Sunday, January 14, 2018

Review of 'The Prison of the Angels' by Janine Ashbless

With The Prison of the Angels, the final installment in her Book of the Watchers trilogy, Janine Ashbless brings this epic erotic-romance saga to a conclusion with a bang of near-apocalyptic intensity. And how could it be otherwise, given what we’ve come to expect thus far in the series?

I’m not sure I can give too much away here without dropping spoilers—everything in this story is essential, and Ashbless never wastes a word. But, to review: in Cover Him with Darkness, Milja frees the fallen angel Azazel from his imprisonment. In the superb middle-installment, In Bonds of the Earth, Azazel sets in motion his plan to free his fellow rebel angels from their ancient prisons, setting up a cosmic showdown with the powers of Heaven. In The Prison of the Angels, the scary feathered beasts come home to roost, the consequences of choices made must at last be faced, the price of love and freedom paid regardless of the cost. Yet, as always, Ashbless ties it all together with such style, such flare, conveying a sense of  inevitability—of ineluctable right-ness—with the plot’s every twist and turn, it’s hard to imagine all hell breaking loose in any other way, Or near half so excitingly, for that matter! Of course, throughout, the sex is wicked hot, and it is sex, after all, desire and lust, that have driven this story from the beginning, and ultimately created the critical mass from which it draws its power.  

But it would be wrong to dismiss this story as just another facile fast-paced sex-action-adventure franchise—though it certainly is fast-paced and often sexy as hell! What I have always admired about Ashbless is her ability to tell riveting erotic stories in a way that recognizes and honors her readers’ intelligence and curiosity, not to mention their willingness to look up the occasional word if they need to. The essential story is never weighed down by excessive literary vocabulary—the author’s voice, or need to prove how smart they are, overwhelming the narrative—but words are used correctly, precisely, and always with thoughtfulness and care. Big ideas are woven into the fabric of the tale with seamless craft to seem as natural a part of the whole as the action-packed set pieces and steamy bedroom scenes.

And—wow!—do I ever love the way Ashbless employs mythology in her stories, perhaps the true hallmark of her style. It doesn’t matter that we largely no longer believe in Zeus or Apollo, Thor and Loki, or the creation mythos of the Hebrew Bible; all these stories—always essentially metaphors—have outlived literal credulity; yet all are still exciting, still thought-provoking, brimming with narrative possibility. The thing Ashbless shows us about myth is that it is malleable; it can be molded and reformed, melded and spliced to suit any time and place. The fascinating angelology in this series comprises far more than the traditional (and rather staid) Judeo-Christian roster; but shows how different cultures may have interpreted the same archetypes in different ways. The Norse trickster god, Loki, becomes the tempter of Genesis, the fallen serpent-angel Samyaza; the Archangel Michael assumes the form of something out of Native American myth… It all makes for a wonderful, engaging, multi-layered story that touches the mind as well as the heart, yet is always fun to read!

Perhaps, the author is speaking directly to her readers through the character of Pemenuel, the angel of the written word, when she describes the power of story in this passage from The Prison of the Angels:

“The humans have done something remarkable. Something we could not. They have created new worlds. Worlds where decisions are made for good or evil, where hearts are broken and won, where hope is found and innocence lost. I have been to these worlds. They are real realms of the spirit.”

“Books?” said Azazel with contempt. “Just words!”

“No. They are places that the human spirit goes to be reborn. Landscapes and people that they recognize, just as they recognize their own homes. Places as real as your memory…”

In The Prison of the Angels, as in the books that preceded it, Janine Ashbless has created an extraordinary new world, a “real realm of the spirit” that is a sheer pleasure to visit.

Enthusiastically recommended.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

'Cold and Raw' (a short story by TAS)

Cold and Raw
by Terrance Aldon Shaw

England, circa 1640

Winter had come early to the north. Sharp winds drove the snow across the ground in swirling motes like spreading tendrils of smoke. Thus, all was grey in that cheerless chill an hour past the dawn, when a traveler came riding upon a dappled mare.
The lone wanderer bore himself with an untroubled air, his countenance confident, his gaze intent. He was a stranger to that country, though clad in fur and leather, sporting a rakish capotain over the white hood he wore against the cold. It was no roundhead’s hat, for the red-gold tail feather of a game pheasant streamed bravely from the brim, proud as a knight’s pennant. And draped around his shoulders, a voluminous cope, which hung about his lean frame like a dowdy bell, hems fringed with the softest sable above a pair of well-heeled boots, newly-blacked.
At the crossroads he dismounted. A tangled copse of oak and ash stood hard by; the branches of the trees, forlorn of leaves, appeared as flayed fingers, frozen in a skeletal rigor, stretching upward to indict the pallid sky. Enshaded there beneath the trees, the tumble-down ruin of an ancient hermitage could be seen, the tiny hut, long-abandoned by its monkish tenant, o’erwhelmed by wind-piled heaps of errant thatch and desiccated moss.
Such bleak, desert country. How could ordinary mortal souls eke out wage and rent in so forlorn a wilderness? Surely some grim northern god had hollowed out these dales only to raise up mountains in cheerier climes. The air seemed to grow even more chill at the thought. The mare stamped her hooves, neighing brazenly as if to curse the cold, while, drawing brim and cowl close to ward off the wind, her master paced a short way here and there in pensive expectation.
Soon, upon the keening gale there came the sound of grumbling cartwheels and straining bridle ropes, the merry jingle of harness bells, and the trumpeting whinny of a dray horse, hooves falling heavily in the snow as the great beast struggled with its load. Some crofter on his way to market, the stranger guessed.
Or, mayhap, more pleasant company.
He spied the girl from afar, as if through a lacy scrim, a dark figure against the undulating whiteness. She came on foot, leading the tall-shouldered workhorse through the deepening drifts. In another moment, she was gone from view, disappeared behind the crest of a knough where the track plunged down into a shallow vale.
“What sport shall we enjoy upon this chilly market day,” the traveler jested with his mount. “What fools these farmers to send their juicy daughters to town like stock to the block.”
He licked his lips. The lass had attained the summit with her lumbering charge, and soon would be upon him.
What then, he wondered; how much parley need there be between them? In every pious country lass, he knew, there dwelt a wanton wench, longing to gambol and sport like a ewe in rut. And who better to play the ram’s part in such a game than he? In the end the maid need only be shown her heart’s delight.
A simple glimmer would suffice.
He stepped into the road, veiling his bonnet low with a broad flourish, as small folk might imagine befits a man of breeding.
“Good morrow,” said he. “How come ye this way so early?”
The girl returned a graceful bow. She was tall, long-limbed and lithe as a willow, clad in a homely woolen habit beneath a hooded cloak, her face, surpassing fair, framed like a high-born lady’s portrait between the flaring fringes of the hood. A wayward strand of bonny wheat-gold hair glinted upon her winsome brow, and her glistering eyes, bluer than the deepest azure, shone brightly in that morning’s gloom. His mouth began to water at the sight.
“A good day to you, sir.” Her voice like a well-tuned fiddle comprised a dulcet, lilting melody above a droning northern brogue. “I’m to the next market town, there to sell a load o’ barley for my father.”
“Truly? Your sire would send you forth unescorted on such an errand—even on so wild and inclement a morn as this?”
“He trusts me well enough, sir,” she spoke with no small hint of pride, “elsewise I should never have been away from the croft so early. I’d’ve stayed safe at home with my sisters, gathered by the ingle-side all snug and warm. But it’s like my jolly old pa says: this barley won’t be sellin’ itself afore some poor fool takes it into his head to brew it into beer, now will it? And I can get a good price in the town, what with the snows come on so soon, and fodder bein’ scarce.”
“You seem a canny lass.” The stranger smiled crookedly. “May I know your name?”
“Margery,” she answered, “but there’s some as call me Meg.”
“And how old are you, my sweet, pretty Meg?”
“Eight and ten this Lammas last.” A rosy bloom was on her cheek. “And—” she hesitated.
“What is it, child?”
“If it please you, m’lord—if I may be so bold—might I know your name as well? For I’ve never met a fine gentleman before.”
“Men have known me by many names,” the stranger said. “Can you not guess?”
“Oh sir, I could not—I’d never dare to try for fear of gettin’ it wrong. Pray, tell it me?”
“Soon,” said he, “ere the time be full. But tell me true, fair lass, have you a man of your own? Does a husband wait for you at home, or, mayhap, some secret lover in the town?”
There was a wistful air in her voice as she replied.
“I . . . I had a sweetheart once; the blacksmith’s son, gone for a soldier these three years past, afightin’ in the wars. And I only inquired of your name just now as I thought you might be him returned. For, begging your pardon, sir, you look much as he did on the day he left—though however that could be I’m sure I do not know.”
“Indeed,” said the stranger, “and were the two of you to be wed?”
“Aye,” she answered bitterly, “but my folks had nowt and less to put up for the bride’s portion, and his father refused—said even a blacksmith’s boy could do better than some poor crofter’s whelp. We took it hard, sir, me and him, it near to broke my heart. He begged me to run off with him, and well I would’ve if only I’d been able. But in the end I could’na bring myself to go; not with my ma feelin’ poorly, and them five silly sisters o’ mine needing some’un to look after ‘em, nor my dear old pa with the farm to tend. So my handsome boy put his mark on the roll, claimed his thirty shillings-worth o’ bounty and marched away with the regiment. Oh sir! I wept for sorrow on that day.”
“And was he a comely one, this youth of yours?”
“Truly, m’lord! The most handsomest boy I ever did see. Tall and straight as an oak, with dark eyes as could make me melt on a day fair starved as this ‘un. His hair was black as a raven’s wing, and thick and wild as heather—how I loved to stroke it whenever he’d let me—”
“And what of his cock?” said the traveler. “Was that a pretty thing to stroke as well? Did it strike hard in that hot little forge between your legs ere it softened in the fire?”
“Sir!” she cried, “I am a maiden still!” But the stranger could see that her protest was half-hearted at best, for her blue eyes shone far too blithely, belying the feigned piety of her words. Wantonness had already cast its fleeting shadow upon her countenance, her cheeks flushed, less from the sting of shame than from the rising heat of a secret fire.
“Mercy, sweet Meg,” said he, “I meant naught by it. Yet so lovely a lass ought surely know something of the world.” Boldly then, the stranger touched her gloved hand. “Will you not tarry with me for an hour, that I might teach you?”
“Please sir! The day draws on and I must be agate.” Her voice quavered, though she did not take away her hand. “Pardon, m’lord, that is, I must needs be on my way ‘afore the storm come on so heavy that Old Hector here’ll be hard-put to set one foot in front o’ t’other.”
“Nay, bonny one, bide with me awhile, for I’m of a mind to help you in your troubles.”
“How do you mean, sir?”
“Here,” said he, tugging aside his cape to display a leathern pout, gravid with coin. “Twenty pounds lie fairly in this purse.”
The maiden gasped at the mention of the sum, eyes growing wide, as if she had never beheld such a sight before in her life.
“Seek no buyer in the town,” said the traveler, “for I’ll take all thy barley here and now.”
“Truly, sir?”
“Twenty pounds and a fairer bargain was never struck.” He dandled the purse in his palm till the gold within began to sing, “What say you, pretty Meg?”
He doffed a glove to offer her his hand. Cautiously, the girl did the same. Yet ere the bargain had been clasped, the stranger seized her tightly about the wrist and would not let her go.
“Twenty more shall purchase delight,” he whispered, “for it’s thine own fair person I most dearly desire. Twenty pounds for thy barley, and another score if thou would’st lie with me till daybreak on the morrow.”
“This I cannot—I would not—do, sir!” she cried. “Not if twenty pound should buy the globe! D’you think I’d so dishonor my kin, be they e’er so poor, for a doxy’s wage?”
“Why? Think of it, my pretty Meg. Consider all that twenty pounds could purchase. Surely, t’would suffice for dowr’; enough to see thee well-betrothed to some worthy freeholder’s son, a fine wedding with meat and ale for all thy kin, and bread to see ‘em o’er the winter, too. ‘Tis yours, I swear, every last crown and farthing, if only thou would’st stay with me tonight, lie with me with a right good will, and gang home in the morning, a wealthy woman. What say you, lovely lass?”
“You’ve not taken my meaning, sir,” said Meg. “Aye, the price you’ve named for the barley’s more than fair, better’n any bargain I might strike at market this morning, and if you truly be in earnest, I’d be a fool to turn up my nose at such an askin’.”
“Well then—”
“‘Tis my company you mean to have for cheap.”
“I would not offend thee, Meg.”
“Gold might ease offense,” she said. “Yet would you leave me rich and ruined?”
“Nay—” he began to protest.
I mean, sir, that twenty pound seems hardly fair cosiderin’ all the risk you’d have me take.”
“You are a shrewd and wily siren, I’ll be bound,” the stranger sighed impatiently. “Forty pounds, then.”
“One hundred pound,” the maid spoke up boldly now, “and not a double-Guinea less.”
“I ken now why your father sent you out to sell that barley in his stead. Are your sisters half so clever altogether? How like you fifty Guineas?”
“What am I then,” she sniffed, “some galty sow?” Ninety pound!”
“You have the advantage of me,” said the stranger, “and well you know it. Sixty Guineas!”
“Do you think to slight me, sir? Or do you take me for a fool? Eighty pound and five Guineas beside!”
“For that I ought to have a taste,” said he, “or, leastwise, a look at what I would purchase so dearly. Come! Lift your skirts for me, wench! Seventy pounds!”
“And now you take me for a common bawd? Eighty Guineas!”
“You are anything but common, fair nymph. Yet, still...seventy Guineas and no more!”
“Mayhap some other lad shall have my barley.” She tossed her head proudly. “Eighty Guineas, and no less!”
“Suppose we divide the difference?” The traveler shook his purse again. “What say you to five and seventy?”
Meg made no reply at once.
“Very well then,” he said, “five and seventy Guineas it is, and let there be an end to it.” The stranger stepped forward and kissed the maiden full upon her blushing lips, quickly, before she could name some other sum. “Perhaps another ten if you truly please me. What say you, Meg?”
“Done,” she replied, “though the Devil take me for an ass.”
“‘Tisn’t the devil’ll be taking that lovely arse o’ yours,” the stranger said, goosing her there with a playful swat. “Come, Meg, let’s tether the horses, for I’m impatient to see what my gold has bought me.”

* * *

They found a place to the lee of the gale among the barren trees within the circle of the copse, and there the horses were hobbled in amiable companionship close beside one another. The tiny hermitage, though long bereft of habitation, was stoutly built of good gray fieldstone, mortared once with mud and wattle, now petrified in winter’s deathly grasp. The eremite’s cell within was dry enough, though hardly wider than the span of a youngling’s outstretched arms. Meg set about building a fire in the tiny hearth—scarce more than a shallow niche set into the side of the wall—kindling a meager blaze of old thatch and ash twig, as the traveler spread his fur-lined cope upon the earthen floor. The robe was broad enough to stretch from one wall to the other, making a cozy bed on which the two of them might lie.
“Anon, sweet Meg!” He whispered low, and laid his hands upon her shoulders. “Show me all thy treasures!”
She turned from the fire to face him, whence it was she whose mouth began to water, for there before her stood a dashing youth with dark, flowing locks, strong and straight of limb, though seeming to grow taller still within that little room. An unruly whorl of coarse black hair peeked from beneath the linen tunic he wore for an undershirt, his chest rugged, broad, and tautly muscled. A ruddy brownish beard, well trimmed after the fashion of some gallant outlaw, grew thickly on his chin, the color setting off his twinkling nut-brown eyes—a pleasingly handsome visage withal.
Without a word, he took her in hand, and so pushed back her hood to uncover the crowning glory of her tresses—done up loosely in a  shimmering rope of rich spun gold, which seemed to illumine the narrow chamber like a hundred lambent candles. His curious fingers brushed her burning cheek, her strong-set mouth, the tender place beneath her ear, and soon, the knotted cowhide thong that held her cloak in place. She unclasped it for him with a simple flourish, giggling at his clumsiness even as she opened the breach. The homely roughspun beneath was warm, yet ne’er so warm nor half so inviting as that which lay within.
He caressed her bonny bosom—her breasts uncleaved and covered still within their woolen prison—not a little impatient to loosen the garment so that he might warm his hands against the fire of her untried flesh.
“Nay! Hold, good sir,” she chided playfully. “Would you taste the beer ‘afore it’s brewed?”
Boldly she grasped his stiffening cod, and gently did she squeeze, until the trunk sprang from the root to flower, adamant against her trembling hand. “Ah me!” she sighed as she fell to her knees, and so the clever lass unlaced his leathern breeches, eager to cherish the new-found toy within. Yet, bringing it forth, the girl at first seemed but to feign and feint, drawing it coyly towards her lips, only to bob her head away again, still coming closer with each teasing motion, till, weilding it like a pen, she traced a cunning map in the charmed space just beyond her pouted lips.
The stranger braced his hands against the narrow walls to either side, threw back his head, and mouthed a silent orison to gods unknown. And then, with soft endearing sighs, as if in answer to his prayer, Meg lightly kissed the crown; kissed it thrice ere drawing her lolling tongue along his length, laving it as kye their calflings in the spring. And thus her ardor, so long restrained, grew with each lingering stroke, till she was of a mind to swallow him whole, post and stones together.
“You are a wonder, Meg,” he sighed, “a pearl of great price, in truth!”
Still intent upon her task, the girl raised her eyes to fix him with a gaze of fulsome desire—and so the sight caused the youth to spend with a groaning shudder. Ahhhh!” he cried, pouring forth so copious a flood as soon o’erflowed his lover’s lips. Yet his pleasure was no greater than her own, for she gamely swallowed his salty porridge in a single greedy gulp, as e’re there played a catlike smile upon her milk-stained mouth.
“And now,” said he, his composure recovered, “unveil thyself to me! Be rid of all this tiresome attire. I’d see thee naked as Eve before Shame came into the world.”
Soon enough the habit fell about her feet, and soon enough she stood before him clad only in a humble shift of bride-white cambric, falling loose about her shapely shoulders, with naught but a simple drawstring to uphold her waning modesty. She stared back at him, as if in proud defiance to the last, slowly, slowly, letting the shift slip down across her blushing bosom. Her breasts were firm and fair, round and plump with swelling teats as straight and stiff as joiner’s pegs. He longed to take them between his teeth, yet not before he had beheld the curve of her waist, graceful as an hourglass, her haughty rump, so fine and pert, with nary a wen to cloud her creamy skin. And then, at last, the young man gazed upon the blooming swell of honey-hued thatch between her thighs, ripe for the harvest, glistening with the dew of wakening ardor.
His mouth agape in fervid wonder, the youth marveled at the miraculous perfection of her nakedness. Still he stood and silently he gazed, as if in meditation, till, so it seemed, eternity itself might hold its breath.
“Sir?” said Meg, breaking the spell at last.
“Upon thy back,” his voice was husky ere he bid the girl lie down. Then, reaching to the floor, he drew the feather from the brim of his capotain, so carelessly tossed aside in his earlier haste. “Behold!” he knelt before her, brushing her nipples ever so lightly, drawing the feather’s soft tip across her flesh. Down, he traced the ghostly roseline twixt her rolling breasts; down o’er the plain of her belly, and further still, thence to the verdent hummock below, there to seek the petals of her lovely maiden-flower, the juicy furrow of her lips.
“Oh sir!” Meg panted out her passion in a shallow gasp, caught between an awful dread and rapt anticipation. “Oh!” she moaned, arching her middle to meet the feather’s fleeting kiss. More slowly and more lightly still, the stranger turned it in his hand to draw it gently up again, until she wept in amorous agony, sighing with the all-consuming need of it.
“Take me!” she begged him. “Oh, take me, sir! Now, elsewise I’ll surely burn for the wanting!”
He made no reply; only bowed his head between her thighs, the better to devour. His tongue was a ravenous serpent, delving the moisty crevice of her cunny.
“Saints and angels!” she cried. “Is this heaven?”
“Bide awhile and see,” he murmured, drawing his nose up along the tight cranny of her folds until it came to rest against the pearled nub of flesh at the summit. He pressed it firmly, as if to try its readiness before he began to hum. The low rumble of the note sent gentle shivers through her loins at first, yet soon it echoed through the whole of her body like a choir of pealing bells.
And then, more wonderful than all that had come before, he forged a tune upon her cunt, a melody so eloquent and strange as might warm the heart and break it all at once. The tune rose along a graceful gamut, long and short notes ascending the string from re to re before it dropped down again, below whence it began. It was that falling note that moved her most mightily, as if the ground had given out beneath her feet. And so she trembled as he sang:

Cold and raw the north did blow
Bleak in the morning early . . .

She held her breath as, bravely, the tune rose up again:

All the fields lay covered in snow
Damned by winter, yearly . . .

The music entered her through the selfsame wards her lover might soon unlock. And when she thought she could bear the bliss of it no longer, the tune abruptly ceased, not on the expected note, but on the open string above, as if the spirit of a question had been left to float upon the air. The handsome stranger pulled himself up, beard sodden with the nectar of her sex, yet ever gazing warmly upon her. Bereft of his kisses, like that strange unfullfiled melody, abandoned to a sweet despair, the maiden moaned, and begged him presently to take her.
And most ready was she ere he did. thrusting his stout prod deep into her cunny with such eager force as took her breath away. Easily he moved within her, for, in truth, her joy was like unto a flood, her bartered virtue given without complaint, nor pain, nor blood, nor aught but bliss. And when it was done, she beamed. a new-made woman, well-pleased, swearing it was she who’d had the best of their bargain.
Thus happily they rolled together all that day and long into the night, swiving with right lusty cheer. Sometimes Meg would crouch on hands and knees before him, so he might play the stallion to her mare. Other times, the youth might pantomime a jockey, bestriding her back, her golden hair spread out like a silken saddle cloth as he made sport upon it, harrowing her tresses with the horn of his cock, his ticklish cod, well satisfied, in tow. And more than once, the lass took on the man’s part, mounting him most wantonly to churn his adamant prod until he groaned and roared, his roving hands reaching about to fondle her bouncing rump, or up again to palm her jostling orbs.
Later, as the dark of night came on, they lay snugly together, their naked bodies swaddled tightly in the languorous warmth of his cape. He gathered her easily to himself, his brawny chest against her smooth back, his prowess buried deep within the labyrinth of her folds. Yet a little while before the dawn, she turned about to face him, rousing him from slumber with a lingering kiss, full as much of questioning as unspoken ardor.
“‘Tis time I be on my way, sir,” she whispered. “Yet ‘afore I go, mayhap we might...once more again...if only for remembrance’ sake?”
“Who’s had their will with whom tonight?” he laughed, rolling the girl onto her back.
“One thing, only m’lord?” She looked up at him plaintively. “Since now you’ve had your sport with me, mayhap we’ve gotten a young kid together. I thank ye most kindly for the gold, though I’ve little doubt you’ll be gone ere nine month end.”
“What would you have of me, Meg?” He spoke not unkindly.
“Please, m’lord, yester morn you said you’d answer my question ere the time be ripe. So now I’m askin’, for the sake of the bairn, will you not tell to me your name? Else, what’ll the poor thing do for a father?”
“Very well, then, if you would truly know, my comely Meg.” He kissed her up and down as he spoke, first upon one ear and then the other, her jaw, her neck, the bewitching roundel of flesh where throat meets collarbone, slowly moving from breast to breast, and the soft lips below and above, by which time the girl had begun to moan like a storied princess under some dark enchanter’s spell.
“William, men most oft’ have called me,” said he, “be it one way or another. A few would brand me outlaw and dub me Willan the Wanderer, Billy the Rover Boy or Dark-Eyed Bill the Pirate, for in truth, I have no home. In my journeys, I’ve known many women, and they, too, have their names for me. There’s some as call me Charming Billy and pine for my return; others Sweet William, or sometimes Handsome Will. And there are learned men in the king’s high court who’ve known me as Erwilian. I’ve traveled far and wide throughout this land and many lands beyond the sea beside, and everywhere I’m called by a different name, each one as soon forgotten as the last when e’er I take my leave. Yet know, darling Meg, that I would choose thee for my queen, but for the curse that follows me wheresoever I go.”
“And what of me?” A tear fell from her lovely eye. “Shall I forget thee, too? Oh my heart! ‘Tis too cruel a thing to bear!”
“Nay, sweet love.” He dried her bonny cheek. “Methinks you’ll remember me well like as not, so long as you recall the song I’ve left with you tonight.”
“That I can surely do, m’lord!” Meg smiled brightly as she took him to herself, guiding him in with an easy grace. And as he moved within her ever so gently, the two of them began to sing.

# # #


The text of the Scottish ballad The Famer’s Daughter (or Cold and Raw as it is most commonly known from its opening line) first appeared in print in the 1651 edition of Tom D’Urfey’s Pills to Purge Melancholy, set to the popular fiddle tune known as Stingo—or later, simply Barley Oil (due, no doubt, to its inextricable association with the words of the ballad). The great English composer Henry Purcell used this melody in the sixth movement of his 1692 birthday ode for Queen Mary, Love’s Goddess Sure Was Blind  (May her bless’d example chase...) as the ballad was a particular favorite of the queen’s (reportedly much to Purcell’s great chagrin). The tune was later employed with a new set of words by John Gay in The Beggar’s Opera (1726) (Act I, scene IV: If any wench Venus’ girdle wear . . . (Air III)) The original ballad is also sometimes known as The Girl Who Sold Her Barley. [To hear the song, click here, and, for an instrumental version, here.]

In D’Urfey’s 1651 telling of the tale, a traveler comes upon a lovely farmer’s daughter on her way to the next market town in order to sell a load of barley. The stranger, who also narrates the tale, wastes no time in propositioning the young maiden:

In this purse, sweet soul, says I
Twenty pounds lie fairly.
Seek no further one to buy
For I’ll take all thy barley.
Twenty more shall purchase delight,
Thy person I love so dearly
If thou would’st stay with me all night
And gang home in the morning early.

The girl protests, scandalized less by the stranger’s forwardness than his treating her like a common bawd:

If twenty pounds should buy the globe
This I would not do, sir;
Nor were my kin as poor as Job
I’d never raise ‘em so, sir . . .

At this point her argument assumes a more practical tone:

For if tonight I prove your friend
We’d get a young kid together,
And you’d be gone ere nine-month end,
And what should I do for a father?

The stranger—a clumsy seducer at best—is forced to admit that he is a married man of “fifteen years and longer”:

Or else I’d choose thee for my queen
And tie the knot much stronger.

The girl admonishes him to return home to his wife, and goes on her way.

So far, so dull. The ballad is less rustic sex romp than roundhead morality play. The traveler is portrayed as a faithless degenerate, while the upright farmer’s daughter is a high-horse-riding scold. What little real titilation there is derives from the stranger’s propositioning of the supposedly sheltered, innocent country lass, though, in the end, propriety is maintained, and Commonwealth-era sensibility bruised but mostly unoffended. Thus, the story’s prurient potential is left almost completely unmined, though clearly ripe with all sorts of juicy openings for 21st-century eroticists to explore.

The ballad provides the basic outline for the beginning of my story. I have freely embellished and expanded the narrative, inventing details such as the abandoned hermitage and the pheasant feather, as well as new plot points including the scene where the girl haggles with the traveler over the price of her virtue, all adding up to what I hope will be a sufficiently steamy denouement. I have also slipped in a few references and added the odd detail, borrowed from other folk songs of the broader period including Seventeen Come Sunday, Charming Billy, The Dark-Eyed Sailor, Just As the Sun Was Rising, Early in the Springtime, and Erwilian The Royal Forester.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Best Short Fiction 2015-2017

A new feature this year, a natural outgrowth of the annual Best-Of lists, the Short-Fiction Honor Roll is a recognition of some (though by no means all) of the finest achievements in the not-as-easy-as-it-looks craft of the erotic short story. While these may be tough times for the genre in general (see my introduction to the Best of 2017 here), erotica remains one of the few places left where short-form fiction continues not only to survive, but flourish. 

I've read hundreds of short stories in the six years since starting EftBB, and it has occurred to me that a lot of very fine stories often get lost in the voluminous shuffle of anthologies--great as many of those collections can be. Too often, customer reviews focus on a few stories by the reviewers' favorite authors (names they recognize) at the expense of work by dozens of talented writers who deserve as much if not more notice. 

It's extremely rare to run across a collection in which every story is a masterpiece, though it does happen  on occasion (check out Rose Caraway's marvelous Libidinous Zombie from 2015 for example, probably the finest quality-over-quantity anthology compiled in the last decade). But, let's be honest, there are a lot of anthologies which simply aren't very good overall. Too much emphasis on variety can kill just as surely as too narrow a focus on a single subgenre or kink. In either case, a discriminating reader may be lucky to find one or two decent stories in a collection of otherwise mediocre material. But what's to become of those diamonds in the rough? It's been said of fine handmade cigars (of which I am something of an aficionado) that "the best one you ever smoked can be sitting in the same box right next to the worst one you ever smoked..." I may not cherish the box itself, but I surely remember the pleasure I got from that one extraordinary smoke...  

And so it is with the twenty-eight short masterpieces listed below. These are the stories that have stayed with me, moved me, haunted me, made me feel, and think, and laugh, and say "Damn! That was good!" even years after I finished reading. 

Long live the short story and the authors and readers who love them! (TAS)

Erotica for the Big Brain's Short Fiction Honor Roll (2015-2017)

The Pier by Night (Janine Ashbless) (Sinful Pleasures (ed. Lisa Jenkins))
The Black Orchid (Jo Henry Wolf) (Sinful Pleasures)
Lazy Sunday (Tony Flyer) (Sinful Pleasures)
Aljanar Ruwa (J.S. Emuakpor) (Wanderlust  (ed. Megan Lewis))
Zero Gravity (Valerie Alexander) (Hotel (ed. Megan Lewis))
Grey Bar Motel (Arden Ellis) (Hotel)
Odd Man (Sonni de Soto) (For the Men and the Women Who Love Them (ed. Rose Caraway))
Winning Big (Charlie Powell) (For the Men)
Enhanced (T.J. Christian) (For the Men)
Sanctum (Dee Maselle) (Love and Lust in Space (ed. Jennifer Denys))
Behrouz Gets Lucky (Avery Cassell) (Best Lesbian Erotica 2015 (ed. Laura Antoniou))
Arachne (Catherine Lundoff) (BLE 2015)
Kiss of the Rain Queen (Fiona Zedde) (BLE 2015)
Michael’s Moment (Kate Ellink) (Tonight She’s Yours (ed. Rose Caraway))
The Miller's Daughter (Michael M. Jones) (Witches, Princesses, and Women at Arms (ed. Sacchi Green))
Wood Witch (M. Bird) (Witches, Princesses...)
Penthouse 31 (Brey Willows)  (Witches, Princesses...)
Toads, Diamonds, and the Occasional Pearl (Emily L. Byrne) (Witches, Princesses...)
Jericho (Megan Arkenberg) (Thrones of Desire (ed. Mitzi Szereto)
At the Sorcerer's Command (Kim Knox) (Thrones of Desire)
Flesh and Stone (Sacchi Green) (Thrones of Desire)
The Last Sacrifice (Zander Vyne) (Thrones of Desire)
Canvas (Malin James) (Sexy Librarian’s Dirty 30 Vol. 2 (ed. Rose Caraway))
Sweet Hel Below (Janine Ashbless) (Dirty 30 Vol. 2)
Thunderclap (Sommer Marsden) (Dirty 30 Vol. 2)
Torrid Zone (Elliot Delocke) (Dirty 30 Vol. 2)
Thief  (Michael Lewis) (Dirty 30 Vol. 2)
Life Drawing 101 (Brantwijn Serrah) (Dirty 30 Vol. 2)

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Best of 2017

Erotica for the Big Brain's Best of 2017
Roadhouse Blues  (Malin James)
Wanderlust  (ed. Megan Lewis)
In Bonds of the Earth  (Janine Ashbless)
Thrones of Desire  (ed. Mitzi Szereto)
Named and Shamed  (Janine Ashbless)
Viking Thunder  (Emmanuelle de Maupasant)

Times are getting tough for erotica and, especially, for those authors of erotica who take their work seriously and care deeply about their art. 2017 has seen a snowballing movement towards censorship and outright suppression from the big publishing platforms, not to mention the "usual suspects" of resurgent cultural puritanism, the reactionary forces of patriarchy, and the sex-negative attitudes of  people on the left as well as on the right. One might be forgiven for believing that we are galloping headlong into a New Dark Age--or, indeed, that such a time has already overtaken us. It is heartening, therefore, to note the achievements of some very fine, courageous, visionary, and brilliant authors, great practitioners of the writer's craft and tellers of damn fine stories, who still insist on holding up a light against this gathering gloom. Thank you for giving us hope. Thank you for giving so much more than a cynical fuck. Thank you for sharing your vision through your words. Thank you for turning us on.  (TAS)

(NOTE: a new feature on EftBB, look for 'Best of Short Fiction (2015-2017) to be posted tomorrow, December 18.) 

BEST OF 2017

Come, Let Us Sing Anyway

Leone Ross is a writer who thinks deeply about her craft. Beyond mere nuts and bolts—the practical minutiae of syntax and punctuation—she grasps the workings of prose as few other writers do, at an elemental, sub-atomic level, her words like charged particles, whirling and spinning in concert to build up language of extraordinary power and beauty.

Ross never wastes a word. Her narrative style is objective, concise, economical yet seldom spare; rich and colorful yet never gaudy or effusive, animated by the lilting cadences of Jamaican patois, the word-music of the mother island, that home where her characters’ hearts invariably turn in spite of time or distance. 

Ross gives us melancholy, homesick stories of the Jamaican diaspora in Britain (Love Silk Food, The Mullerian Expanse), unexpected flashes of humor in the midst of conflict and despair (President Daisy, Velvet Man), the sweet-sour poignancy of imperfect love (The Woman Who Lived in a Restaurant, Art, For Fuck’s Sake), tragedy and heartbreak (Minty Minty, Mudboy), and existential horror with a knowing nod to island folklore and ghost stories (Roll It).

This is marvelous storytelling by any standard. The author artfully seduces the reader, and the reader is more than happy to let themself be seduced. The twenty-three short stories in Come, Let Us Sing Anyway offer a sumptuous magical realism, the product of a frenetic and fertile imagination squarely rooted in the rich soil of cultural identity, the keen observation of gesture and motive refracted through a profoundly empathetic lens.

It would be difficult—if not impossible—to understate the excellence of this collection. As a reader, hungry for enlightenment, I was dazzled.  As a writer with an abiding interest in the craft, I came away impressed, inspired, and deeply humbled. 

Roadhouse Blues

Malin James had me from the first line of Skins, second of the eleven good, gritty, honest, bittersweet and beautifully-written short stories in Roadhouse Blues:

Cassie was born ten miles from the middle of nowhere in a town called Styx, if you can fucking believe it…

That line is keynote and key for this collection. All these stories are set emotionally, if not physically, in the same small place somewhere deep in the wilderness of the American psyche. Styx could be practically anywhere, and this, I think, is intentional on the author’s part. There is a sense of near-mythic wide-openness about the place, like the west Texas of Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show, or the windswept plains of the lower Midwest, an arch nonspecificity invoking universality:  

A curtain dropped over her mind as Cassie walked downstage. She wasn’t in the theater any more. She was in the ugly brown heart of the dust bowl. She could taste it like a film in her mouth…

We’ve seen these box stores, garages, and greasy spoons, strip malls, strip clubs, factories, bars, and bedrooms a hundred times before, wandered through the dusty streets of the same stifling chicken-fried towns where everybody makes it their business to know yours, yet are utterly incurious where the secret pain of the heart is concerned. Where same-sex attraction is still the ultimate scandal, and tenderness more taboo than rage.

James shows us what’s really going on behind those closed doors and drawn drapes, inside her character’s heads. She sets her scenes with a few well-chosen details to conjure atmosphere, but it is the characters’ emotional landscape that interests her and us, that sense of being lost in the only place you’ve ever known, of fleeing the past even as you fear the future, of being trapped in a world where you are free only so long as you don’t stand out too much…  

Leigh imagined her ugly underwear, her ugly comforting armor, and reminded herself to breathe. Fumbling fingers on blue cotton hearts, pink Sundays worn on Mondays, lying so still, mismatched days of the week…

Reminiscent of working-class portraitists like Richard Russo or Stephen King at their keenly-observant best, James’ characters are refreshingly real, down-to-earth, mostly blue collar, sometimes not quite as articulate as they’d like to be. The soundtrack of their lives is more often rockabilly than pure country western, but we recognize a lot of the same themes; infidelity, loneliness, nostalgia, regret, and desire. So much desire. An auto mechanic carries on a life-long affair with his boss, who also happens to be his sister-in-law. His wife’s longing for a baby ultimately leads her to desperate measures. Later, the new mother contemplates the passions that have been awakened within her. Another woman sets out to exact revenge on a faithless lover, only to have the tables turned, when her anger is sublimed into pure lust. The owner of the local diner comes out of the closet, if only for one glorious night. The lover of a fallen soldier is consoled by the soldier’s widow. A waitress's encounter with a creepy late-night patron triggers memories of being young and crazy-in-love, but also the unhinged abuse that followed when the thrill was gone.  A sad-eyed stripper comforts a dying man who appears like the ghost of her beloved father. The bartender at the strip club meets the woman who shares the passions he cannot confess.  Life goes on, little changes, but dreaming makes it bearable.

Wanderlust: A Literary Erotica Anthology

I think it was Ernest Hemingway who said that short story writers are mostly frustrated poets. I can’t recall if Hemingway meant this as a good thing or not, but it is certainly easy to see his point after exploring editor Megan Lewis’ Wanderlust, a collection of thirteen short stories in which literary erotic prose is often taken to its lyrical limits—and that definitely is a good thing.

As the title suggests, this collection is centered around themes of travel, or that restless, deeply human urge to be ever someplace else, very much akin to the insatiable hunger for sex that drives so many from moment to moment if not from place to place. These are mostly stories about brief encounters as in Zac Blue’s The Cruelty of Eden, set in Paris; T.C. Hill’s melancholy Soft, Rough wherein a lonely house sitter ponders her past as she entertains her lover; or Alexis Quinton’s Red Earth, in which a restless woman from Australia’s Gold Coast finds peace of a sort as a barmaid in an isolated outback settlement. In Terri Pray’s Colors, a vampiric drifter meets his soulmate in a roadside diner—or is she merely his latest meal? Arden Ellis’ f/f Nighthawk finds a biker breaking down along a lonely stretch of the Al-Can highway, picked up by an adventurous runaway—this acutely-observed story features engaging characterizations and admirably realistic dialogue. In Jack Swift’s m/m American Leather, a punk rocker “initiates” one of his groupies in the changing room of a BDSM leather shop.

Other stories tell of longer-term relationships: in Arden Ellis’ poignant Scheherazade two women travel to a distant planet on a journey of a thousand years, periodically coming out of suspended animation to maintain their ship and keep each other company. In Zac Blue’s haunting, atmospheric Slipping Through the Splinters a restless visitor from another world discovers the complications of love in human form. Val Prozorova’s clever Urgent Train Message: Immediate Delivery is a heartbreaking and exultant story of forbidden m/m love in late-Victorian Britain; while in Riever Scott’s deliciously written Tawaif, a British woman recounts her affair with a young native co-worker in Mumbai, looking back in regret on how things ended.

The stories coming closest to poetry here are Parker Marlo’s Zephyr, nothing less than a rondeau in prose recalling a steamy encounter on a west-bound passenger train, and J.S. Emuakpor’s ravishingly beautiful Aljanar Ruwa in which the water nymph of the title is reunited with her lover, the great river god. Emuakpor’s language flows with the limpid grace of the very waters they describe—it’s simply gorgeous writing, and not to be missed!  

With its superb writing, diverse, fascinating themes, and consistently scintillating eroticism, Wanderlust is an easy choice for inclusion on this year's Best-Of list.

In Bonds of the Earth

Janine Ashbless pushes all the right buttons in this exciting follow-up to 2015’s Cover Him With Darkness. I described that first entry in the series as “an intense, engaging, grandly imagined, intelligent, entertainingly well-paced and very—very—sexy story; erotic romance writ large.” I also noted that Cover Him With Darkness “ends with a cliffhanger worthy of Lord of the Rings, and leaves us breathless for more…” It’s a pleasure, then, to report that
In Bonds of the Earth is everything fans have been waiting for, taking all the elements that made the first book memorable, artfully supercharging them in a sweeping, action-packed, powerfully erotic story that dazzles with its imaginative employment of real-life settings, elements of ancient lore and legend, and fast-paced contemporary thrillers.

The story is told in first person from the viewpoint of Milja, somewhat wiser now after having freed fallen angel Azazel from bondage, she is doubtful about her lover’s plan to release his “brothers” from their prisons in order to mount a new assault on the forces of heaven. His search leads them to the labyrinth of ancient monolithic rock-cut churches of Lalibela in Ethiopia, where the priests, wielding the rusted relics of saints, guard a secret that humankind must never know. (No spoilers here, but let’s just say that the mid-story climax—and Ashbless’ way of relating it—is exciting as hell!)

The romantic leads are realistically imperfect here; Milja is smart and beautiful, but also still rather na├»ve, not always wise in the ways of human—or angelic—behavior, and still vulnerable where the heart—not to mention her hair-trigger erogenous zones—are concerned. She describes Azazel, for all his physical allure, as not very bright, a musclebound creature who lives in the here and now without much thought for consequence or the feelings of others, least of all Milja’s. 

I was—as ever—impressed by Ashbless’ ability to set her tale within a broad historical and cultural context without resorting to obvious “data dumps” or dry narrative digressions; the fascinating history of Lalibela is woven so subtly into the fabric of the story, as to seem perfectly of a piece with the unfolding adventure. The author’s erudition shines through, illuminating the story without ever casting shade on the reader. Milja’s informal conversational style does not clash with her obvious intelligence, but brings readers comfortably along, never making them feel patronized or inadequate.

This entry in the series closes with a shattering cliffhanger that will have readers on the edge of their seats, hearts pounding in their throats, and practically howling in half-fulfilled frustration! I felt afterwards as if I’d enjoyed an extraordinary meal—or had really great sex—richly fed to be sure, yet craving still more, able only to dream of “next time.” 

[The third book in the series, The Prison of the Angels, is already available: look for a review early next year.]

Witches, Princesses, and Women at Arms

An absolute delight! The thirteen f/f stories in this treasurable Sacchi Green-edited anthology are, without exception, nothing short of superb. One is impressed not only by the consistent high quality of the writing, but dazzled by the sheer breadth of imagination here on display, and, time and time again, utterly astonished by the very realistic depths of these engaging fantasy characters.

There’s more than enough variation in mood and style to avoid the sort of creeping disaffection one too often experiences with overly ambitious specialty collections. On the other hand, one detects a strong but sympathetic editorial hand quietly at work throughout, keeping everything taut and focused. Green has arranged the stories to achieve and maintain maximum interest.

If this collection can be said to have a unifying theme, it might best be summed up as “love overcomes all”. Curiosity gets the better of suspicion, understanding makes the heart grow fonder, the ice-melting fire of lust leads to an endless springtime of delight, the call of duty ultimately defers to the call of the blood, happily for now, if not always happily ever after. (I would not characterize any of these stories as ‘romance’ per se.)

A stunning achievement overall! 

Thrones of Desire

This superb collection makes a near-perfect companion to Witches, Princesses, and Women at Arms. But where that collection maintains a laser-like focus on f/f narratives, the fourteen stories in Mitzi Szereto’s Thrones of Desire offer readers a sumptuous pan-sexual fantasy smorgasbord with something to entice all tastes. 

There are so many fine stories here, it’s hard to pick a favorite. The writing is first-rate throughout, and the range of imagination, impressive. 

Named and Shamed 

Since its initial publication in 2012, Janine Ashbless’ Named and Shamed has attained the status of a modern erotic classic. It is apropos to cite the title for this year's Best-Of list, as the author has recently re-issued the book in a new independent e-book edition. Named and Shamed is a relentless, orgiastic tour de force, a groaning board of pansexual delight unencumbered by the sort of repetition or slacking off in intensity that dooms so many full-length erotic novels. Drawing broad inspiration from Gaelic folklore and pagan myth, the story begins with the theft of a priceless imaginary manuscript, the unexpurgated first draft of Christina Rossetti’s The Goblin Market, obtained through a cynical act of seduction. In order to return the manuscript without drawing the bloody ire of its owner, Tansy, the reluctant heroine, must seek out the help of a “thing that looks like a man, but wasn’t,” one of the shadowy preternatural entities collectively known as Them There. Of course, the demon’s assistance comes with a sexy price, seemingly pleasant to pay, before its sinister after-effects become apparent. Tansy becomes insatiable, and none too picky about her partners along the way to finding an antidote to her raging nymphomania.  Sex of practically every variety and permutation is described in exuberant detail, whether with a group of horny auto mechanics in a greasy garage, or with just about every mythical creature populating the dark corners of the human imagination—a scene with a randy troll under a bridge is particularly memorable.

Viking Thunder

Emmanuelle de Maupassant’s Viking Thunder is an exquisite piece of writing by any standard, imaginative historical fiction at its finest, and one of the sexiest tales I’ve had the pleasure to read in—ever. Told from the point of view of Elswyth, a young Anglo-Saxon woman, promptly made a widow when a band of Northmen raid her village, this is a clash-of-cultures story enlivened by lots of deliciously lurid action, pillage, fire, and, yes, rape. Elswyth, not ungrateful to be rid of her feckless husband, quickly catches the eye of the Viking leader, Eirik, and is befriended by the shield maiden Helka, Eirik’s sister who functions as interpreter, cultural go-between and a counterbalance of quiet reason to her brother’s fiercely impulsive nature. Yet, more than mere escapist adventure, Viking Thunder has its thoughtful moments, too, a bit of comparative theology and myth, reflection on love, fate and destiny, cheek by jowl with unapologetically explicit descriptions of sex, heady as the sweetest mead. First in a yet another series from the remarkably prolific Emmanuelle de Maupassant, I, for one, can hardly wait for more.