Sometimes you read something that challenges you. It might be different stylistically than what you are used to, or push on themes you have difficulty reading, or arouse just as it unnerves. By the end of the text you are left with a different conception of what you enjoy, what genres you like, what the genre itself even is. For me, Naked Delirium was such a book.
I will be forthright and admit I had trouble getting into Naked Delirium, an illustrated erotic anthology from Sweetmeats Press about “sex in altered states.” I started and stopped reading the first story a few times before finally sitting down to give it a real try a couple of months later. This inability to jive with the text right away surprised me—I was intrigued by the cover art and the concept, as well as by the opportunity to read an illustrated short story collection. Most of the erotica I have read has been published by Cleis Press, or was put together in the 1980s by second wave feminists (thesis research, hey!). Sweetmeats Press, on the other hand, is a smaller press from the UK currently expanding—their Indiegogo campaign is live until June 3rd and seeking donations here. I was excited to receive a copy of one of their titles and skimmed through it immediately to find the gorgeous artwork by Georgio Verona, much to the amusement and mild discomfort of my roommates, who are less desensitized to graphic material despite living with me for eight months. But the thesis-crazy deluge of work and pre-graduation chaos of college made me put the collection on the back burner, and it wasn’t exactly love at first sight when I returned to the text this spring, for reasons I will discuss later. That being said, I am very glad I persisted.
As a reader and writer obsessed with the role that feminism can play in erotic texts, the premise of Naked Delirium gave me pause: what form does consent take if one or more participants of a sex act are in an altered state of mind? It just so happens that my university, along with colleges across the States, is currently embroiled in a vital and wrenching conversation about sexual assault (and its relationship to Greek life and alcohol consumption), so I was particularly sensitive to the topic. The five stories in Naked Delirium focus on drugs, hypnosis, and various kinds of magic as they influence their characters’ ability to have incredible—and beautifully written—sex. The way each author tackles consent is fascinating and could be a thesis in and of itself.
My two favorite stories of the collection by far were written by Vanessa de Sade and Kristina Wright. De Sade’s lush and elaborate prose ‘Gilinda and the Wicked Witch’ cleverly borrows from The Wizard of Oz but exists separately as a sensory masterpiece. It has everything I love about erotic fiction: a surprising plotline with character development, diversity in the bodies and sexualities represented, and of course, gorgeous sex. References to its literary inspiration are subtle and tongue-in-cheek, such as the description of an orgasm as “washing over her in wave after wave, like a field of poppies bursting into bloom” (46). The women of de Sade’s piece are gleefully consenting, and Gilinda and Laura, the central couple, negotiate their limits and share their experiences in order to practice a healthy, comfortable sexuality together.
Wright’s biblically inspired ‘Lilith Returns’ is a powerhouse of female sexuality and power play, reinventing the story of Adam, Lilith, and Eve and granting them considerable agency and love. Not only does Wright’s fiction shatter the virgin/whore dichotomy with relish by making Eve a brilliant badass and Lilith a well rounded, strong, and sympathetic icon—the trio has earth-shattering, frenetic sex infused with anger and affection, destruction and creation. This is another weakness of mine: I’m a fangirl for a good binary smashing. And finally, this is the sex of equals, of supernatural foils whose fates are entangled with one another’s. The end result is remarkable.
“Adam reared up over Lilith, braced on his hands and knees. “I want to fuck you,” he said. “And it won’t be gentle.”
Lilith’s laughter tinkled like broken glass on metal. “I don’t want you to be gentle,” she said. “Ever.” (116).
The fourth and fifth stories of the collection, Velvet Tripp’s ‘A Woman Possessed’ and Fulani’s ‘Smoking Hot’ dabble in possession and hypnosis, respectively. I personally do not gravitate toward BDSM erotica unless it is deeply rooted in character development, which is hard to accomplish outside of a novel-length piece, so these two contributions were not my type. ‘Smoking Hot’ is a timeless plotline of a woman discovering her love for submission and degradation—while a high-powered venture capitalist during the day—after being hypnotized to quit smoking. ‘A Woman Possessed’ gets bogged down in less than stellar narration when the main character is, you guessed it, possessed by the spirit of a sub whose dominant was a sex magician. Possession voids consent in this story in a way I was not happy with as a reader who has more difficulty checking her experience at the door when cracking open a book. As an outsider to the BDSM community I do not want to condemn any fiction about it, but Tripp’s story was pretty far out of my comfort zone.
I think my initial difficulty getting into Naked Delirium spawned from my early and perhaps unfair dislike of the first story, ‘Sugarshuttle Express.’ Sommer Marsden’s short story about two friends tripping and going hiking for a long weekend goes to great lengths to prove that the attraction between the two main characters is genuine and not the result of the drug they take, and Marsden pokes fun at how Danny, the narrator, has placed his friend Wren on a pedestal. Maybe it’s because I have not read much erotica from the first person perspective of a male narrator, but I found Danny’s fixation on Wren’s physical perfection annoying and distracting. ‘Sugarshuttle Express’ read so much like the classic male fantasy of the cool girl best friend suddenly becoming sexually available that I was surprised when I learned that the author was a woman. Looking back, I can see how Marsden could have been intentionally taking on this trope in order to criticize it, but it just didn’t resonate with me. Otherwise the story is fun, sexy, and relentless, exploring how being in an altered state can make it easier to confess and pursue your heart’s desire, and I am a tougher judge than most.
Overall, I appreciated the shift in length, tone, style, and theme that Naked Delirium presented after reading so many anthologies of short form erotica. The collection is inventive and varied, so much so that some stories hit home while others left me wanting. I am so excited to read more from Sweetmeats Press, although I’ll probably pick an anthology with a less dubious premise next time. Naked Delirium can be purchased as an eBook, in print, or story by story from the Sweetmeats Press website here.