Ellen Datlow &
Terri Windling, editors,
Sirens & Other Daemon Lovers
(HarperPrism, 1998)

Fantasy and sex have always been linked in the human imagination.

Forget for a moment tales of dragons, noble deeds or great heroes. Anyone who has ever had a waking dream about intimate relations with a movie star, sports icon, politician or next-door neighbor has engaged in fantasy. But if you write about it, certain segments of society would hastily slap a "pornography" label on it and hide it away from curious eyes.

Sirens & other Daemon Lovers, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, merges those two realms of fantasy. That doesn't mean these are all tales of Tolkienesque grandeur, although some certainly fall within the bounds of high fantasy. But most of these stories have within them elements of otherness, things that couldn't really happen (or, if they did, we likely would neither admit nor believe).

Although billed simply as "erotic fantasy," many of the stories belong more under a "dark fantasy" or even "horror" heading. So expect delicate elves in one story, horrific succubi in another. Not knowing what to expect next is part of the fun.

This is an excellent collection. Editors Datlow and Windling have assembled tales both erotic and evocative, and very often deeply moving. Unlike their ongoing series of "Snow White, Blood Red" adult fairy tales, these stories aren't bound by the restriction connecting them in some way, no matter how tenuous, to an existing fairy tale.

In fact, there don't seem to be any restrictions at all. This book collects 22 "erotic tales of magical obsessional, and irresistible love" ... or so the cover says. A few of these stories stretch the limits of the editors' self-imposed definition, however; are Siamese twins, for instance, really creatures of fantasy? Several stories had absolutely no elements of fantasy, mystery or the supernatural and, because of my own expectations, I suppose, I felt a little let down. But that's a quibble, not a major fault with the book.

Without question some of the tales are better written than others, and some are more exciting, too. But none of them are a bad read, and most are short enough that, barring urgent interruption, you can finish one or several at one sitting. Some are definitely worth a second read, or a third, or fourth.

Probably the best way to describe the book is to describe the stories, each in its turn.

"My Lady of the Hearth" by Storm Constantine is a delightful, if bittersweet, tale of a lonely man's beloved cat and her transformation into a human female. Constantine's portrayal of a cat's iffy adaptation to human customs and mores -- and, more pointedly, the cat's not-quite-human sexual habits -- seems to be right on the mark, although I confess I've never spent too much time pondering how one might have sex with a feline. (I must also admit I spent much of the story wondering when the punchline -- "Aren't you sorry now that you had me fixed?" -- might show up.)

"The Faery Cony-catcher" by Delia Sherman takes the reader to the Faerieland of Elizabethan England, where a young journeyman jeweler learns that he can have the better of a bargain with the Elf Queen ... so long as he's content with receiving payment in a form not quite as he expected. "Broke Heart Blues" by Joyce Carol Oates tells us that an endless sexual appetite combined with an irresistable appeal can be, well, tiring.

Adult fantasy mistress Tanith Lee recreates the Red Riding Hood story within an entirely new plan of modern carnality in "Wolfed," in the process giving a whole new connotation to that "eating Granny" thing. "Ashes on Her Lips" by Edward Bryant is a sex-after-death story that is lovely, sad and a little bit revolting. "Mirrors" by Garry Kilworth begins as the ultimate fantasy for a lone traveler, lost and adrift in a strange country. The question is, can they do that with mirrors?

Written entirely as a dialogue between two railway passengers, "Midnight Express" by Michael Swanwick is a new, erotic twist on the sphynx myth and Strangers on a Train. Fans of the Arthur mythos will discover a new family tie in "No Human Hands to Touch" by Elizabeth E. Wein, but it is an ugly little story without a single redeeming character to save it.

"Attachments" by Pat Murphy explores the marriage beds of Siamese twins with a single passion. A sweet, moving tale, definitely unusual, but I'm still not sure how the subject matter fits within the bounds of this book. Ellen Steiber shows what nasty fate lies waiting in the Arizona desert in "In the Season of Rains." And Jane Yolen, in the freeing tale "Bird Count," finds a kind of salvation in the sky. "A Wife of Acorn, Leaf, and Rain" by Dave Smeds is one of my favorites, a poignant story about a man who taps into Faerie to find closure with his all-too-mortal wife. And Neil Gaiman can usually be counted on for some weirdness in his work, and "Tastings" is no disappointment. His story is one of the briefest and most explicit of the book, and the twist at the end is actually less surprising than the fact that his subjects can hold such a conversation while doing the things they're doing. (If you want more detail than that ... buy the book.)

I haven't a clue what the title means in "The Sweet of Bitter Bark and Burning Clove" by Doris Egan, but the tale is one of the happiest vampire-mortal love stories I've read, combined with a hefty slice of eroticism and a bit of private dick (excuse the pun) potboiler. (Egan's story was on the International Horror Guild ballot.)

"Heat" by Melissa Lee Shaw is a lengthy free verse poem describing a modern Medusa's heat and her willing victim's ... frigidity. "The Eye of the Storm" by Kelley Eskridge is a high fantasy tale about a young lad who grows up in a small village and becomes a guard in the palace of the big city. Doesn't sound exciting ... or sensual? Well, let's just say his cohorts in his guard unit are very, very close ... and he himself gets his kicks in an unusual way. The story "O for a Fiery Gloom and Thee" by Brian Stableford takes the reader back to chivalrous Britain and a knight whose hesitancy banishes temptation from his days but not his nights. "The Light That Passes Through You" by Conrad Williams is, quite honestly, a distasteful story, full of vile imagery and an apparent warning never to try and track down a needy ex.

Mark W. Tiedemann's "Private Words" explores a writer's muse of a different sort, and the manner in which it changes his wife and his best friend -- and their relationship with each other. "The House of Nine Doors: The Man Who Came But Did Not Go" by Ellen Kushner is a sample from a series she and Windling had proposed but never completed. Initially homoerotic and later, well, not, it introduces the reader to a very special house and its staff.

"Persephone or, Why the Winters Seem to be Getting Longer" by Wendy Froud is a two-page wonder, equating the crimson seeds of the death god's fruit with the progressive stages of his unresisted seduction. "Taking Loup" by Bruce Glassco neatly reverses certain sexual stereotypes, links supernatural folklore to a woman's monthly cycle and adds a whole new element of risk to casual dating.

Even Windling's nine-page introduction is a treat, detailing in short form the world's various sexually charged creation myths, the sexual antics of gods, faeries and other fantastical creatures in subsequent world mythologies, and the development of subtle and not-so-subtle bawdry in literature, poetry and art over the centuries to the present. A careful read of Windling's brief essay on magickal eroticism will lead many readers on a quest of older texts to explore.

All in all, this book is a must-have for anyone with a taste for fantasy and sensuality combined. Those of a more Victorian or Puritanical bent should look elsewhere.

[ by Tom Knapp ]
Rambles: 30 May 1999

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