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A glimpse into the world of erotic horror

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Nov 1, 2018, 6:00 PM EDT

“Pleasure was pain there, and vice versa. And he knew it well enough to call it home.” (Clive Barker, The Hellbound Heart)

In psychoanalytic circles, the term "erotic horror" is used to describe what Ivri Kumin called "erotic transference as a source of resistance in patients," with a heavy focus on the notion that such erotic relationships are rooted in oedipal urges. Here, the horror element is one of mental perversity, not creative exploration. In the literary world, erotic horror is a different kind of personal journey, and one that opens many doors beyond conventionally accepted notions of both fear and sex.

Great pop culture is inherently transgressive, and that's a phenomenon that becomes all the more potent when it is focused on the sexual desires of women and non-binary people. Fiction that steadfastly refuses to conform to patriarchal standards or archaic understandings of what is "normal" is a means for readers and writers alike to find liberation beyond our social norms. In her paper "Women's Horror as Erotic Transgression," Gina Wisker summarizes erotic horror's hook for women:

"Desire, it seems to argue, does not have to be linked to sin and duty. Philosophically, and then actually, much contemporary women's horror denies the destructive polarities of male/female, good/bad, passive/active and life/death. This it does by refusing to configure women as victims, hags or femmes fatales, and celebrating women's sexual energies in both lesbian and heterosexual relationships, breaking taboos and rewarding this conventionally assessed transgression."

The worlds of romance, sci-fi, and fantasy have always melded together and interacted in striking ways. We dedicate a lot of our time on this site to SFF romances and the weird sexiness of genre icons, from Thanos to Venom to basically every romantic hero ever created by Guillermo del Toro. A huge chunk of the paranormal romance genre relies on flirtations with the monstrous and their inherent allure, be it vampires, werewolves or creatures much darker. Erotic horror is a natural extension of that category, but its intents are far more explicit. This is a genre that wants to make you uncomfortable in every way possible because it’s through that discomfort that we discover ourselves.

Erotic horror can take form in many ways. If you’ve ever browsed Archive of Our Own and seen fanfic of your favorite pair labeled with "vore" or "tentacle porn," then you’ve encountered erotic horror. Authors like Angela Carter and Anne Rice are frequently categorized as such for the ways their works dissect the desires and ambiguities of classic tales and their sexual subtext. You’ve probably browsed Amazon’s Kindle selection and seen those dinosaur porn e-books that became a minor craze a few years ago, but didn’t stop to think about how or why such a thing even existed beyond the parodic thrill of it.

A quick search for "erotic horror" on Amazon will lead you to a wide selection of titles that cover a wide array of themes and kinks. Most are self-published but there are also books by acclaimed authors like Clive Barker, Neil Gaiman, and Tanith Lee. There are even a few editions of Dracula under this label. Yet typically, erotic horror, both in literature and film, is pegged as something much cheaper and seedier. The name evokes half-remembered thoughts of late-night B-movies on Cinemax or self-published books assumedly made by and for men. Like the traditional horror genre itself, erotic horror is too often written off as something women aren’t interested in, and that their place in those stories is something unsavory. But for many women and non-binary readers and writers, the genre offers something much richer.

Writer Marianne Kirby explains her love for the genre: “I write erotic horror because it is such a natural pairing — and because I love horror in general. I think the physiological responses to fear and arousal go so well together, so hand in hand. It's fun to explore that without actually being in harm's way. I was in conversation with another horror author at a book festival on Wednesday and we kept coming back to how people are so fascinated by situations that require cannibalism (cannibalism comes up more than you might think!) and I think some of that comes from wanting to feel those extreme emotions by proxy and maybe emotionally work out what we would do in any given situation. But I think part of the appeal of erotic horror goes beyond that, particularly during this cultural/political moment when so many of us are overwhelmed with anxiety and dread just walking around or, like, opening Twitter!"

Erotic horror isn’t just a frequently maligned genre, it’s one that frequently faces the all too real threat of censorship. In 2013, Amazon started removing a large number of self-published erotic novels from their Kindle service. This came after the former tech reporting website The Kernel wrote a story titled "An Epidemic of Filth," attacking the site's hosting of books that featured "rape fantasies, incest porn and graphic descriptions of bestiality and child abuse." A barrage of negative headlines from more reputable organizations like the BBC and the Guardian followed. British chain WH Smith even shut down its website entirely and released a statement saying they would reopen "once all self-published eBooks have been removed and we are totally sure that there are no offending titles available."

Erotic horror and monster erotica suffered heavily with this panic, and as noted by The Digital Reader blog, "they are now deleting not just the questionable erotica but are also removing any ebooks that might even hint at violating cultural norms." The issue raised questions not only of censorship but of how societal limitations and lack of understanding could easily lead to misguided panic. Many readers and authors wondered where the line would be drawn: If your kink is not my kink then why is my kink the one being actively punished by massive corporations and the free press? These sharp divides are frequently exposed through fandom too: There’s always that trope that’s whispered about or scorned by readers, even when it’s appropriately tagged and clearly not written with them in mind.

Jessica Mason, a writer and contributor to The Mary Sue, digs into one of the core elements of the genre that appeals to readers and writers alike. "I think erotic horror and fanfic are both heavily interested in power — a monster having power over someone and how that can be sexual, or even just the power exchange in BDSM. Very often exploring that goes down roads that mainstream readers or audiences aren’t comfortable with. Fanfic is something mainly written by women where they can explore those power dynamics and desires they’ve been told are “wrong” in a very safe space. And the sexual nature of monsters goes back so far. Dracula and those early vampire stories were ALL about sex. The monster isn’t really subsuming the will of their lover by seduction, they are defying society by allowing her to be sexual at all."

Power is a tantalizing element in all romantic and erotic fiction. The tangle of emotions and desires to submit or dominate are part of what makes the romance genre so addictive for millions of primarily female readers. There's an inherent radicalness in a creative outlet that offers direct opposition to patriarchal limitations as well as refusing to configure to the stereotypes society has about sex, power and those who are part of it.

The most transgressive areas of pop culture are frequently the richest realms for marginalized communities to explore issues and emotions that are frequently decried or shut down by wider society. Things are not good right now for women, people of color, trans and non-binary people or any minority distanced from privilege. When you are consistently demonized by the media, the political system and frequently your own loved ones, turning to fiction and its most monstrous or taboo elements can be a freeing outlet. The writer Jordan Kurella explained thusly:

"I love writing about monsters, and the monster as metaphor. Growing up I always felt that I was different and did not belong. That I didn't fit in, even among my friends, that something about me was off. I felt monstrous in that regard. Guillermo Del Toro movies really spoke to me, where the monster aids the heroine to flee the evil humans. I like to help people. US politics and some facets of Christianity demonize queer people and make the American landscape very frightening for us. These politicians and pastors paint us as monsters to their constituents and their congregations. So when I write about monsters I think about my own experience feeling like a monster, and also reclaiming and owning that monster moniker that has been shoved upon me. Monsters are not necessarily evil, look what man has done. In my fiction, monsters are merely creatures we have not taken the time to understand; they want to help those who are different, who do not belong. They want to help them find their way home, to a better place. Or for those who are isolated, they need to work their own way out — to a better place. To a place where they can realize who they truly are."

The world of erotic horror may seem utterly inaccessible or incomprehensible to some, but it is often just a natural extension of both the romance and horror genres. If vampires are the romantic heroes who symbolize our fascinations with death and werewolf boyfriends are a metaphor for a need to connect to our primal instincts, then how are darker elements such as vore, tentacles, extreme BDSM or the entire Clive Barker back-catalog any different?

Film academic Richard Dyer says, "Sexuality, both as knowledge and solution, is also the means by which men and women are designated a place in society, and kept in their place." It's a rather reductive view with an admittedly salient point to it. Sexuality remains a strange, often scary and emotionally intense experience for many of us, and one made all the more fraught by societal limitations, bigotry, and stereotypes. We have always sought creative and psychological explanations for what make us tick and using fiction as our gateway through metaphor and allegory is a means for readers to safely explore the deeper end of the pool in ways they may not have had the option to before. Women and non-binary people can be very well served by the genre and its potential to challenge old ideas about what monsters are and how we should react to them As old transgressions are made now again and our political climate reignites callous targeting of the marginalized, we find solace and freedom where we can. Fiction is a great force of empathy and liberation. Erotic horror is a re-scripting of what scares us into something that digs well beyond our consciousness.

Why shun the monsters and their monstrous deeds when what they offer remains both alluring and freeing?

Erotic fiction recommendations:

Three Dandelion Skies by Jordan Kurella (available to read now on Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

NASTY: Fetish Fights Back: An Erotic Short Story Collection - A series of authors, including Jaye Wells and Selena Kitt, write a series of fetish stories that span genres and kinks.

Little Deaths - Ellen Datlow's anthology of erotic horror, with additions by Clive Barker, Joyce Carol Oates, and Ruth Rendell.

The Safety of Unknown Cities by Lucy Taylor - The Bram Stoker award-winning debut novel about a woman who journeys to a magical city where one's sexual yearnings can come to life.

Control Freak by Christa Faust - A true crime writer is drawn into a dark sadomasochistic world free of taboos while investigating a series of murders.

Cthulhurotica - Erotic horror short stories inspired by the work of H.P. Lovecraft, including pieces by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Don Pizarro.

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