An Anthology of Erotica
Edited by Diane Nelson
286 pages, Night Publishing
Review by Marc Nash
An anthology is always hard to review because of its diversity of styles and content. You can double that when the subject matter is erotica, for unless the reviewer is polymorphously perverse in their tastes, not every touching post on the sex spectrum is going to resonate with them. Finally there is the question of just what is erotica anyway? Other than notions of it involving sexual content but in a way that tilts at high art, whatever that is, it is quite tricky to pin down. All I can say is that the author's relationship with their reader, through their characters, is perhaps even more key than in normal literature. The author cannot afford to leave the reader on the outside, we have to be sucked into the narrative unfolding before our eyes.
Of the eight stories here three definitively draw the reader in. Noelle Pierce's "Delectable Deviations" is an erotic adaptation of Hansel and Gretl, but transcends any fairytale archetypical casting. It plays wonderfully undulating games with the reader's anticipation, as a brother and sister are kidnapped and trained up to be slaves by a witch. We fully surrender our power and control to the author to lead us where she may, and the story builds deliciously. Though the escape at the end is somewhat tame, this doesn't detract from a fizzing and lustrous tale.
"Stella And Bailey" succeeds in a different way entirely, for there is very little horizontal action. With Pierce's tale, we followed the twists and turns in the power relationships of three bodies, whereas here in Robb Grindstaff's story, all the crackle and tension emanates from the situation. A man helps out two sisters thrown out of their family home. He is drawn to the conventional, straitlaced one by her beauty, but is also tantalised by her radically liberated younger sister though the physical attraction is more ambiguous to him. Both women execute their oblique and not so oblique dance of the seven veils around him, but he's torn by having both living under his roof and not wanting to alienate the one he doesn't choose. The reader experiences his frissons and yearnings with him, plus our primary love muscle (the brain, whatever did you think I meant?) is tickled by a sharp level of humour throughout. Again the ending is slightly dotting too many i's and crossing t's in a contrived way, but the journey has been more than worth the pedestrian destination.
"Seraphim" by T.L.Tyson is a touching portrait of a woman who has gone blind and has lived the past three years full of self-pity. The man who devotes himself to her reawakening does so by forcing her to truly 'see' for the first time, by really surrendering to her senses. The section where he denies her all those other than touch is brilliantly rendered and really enjoined me 'see' through her eyes. This was poignant as well as highly charged.
Diane Nelson's "Dance Macabre" and JD Revene's "Without A Spark" were both excellently written pieces, but I felt struggled with their own narrative structure to realise themselves as erotica. They had more of a feel of literature, with a sexual underpinning, rather than erotica per se, though as I've said since erotica itself is so hard to define this may just be my personal slant. Both erode the build up of anticipation, the element of crescendoing tease, by resorting to constant flashbacks to formative relationships as backstory to the ones under scrutiny in the here and now. In Nelson's story, its actual core of a damaged woman who is kept off-balance and out of her familiar discomfort zone by the modus operandi of the blind date who picks her up, is actually really taut and satisfying. But the preamble of her troubled history, an overlong walk through the wild side of the street from which she derives from, comes over as more derivative than those fantasy parts when the author has us in her thrall.
Revene's story also relies on flashback as it relates the gradual induction into a world of increasing kink and outré desire. But a lot of this is just represented as a list of various practices, there is very little elaboration on what any of them yielded emotionally or psychologically. Sometimes the language lets it down as well, "spurted like a malfunctioning fountain" particularly had me bamboozled as to whether that was a satisfyingly good thing or not. The strength of the piece was the descriptions of two sinuous bodies engaged in dancing. You could almost trace their muscular physicality and inhale the aromas of their perspiring bodies. Without giving away as a spoiler, I did feel the downbeat theme of the ending acted as a buzzkill.
John Browne's "Suckers Sometimes Get Lucky" is a jaunty enough tale, although it climaxes on a terrible pun. Snow White is spliced with Little Red Riding Hood's big bad wolf, transposed to an English University student house full of nerds (or sexual/mental dwarves which was the inevitable extrapolation to my mind). It's knockabout and all good clean fun, if a bit too frivolous for my tastes.
Kate Rigby's "Hard Workers" is the six-page-long opener to the anthology and ushers the reader very easily and lightly into the thrust of the book as a whole. Right from the outset I guessed we weren't dealing with human narrators here, so again the reader is slightly on the outside from any full-on identification. Sessha Batto's "Wintersong" was possibly the only story I struggled with, since I found the jump cuts in its timeline confusing in places. This may well have been intended, to keep the reader off balance in order to follow the jags of the relationship between the two main characters. By the end it's clear why the story takes this form and has a real elegiac grace about it, but I had floundered in my journey through into getting there. It may well take more than one reading, though there are sections in there that will undoubtedly reward such efforts, the grand romantic gesture scene being one.
So it's pretty much as I forecast at the beginning. Dancing in the Dark is an indubitable mixture of styles, contents and approaches to erotica. For this reviewer some appealed to me better than others and in all likelihood a different reviewer would pick out different personal favourites. Bedtime/bedside reading? Undoubtedly.