Tentacle erotica - it's amazing how much power two little words (just seven syllables) can hold over our imaginations, immediately and indelibly painting a picture so vivid, we can almost feel the flexible appendages creeping slowly up our legs. Originating in Japan, it's been a long-standing fixture of hentai (erotic cartoons and graphic novels) there for more than twenty years, but has only recently begun to creep (pun intended) out of the realm of Cthulhu-inspired horror and into Western erotica.
While it's not a fetish I would have ever imagined reading, two things demanded I give the taboos of All Wrapped Up a chance - it's from Storm Moon Press (I always love their work), and it's edited by Elizabeth Hyder (who proved adept at handling reptilian erotica with Trust Me). Having said that, I still went into the anthology expecting to read about lonely astronauts or barbarian heroes being attacked, raped, and mind-controlled by sexually voracious tentacles. Much to my surprise, the stories here are as far from the hentai cliche as you can imagine. They are, instead, stories of men in love (or lust) who just happen to encounter some tentacle invaders that, invariably, spice things up.
Laylah Hunter's Ground Mission kicks things off with a tale of two genetically engineered, technologically augmented soldiers, sent on a reconnaissance mission to discover the fate of the vanished human colony. In a case of opposites attract, Adrian and Simon quickly establish themselves individuals, slightly damaged, with their own personal torments, who find solace in each other's arms. This is very militaristic sci-fi, and done very well, with some real tension present in their situation. Rather than simply having some tentacled alien hold the men down and have its way with them, Laylah goes the Alien route and infects Simon with a tentacled bite. It's a rather chilling surprise when the tentacles begin emerging from his back, but the way in which the scene develops, with Adrian reluctantly succumbing to their touch in order to prove his love for Simon is rather stunning - both erotic and romantic.
Thea Hayworth switches genres on us with Wildwood, offering up a fantasy tale of a forest ranger tasked with patrolling a land abandoned by its guardian spirit and allowed to run wild. Except, as it turns out, the spirit hasn't really abandoned its duties, and it needs Koster's help. I absolutely loved the way in which Irsing was described, a tree-like figured formed of twisted branches, with oddly tentacle-like roots. Thea keeps us at arms length for most of the story, jumping between scenes and points-of-view that help to flesh out the larger story, establishing a mythological fantasy tale with a romantic core. Altogether wondrous, it quite delighted me with its take on tentacles.
Shifting into the realm of dark fantasy (bordering on horror), Gryvon gives us Dark Covenant. If there was a story in the collection to make me feel uncomfortable, then this is it . . . although the fault lies solely with mankind. A story of magic, fine-print contracts, and betrayals of trust, it begins with a young man reluctantly agreeing to be raped on a regular basis by the authorities at the strange school in which he has enrolled. I'll be honest, those scenes pushed me so far away from the realms of romance and erotica that I had trouble settling into the story. I only skimmed the rest of it, so it's not really fair to give it a review, but it was well-written and the atmosphere was appropriately heavy and dark.
It was with some trepidation that began Morgan Harcourt's Situation Normal, but it pretty much brings the anthology full-circle, both in terms of genre and theme. Our hero here is a down-on-his-luck young man named Sebastian, who ends up having his ship commandeered by a reptilian peace officer. In a homoerotic twist on the old buddy-cop action-comedy genre (set in space, of course), Sebastian and Ten start by antagonizing one another at every opportunity, complete with witty/sarcastic banter, but eventually succumb to their sexual desires. It's definitely odd to find such cute humour mixed in with hot, tentacle-bondage erotica, not to mention the very real danger of the second half, but it all works very well, in part because it is such a welcome relief from Dark Covenant.
Overall, another strong collection from Storm Moon Press, taking the tentacle taboos in directions I had not anticipated and providing some solid storytelling at the same time. I'll definitely be looking for more from Thea Hayworth, and should Morgan Harcourt ever delve back into the story of Ten, count me in!
[Reviewed by Sally]