Book Review: Touched by Death

Touched by Death

Reviewed by Voodoo Lynn

lifetouch_20141024100436The horror anthology Touched by Death features a little something for everyone’s particular brand of dark erotica. The focus of this collection is erotic encounters with death. To some, this may seem to be a strange thing to be aroused by. After all, what’s there to be attracted to? For most people, death is something that is to be feared. It is the end of life, the ceasing of our mortal existence. The end of our flesh and…what? The beginning of worm food? Do we have immortal souls? Do we go on to another plane of existence? Who knows? Many people claim to have knowledge but unfortunately, no one has ever come back to let us know, until now. Humans have a natural instinct for curiosity and what could possibly be more seductive, more alluring than the unknown? Something mysterious that is so close yet, terrifying. And now, in my finest Rod Serling voice:

“Let us journey into the world where life, death, lust and love all intersect.”

 I promise nobody will be playing pea knuckle on your snout in Touched by Death.

Raven & Crow by Luna Lawrence

Edgar Allan Poe is the perfect provocateur in this story. The premise of this selection is the recent loss of a fiancée to a Miss Grimke. A prim and proper Quaker woman, she attends a séance as a way to try and reach out to her fiancé one last time. Unsurprisingly, this does not work. She ends up seeking out Mr. Poe who was an attendee at the séance, a short time later and has claimed to have found a “scientific” way to reach the dead. Though she is thoroughly annoyed with Poe and her patience tried with him, she grudgingly consents to his experiment in which they will try to contact her recently departed love. The entire reanimation scene is something that was quite astonishing in its vivid imagery and unusual methodology. Indeed, it is hands down, one of the weirdest ways to reanimate a corpse that I have ever encountered- anywhere. I don’t want to give away too much about it but I will leave you with a few words and images to mull over for yourself. The whole thing takes place in a crypt with a hint of Frankenstein in its use of magnetism and electrical current. The whole scene is an astonishing mix of fear, desire and horror. I loved this story for several reasons. If you are a fan of Poe (as I am), Frankenstein (me too), science, particularly electricity and biology (yes, yes and yes) then you must read this story. This is the type of story that would have done well in a series like Masters of Horror. Of course, once you get to the best part, the raising of the dead, it would most likely no longer be allowed to be aired without an NC-17 rating.  Which is all right with me because you will never hear me utter the words: “Mr. Poe, I have done with your experiments.”

The Band Played On by Theda Black

Of all the stories included in this anthology, this one was one of the less inspired. The actual topic of death was only included at the very end. The focus of the eroticism was more towards an off shoot, one time, gay encounter between two men who know each other. The story centers around a couple of guys, one of whom is in a rock band and the other his best friend. Both of them hell bent on partying like rock stars and courting death with their various irresponsible actions. The ending leaves much to be desired.

Less Than a Day by Annabeth Leong

This is a tale based on the idea of a mortal/ human type of grim reaper. Sort of. He’s not really a grim reaper or a dark angel of death. He’s just a guy who knows things. Well, not things, just one thing. And depending on who you are, that is a really important thing. For whatever reason (we’re never told how or why) he knows when a woman is about to die. And instead of trying to offer them counsel or warn them or anything like that, he offers them one last opportunity for sex. He plays up this role very well. Apart from being tall, dark and attractive, he dresses for the part: tailored dark suit, shiny black shoes, and a blood red tie. His name is Tod, which is the German word for death.He approaches women at the bar and tells them point blank they will die within 24 hours and if they wanna have sex. Except, he’s much more blunt than that. Either they accepted what he said and take him up on his offer or, they don’t. The latest woman he picks up is unlike the others. He can see it right from the beginning. She doesn’t want to bother with small talk, she doesn’t even tell him her name. She does however, take the time to hang her jacket up in her closet when they get to her house. She makes them tea.  She acts as if she’s not in a hurry, this interests him. She knows exactly what she wants from him and proceeds to procure it. You can’t help but admire her business like attitude about the whole thing. Indeed, I found myself marveling at her stoicism about the whole affair. As the sex continues, we are introduced to her darker side and her interest in violent, sadistic sex. This is where things start becoming a bit strange and confusing. Not just for us the reader, but also for him and this unusual woman. Admittedly, the ending is kinda flat as he doesn’t stay until the bitter end for her. I’m not sure what else could’ve been done to avoid this type of ending but, it doesn’t really take away anything.  In this regard and that of the jaded attitude of Tod, it reminds me of the type of existential endings you get when you read stories from Camus or Sarte. In many ways Tod is like The Stranger from the book with the same title.  I am reminded of something I heard in a Buddhism class when I think of the character Tod. “It is neither good nor bad, it is what it is.”

Atropa Belladonna by Jane Potter

When you were a child, did you believe that monsters hid under your bed? If you’re like most children, the answer would be yes. At one time or another we all believed that something unnatural lurked in the darkness, just out of sight. In the case of our heroine, those childhood nightmares have become all too real. We are never told why this undead man has decided to stalk this woman but as we soon find out, she cannot escape him. At first when he starts visiting her every night, it doesn’t seem so bad. Except for the fact he’s dead and decaying, and he’s forcibly arousing you.

“The scent of decay on his sweat-damp body makes you gag, sweat likes putrescence leaking from a corpse…His kiss feels like drowning, deep and endless and airless forever.”

What a beautiful description. Night terrors would be a dream compared to his visits. She tried to have a normal life during the day such as going to work and drinking tons of uppers and caffeine in a desperate attempt to not fall asleep. Of course, that doesn’t work. The night fills her with terror. As time progresses and his body decays, his nightly sexual visits become more and more torturous, riddled with unfulfilled orgasms, and heinous violations. It’s as if his morality and everything that made him human is slowly dying and rotting away along with his flesh. The nightly visits start to take their toll on the victim. She starts looking around the house, thinking about suicide. After the realization that she is seriously considering ending her own life, she packs up and leaves. The pace in this story is quick and consistent. It makes you want to keep reading just to see what will happen to her next even though you know it’s not gonna be good. You want her to escape, even though you know she won’t. You wanna help her, but you can’t.

Deep Water Grave by Claryssa Berg

Diana is a woman who has recently suffered loss. We know her daughter has “…slipped from her body pale and dead”. She had even chosen at one point “…the oblivion of tiny full moons filled with soft numbness…” until the doctor said no more. (Beautiful imagery for such an everyday item and tragic motive, don’t you think? I loved it.) After that her lover leaves her. As a way to get a new start in life, she moves into an old home by the sea. There is a local legend that says dead sailors enter the bodies of cormorants in order to visit the living. A cormorant is a medium sized aquatic bird that has a hooked beak and dark feathers. She seems to be most preoccupied with this legend, though we’re not entirely sure as to why. (Perhaps her daughter drowned…?) So much so that she ends up dreaming about it. Then, her dream becomes reality. The bird actually becomes a dead sailor with dark hair. He asks an interesting question of her- will she share her warmth with him? She agrees. What follows is the anticipated sexual encounter and of course, she wakes up and he’s gone and she’s left cold, literally. This is not a bad story but, it somehow left me wanting….I don’t know…something more. Being only about five pages long, I’ve re-read it a few times. The author leaves many unanswered questions. Perhaps they want us to use our imagination to fill in the missing bits. I enjoyed the story well enough however; I think its needs to be fleshed out some more. I believe this is a great beginning for a larger work and I hope the author decides to explore this storyline further. I did a quick Google search on cormorants. The only thing I could find online about the correlation between this class of bird and the souls lost at sea is from Norway. Other than that, for the most part, they are considered lucky. Perhaps this will prove true for the author and us readers in this case.

Brush with Death by E. E. Grey

We enter the world of a solitary painter named Grant. He moves into a new apartment to work on his art and finds out to his surprise, that there is a previous occupant still living there- a very attractive ghost named Joey. Grant is immediately attracted to Joey and as expected, they end up having a great rapport. Grant has an exhibit that goes well for him, so well, that he brings home someone and after a few seemingly odd warnings about his wellbeing, Grant passes away. It is here where we find out why Joey kept hanging around the apartment, why only Grant could see him, and some other key bits of information. The relationship between the two is fun to read. Especially, as they grow closer after Grant’s demise. It is a modern day ghost love story. If you’re looking for a quick, feel good read, I suggest this story. It will fit the bill perfectly. It could also be the premise for a great TV series. It’s modern, it’s fluid, and it’s funny. Anybody know Joss Whedon’s phone number?

Witch’s Price by Ann Gimple

Throughout history there are several stories of demon lover’s and deals being made with the devil or some other maleficent entity. When it is a man being seduced by a female supernatural being they are commonly referred to as a succubus. Once they were hideous, terrifying creatures only seen in dreams. Now, modern succubi appear as beautiful women, no longer confined to the sleeping chambers of unsuspecting men. This latest modern entry takes place in the Italian Alp Mountains during a period of war. (My guess is the WWII.) A group of soldiers are climbing up the side of the mountain during a storm to complete their mission. On the way up, Michael McDonald starts thinking about his child and his wife, Christa. He’s then surprised to hear a woman’s voice call his name. The voice claims to have been sent by his wife to protect him and make sure he comes home alive. She inevitably saves him from an avalanche that kills the other six men he’s with. Her price? I’m sure you can guess. And she collects, once. After all, she is beautiful. She is stopped a second time by apparitions of his dead comrades who saves his sorry ass and show him what she really was. He ski’s away as fast as possible and considers himself lucky, like most people who have had encounters of this sort. The story is an enjoyable read. The flow is good and steady. The story builds up and as it did, I found my opinion of the main character Michael went from unfaithful, wussie to still unfaithful but, he’s just a regular person who made a mistake. Good people make bad decisions sometimes and he realizes his. I am also a bit of a word hound. I subscribe to daily email notifications for word of the day so, when I read something that utilizes words that I don’t normally hear, I take notice and appreciate them. I enjoyed seeing words like diaphanous, maelstrom, spindrift, cacophony and escarpment being utilized. I also enjoyed the attention to detail in regards to the mythology of succubi. In my online research I read that when they were sexually penetrated it was like entering a cavern of ice. In the story, the author makes reference to this unusual sensation and that being one of the reasons Michael is so drawn to this creature; the curious blend of hot and cold that aroused him so much. If you enjoy stories of demon lovers or like watching characters battle with themselves and their conscience, mind over body, then you’ll enjoy this selection in the anthology.

 

Glad Rags by Conrad Hartman

There’s an old saying that I’m sure everyone has heard: “Different strokes for different folks”. That saying applies to this particular story more so than others in this collection. The story breaks down to this: Sheldon wants to have sex with a corpse. Well, that thought is a little too disturbing for him, at first. He soon warms to the idea, or perhaps, I should say cools. This is a ten year progressive desire that became an obsession. What this amoral, introverted, emotionally disturbed man does is start slow. He gets them drunk and has his way with the women while they are passed out. He doesn’t want to drug them at the bar because the idea of becoming a rapist is disturbing. I find that hilarious. We are talking about man whose ideal sexual fantasy is a completely unresponsive partner that he can do absolutely anything he wants to her.

“Sheldon thought of his desire this way: that a woman be utterly and completely receptive. That he should have all of the time in the world to explore her body, to enjoy her however he wished, that he should not have to please her or wonder if she liked what he was doing- this was his ideal scenario.”

He finally starts giving junkies heroin. This works for him. One day he gets a really strong batch and gives it to one of his girls, Stacy. Oh, he tries to warn her about it. The perv knows, she’s not gonna listen. In fact, when he starts to feel something akin to a moral obligation to again, warn her about its potency, he stills his mind and begins to rationalize his actions.  She does her dose, she passes out and he has his way with her. What follows is an extremely disturbing attention to detail. The words “woman hater” enters my mind though, I’m sure this character would very much argue with me on that point. He would say that he loved her more than any other woman because he got to really know her, inside and out. There are several points along the way in this story where Sheldon could’ve stopped and regain or even hold onto what little humanity he has left. He doesn’t. It’s the same format for lost hikers. You don’t get lost by making one wrong decision. You have to make several of them. And, you have to commit to that series of bad decisions. In this case, Sheldon commits to a series of heinous decisions where he trades in his humanity for indulgence in his disgusting, selfish, heinous desires. While the reader continues down the path of perversion, we see the list of his atrocities continue to grow exponentially. What he does next is something that I will leave to your imagination. I will tell you this though; whatever horrible thing you imagined he did right with them, no matter how much you think it can’t be worse than that, be prepared to have that thought obliterated. I ain’t gonna lie; this story is not erotic to me in any way, shape or form. In fact, I find it extremely disconcerting, misogynistic and just plain vile. However, the story has flow, an almost finesse to the progression of violence and madness. If you feel like you want to be deeply disturbed, enough that it almost makes you want to take a shower afterwards, this is for you. And after all that, all that I read, all that I felt, just when I thought I was jaded and couldn’t be surprised by anything, my jaw still dropped at the end. Have fun.

 

Cold Love by Ruth Black

81EMLaD+MwLCarol lost her lover, Chris recently. She struggles with coping with his loss. Like many people, she seeks refuge from her pain. She goes to a place called Tir Na Nog in Scotland, a mansion where women went to get away, get counseling, support each other. In Irish mythology, it is a supernatural place realm of beauty, health and joy. Sort of like heaven. . It is also a place where a Pagan goes, to help the grieving women. Carol, like all people grieving, wants just one last chance to say good bye. This is when Sorcha the Pagan introduces herself and tells her she can communicate with Chris. She tells Carol she must go to the graveyard, dance, pray and oh yeah, she must go “skyclad” which is now my new favorite term for butt naked. She gives Carol a little bundle of herbs and leaves. Oh yeah, BTW- you have to do this in winter. After much hemming and hawing, she finally decides to do it. She drives out to the graveyard that is located in Callander which is north of Glasgow. A place of many borders, geographical, cultural and also it would seem, supernatural. Carol does what she was told to do and low and behold, Chris shows up. The imagery is great, if familiar- an old graveyard at night, a massive storm with rain, lightning and thunder- mirroring the passion and desperation that is being felt by the naked woman dancing and praying for one last good bye. And whaddya know- he shows up! They then have one final tryst together which is, passionate, bittersweet and involves BDSM. I’m not entirely sure one necrophiliac encounter could make it all seem better but, the main character seems to have resolved at least in part, some of her grief. This story reminds me of a poem by Pablo Neruda:

“I love you as certain dark things are to be loved, in secret, between the shadow and the soul.”

In this case it would be between claps of thunder and behind gravestones.

Stone Cold Heart by Kailin Morgan

Jason has it all- looks, youth, nice car, his own company, and his friends are his co-workers. We should all be so lucky. One day after work, they all decide to go to a club and everybody is drinking and having fun and Jason ends up being checked out by an attractive man from across the room. Wanna guess what he looks like? If you said tall, dark, handsome with sharp looking teeth, then you’d be right.  What follows is a formula; a predictable homo-erotic encounter in a building still under construction. There is some aggressive sexual conduct that borders on rape but, like several of these types of stories, the victim somehow always acquiesces and even likes it.  The progression is boring and typical. I fail to understand why there is so much aggression involved with many homo erotic writings.

The Charge of the Soul by Peter Tupper

This is hands down, my favorite story in the whole collection. It’s a zombie story which is very popular at present. However, this is much more than just a simple zombie story. It’s a reflection of humanity and where other stories have gone down the dark side, this one has chosen to go in the opposite direction. The story revolves around a lone survivor of the zombie apocalypse named Charlotte. She is the Daryl Dixson of this story- strong, smart and bad-ass. Or, maybe Carol Peletier.  She’s like one of them. (Yes, I went there. I like The Walking Dead.) We don’t know how old she is or, how long ago the apocalypse occurred. We do know it’s been several months since she has seen or heard of another human being alive so, she’s been on her own and that’s what she prefers, just her and the “stiffs”. She learned long ago that every time she was in a group, that eventually the group would disintegrate. She reflects back:

“That was what got her about how the world had changed; the loneliness, the lack of human contact, the fear of everyone, not just the stiffs. She bounced around from one band of survivors to another, but they always fell apart into their own savagery.”

Sound familiar? Images of Woodbury and Terminus come to mind. She is holed up in a two story lodge with lots of supplies. She has created a simple yet, effective alarm system that notifies her of an intruder- a barb wire fence with cans on it.  One day while getting ready to masturbate, the alarm goes off. At first he acted like a normal stiff, until he spoke. Not sonnets or math equations but a simple word: don’t, as in ‘please don’t shoot me’ and, he doesn’t attack her but rather stands there looking at her. This jars Charlotte and she goes back in the house and locks herself in. She makes a radio broadcast, just in case anyone was listening. She says that if there is one like him, then there will be others. Charlotte reflects on her past, how she was a social butterfly and that she could just be lonely and mainly talking to herself instead of the stiff. The author here makes a nod to Stephen King when they have Charlotte think back to an old movie she saw where someone had set up mannequins around the town they lived in so they wouldn’t be alone. M-O-O-N that spells The Stand. She assesses his condition and eventually decides to see if she can help him regain his humanity as he seems to be at least a bit cognizant of his surroundings. After all, he did bend over to smell her tea, something a zombie doesn’t do. I love the attention to detail that is paid to the condition of the stiff. Charlotte notes that he has no missing limbs or major wounds, that he is encrusted in years of dirt and grime and that he had no shoes. He had no shoes because he has worn them off from walking. I never thought about that before but, she’s right. She makes this great little speech to the stiff about her being the last human on Earth and that she feels a moral obligation to stay alive because she is “…the sole survivor of a great civilization, keeper of the lost secrets like silly string and pornography.” Charlotte also keeps records on the vitals of the stiff and notes any changes over time like body temperature, heart rate, pulse.  In time, he starts to act like a human again. His strange skin and blood slowly returns to normal. Out of all the zombie stories I am acquainted with, this is one of the few where somebody is actually studying the undead person and trying to reverse what has happened and bring them back to being human. This is something that is sorely missed in these stories. We don’t know what Charlotte did before the apocalypse. Perhaps she was a scientist or researcher. Or maybe, she’s just a well-educated woman with a good, strong character and moral fiber. Of all the places for Max to walk into, he hit the jackpot with her. It’s promising to see that even in a world like this, there are still some good, smart people out there willing to take a chance, willing to change and willing to help a stranger. Soon, another stiff joins them- a female named Jaime. She is like the male stiff Max, whom Charlotte named after her mother’s cat. Jaime progresses faster than Max which, I love, and eventually, they start speaking and moving more human like. Charlotte reads to them every night and she exercises them to the beat of “Thriller” reasoning that boring old exercise would work but, this way is more fun. I have to agree and can’t help but think that I would do the same thing myself. After all, how often do you get to dance to MJ’s “Thriller” with real life zombies? Eventually, the two stiffs start acting more normal and start touching each other but, they are not sure what to do. It is at this point that Charlotte steps in to help them. She teaches them both how to kiss and touch each other. Everything done here is done with permission, gentleness and respect. As the story progresses we see the former zombie couple become more or less, normal humans again. The story ends without any knowledge of the future and it’s OK because it gives us the one thing that keeps people going in times like this- hope. Love should end with hope. I’m not into happy endings but, I can live with this optimism for the future.

Like all anthologies, this collection has stories that run the gambit of the erotic horror scale. Over all, I think it’s worth your time.

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