With my next column, I’ll be continuing my series on the use of the senses in erotica. But for the time being, I want to talk about something dear to my heart — the line between erotic horror and dark erotica — or, to put a broader spin on the latter, science fiction, fantasy and horror (SF/F/H) erotica.
I consider “dark erotica” to be fiction where the “dark” element exists in service of the erotic element, and “SF/F/H erotica” to be a broader category where the unusual or unreal element is not necessarily dark or scary — just paranormal. “Erotic horror,” on the other hand, puts the erotic element in the service of fear — in a sense, just the opposite.
Writing one or the other is a matter of personal taste, attitude, talent and strengths. In this week’s column on science fiction, fantasy and horror writing over at The Night Bazaar, I talk about the aversion I once felt to writing action scenes. In writing fantasy and horror, I thought of myself as someone who invented complicated paranormal universes, not slam-dunk punch-in-the-face action. (I’m not sure why I thought that…it seems absurd in retrospect).
Here’s something I wrote at The Night Bazaar:
[T]he more I write, the less my strengths matter and the more my weaknesses do. That’s because writing a lot of fiction puts me face-to-face with every possible roadblock in my creative process, and every roadblock is a potential “debunking” of my strengths. It doesn’t matter how great I can write X type of scene, if Y type of scene keeps me from ever finishing my novel. As a result, all that my strengths do is allow me to get past the weaknesses, or manage them effectively. That’s great news, yeah, but if I take the time to celebrate my strengths, it only slows me down.
I think that’s important in considering what makes something dark erotica or erotic horror — as opposed to just horror with erotic elements.
Personally, I have a much easier time writing erotica than writing SF/F/H; it’s much less of a struggle to find what I want to say. All of my SF/F/H has a message; the message varies from work to work, but I have to know it before I can figure out which of my strengths apply to that particular story or novel.
With erotica, on the other hand I already know the message: sex is hot. There may be implications to that — especially in a BDSM or D/s piece — and there may be man complex subthemes to erotica. But ultimately it’s about the characters feeling pleasure, as concretely as a pulp action story would be about the characters having adventures.
That makes the composition a hell of a lot simpler, because I can skip the complex soul-searching that comes when I write about fear of the unknown, about the collapse of society, about the apocalypse, without the anchoring theme of “basically we’re going to enjoy this.” All those things tangle up my emotions when I’m writing non-erotic SF/F/H. Erotic action is a kind of storytelling solace to me, because it’s so straightforward.
So what do I have to say about explicitly and intentionally erotic science fiction, fantasy, and horror? I’m talking about works where the erotic elements have a clear intent: to turn the reader on — while, at the same time, the science fiction, fantasy or horror elements are fully realized. This is the Holy Grail for many readers I know, who love kinky fiction but also read a lot of SF and fantasy.
One of the most common places the crossover of paranormal elements and erotica can be seen in the erotic marketplace is with vampire fiction — where vampirism is in many ways a stand-in for power exchange or for a surrender to the carnal, bestial elements of one’s nature, or to the unknown or to risk and danger. A similar connection can be seen in erotic fiction about werewolves, and (far less commonly) about ghosts, without the bestial element but with a more strongly developed sense of risk.
To me, what makes something SF/F/H erotica or dark erotica, as opposed to simply science fiction, fantasy or horror with sexual elements, is that that the fantastic or paranormal element has to be deeply connected to the erotic element.
Here’s an example of fantastic or paranormal erotica. In my story The Spiritualist (which I wrote as N.T. Morley), the main character Dr. Carny Keye is obsessed with exploring “union” with the denizens of the afterlife — not to put too fine a point on it, she wants to fuck ghosts. That’s not just because it’s a turn-on, but because it represents something beyond the world of the living, and sex is the method she uses to get there. It’s not quite horror; rather, the horror elements (ghosts) are used in the service of the turn-on, but within the story, the sex is used as a way of establishing connection with the ghosts. It’s a daisy chain. Most of the story is erotic action, but the “reason” for the sex is identical to, or maybe a mirror-image of, the “reason” for the ghosts. The ultimate message may not be simply “sex is hot,” but at the very least it’s “sex is a force for positive transformation.” Whatever other messages a reader takes away from “The Spiritualist,” this positivity is what makes it dark erotica in my mind, rather than erotic horror.
But because of the element of danger or jeopardy that exists in most science fiction or fantasy, and definitely in most horror, it’s a fine line between erotica and not-erotica. Therefore, even my description of dark erotica as being something where the erotic element is integral to the fantastic element doesn’t quite hold true — because that’s true, I believe, of good erotic horror as well.
Here’s another example. This one is of a story that, to my mind, is not erotica, despite having many sensual elements that are integral to the horror.
My zombie story “The Sound of Weeping” (this one written under my own name) is about internalized homophobia. In it, the zombies represent the homosexual cravings that the main character feels. He wants to be “eaten alive,” and through some (deliberately ambiguous) force of nature, his suppressed desire overcomes the barrier between life and death — resulting in (you guessed it!) a zombie attack. There are numerous sensual elements in the story, but it’s not “erotica.” Why? Because the intention is not to turn you on. That isn’t to say it won’t, but only in service of making another point. The ultimate message is not “sex is hot,” and it’s not “sex is a positive force for transformation.” It’s “sex is dangerous,” and maybe to make it more complicated: “Denying sexual desire creates explosive and hazardous emotional brokenness.” The story is about the main character’s internalized homophobia not being conquered, but indulged until it destroys him, and others around him. The theme is explored in the context of external homophobia in the story’s sequel, “Veggie Mountain,” which I don’t believe anybody could credibly call “erotica,” even though it also deals with sexuality. It’s unquestionably horror.
You might say my view is carried to the extreme in my novel The Panama Laugh, where the action inside a San Francisco porn studio is described in almost oblique terms, because the commercial sex itself is largely irrelevant to the main action of the story, even though the porn studio (which is also the home of a Wikileaks-style social activist network) is a central element. The novel is laced with throwaway lines that allude to the freakish and titillating elements within the porn studio, but there’s no narrative reason to linger on them. Whereas “Veggie Mountain” could maybe be called “erotic horror,” I don’t think anyone in their right mind would go so far as to apply that label to The Panama Laugh, however central to the action its fictitious porn company is.
Have I really established where the line gets drawn? Not by a longshot. The way I see it, the “supergenres” of SF/F/H and erotica overlap, in much the same way that the genres of SF, fantasy, and horror overlap, or the genres of crime and horror overlap, or the genres of BDSM erotica and D/s erotica overlap. Therefore, of course the subgenres of dark erotica and erotic horror overlap. Oftentimes the elements are integral to each other, and oftentimes teasing them out from each other is incredibly difficult, if not impossible.
To my way of thinking, that’s when the works get really interesting, because they challenge our perceptions. Whether the central message is “sex is hot” or “sex is dangerous,” or something far more complicated, there are endless shades of grey in between every perception of sexuality. That’s what makes writing every flavor of erotic fiction — from sex-positive erotica to erotic horror — such a pleasure for me.