|Book Review: Whispers in Darkness, edited by J. Blackmore|
|Written by Amanda Gannon|
|Tuesday, 25 October 2011 01:29|
Think this sounds more crazy than awesome? Boy, do I have a surprise for you.
As a Lovecraft fan and a sometime columnist for Weird Tales, I jumped at the chance to review Circlet's latest anthology, Whispers in Darkness: Lovecraftian Erotica. I missed the chance to submit to it, which I now sorely regret, but I spread the word, and every single person I spoke to about the concept said some variation of the following:
"Lovecraftian . . . erotica . . . these words should never go together!"
Usually with a wince and a shudder and some muttering about naughty tentacles.
I admit that, though I saw the potential in the idea, I doubted it could be done well. Lovecraft's ideas about the nature of the universe and what it means to be human are so deeply unsettling that they run completely counter to anything sane, comforting, or human. There seems little room for the erotic impulse; it would be laughable, or simply too disturbing to be contemplated. There didn't appear to be a way to bring the two genres together without doing a terrible disservice to both.
Thank goodness Circlet, under the steady editorial hand of Jen Blackmore, went for it anyway, and proved me wrong. (And yes, there are tentacles, pseudopods, and appendages in abundance, but it is not a one-note all-tentacle-sex opera.)
It would have been a disservice and a cop-out to choose stories meant solely to shock, or which approach the theme sarcastically, but there's nothing gimmicky about these stories, even when they're shocking. They're honest, loving homages meant to broaden the body of Lovecraft-related work and share appreciation of the genre. And they're good. This sort of writing can only come from people who love Lovecraft. Each one is a devotional offering lovingly placed on the altar of the mythos.
The mythos influence varies, but most stand alone; acquaintance with Lovecraft's work is helpful but not required, and they are enjoyable as horror erotica on their own. You do, however, need to be someone who appreciates the weird tale as a genre to understand just how spot-on some of these are.
Let's take them one at a time:
"Ink" by Bernie Mojzes
Vivid imagery, and a cool premise that maybe shouldn't have worked, but ultimately did. It is disturbing in a number of ways, but it primarily feeds on the fascination with the grotesque. This is not the most horrifying story, not even close, but it is the ickiest. No dipping a toe in the water, no fooling around, this one just throws you right into the sack with a blasphemous, unnatural, amorphous yet tentacle-extruding horror. If you can handle Sam, you can handle 'em all. If you can't, well, none of the others are quite as anatomically grotesque. All of that said, it ends up in an unexpected – and unexpectedly human – place.
The framing device is a noir-ish detective story, not a motif that really resonates for me personally, but it's written well, and that element is really secondary to the main character's interactions, and eventual fascination, with the Thing on the Barstool. It works, in other words. By the time all the stops come out, you can't put it down . . . which sums up the rest of the anthology quite neatly.
"Koenigsberg's Model" by Peter Tupper
Exceedingly well-done, dark, this story takes the idea of the "Other" that Lovecraft found so horrifying and turns its power around to show us another side of the same coin. Here, the power of difference – even horrifying difference – is something that attracts, not repels. The language is beautiful, the use of detail excellent. It's truly Lovecraftian in its approach to the horror of knowing and seeing what should not be known or seen but, interestingly, it convincingly explores the idea that one can choose to be either horrified or fascinated – and makes the point that we are always only a simple perception shift away from comprehending the true nature of the world that surrounds us, teeming with unspeakable horrors. Good stuff.
It's good to see an acknowledgement of the racial issues that bedeviled early weird fiction in general and Lovecraft's writing in particular. I would not have expected anything less from Circlet, frankly, and am rather sorry that more of the stories did not deal with it so explicitly. It's not possible to count points off for that, though, when the rest of the stories are so good, and were obviously chosen to cover a lot of ground with little repetition.
"A Reflection of Kindness" by Kannan Feng
Mirrors give me the creeps, and mirror stories either work for me really well or don't work at all. This is a good one, and oddly, it's only creepy and not horrifying. Mostly it's strange and fell and beautiful, and quite unexpected. It is also powerfully erotic. The editor calls it "hypnotic" in the introduction, and I think that's quite appropriate.
The story is full of beautiful little touches: details well-chosen for their power to unsettle and disturb, or lure in and arouse. This is a variation on the demon lover story, a story of innocence corrupted, but also of the kindling of desire, and finding solace in strange places. The sex is urgent and full of greedy anticipation, only made more startling by the very gentle, almost fairy-tale-like language. I would love to hear this one read aloud.
It was at this point I started to be surprised by how good the anthology is, and started to wonder when it would all fall apart.
"The Artist's Retreat" by Annabeth Leong
Here, Leong depicts the escalating nature of sexual desire, the desire for more experiences, more pleasure, as a primal, consuming madness. It is thoroughly, unwholesomely sexy, with an ending that uses the reader's reluctant desire for more to tie the theme up in a nice little bow.
The language is beautiful and compelling, the visuals are vivid and well-chosen, and the creepy, atmospheric setting recalls Lovecraft's countryside horrors with absolute clarity. The author has a knack for selecting disturbing details, and strikes a good balance between unexpected shocks and dreadful, inevitable horrors, making this a very effective story with a good balance of surprise and foreshadowing.
This is easily my favorite story in the anthology. There is so much nuance in the language to appreciate.
"The Dreams in the Laundromat" by Elizabeth Reeve
No description of this story's particulars can convey its appeal. It is definitely the odd story out; it's a college story, and the setting and voice are more frankly modern than any of the others. It's also a sweet story, not horrific at all. And it's extremely hot.
It's a beautiful exploration of the vulnerability of revealing yourself to another person – how we are all to some degree alien to ourselves and each other. It's odd that a Lovecraftian erotica story should be touching, but it really was; terrible secrets, if shared, can lead to great intimacy. And, apparently, mind-blowing tentacle sex. The attention to detail in the sex scene is first-rate. It feels real, and if it doesn't make you at least a little envious, I will mail you a dollar.
The author took a risk submitting a story that is not meant to be horrifying, and the editor took a chance including it. I am so glad they did, and enjoyed the pleasant surprise.
"Sheik" by Angela Caperton
Caperton's offering is, appropriately, a period piece. It's a 20's Hollywood story, erotic, atmospheric, full of scintillating temptations; a story of rising stars, has-beens, and terrors yet to come. I'm not sure this characterization of Nyarlathotep worked for me in the context of the mythos as a whole, but it worked within the context of the story. I very much like that he . . . it . . . was presented as human. Nyarlathotep may be a monstrous Outer God, but he often appears in human form, demonstrating his wonders to rapt and hypnotized audiences.
I didn't find this one disturbing, really, but it was compelling, and I actually think it would have been well-served by being a bit longer, since some of the more interesting elements could have used some expansion and more build-up.
Still a good story, and a bold imagining.
"The Flower of Innsmouth" by Monique Poirier
This super-simple story is correspondingly super-effective. The setup is minimal, only just enough to drive the engine of the story, and the rest is . . . how shall I say it . . . it's tentacle porn at its best. It's one of the more explicit offerings, also one of the more genuinely erotic offerings, and one of my favorites.
It's a reflection of the content of Reeve's story – the lover with the monstrous secret – but here there's no tenderness, only an inevitable, irresistible, dream-like lust.
I want to take a moment to say that stories about the monstrous female are excellent opportunities to bring in sexist tropes and exotify/Other women as a whole. This story, despite being about a man who finds himself engaged to a beautiful, sex-hungry tentacle-beast, doesn't give me that vibe in the slightest.
"When the Stars Come" by Alex Picchetti
The most ambitious story in the collection, Picchetti's "When the Stars Come" is a reimagining of the Dunwich Horror, as told from Lavinia Whateley's point of view. Picchetti's writing is polished, and the story unspools smoothly. The only criticism I can make is that the vernacular of the dialogue was distracting.
Effective, unsettling, sometimes hallucinatory, unhesitatingly erotic, it explores the ecstasies of religious devotion, the necessity of sacrifice, the inevitability of obsession, and the terrible pleasures of being chosen. It's the perfect story to round out the anthology, as it sets us down reverently but firmly in Lovecraft Country.
If the idea of mixing erotica and Lovecraft seems disturbing to you, but you're a fan of both erotica and Lovecraft, read it anyway. That these stories are disturbing only makes them better at what they do. That's the point.
This is a rock-solid anthology and my hat is off to the authors, who turned in universally superior stories; also to editor Jen Blackmore, who handled with great skill and acumen the daunting task of sorting through what, judging from the quality of the stories that were selected, must have been a group of excellent manuscripts.
I'd love to see another anthology like this. If I had it in front of me, I'd read it right now, SAN loss be damned.