Embraces: Reviews Hellnotes

With the Hot Blood series squeaking up into double-digits before going into retirement, and a slew of other similarly-themed anthologies managing one or more volumes, you might be excused for feigning a headache at news of yet another erotic horror anthology. Or at least wondering, after all these years and smudged pages, what can possibly be left to say about Doing The Nasty. If nothing else, glut invites backlash, and this particular subgenre has usually been its own worst enemy, rife with ho-hum yawners that never venture beyond the puritanical undercurrents of so many f**k-and-die slasher films, and stories that read as though they were written by authors who donšt get laid very often. Or at least very well.

So pop an aspirin if needed and slip between the covers of Embraces, whose twenty tales for the most part strive to be about sex, not just feature it. A subtle difference, perhaps ... but a vital one.

Like their subject, the stories here run the full gamut of the deeply-felt to the quick 'n' dirty, with some playfulness thrown in along the way. At the one end we have Steve Rasnic Tem's "Creeps," whose title serves as both noun and verb, with its narrator's horror of the body gradually revealed through a detailed, cyclical list of his lovers. Way way way at the other extreme is Thomas Roche's "Payback's a Bitch," a turbocharged paean to trash culture, which takes the butch women-in-chains motif of dozens of drive-in movies and infuses it with an adrenaline mainline of riot grrrl anarchy.

Other highlights include "Saturnalia," by David Schow (whose exquisitely barbed way with language could probably render a rewrite of the phone book into compulsive reading), in which an elderly film goddess, long retired, puts a male porn star through a series of ever more degrading scenarios as mere preparation for a final surprise; and Charlee Jacob's "Torpor," the most viscerally extremist vision here, wherein a man who survived an unimaginable trauma (think Hannibal Lecter's basement), only to find himself emotionally and carnally deadened, rediscovers passion in a sexual sideshow exhibit.

Editor Guran has done a great job of selecting stories with the widest possible range of viewpoints, styles, and orientations, from the subtle heartbreak of a marital passion whose frisson is potentially lethal in Nancy Holder's opener "You Give Me Fever," to John Shirley's closer, the irresistibly-titled "Learn At Home! Your Career In Evil!," which concludes with an epic phantasmagoria that Salvador Dali would have approved of. And fans of Robert Devereaux's Santa Steps Out won't want to miss his "On the Dangers of Simultaneity, Or..." (the title thereby devolves into a series of transcribed grunts and sighs), a prequel of sorts to that novel, utilizing the same linguistic gymnastics and imaginative pyrotechnics to chronicle the brief career of the Orgasm Fairy.

As can be expected with most anthologies, it's doubtful that every single tale will grab your yah-yah. A couple I found far more tedious than involving, while Ian Grey's "Matchbox Screamers," after adroitly establishing the timbre of an unsettling and unhealthy relationship, ultimately disappoints in the final paragraph with its I-don't-know-how-to-wrap-this-up-so-I'm-going-to-resort-to-raging-cliche ending.

But overall, chances are you'll find plenty here you've not seen before. M. Christian's "Blue Boy" blends horror, science fiction, and sexual pathology in a way that's quite unique; Poppy Z. Brite's "Homewrecker" finds her in a droll comic mood (more Uncle Edna, please); and the narrative of Rob Hardin's "Before the White Asylum" is one of the most authentic depictions of emotional disturbance under tenuous control I've ever encountered.

Finally, kudos to the publisher for keeping the price down. In this climate of overpriced small press editions, Embraces commendably provides plenty of, ummm, well ... bang for the buck. -- Brian Hodge

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