In case you've taken a year-long break from the internet (and if so, thanks for coming back, we missed you), one of the hottest memes this year is the rise in popularity of the Fifty Shades of Grey book series by E.L. James – novels which began life as online erotic fan fiction based on the characters Edward and Bella from Twilight. Now before you run screaming into the night, you should know this angle was abandoned by the author, who turned it into a vampire-free tale about a master/slave sexual relationship – and the books became humongous bestsellers, a pretty rare thing for that kind of subject matter. As an avid horror reader, it intrigued me that the idea began with one fan's desire to heat up an otherwise tame romance between vampire and human... and that got me thinking about the long partnership between sex and monsters on the printed page. I'm not talking about horror stories that just happen to have sex scenes in them; I mean serious horror, with real scares, where sexuality is the main theme, and often a thing to be feared. It's not as uncommon as you might think, and I found ten noteworthy examples that are worth checking out. Bear in mind most of these books are a little heavy for the under-18 crowd, but I'll try to keep my descriptions as tame as possible...
Story of the Eye by Georges Bataille
Shortly after our distant ancestors invented language, I'm guessing they immediately started sharing stories about boning, so it's no surprise that some of the most graphic and twisted depictions of sex in print date back several centuries. But arguably this 1928 novella by a noted author of "transgressive fiction" was the first work of serious literature to depict sex as a truly terrifying subject. While his predecessor Bram Stoker turned fear of sex into a gothic monster in Dracula, Bataille unveils surreal sexual horrors within his main characters' own bodies. Their weird obsession with liquids (which leads to bloodletting) and spherical objects (including a human eyeball) results in some of the ickiest scenes you'll ever read, even eighty-plus years later.
Incubus by Ray Russell
Best known for his gothic pulp classic Sardonicus, Russell turned his focus to darker and much naughtier subject matter for this 1976 tale of a shape-shifting demon which descends upon a sleepy coastal town. Apparently summoned forth to seek revenge on the town's sadistic witch-hunting founders, this demon targets young women, and his only weapon is... well, let's just say it's part of his anatomy. An enormous part. Despite this totally tasteless premise, the novel is fast and freaky fun, unfolding as a whodunit thriller with a local doctor and a suave demonology expert racing to find the killer before literally every fertile young female in town meets a nasty fate. The 1981 film adaptation scales the story way down to fit a lower budget... which is a shame, but it's still a pretty good time.
Rhea by Russ Martin
Knowing that this novel was published in 1979 by Playboy and never came back in print, I didn't go in expecting a literary masterpiece... so I was pleasantly surprised to discover this creepy tale of an ageless, soul-draining succubus is remarkably well-written. It's patient in doling out its scares, and deliberate in building tension – both sexual and otherwise – between the title character and the men (plus a few women) she wraps so easily around her finger. But when it's finally payoff time, both the sex and the horror turn as graphic as anything you'll read today. Rhea is the first in a series of loosely-connected erotic novels Martin penned in the '80s, and while there are a few stumbles along the way, it's a pulpy good time overall.
The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker
It's hard to isolate any one work by Barker as a prime example of horror erotica, because nearly everything he writes (and paints, for that matter) fuses sex and monsters so well it's hard to tell where the sex ends and the monster begins. But for my money, this novella – which, as you well know, Barker adapted one year later into the classic film Hellraiser – is one of his most effective pieces of kinky fantasy world-building. If you know the film, you basically know the book, which is the first of Barker's stories to depict the hellish netherworld of the Cenobites – beings whose pursuit of sensory stimulation makes them the ultimate S&M practitioners, always seeking new subjects for their horrific "experiments." When it came time to visualize these creatures for the film, Barker turned to England's BDSM underground to find examples of extreme body modification, and the rest is soul-tearing history.
The Hot Blood Series
This horror anthology began in the late '80s and has currently hit installment number 13, making it the longest and best-known collection of horror erotica. Fans of horror fiction in general will find dozens of their favorite authors on this roster – including Richard Matheson, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Ramsey Campbell, Jack Ketchum, Richard Laymon, Steve Niles, Graham Masterson, F. Paul Wilson, Nancy Holder, Bentley Little, Edward Lee, and so on – along with some other famous names normally found outside the genre, including Pulitzer nominee Joyce Carol Oates. Ranging from subtle and sensual to completely depraved, the stories in his collection roam through every aspect of sex, seduction, and both real & supernatural terror, and there are many worthwhile tales in each book of the series.
Live Girls by Ray Garton
When I picked up Garton's "Big Rock" werewolf series a few years back, I realized that bringing sex and monsters together was not only one of his strengths, but one of his trademarks. Where those books dealt with lycanthropy as a sexually-transmitted disease, this earlier Garton classic puts a kinky postmodern twist into the vampire genre that most of us take for granted today, with a dangerous vampire queen and her entourage setting up shop in a sleazy Times Square peepshow (in 1987, back before they cleaned up the place). In Garton's world, vampires aren't romantic figures, but the world of cheap and dirty sex becomes the ideal stalking ground for their animal bloodlust. Garton is an expert world-builder, so there's tons of potential for developing the story in new directions – as he finally did last year in Night Life, which is a strong sequel, but lacks some of the gritty grindhouse edge of the original.
The Entity by Frank De Felitta
First off, I didn't find this story sexy at all, but that wasn't the author's goal to begin with. In fact, the book's original claim to fame in 1976 came from it being based on an allegedly true incident, involving a young woman who claimed she was being sexually assaulted by a supernatural being on a regular basis. I'm not going to get into the facts and/or fabrications of the case itself, but there's something about the whole "based on actual events" thing that makes your skin crawl, even despite your better judgment, and the chapter headings indicating date and time of each upcoming attack are more than a little bit like the time-coded nighttime scenes of Paranormal Activity over three decades later. If you haven't seen the 1981 film version, featuring a powerful performance by Barbara Hershey (Black Swan), look for the re-release on DVD and Blu-Ray next month.
The Love in Vein Series
Before she left the horror genre behind, Poppy Z. Brite had developed a cult following among goth-inclined readers for sexually intense and deeply disturbing tales like Lost Souls and Exquisite Corpse. While still fully in horror mode, Brite edited two volumes of this elegant collection of vampire erotica, which runs the full spectrum from dark fairytales (Neil Gaiman's excellent "Snow, Glass, Apples") to over-the-top Dracula porn ("A Slow Red Whisper of Sand" by Robert Devereux). But one of my favorites here, which also featured in other short horror collections, is Richard Laymon's "First Date" – one of the author's rare sensitive tales of young love, albeit with a bloody twist.
Scared Stiff by Ramsey Campbell
Although he's known for championing a subtle, darkly atmospheric prose style at a time when horror authors were really starting to push the envelope, Ramsey Campbell doesn't shy away from the shocks in this collection of macabre sex stories (which features an introduction by Clive Barker). That said, his approach is still more about building a feeling of dread than splattering the page with explicit content, so the overall tone of these stories is more seductive than sleazy. One of the strongest tales in this compilation is "Dolls," which revolves around a coven of witches whose rituals involve wild orgies.
The Book of a Thousand Sins by Wrath James White
Of all the names mentioned on this list, White takes his fiction deeper and darker than most are willing to go. His novel Succulent Prey depicted an antihero with a cannibalistic sex fetish, and contained some of the most revolting "love scenes" I've ever read, so when he unveiled this collection of diabolically carnal short stories, I approached with extreme caution. While sex isn't the main theme of the book, it's still an explicit part of White's horror DNA... as you will see in the title tale, which depicts a dominatrix introduced to a satanic sex book that would make Pinhead cover his crotch, or "Don't Scream," in which a prudish woman returns from the dead as a sexually depraved zombie. If nothing in horror fiction shocks you anymore, you might be ready for this book... maybe.