DarkEcho Horror
Venus by Rick Berry


Carmilla: The Return
Kyle Marffin
Design Image Group/ $15.95/ 296 p (March 15, 1998)
ISBN: 1891946021

Ever since J. Sheridan Le Fanu's "Carmilla" -- an important (and openly acknowledged) influence on Bram Stoker's DRACULA -- horror writers have celebrated lesbian vampires in print and in the cinema. It seems a bit surprising that before this novel, no one had written a faithful follow-up to the tale of Carmilla herself.

Kyle Marffin's CARMILLA: THE RETURN weaves flashbacks from Carmilla's undead past, starting in her 19th-century Austrian homeland and continuing into a story line set in the 1990s. Like many older vampires, she's a bit lost in the modern world, traveling with a meager knapsack containing an antique copy of In a Glass Darklyand a small pouch of gemstones. We get to know her character through its reflection in the women who become obsessed with her--especially the bright and restless Lauren, on whom Carmilla fixates as the one she hopes will join her in an idealized fantasy of vampires in love for centuries. Men will stubbornly intervene, though, to protect their daughters and girlfriends from predators like Carmilla, so eventually things come to a head during a snowstorm in the wilds of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. But Lauren has her wits about her: she's no romantic fool.

If you think you've read enough vampire books to last a lifetime, think again. This one's got restrained and skillful writing, a complex and believable love story, gorgeous scenery, sudden jolts of violence, and a thought-provoking final sequence that will keep you reading until the sun comes up.

Here's a suggestion: read Le Fanu's version, then read this next (and perhaps not last) take on the famous female vampire who loves nothing so much as a warm woman to pull into her bed. -- Fiona Webster

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Noirotica 2: Pulp Friction
Thomas S. Roche, editor
Rhinoceros/pp. 465/$7.95
ISBN 1-56333-584-0

With Noirotica, editor Thomas S. Roche produced a breakthrough anthology presenting dark, hard-hitting, provocative stories that combined the overtly erotic with the Raymond Chandleresque antimythic world of decadence, decay, crime, and the hypocrisy of authority. (See review below.) Noirotica 2: Pulp Friction gives us more of a good bad thing. It doesn't quite deliver with the same impact the original work did, but maybe it gives us something better.

In its favor is diversity and an impressive 23 stories. The return of some of the "unusual suspects" -- Roche himself; Bill Brent and his character Dick Death, punk detective; Lucy Taylor; M. Christian; Carol Queen, and others -- is welcome. Some outstanding additions to the gang this time around are Brian Hodge's look at the really dark side of Hollywood, Caitlin Kiernan with a steamy New Orleans setting, Mason Powell's L.A. noir, and Charles Ardai's violent, yet seductive John Woo-world.

Much of Noirotica's impact lay in its literary cohesiveness: there was not only a palpable truth to the fiction, but there was also a redemptive quality in the stories that is essential to noir. In noir, sex, death, and crime have consequences. Actions have reactions. The stories of Noirotica 2 don't all live up to this standard. At the same time, Noirotica 2 has more of a "pulp" feel -- that slightly sick, but fun feel of fiction that's not quite as serious as it could be.

As I warned before, this stuff is not for everyone and even those who can take it may prefer another aspect of the mix. Part of noir is also sheer entertainment and perhaps in this respect, the second volume works better than the first. Noirotica was a straight shot knocked back in one swallow, maybe Noirotica 2 is the beer chaser -- it mellows out the edge, lets you grin, and gets you set for the next round. (And the next round is purportedly coming in a third volume.) Maybe the drink doesn't knock you on your ass like the first, but as long as Roche is setting 'em up, I'm delighted to keep downing 'em. Noirotica 2 is more than worth taking the trip to the dive. Cheap neon glare, lipstick traces on the glasses, tough-talking private dicks, hot babes more dangerous than any weapon, smoky haze and smoking guns, and always more than just a promise of sweaty, dangerous sex-- Noirotica 2: Pulp Frictiondelivers. -- Paula Guran

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Thomas S. Roche, editor
ISBN 1-56333-390-2
319 pp/PB/$6.95

Noiroticia is subtitled An Anthology of Erotic Crime Stories, but to understand its real theme you first need to know what noir, is. It is indeed black, darker than dark. An outgrowth of Raymond Chandler's antimythic world of decadence, decay, crime, and the hypocrisy of authority, noir is bleak but powerful fiction that paints a despairing picture of civilization. It resonates perhaps even more fully and truthfully in today's world.

Editor Roche chose to take the world of noir and combine it with sexual fiction. As he says in the Introduction:

Where there's power, or truth, there's sex. . .The erotic appeal of this world seems obvious to me. To be able to take the nightmare world of noir with the world of sex, the erotic impulse with the dark side of the city--that seems like something that needs to be done. Lies, perhaps because they are more immediate than truth, can be incredibly erotic. And sometimes in telling lies we are finally able to tell the truth. The anti-mythic world of Noirotica is one where bad things happen and this truth is always at a premium.

Roche, with his choices, succeeds admirably.

There are private dick (no pun intended) tales (most notably Roche's own and those by Simon Sheppard, Bill Brent, Maxim Jakubowski, Charles Ardai, and Kyle Stone;) flat out good dark stories (Nancy Collins, Amelia G, Sean Doolittle, Nancy Kilpatrick, Lucy Taylor, and John Shirley;) edgy characterizations (M. Christian, Poppy Z. Brite and Christa Faust, and Carol Queen) and some of what are primarily powerful vignettes.

Moreover, there is a redemptive quality here that moralizing yahoos, too busy defeating their own arousal by censorship and condemnation, will not notice. The sex, death, and crime in these stories all have consequences. Actions have reactions in the world of noir--not ever very pretty, occasionally positive, more usually negative.

Noirotica is a breakthrough anthology. Its raw violence and sexuality, the nightmare slice of the noir knife-- combine to portray a literature that may not be for the masses, but establishes a place for some of the darkest, hardest-hitting and most provocative writing you'll find today.

If you can't stomach truth, don't touch it. It's sick, twisted, and degenerate. Bad to the bone. I love it. -- Paula Guran

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Eros Ex Machina: Eroticizing The Mechanical
M. Christian, editor
Rhinoceros/446 pp./$7.95
ISBN 1-56333-593-X

[Note: The tester of this technology admits direct involvement in the engineering of its operating system. A module thereof, a "story" (tm), was designed and developed by the tester herself. The tester also contributed input to the market labeling (title) of the product. Although examination of aforementioned module in this report is therefore precluded, it is felt scientific objectivity and field experience override this involvement and any possible prejudices are negated.]

As project manager M. Christian states in his introduction of the Operating Manual for Eros Ex Machina: Eroticizing The Mechanical(tm), his product utilizes "revolutionary Book(tm) technology" to present a "manually operated, language-driven interface device intended to function as an easy to-use recreational sensual and erotic entertainment system." As with all such devices its successful function relies on the quality of the input imagery, i.e., its linguistic architecture. By combining a variety of verisimilitude, unique concept, and imaginative engineering, Eros Ex Machina (tm) more than fulfills its function. When design and engineering combine at this level, art, as well as utility, results.

Art, of course is subjective. But the premise of this Book(tm)'s province -- an exploration of the literal and figurative love of machines -- is one that consumers can, with some cognition, relate to. We are, after all, emotionally involved with our favorite forms of technology. We express our "love" for our cars, our kitchen aids, our power tools; we appreciate beautiful devices with a thrill that is close to sexual in nature. Haven't we all had deeply emotional response, or at least a personally intense reaction to how our computers work or don't work? We desire machines and also resent their inevitability.

There is certainly a great amount of playfulness and fun to be found in Eros Ex Machina (tm), but not surprisingly, many of the stories(tm) are dark. We are both attracted to and repulsed by the idea of mechanical sex. More importantly the crafters of these modules examine the dark themes of human need and obsession. This is a Rhinoceros book and explicit sex is implicit, but many of the stories(tm) if re-written with less graphic language and a soft- instead of hardcore tilt, could be plugged-in to a more mainstream mode. As sexual as Eros Ex Machina (tm) is, it is the investigation of human interface with the mechanical and with the emotional that makes it work.

The mechanically mundane is warped into the erotic -- a Nautilus Leg Press, a washer and dryer, ATMs, trains, toothbrushes, monitors and video screens, tape players, automobiles, trains, a roller coaster; there are devices developed specifically for sexual gratification. and partners are mechanized or humans mechanically adapted or used in several stories. There are less literal interpretations as well.

Purchase value on this technology is high with an amazing 29 high grade contributors including Pamela Briggs, Pat Califia, Stephen Dedman, Nancy Kilpatrick, Kevin Killian, Marc Laidlaw, Carol Queen, Stephen Mark Rainey, John Shirley, and Lucy Taylor. Based on lab analysis and short, but intense, reliability evaluation, this tester rates Eros Ex Machina (tm) as Highly Recommended for users over age 18, but please read and follow all warnings and instructions to safely use this dangerously good technology. -- Paula Guran

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The Darker Passion Series from Masquerade
by Amarantha Knight
Dracula (ISBN 1-56333-326-0)
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (ISBN 1-56333-227-2)
Frankenstein (ISBN 1-56333-248-5)
The Fall of the House of Usher (ISBN 1-56333-313-9)
All paperback

"Smut" is a handy little word to have when dealing with sexually explicit material. It is appropriately four-lettered, rather cute, avoids the overused and misunderstood "erotica" and doesn't connote possible societal rape and pillage as "pornography" sometimes does.

The Darker Passions series is very good smut indeed. Author Amarantha Knight (Nancy Kilpatrick) is a good writer who offers characterization, pacing and sound structure as easily as she does titillation and arousal. She retains the lush tone of Victorian prose while streamlining it for modern readers.

It's a great idea. Abandon the concept of underlying veiled sex in horror and go straight to the naked underbelly, expose and smack it. Knight obviously respects Stoker, Stevenson, Shelley and Poe, but this doesn't prevent her from amplifying the sexuality of these horror archetypes, debauching the plots, and gleefully expanding and transforming the characters into sexual superstars. She adroitly brings on the whips and chains, gives us a variety of scenes and has fun with it all. The Darker Passions are good, cleanly written smut for adults who appreciate a look at classic horror through a decidedly decadent eye. The books are, in a way, little masterpieces of their own.-- Paula Guran

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The Darker Passions: Carmilla
by Amarantha Knight
Masquerade/ pp. 335/ $6.95
ISBN: 1563335786

First published in the magazine The Dark Blue in London in 1871, Sheridan Le Fanu's novella "Carmilla" was one of the first stories published in English that featured a female vampire -- "sometimes the playful, languid, beautiful girl; sometimes the writhing fiend." True to its time, it was rife with sexuality repressed as tightly as the corsets of the day molded the female figure into a wasp-waisted hourglass.

As she has so adroitly done with previous Darker Passions titles based on classic horror --Dracula, Frankenstein, The Fall of the House of Usher, Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde, The Portrait of Dorian Grey -- author Nancy Kilpatrick writing as Amarantha Knight takes "Carmilla" and cuts through the lacings of supression then exuberantly debauches the tale with flair. In Kilpatrick's Carmilla, the lovely young Laura has much more to deal with than simple nocturnal vampiric visits from the beauteous and mysterious Carmilla. Laura spends half of the book being disciplined soundly (and occasionally watching the other occupants of the schloss in various perversions) before a seductive Carmilla arouses her to erotic pleasure. She remains virginal, however, until deflowered in the next-to-last chapter. Kilpatrick then utilizes the character of Carmilla in a delightfully imaginative resolution to her raw, but still romantic romp.

Kilpatrick manages to live up to her own standards of what makes good sexual horror as she combines the hot and heavy with the chill air of suspense to produce a tornado of lively writing. While retaining the original tone of the story (and even providing some interesting extrapolations and explanations for it,) her tongue-in-cheek approach lightens the book repeatedly while never distracting from the effectiveness of her tongues-wherever erotica.

Obviously not meant for those who don't care for the x-explicit, Kilpatrick's randy reinterpretation of Carmilla is sure to please those that do. -- Paula Guran

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