go gently into the pigeonholes society had set aside for them. The women in this tale are not diffident submissives, swooning damsels, or shrinking violets. Ultimately, it is the men who are revealed as the decidedly weaker sex here.

Impressive, too, is the seemingly endless variety of erotic situations Maupassant invents for her characters. To include so many marvelously steamy episodes in an extended, novel-length narrative, with little or no repetition is nothing shy of an authorial feat, especially as the quality of the writing is superb throughout. Those in search of highly-varied erotic entertainment will not be disappointed. I certainly wasn’t! 

* * *

Lips Like Ice (Peggy Barnett)

Peggy Barnett’s Lips Like Ice is an exceptionally well-crafted piece of storytelling, effortlessly melding  elements of classic feminist science fiction in the best tradition of Ursula K. Le Guin and Margaret Atwood with an intriguing—albeit sometimes hair-raising—vein of extraterrestrial/inter-species erotic romance. 

A young earth woman, Lydia, one day wakes to find herself transported to a cold, brutal alien world, where she has been consigned to the role of a pet for the spoiled, petulant, adolescent offspring of local royalty. The alien species on this planet, which Lydia can only describe as 'Ice-Elf Monsters' is born genderless, and individuals eventually choose whether to become anatomically male or female, though that choice is often influenced more by political exigency and family expectation than the leadings of one’s heart. And woe to anyone who chooses 'wrong.'

The story unfolds at a leisurely pace—sometimes, perhaps, a bit too languorously—focusing on the heroine’s inner monologue, her torturous journey of identity accompanied by a seemingly endless cycle of self-doubt as she struggles to discern her place in this strange new world.

Lips Like Ice offers readers adventure and palace intrigue, seeking out new life and new civilization with a thoughtful exploration of gender issues, and a probing reflection on the nature of free will, specifically, how one’s concept of liberty defines his or her humanity. 

* * *

Aphrodite Overboard (Richard V. Raimant)

Drawing on the great classic shipwreck/castaway narratives for inspiration, Richard Raiment turns the well-worn scenario on its paternalistic, male-chauvinist head to dazzle readers with this stylish, thoughtful, imaginative, and surprisingly entertaining yarn of a beautiful, free-spirited late-18th-century English noblewoman who finds herself washed up on a far-distant tropical shore, being worshiped as a fertility goddess by the natives. What could easily have devolved into just another raunchy, exploitative softcore romp is here masterfully elevated into a work of literary homage at once strikingly authentic and intriguingly original. Delving the story's erogenous depths with a marvelously literate gusto, Raiment portrays his characters as fully-formed, healthily self-aware human beings, introspective, sensitive, joyful and abundant, striving constantly for a deeper sense of mutual understanding and soulful connection. The evils of colonialism, racism, and triumphalist sectarianism are trenchantly observed while never distracting from the compelling action of the tale or ever seeming too anachronistically preachy. Few writers ever manage to hold so consistently to period-correct stylistic conventions through the entirety of a novel-length narrative, but Raiment here pulls off this amazing feat of literary legerdemain most elegantly without ever seeming stilted or forced.  I am now very much looking forward to reading his Islands, which offers yet another take on the castaway adventure narrative. 

Simply brilliant!

* * *

Counsel of the Wicked (Rebel Mage: Book 1

Counsel of the Wicked is an exciting, fast-paced, genre-bending m/m romantic adventure; distinctively imaginative, sexy, thought-provoking, heart-warming, compulsively page-turning, and one heck of a cracking good story! A bona fide mistress of the intelligent pop-genre mash-up, Elizabeth Schechter proves no less adept at exploring those darker, heavier issues of good and evil, love and faith, privilege and prejudice, betrayal and hypocrisy. One never fails to come away impressed by this talented author’s hyperactively wide-ranging imagination, puissant intellect and preternaturally acute sense of focus.  

This is compelling genre entertainment with a brain. Above all, it’s the consistent quality of Schechter’s writing, along with the deep love she possesses for her characters that sets Counsel of the Wicked apart. 

* * *

Nobody ever used language quite the way Angela Carter did--few would ever dare in this dumbed-down day and age of ours. Yet still, more than thirty years after the author's untimely death, her unique way with words continues to captivate, inspire and intoxicate like tongues of Dionysian fire dancing upon the blessed lips of each new generation. These are words to make the heart sing and the imagination soar; beautiful yet exquisitely precise, evocative, fearless, erudite, occupying that rarefied realm where prose and poetry seem to share the self-same space like lovers in disembodied ecstasy.  

2015 marks the diamond jubilee of this beloved and widely influential author's birth and Penguin Classics has seen fit to mark the occasion with this handsome, high-quality paperback edition of The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, perhaps Carter's best-known and most-oft-cited short story collection, originally published in 1979. This Deluxe Edition features handsome, comfortably readable fonts (considerably larger than the ubiquitous compact 110-page school edition in circulation for the last several years--compare that stingy iteration with this generous 162 page volume), and gorgeous pen-and-ink cover art by Alex Konabin. A fine, thorough-going, affectingly personal introduction by Kelly Link (cited in the first review above) lends an appropriate sense of celebratory occasion to the undertaking.

And, of course, the stories themselves are truly exceptional, masterpieces of the fabulist's craft, from the eerie and foreboding Gothic atmosphere of the title tale, based on the Blue Beard legend--what can I say?  A story in which the blind piano tuner gets the girl in the end must surely be a work of genius!-- to the ribald feline commedia dell'arte shenanigans of Puss in Boots, the evocative eroticism of The Company of Wolves and The Tiger's Bride, and the more sinister sensualism of The Erl-King and The Lady of the House of Love.

If you've never read Carter; or if you don't have a copy of The Bloody Chamber--or, more likely, have worn out your old one-- or, perhaps, know of some young, aspiring writer in search of that simple igniting spark of lifetime inspiration, I consider it my good turn for the year to commend this superb edition!