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On “Dark Erotica”

I just bought Kitty Thomas’s Big Sky, which is rumored to combine cowboys and “darkness.”

I enjoy a good cowboy story, usually.

Thomas is best-known for the book Comfort Food, which I haven’t yet read, because I’m thinking it might not be my cup of tea.

Her work is not “erotic romance”. Often on some level it is about love and/or obsession. Often the couple in some way ends up “together”, but the work should not be expected to follow the conventions of any type of genre romance, erotic or otherwise. If you are looking for genre romance (erotic or otherwise), please read a different author. Erotic romance is “more explicit romance”. This is something different.

Big Sky

Oddly, it’s not set in Montana. I have a feeling that’s not the last thing about it that’s going to throw me.

So far as I can tell, the internet can’t decide what “Dark Erotica” actually means.

Wikipedia lists it as a horror sub-genre, which would stick all those vampire books in the same category.

Goodreads has a dedicated group that says it’s about “storylines with rough sex, forced seduction, rape, kidnapping, BDSM, and those who enjoy alternative lifestyles to the extreme, multiple partners that may or may not involve same sex interaction.”

Amazon reviews suggest that it’s any piece of erotica without a happy ending, even though you find books with “happy endings” described as “dark,” too. Anneke Jacob’s As She’s Told absolutely qualifies as “dark,” but it has a happy ending. Kind of.

The “shelves” over at Goodreads tell the same story.  People are listing 50 Shades as “dark.”  Go fig.

Goodreads lists the current queen of “dark erotica” as CJ Roberts.  She’s written a series called The Dark Duet (which, really? How had no one come up with that yet? That’s an awesome series name.)

This is the first book:

Captive in the Dark

Captive in the Dark

Now, that is a dark erotica cover.  According to the synopsis, it’s full of all sorts of “very disturbing situations, dubious consent, strong language, and graphic violence.”  The plot sounds like that movie where Jet Li was stuck in a collar. Actually, the whole “dark erotica” genre bears a strong resemblance to a particular subset of arty Asian horror films.  These are plots that would work for Miike, Chan-wook, or Sono. (I’m a gigantic horror movie nerd. It’s unladylike. So sue me.)

Horror books are being marketed as erotic fiction for women.  Really.

Look at the pretty girl in the prettily scripted Big Sky cover. She’s about to be kidnapped, and bad things are going to happen to her. Really.

Consciously or not, there’s a clear and short road to ‘sex = death’ and ‘love = obliteration’ territory in the female fiction landscape.

It’s interesting to me where the line between “subversive” fiction and “omg, dirty dark sex books for laydeez” ends up being drawn.


Skye Warren's

Skye Warren’s “Keep Me Safe” (She’s got the best layout on her website.)

I have no idea why books that have horror plots get classified as erotica, dark or otherwise, so long as a feminine pen name and pretty cover is provided. Presumably, if a man were (out and proud) writing these things, he’d end up with the Lars Von Trier “Kicked Out of Cannes” Award, or something. He’d be Eli Roth.  He’d be a pig.  A misogynist.

Maybe it’s that it isn’t perceived as new and unusual material for male minds to “explore.”  Out of a man, it’s not marketable as sexy. It’s horror. It may be erotic in execution, but you’re not encouraged to say that out loud.  Identifying it as sexy makes you a deviant.  It’s not framed with a pretty script font and declared intellectually subversive.  Maybe, maybe it’s the stuff of revenge fantasy.  Or, in the case of John Ringo, a little ridiculous. Or, it’s just plain scary.

But feminize the same content, and it’s somehow more compelling. It’s allowed to be openly erotic.  The sinister “sadistic” morphs into eroticized “sadism.” has done something similar, recently, with two gang rape “fantasy” series that feature rough sex, forced seduction, rape, kidnapping, and BDSM. Female director. Supposedly female narratives.  So long as it springs forth from a woman’s mind, it’s still somehow safe.  It’s consensual non-consent. It’s fantasy.

It’s allowed to be hot.

Horror, smut, and crime novels have been linked like this before.

One of my very favorite under-appreciated authors, Andersen Prunty, writes books that are full of dubious content and dubious sex, but he’s most often labeled ”bizarro,” part of the “new pulp.” (And, “new pulp” is overwhelmingly marketed as masculine.) Now, I have no idea why “new pulp” doesn’t include sleaze titles, because the “old pulp” was full of soft core smut books with the best covers in the history of publishing. Smut books used to be for men. But, you don’t see those in the so-called pulp revival.

The assumption seems to be that “men are visual creatures,” so they should stick to video porn. Masculine erotica is dead.

These days, even the m/m gay erotica is written by and marketed to women.

Two bucks says there’s “dark” slash erotica.

But, I’m not going to go looking for it.

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  1. Jenny Lyn
    Twitter: jennylynwrites
    Posted February 21, 2013 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

    Yeah, cause god knows the scary shit you’d find. I read Comfort Object. It’s… different. I found it deeply depressing. All the degradation was in no way erotic for me. YMMV. If it’s lendable on Amazon, I’ll be more than happy to send it to you. I’ll be curious to hear what you think of this one.

    The Skye Warren books I think start out dark but then have a decently redemptive ending. Maybe you don’t feel like you need a hug after you’ve read them.

    • Joan
      Posted February 21, 2013 at 9:20 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, “As She’s Told” actively pissed me off. I wasn’t depressed; I was angry. It was one of those things where I felt bamboozled. I can handle a tragic ending, but I’ll be damned if I *think* I am getting BDSM, and it turns out to be 80% “pretending to be an puppy/pony” fetish. Seriously. Smack a bunny mask on the cover, or something.

  2. Remittance Girl
    Posted February 22, 2013 at 5:40 am | Permalink

    What I find truly depressing is the unvarnished reality: readers now expect to consume books the way they walk into McDonalds and order a Big Mac. It better taste the way they expect it to taste. Better have the same ingredients. Better look the way it did before. After all, they’ve bought their PRODUCT and the customer is always right.

    Reading is no longer about having an adventure or being shocked, or surprised, or challenged, or stumbling across something unexpected. If it doesn’t conform to the tropes they have been led to expect from whatever sub-sub-sub genre marketing they’ve had it sold to them as, they feel ripped off.

    This expectation makes erotica writers into literary sex workers. It makes them factory staff, churning out formulaic trope after formulaic trope. Change the names, the colour of hair, the professions of the characters, and run the same trick again. God forbid a reader should end up with something unexpected on their kindles.

    May you get what you deserve. And may you drown in the predictable banality of it all.

    • Joan
      Posted February 22, 2013 at 10:05 am | Permalink

      I don’t mind occasionally ending up pissed-off in my attempt to escape banality.

      > This expectation makes erotica writers into literary sex workers.

      I guess the question I have is, “When wasn’t this more-or-less the case?” For every Story of O there were hundreds and hundreds of stories about prison lesbians and farmer’s daughters and lusty nurses and murderous, cheating housewives. The cover art for all those books is public domain already because it wasn’t legal to claim it, and like the visual porno of the time, it often had mob-controlled distribution channels. When you look at the sheer *quantity* of mid-century erotica, compared to the, what? Four authors? Maybe? That we’ve lionized as “literary?”

      The bulk of smut’s usually been half sex work.

      Was the ‘golden age’ in the 70′s? The 90′s, maybe? The 1890s? Or is it just that sex narrative, in and of itself, in Western imagination, has a touch of the inherent banal? There’s a Chuck Klosterman quote that gets punted around teh internet. “Nothing about sex is cerebral…at least, none of the good parts are.” A lot of people genuinely believe it.

      It may be that the Big-Mac-oriented present is the golden age. I don’t have to drown in the banality. There are floaties of non-banal out there, and they’re much easier to find than they used to be.

      I am also somewhat curious as to which genre the “content product” concept doesn’t apply. I suppose, all writers are whores. But is it really forward-thinking for an eroticist to disdain whores?

      • Remittance Girl
        Posted February 23, 2013 at 2:11 am | Permalink

        First Joan, I want to step back and explain that my vitriol was not aimed at your post, but rather catalysed by it. Because it clearly exposed a marketing problem in the wild west of digital publishing. At one point, the expectation of a reader, opening a book bought under the erotica genre, had the expectation that it would contain a strong sexual element that drove or complicated the narrative. It seldom was an indication of what kind of sex, or of whether there would be love involved, or if the parties would end up in the happily ever after.

        This was the preserve of romance. And if a reader was looking for a guarantee that the interaction would result in a romantically settled ending, regardless of how sexually explicit the story got in the middle, that would be the genre they looked within. Unlike almost any other genre (with the exception of the cosy mystery), romance promised the reader a very predictable narrative structure. And clearly this addressed a strong desire in its fans to revisit the structure over and over. For at least the last 50 years. The rise of erotic romance as a genre really muddied the waters. Because those readers of romance, loyal and bearing very precise expectations of structure, poured over into the erotica genre. And, meanwhile, many erotica publishers were very interested in the sales they could reap from these new readers.

        With the jawdropping success of FSOG (sold as ‘erotica’ but possessing a very clear romance narrative romance structure and ethos) the expectation on the part of readers of what any given ‘erotica’ book would contain changed radically. In essence, the genre has been entirely subsumed. And the very rigid expectations of what any novel labeled ‘erotica’ emerged.

        My ire was not aimed at you. Your post simply did an excellent job of illustrating a very clear set of reader expectations. And I don’t agree that the ‘floaties’ are easier to find. They are buried beneath a tsunami of FSOG copycats.

        In terms of disdaining whores, please don’t assume just because I write erotic fiction that I somehow hold the identical opinions to other writers within my genre. I’m an individual, with idiosyncratic opinions.

        I have a great deal of respect for anyone who honestly plies their trade, whatever it may be. Having been a sex worker, I am not in the least confused about the difference between what a writer does and what a sex worker does. Sex workers effect orgasms for money. They get their clients off, within reason, at the time and in the way the client has requested. Erotic writers write narrative that involve sexual desire. The stories may or may not arouse any individual reader.

        The minute a reader demands that a writer ‘get them off’ in exactly the way they require, they are treating the writer as a whore. And the minute a writer complies, she or he is acting like one. And has ceased to be a writer.

        I have no problem with whoring. It’s just not the service I’m offering. And if I have the right to be offended when a man in a bar assumes I’m one, I have the right to be just as offended when a reader assumes it.

  3. mikey2ct
    Posted February 23, 2013 at 7:19 am | Permalink

    I am incensed by your post. I happen to think both Kitty Thomas and Remittance Girl are wonderfully gifted writers. I’ve been reading for 65 years and I read ‘dark’ erotica.

    I read for pleasure. There are days I will not read ‘dark’ because I am not in the proper mood. I do not think you should be reading ‘dark’ at all, let alone writing a column on it. You do not know what it is. You seem to have ‘vanilla’ tastes and I recommend doing more research when trying to decide whether to purchase a given book.

    • Joan
      Posted February 23, 2013 at 9:00 am | Permalink

      Can you point out which specific part “incensed” you? I’m dreadfully curious.

    • Remittance Girl
      Posted February 24, 2013 at 5:37 am | Permalink

      I feel I get to weigh in on this, because you mention my work. I actually really appreciate Joan’s post, because it makes very explicit a set of emerging reader expectations. I don’t think she’s saying that ‘dark erotica’ writers’ work is bad or invalid, she’s legitimately asking a question: what should a reader expect?

      The fact that what people have begun to expect when they pick up a title under the ‘erotica’ genre has changed, or that many readers have begun to transfer their very specific narrative, story-line, and structural expectations (which some genres have always accommodated – like romance) and transferred those expectations over to genres that previously never felt the need to meet them, cannot possibly be laid at Joan’s door.

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