Saturday, March 12, 2011

More Sex'n'Horror: The Tepid Blood Series

By Paula Guran
Written March 2005
Published: As part of "Waves of Fear", Cemetery Dance #52

The "latest" Hot Blood anthology (as of this writing) from Pinnacle is a re-release of Deadly After Dark (January 2005) originally published in 1994. This re-publication encapsulates, in a way, the fossilization of "erotic horror" specifically and "horror-as-a-genre" in general. The cover's even a dated "Day-glo" green and features a blonde skull. (Not quite a cheerleader-skeleton -- but close.)

Book Cover The idea that sex is integral to horror is a given, but you'll find very little written about sex and contemporary horror literature other than a few introductions to theme anthologies, some elegant but brief thoughts from Clive Barker here and there, and some (not exactly contemporary) comments from Stephen King in Danse Macabre. You'll find more written thought focusing on sex and vampires and/or the role of sex in Gothic and Victorian novels. There's quite a bit written about sex in horror cinema, most of it pointing out the obvious, but with pictures.

No reason to waste much time wondering why this is except to say that people don't seem to be too interested in reading about contemporary horror literature as a whole. And although folks are interested in reading about sex, it would be human nature to look more for titillation than philosophy--deep throat rather than deep thought.

This is Cemetery Dance. You get deep thought rather than deep throat -- and probably not very deep at that.

One way to consider the emotion of horror in a widely philosophic sense is to see it as the antitheses of human connection. Human beings are essentially alone in the universe and anything that relieves that burden of separateness is "good." Fear isolates us; horror is alienation and disintegration. Separateness is, therefore, "evil."

On a human level we seek love, understanding, empathy, a sharing of our solitary burden of mortality. Sex can be the physical expression of this desire: the conjoining of two into one. But sex is also scary. It can overwhelm, make us lose control, bring out the beast within us, and defeat the rational. Perhaps worst of all, it can make us vulnerable.

On another level, we seek unification with something bigger than ourselves, beyond the human, an ultimate merging with a universal whole.

"Ecstasy is a glimpse of the infinite," wrote Kirk Schneider, "terror is full disclosure." Ecstasy, like horror, is an overwhelming emotion. We think of it as an attainment of bliss, but the word "ecstasy" also means "a state of trance or near immobility produced by an overpowering emotion." In Greek, ekstasis meant "trance, distraction," from existanai "displace." Existanai phrenon meant, "drive out of one's mind" (from ek, "out" and histanai, "to place, cause to stand." Ecstasy, in the religious sense, is a state of exaltation in which the self is transcended.

Chances are, you live within relatively easy driving distance of a public gathering place named with some derivation of the word "ecstasy." Chances are, it celebrates earthly desire rather than blissful unification with God and/or the universe.

Sex and its overwhelming emotions and sensations weren't always separated from the spiritual and seen as something to be controlled. The sexual and the spiritual were, earlier in human history, not divided into evil (darkness, matter, flesh) and good (light, the spirit, the divine). The separation was made and Western religions developed their hostility toward human sexuality; we were taught such urges must be repressed and restricted.

That sex could control us, could push us to extremes, could make us step outside the bounds we considered "self" became something scary rather than enlightening. But, at the same time, we also desired that relinquishment, the surrender to "temptation." Horror fiction once dealt primarily with the embodiments of good and evil. As the old order fell away, the firm delineations dissolved, the rules changed -- we could no longer "be safe" if we stuck to the rules. A world with no place to hide is a fearful place. The best modern horror fiction more often explores the area between the light and the dark, asks questions about the possibility of the external, and expresses our own ambivalence about internal forces that can control us

We seek the ecstatic and we fear it.

Not surprisingly, Clive Barker, the writer who finally brought explicit sex into horror circa 1984, has expressed a belief in the connection of the spiritual and the sexual: "Is it not possible that our experience of the flesh...the profound feelings that sexual excitement arouses in us...should not be mostly connected with our spiritual selves? Whatever divinity made us...that divinity gave us the potential for physical and sensual bliss, which, when we are moved most deeply, leads us on to profound spiritual feelings. In other words...when I am at my most physical I am reaching for the divine."

An integration of the sexual, the spiritual, and the extreme was as natural to Barker as being embarrassed about sex -- and not being able to write it -- was to Stephen King. Barker's exploration of sex and horror was just being Barker. Unlike earlier horror, some of the stories in his debut, Books of Blood, left no room for misinterpretation; the sexual meaning was intrinsic to the story itself.

Sex, for Barker, was (again, in his own words), "fertile ground...because it isn't for so many other people. It seems as though horror fiction has not really looked deeply into sexuality. Or if it has, it's been very covert about it. There's an argument, and a pertinent one, that every vampire book is, at root, a sexual book. After all, we are sexual beings...What I've tried to do as a talk about the full range of sexual possibilities. The job of fantasy fiction, horror fiction and science fiction is to say that the only rule is there are no rules: 'Let's just go to the extremes.'"

But while Barker was breaking all the rules and going to extremes, horror itself had been confined to a genre formula. While recognizing that more explicit sex had potential in the marketplace, major publishers weren't ready to push any real limits and few writers had Barker's awareness of and openness about sexuality.

By 1989, when the first of the mass market Hot Blood anthology series was published, "erotic horror" was an identifiable marketing subgenre, but one of decidedly mixed signals. Tellingly, the first Hot Blood (entitled Hot Blood) anthology used the term "provocative horror" on its cover as "erotic" was deemed too provocative an adjective to use. The word "provocative" was used much as an old-time stripper used pasties -- to cover-up what was obviously there.

The reason I keep surrounding "erotic horror" with quotation marks is because although sex in horror certainly can be erotic, not all the sex in horror is erotic. Some of it is even anti-erotic. And, since what is erotic is as impossible to define as what is pornographic, "sexual horror" is probably a better term, but it's not much of a marketing phrase. Neither, of course, was "provocative horror," and the next book in the series, Hotter Blood (1991), was subtitled More Tales of Erotic Horror. (A regrettable sell-phrase on the cover: "New Demon Hungers Possess You!"). It was followed by Hottest Blood (1993) ("The ultimate in erotic horror" and "You will be consumed..."). By 1995 The Hot Blood Series: Deadly After Dark boasted it was "The original erotic horror anthology."

Obviously, the term stuck, but we needn't be misled by it.

Rather than the erotic, or the extreme, all too many of the anthologized stories were of the Bevis and Butthead school of (snigger-snigger) sexuality and the "you fuck, you die" syndrome. At least a few, though, were good sexual horror -- just as a few writers in horror as a whole slipped through genre expectations.

Since it is horror's job to BE provocative and subversive and trangressive, it would be easy to say, as many have (including me), that when society represses the sexual, that proscription will be expressed in horror fiction. Exhibit "A" is Bram Stoker's Dracula with countless academic and nonacademic psychosexual analyses hinging on the repression of Victorian society itself or the women of the time.

But even if this theory were true, and I'm not saying it is, then what about more recent social contexts? Before Barker, sex in twentieth century horror fiction (with a few exceptions) was a suggested element of a relationship or light relief or used to symbolize evil or so deeply buried in subtext and metaphor that it was virtually absent. Pulp stories mildly mirrored primarily male fantasies. Sex played a role in Richard Matheson's 1954 I Am Legend, but what does it tell us of sexual repression in the 1950s? It merely reflects its times -- women are symbolic stereotypes (a spinster librarian he imagines dying "never knowing the fierce joy and attendant comfort of a loved one's embrace"; seductive vampiresses representing the sex-and-death connection) and Ruth, with whom Neville has his solitary non-explicit encounter, is the means to his end -- and confronts no taboos.

The world was in the middle of a sexual revolution and fetters were unfettering in 1967 when virtuous Rosemary's nasty hubby pimped her to Satan, passed her through the closet, and stood by as she was raped. Stephen King, He Who Does Not Write Sex, emerged in the 1970s. So did Anne Rice, whose vampires in Interview With a Vampire may have been decadent but could not have sex. Barker, a gay man, did assault previous sexual limits in horror in the mid-1980s -- just as it became clear that a new sexual plague, AIDS, was scything its way among us and its first obvious victims were gay men.

And, for the last twenty years, what has horror had to be provocative about concerning sexually? I'm not sure. But I do know it wasn't being said through the Hot Blood series and it certainly isn't being said by reissuing those volumes. Nor, with the exception of a story or two that probably slipped in by chance rather than editorial choice, will it be found in the new anthologies, numbers ten and eleven, in the series.
Copyright © 2005

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