Embraces: Reviews Scarlet Letters

I admit it. I'm a reformed erotic horror junkie. I used to devour each volume in the popular early-90's Hot Blood erotic horror anthologies. It was the ultimate guilty pleasure for me. Tasty, nasty sex scenes topped off with scary, bloody denouements.

There was just one problem. I liked sex, but some of the authors sure didn't seem to. Women and men were both routinely, often gruesomely, punished for indulging their licentiousness. Bad girls were punished for putting out; horny guys were castrated (literally or figuratively) for their lust. Or if not that, then usually some sick cosmic joke was being pulled on the helpless libidinal victims.

Eventually I gravitated toward more wholesome, sex-positive stories. Erotica. And I was happy with what I discovered, for a while. But I always knew something was missing. Sex-positive erotic stories (even, I'll admit, the ones I write myself) can often be relentlessly sunny about their subject matter. Anything dark or frightening about the situation usually turns out to be a baseless anxiety on the part of the protagonist. Sex is never emotionally messy, never terrifying, never tragic.

Yeah right.

Up until now, With a few scattered and rare exceptions, that's been the situation for readers like me. You can have your horror, or you can have your sex-positive slant, but you can't have both. Until the publication of Embraces: Dark Erotica (Venus or Vixen Press), that is.

Editor Paula Guran apparently found herself in much the same boat I did -- and decided to do something about it. It took several years and two publishers to do it, but the result, dare I say it, was worth the wait.

You won't find any demon lovers or vampires in black capes here. Guran sought out non-traditional horror elements when compiling her stories. That means no ancient nameless evils, no black magic, no overly familiar monsters. Instead, we meet mad scientists and sideshow acts, aging movie stars, and saintly Mexican virgins. There are a few touches of the paranormal, and a taste or two of science fiction. But mostly, the stories are almost too human.

There are quite a few familiar names in these pages, from both sides of the horror/erotica fence: Thomas S. Roche, M. Christian, John Shirley, Poppy Z. Brite. Only a few are newcomers: J.R. Corcorrhan, Lorelei Shannon.

The messiness of bodies is a constant theme in these stories. Body fluids abound, as do disfigurements and amputations. And I think this is apt. Sex is messy. Bodies can be both awesome and awful in their capacities. Behind the pleasure of orgasm lies a goodly number of stained sheets -- and sometimes worse.

Embraces opens with "You Give Me Fever" by Nancy Holder, and what a perfect introduction it is. A woman discovers that she's allergic to her lover; when they have sex, she comes down with dangerously high fevers. But their lovemaking is so intense, so pleasurable, that she can't keep away.

M. Christian's "Blue Boy," which postulates a world of cloned, subservient -- and disposable -- blue people, is ravishingly horrific. This is a story that gets the balance between the erotic and the disturbing just right -- the sex is sizzling, the ending shocking. Thomas S. Roche contributes another of his charmingly over-the-top romps, "Payback's a Bitch," featuring the antics of the DeathKittens, an "all-girl speed-thrash industrial-grindcore" band and theirintricate revenge on a group of corrupt cops. "Torpor" by Charlee Jacob is a fascinating little knot of guilt, desire, and fascination with the interior workings of the body, illustrating the premise that beauty is not at all only skin deep. Some readers might be surprised by Poppy Z. Brite's story "Homewrecker"; it's both sweet and dark, and perhaps a bit far removed from her usual style. At first, it seems to be just a whimsical genderbent erotic story without any horrific element at all. But read closer, and it turns into something more sinister than it seems on the surface.

Like any anthology, there are a couple misses; I found David Schow's "Saturnalia" needlessly mean-spirited rather than frightening or shocking, for example. But overall, the stories in Embraces are thoughtful, challenging, and not at all everyday fare -- for fans of either horror or erotica.

If you have a strong stomach and a taste for dark and twisted sexual scenarios, Embraces is not to be missed. -- Lori Selke

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