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By J.D. Riso
Murphy's Law Press / ISBN: 0-97543-083-1
As fans of the genre can tell you, there is an extremely fine line to tread when it comes to the writing of dark erotica; because by its very nature, the acts described in such stories creep right up to the edge of ridiculousness to begin with, meaning that just one wrong move by the author will plunge that story right over that edge and into laughably ludicrous territory. And this just goes double for dark erotica based on true stories; because as anyone who's dwelt in the real-life world of prurient sexuality can attest, many of the actual situations and people encountered there are so bizarre as to sound like bad fiction in the first place, which then becomes infinitely worse when run through the filter of actual bad fiction. It's what makes this genre so notoriously difficult to get right, after all, and is also the reason that the entire genre in general is met with so many smirks and eyerolls by the overall public.
So what an unexpected treat, then, to come across JD Riso's literary debut Blue, an obscure electronic book put out by a barely existing basement press, and discover that she has largely avoided nearly all the problems inherent in the genre; it is in fact one of the better dark erotic tales I've ever read, and given that I was actually a sex columnist myself for several years in my youth, you can take it from me when I say that I've read more than my fair share of such material over the years. Based partially on a true story (or at least if this online bio is to be believed), it tells the sordid tale of our title character Blue, a child of rape who grows up in a dysfunctional environment in the ultra-religious town of Mesa, Arizona. Prompted to flee by the lecherous come-ons of her mother's new boyfriend, Blue ends up in her late teens in southern California, where because of financial problems and dicey friends she is convinced to become a stripper; the rest of the book, then, is a look at the ins-and-outs of such a lifestyle, detailing not only Blue's various romantic entanglements but also the complex relationship she forms with the other dancers, not only in the Los Angeles area but in the second half on the tropical island of Guam (a three-hour flight from Tokyo, making it a popular destination for rich Japanese men and the Caucasian exotic dancers they are obsessed with).
And in fact, if you want a good example of where Riso gets things so right in this book when so many others get it so wrong, you need look no further than the shady boyfriend who early in Blue gets our Valium-loving hero into "the business" in the first place, the drug-dealing "dom master" Kevin who Blue is attracted to because of her own submissive nature. And this is a great example because the entire subject of BDSM is such a misunderstood and badly described one within the larger world of dark sexuality in general, with it being common for the entire pursuit to come off as a bad cartoon in the eyes of those who are not naturally dominant nor submissive themselves. And in many ways this lifestyle is cartoonish, because of it being so dependent on fantasies and mindgames, because of it being so closely associated with elaborate costumes and outlandish accessories, even as the attitudes that fuel these activities are very real and much more complex than most non-participants realize; and in this novel, Riso does an almost perfect job of showing this delicate balance, presenting us with a main character who is both turned on and turned off by Kevin's overly theatrical dom tactics, attracted to the legitimate power exchange that takes place under such circumstances but repulsed by his over-the-top declarations and drama-loving nature.
But perhaps what will be enjoyed most of all by those who aren't into dark sexuality themselves is simply the masterful way that Riso captures all the small rituals that come with stripping, the thousand little rules and norms and unspoken "ways that things are done" that are usually only learned by becoming a participant oneself. Because this is a common element among all areas of dark sexuality, whether obvious like stripping or in more obscure activities like straight swinging and gay cruising; that in all these examples, a key part of their success is in boiling down sex itself into a commodity to be bought and sold (sometimes with literal money, sometimes through a psychic toll), with a complex codification in place that helps both the merchants and customers to communicate and bond, to feel like their activity is special and not for random outside "dabblers." It's one of the more fascinating elements of this book, in fact, Riso's uncanny knack for detail when it comes to things like the strictly defined levels of relationships between dancers and their customers, or the instantly intriguing hierarchy of quality that exists within the actual industry itself (for example, the common knowledge among those in the industry that dank, low-paying massage parlors is "where old hookers go to die").
But the literary balance that existing fans of dark erotica are sure to appreciate the most is the one Riso strikes between showing the legitimate turn-ons that come with such situations, and the unhealthy trappings that by necessity come with these lifestyles; because as heavy readers of this genre know, most darkly erotic stories tend to weigh in heavily on one side or the other, coming across as either unrealistic Penthouse-letter fantasies with no real-world ramifications to anyone's actions, or dour cautionary tales that make you never want to have sex again. As a fan of this genre myself, this to me is the most remarkable aspect of Blue, is that Riso manages to both have her cake and eat it too; because make no mistake, this book is chock-full of nightmarish stories about the sex industry (abuse, addiction, stalkers, suicide attempts, an endless series of horrific boyfriends), even while containing enough humor and eroticism to make a person understand why someone would be attracted to such activities in the first place.
It's a remarkable feat, even more noteworthy for it currently flying so low under the publishing-industry radar; if there's any justice in this world, Blue will soon come to the attention of a major press and cause the kind of Diablo-Cody-style mainstream stir that it legitimately deserves. Do both yourself and Riso a favor and pick up a copy right away, and hopefully help make this stir happen sooner rather than later.
Out of 10: 8.9, or 9.9 for fans of dark erotica