I'll be the first to admit how I discovered the works of Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, Sheridan Le Fanu, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Edgar Allen Poe. I saw the movies first as a kid. Hammer film writers were firm believers in "why write a new story when you can pilfer and old one," so I was introduced to the nightmares of Frankenstein, the compelling and malevolent Dracula, the sinister Mr. Hyde and learned why you should never marry a man with Torquenada's torture devices in his cellar all in garish Technicolor.
Never to be one to let a childhood warping experience alone, I would look up these authors in the school library. Taking the books full of sexy, blood curdling delight to the check out I was informed that these were "classics". This pleased the librarians, as they loved any kid who willing read books by writers who were dead. However, this annoyed my English teachers to no known end, because the required reading material was infinitely duller in comparison. A Girl of Limberlost is a nice story, but she's not going to look out the window and see anyone creeping down a wall with the grace and speed of a giant lizard. One the positive side, this experience taught me that I could read a lot of sex and violence as long as it was considered a "classic."
It was just this sort of thinking that gave my mother gray hairs.
Even though at the time, I was a bit disappointed that Frankenstein had less brains in jars on the shelf, and no strangling of maidservants. However, the Creature's tortured loneliness, his eloquence and his amazing violence made up for it. For the first time, I was moved past simple good story-telling and into the realm of the beauty of words. Dracula, while less poetic than Frankenstein, had some incredibly scary stuff in it that none of the movies could ever quite capture. In fact, the first section which involves Jonathan Harker's arrival and escape is often glossed over or forgotten entirely. Sheridan Le Fanu's heroine Laura got to discover that if a big black cat with red glowing eyes sits on you and bites your breast -- no good will come of this. The Fall of the House of Usher taught me a simple lesson. Never marry your sister. You'll go nuts and your house will fall down. I never got that lesson in Louisa May Alcott stories.
These tomes are still reread with great affection around the homestead.
When I first came across Amarantha Knight's name it was in the back catalog pages of another Masquerade title. "The Darker Passions Series" which included Dracula, Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and the Fall of the House of Usher. Hot re-tellings of gothic horror with sizzling Dominance thrown in.
Works for me. I promptly ordered the whole set.
The first book to arrive was the Fall of the House of Usher. It also has the coolest cover. It's a black and white photo of a woman wearing a tightly laced corset with her back to us, holding up her hair, exposing her neck and shoulders. That was enough to predispose me to like it. Charlotte and Jeremy are interesting characters, having journeyed to Usher to learn disciple under the harsh rule of Roderick and Madeline Usher. Our heroine and hero are first antagonistic, yet manage to be drawn together when they realize that something is terribly wrong here. It's a joyful read, written in that melodramatic Victorian erotic style with lots of hot over the top sex, awash with discipline that boggles the imagination, while remaining true to the theme of "don't marry your sister, it's a bad idea." It's still one of my favorite erotic books.
Dracula came next, and while it was certainly just as hot and entertaining sex wise; the scary and subtle eroticism of the original can't be topped (so to speak). "I could feel the soft, shivering touch of those lips on the supersensitive skin of my throat, and the hard dents of two sharp teeth, just touching and pausing there. I closed my eyes in languorous ecstasy and waited -- waited with beating heart," is a prime example, the sexual nature of Jonathan's state is pushed forward, and full of the edge of fear. It's a delightful heady combination. Unfortunately, in the pastiche he's not so clearly defined and loses his focus as a character. This weakens the story from the get go.
It also suffers from the fact that the unsympathetic characters out number the sympathetic ones so much that at the end you don't care much of who gets Lucy in the end. So I basically resorted to marking the hot bits with cards and turn straight to them when the need arises, I blush to admit.
I put off reading her Frankenstein, just because I knew that she'd have the toughest time winning me around with it. Frankenstein is still my favorite book of all, and Mary Shelley is my favorite author. I am very forgiving of the license taken with her story, but I do like to prepare myself. So I bypassed Frankenstein and curled up with Dr. Jekyll.
Her take on Jekyll and Hyde is very appealing, making Hyde the Master of Dominance and Jekyll the carrier of the confusion and guilt of the role. The situation comes to a head when they both fall in love with the same woman, the innocent Ursula. The sex is wonderful and the conflict is handled very well. The sex is still amazingly over the top. I mean, I'd get bored with a five hour spanking... wouldn't you? However the Victorian style welcomes this sort of thing and makes it very hot all the same.
Before I could get into Frankenstein, another book came out. The Portrait of Dorian Grey was the choice this time, retitled as the Picture of Dorian. She handles this tale quite cleverly, having the pictures change genders -- rather than age. This is personified by the character Dorianne who lives a double life as her "cousin" the rakeheel Dorian. The changing picture expresses her transformation as she accepts her need for submission while fulfilling her desire for adventure. By accepting herself as a woman she finds the Master who loves her as both. I was very pleased with it and added to my stack of favorites which stay forever on the shelf in the bathroom so I can read them in the tub.
Frankenstein wasn't as satisfactory. It's a hard book to capture, as most of Frankenstein is an internal monologue of Victor and the Creature. Shelley's prose and her characterization are unique. Her voice is wise and ferocious in its gentleness. Ms. Knight bypassed trying to echo that, which though showing her intelligence, left her characters at a disadvantage. Ms. Knight worked expanding the sexual aspect by changing the roles of Elizabeth and Cleval from the original. Victor is now creating the Creature to fill Elizabeth's constantly expanding sexual appetite. For me though, Elizabeth's constant demands and Victor's insecurity annoyed me and I wanted Victor to dump her by page 120. Be that as it may, Ms. Knight still showed herself as a writer of amazing sexual caliber.
The only real complaint I had with her Gothic novels was that they weren't scary. They're written for sex not for scares and so they didn't scratch the itch of the originals for me. They're gothic because the originals are...not because they are for themselves.
This was about to change.
Sheridan Le Fanu's novella Carmilla is one of the most beloved pieces of vampire fiction. It pre-dates Dracula and was one of its sources of inspiration. It is exceptionally sensual, and shocked its readers with its strong lesbian overtones. Its prose rolls like an Irish mist and creates a scary, scary web. It's a beautifully written piece and is wonderful fertile ground to sprout lots of nightmares. The most famous, and the best movie adaptation is Hammer's "Vampire Lovers", which all women with a bisexual bone in their body should see.
I had the hint that this re-telling would be different, just looking at the cover. This cover shows a girl leaning against a headstone, shot with a blue filter. Very Neo-Goth chic. I did the ooo-ahhh in admiration as I lifted it from its envelope.
I became enthralled very rapidly. Ms. Knight has taken the best elements of the Irishman's dream and filled them out. The dream-like qualities of the original flood the book and set its pace. Laura is still romantic and naive, slowly drifting into a web of obsession and supernatural desire. Laura is also a character of much internal conflict, as she wrestles with her desires and dreams over the cynical reality of her station and circumstance. Ms. Knight deliberately keeps Carmilla as mysterious as Le Fanu did, so we are still compelled and un-nerved by her dark beauty. We can understand the other characters initial attraction and obsession with her. The character focus stays firmly on Laura, as in the original, so the writing stays tight and sure. All the weak spots that were in her Dracula, were corrected in this vampire tale, which sacrifices none of its sinister dangers to hold its Dominance and submission themes.
The sensual writing and sexual situations is excellent, which is only to be expected with all her stories. Ms. Knight has a singular ability that let's you set aside the laws of physics and just be turned on. This is something Anne Rice struggled to do in the Beauty books, but would invariably would hold back when it came down to the wire. Ms. Knight doesn't pull back on a single cane stroke. The Muses bless her. In Carmilla she achieves an elegance that surpasses her other writing. It's very arousing, with an un-nerving quality that keeps you on spooky edge. It's just wonderful.
Sex and Horror have always gone together. Probably because in some primal way sex still scares the bejeezus out of us. Writers and publishers are starting to remember this fact of human nature again. So are readers, if the constant sales of collections like Hot Blood, I Shudder at Your Touch, Dark Love and Love In Vein are anything to go by. (Which are all good reading by the way.) If these lightly explicit tales are drawing the readers, shouldn't more explicit writers take a page from that?
Ms. Knight has broken a trail for wonderful sexy nightmares to follow! Keep writing, my dear! Please!
Sleep well, everyone.