Out: February 9, 2021
This is a collection of fourteen erotic short stories with a common theme of asymmetric power dynamics. [That’s an excessively syllabic way of saying Dominant / submissive, top / bottom, or Sadist / masochist relationships.] As is common with anthologies, a meaningful overall rating isn’t really possible. I found a couple of the included stories to be highly evocative or engaging, many were good, while others were just okay – plagued by the usual suspects that impair erotica such as characters without depth / intrigue or thin story. That said, none of the stories were poorly written.
To be fair, a broadly appealing erotica collection is a tall order. For one thing, erotica is the most idiosyncratic of genres. Like Horror, if it’s too tame for one’s tastes, it’s boring; if it’s too wild, it grosses one out — or otherwise become unreadable. [I suspect few (if any) readers will have the latter problem with this collection; some might have the former. (That is, given the likely readership demographic.) If you are picking up a book on kinky erotica, you are unlikely to be triggered or otherwise shocked or offended by anything contained herein.] In addition to the varied levels of intensity readers look for in erotica, there is the question of whether varied sexual orientations and identities are of interest to a given reader. This book covers a lot of ground in this regard, including heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, and transgender characters.
Because the anthology is so qualitatively and topically varied, I’ll say a little about each story.
1.) “The Cure” by Melissa Febos: I found this to be a strange choice for the collection and – particularly – for opening the collection. It’s about a lesbian who decides to have sex with straight men because she’s having trouble in her customary dating pool, but since she likes sex, she decides to pursue it in the form least laden with complication. So far, it could be fine, but it devolves into a laundry list of what she finds disgusting about intimacy with men. Now, one would expect a lesbian to find having sex with a man unappealing; just as anyone might when having sex outside their preferred orientation. However, it does raise the question: Why am I supposed to enjoy reading about this in a book of erotica? I think it’s fair to say that reading about people enjoying having sex is more erotic than hearing about people who aren’t enjoying their experience.
2.) “Best Friendster Date Ever” by Alexander Chee: This is a story about a hookup between two gay men who meet via a dating site, and who find themselves in a mutually appealing top / bottom sexual experience. While it’s not a story with a great deal of depth, it would have made a better opening because at least if features two people who are having intercourse because they like having sex with each other [as opposed to because there’s nothing on Netflix and each is the best the other can do on short notice.]
3.) “Trust” by Larissa Pham: As the name suggests, this story revolves around the issue of trust and the challenges that subject presents in a relationship of dominance and submission. When the couple goes on a getaway, the story mirrors the experience of trust-building in sexual encounters with the non-sexual circumstance of the male (dominant) driving off for the day without telling the female (submissive) that he’s leaving — or when / if he’ll be back. There’s some interesting insight into submissive psychology to be seen in this story.
4.) “Safeword” by R.O. Kwon: In this story, we see an issue that was touched upon in the previous on (and which later recurs,) which is what happens when one member of an intimate relationship is more into the kinky aspect than is the other. In this case, it’s a sadomasochistic relationship in which the female masochist is more desirous of the sadomasochistic aspect of the relation than is her male partner. The couple goes to a dominatrix so that the masochist can get what she desires and the man can learn to better pleasure [i.e. pain-ify?] his partner.
5.) “Canada” by Callum Angus: This atmospheric piece describes a girl’s relationship with a female to male transgender. It’s one of the shorter pieces, and – as the title suggests – it plays heavily on the setting, Canada, to create ambiance.
6.) “Oh, Youth” by Brandon Taylor: The story centers on an attractive young man named Grisha, and the appeal he has for some middle-aged people – particularly the infatuation that develops between the husband in a married couple that he is staying with temporarily during a college break.
7.) “Impact Play” by Peter Mountford: A recently divorced man enters into a serious relationship with the woman he was having an affair with when his marriage ended. He and this woman share an interest in kink and fetish sexuality that his previous wife apparently did not. We don’t learn much about his ex-wife, but we do learn quite a bit about his cousin, Betsy, whom he treats as a confidant and with whom he has a special relationship.
8.) “Mirror, Mirror” by Vanessa Clark: Diary entry of a well-endowed transgender escort. The story explores the fetishized nature of the main character’s occupation.
9.) “Reach” by Roxane Gay: A man and wife enjoy the former tormenting the latter with a steady stream of indignities as a fetish in their romantic life. It’s one of the more sensual pieces of writing in the anthology.
10.) “Gospodar” by Garth Greenwell: I would rate this as one of the two strongest entries in terms of story. It’s not the typical erotica in which the character comes out the other side of the story completely unchanged except for being momentarily spent. A submissive gay man meets up with a dominant in Romania that he learned about through the internet. The interaction starts off swimmingly, but it takes a hard turn south. The story is quite visceral, but provokes thought on the nature of consent where power dynamics are in play.
11.) “Scissors” by Kim Fu: This story is set amid a stage show in which sharp objects are used to undress a performer in motion. Attendees aren’t just after the prurient appeal of the striptease, but the vicarious visceral fear.
12.) “The Lost Performance of the High Priestess of the Temple of Horror” by Carman Maria Machado: This story has some superficial commonalities with the previous one – i.e. it largely takes place in a theater in which frightening shows are put on that feature a damsel-esque central character. However, it’s also quite distinct from the previous story. It’s the longest story and is the other entry that I consider strongest in terms of narrative qualities. The central character is a young girl [called “Bess” though that isn’t her real name] who becomes the protégé of the main character of the aforementioned horror show. The story is all about the changing nature of their relationship as the protégé grows from girl to woman.
13.) “Retouch / Switch” by Cara Hoffman: This ethereal piece is about fluctuation in sexuality and identity. It’s one of the shorter pieces, and features a dreamlike quality.
14.) “Emotional Technologies” by Chris Kraus: This piece frames the dominant / submissive relationship in artistic and philosophical terms. It’s erudite and among the most thought-provoking pieces in the collection. In particular, it discusses the role of an acting “technology” (most people would call it a “method”) that uses somewhat cruel and savage tactics to achieve the desired outcome. Because I’m a nerd who likes thinking about things that are “out there,” I really enjoyed this story. Others may find that the erotic adventure is undone by the philosophizing.
If you’re intrigued by what you’ve read so far, you should definitely give this one a read. While it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, it’s well-written and has broad appeal. It takes chances in some ways, but stays inside the lines of most readers.