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edited by Monica J O'Rourke

(Prime Books, $12.95, 169 pages, paperback; 2002.)

In any anthology of short stories one expects a bit of variation in standard, from Sublimely Good right through to the merely Pretty cover scanGood, but this new collection of (mainly original) erotic-horror shorts shows a far wider spread than most: from Pretty Damn' Fine to Absolutely Bloody Awful What The Hell Can The Editor Have Been Thinking Of To Include This Drek? The latter category contains not just one isolated turkey but several.

The authors involved are Nancy Kilpatrick, Charlee Jacob, Jack Fisher, E.C. McMullen Jr, Brian Knight, Rain Graves, Adam Pepper, Sephera Giron, Nicholas Kaufmann, Gene O'Neill, Teri A. Jacobs, Thomas Deja, d.g.k. goldberg, John Urbancik and Edo van Belkom.

Nancy Kilpatrick's "Metal Fatigue" is an interesting piece that could perhaps be sf except that it's so engagingly hallucinatory that it might be something else entirely dressed up in sf imagery. You may hate it -- which is praise of the highest!

E.C. McMullen Jr's "Some People" is likewise sf, assuming you accept cryptozoology as a science; although it's not in the slightest erotic, despite being focused almost entirely on sex, this may be the standout story in the book. Its conceit is that the krakens exist, and that their reproductive cycle involves the parasitic use of host bodies, which are devoured while still alive and functioning. The details of the sex scenes in the story are as emetic in affect as you can imagine, yet McMullen manages to convey that, while nauseating to us, these events are nevertheless pretty all-fired erotic to their participants.

Nicholas Kaufmann's "V.I.P. Room" is, unlike the previous two discussed, genuinely erotic in aspiration and result. A married man adores his wife and they have an excellent sex life together, yet he yearns for variety while yet remaining faithful to her. Such a dilemma seems solvable through taking his wife to a high-priced orgy club, yet he makes the mistake of becoming sexually obsessed with the woman who runs the club ... with doom as the end of the road.

Gene O'Neill's "When Legends Die" handles nicely the fact that the incubus narrator initially doesn't know who -- what -- he is and only slowly, along with the reader, finds out. The ending of the story is a little predictable, but the unusual and unusually well depicted setting makes up for that.

Teri A. Jacobs's "The False Face" overcomes slightly sloppy writing to be interesting in its use of unfamiliar elements from oriental mythology (they may, such is my ignorance, be in fact Jacobs's original inventions). It's also a cat story, which adds to the appeal for felinophiles -- especially, as it happens, lesbian felinophiles!

d.g.k. goldberg's "Last Exit to Darlington" is a deliberately anti-erotic story, like so much of the noir fiction which it very successfully emulates. A good-time girl gets picked up by a fairly overt sexually psychopathic serial killer and, while she is prepared, even eager, in a way to add herself to his list of victims in that she will submit to all the sexual humiliations he demands of her, she is not prepared to let the evening end in his desired climax of her slaughter. This is quite a powerful tale, and would belong creditably in any collection of modern noir.

John Urbancik's "The Painted Woman" is an oddity which well merits reading, while Edo van Belkom's "The Uninvited" is, despite a troubling and I'm sure unintentional slight aura of racism, a joke which is both nicely executed and worth the execution; its mockery of the male obsession with penis size is also amusing.

Don't let it be thought that all of the rest of the stories are dire: some are perfectly adequate entertainments. But enough of them are so worthless in both concept and realization that it's impossible to deduce what process of editorial thought went into their selection; in general it is these stories that are most riddled with the proofreading and copy-editing gaffes that are commoner than they should be in the book as a whole, suggesting that O'Rourke herself had little patience with them.

Of course, the problem with any such collection is that horror is almost by definition detumescent if it's to be good horror, while erotica aspires to exactly the opposite criterion. Most of the stories in Decadence substitute masses of sex and, often, locker-room language for any attempt at the genuinely erotic (when will practitioners of supposed erotica learn that this discipline requires a more sensitive use of language than virtually any other form of writing, rather than a coarsening?); some resort to being about sex, substituting intellectual interest for the attempt to kindle a hormonal blaze; and just one or two succeed in uniting the two disparate literary forms. This is not overall a criticism; it's what you expect when you pick up a book like this, even though the marketing gurus of the publishing industry seem to think we're all naive enough to buy such books hoping to get our rocks off and puke simultaneously. However, it would have been nice if O'Rourke had selected a higher proportion of stories that fueled both the imagination and the intellect at the expense of those whose authors seem to think their brief is satisfied by mere, terminally dull obscenity.

Still and all, the good stories in this anthology make up a sufficient proportion of the whole that, taken in sum, Decadence is probably worth your time.

Review by John Grant.

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