Every so often, you have to step into the abyss and hope that the bungee cord of your belief system -- whether "spirituality," "morality" or "compassion" -- will keep you from breaking your neck.
Reading Lucy Taylor is a step into the abyss, where most of us don't let our minds wander. Most of us don't encounter the highly sexed protagonists she chooses to portray. Most of us, when we think of these people at all, keep them filed somewhere in the back of our mind as something less than human. We call them sluts. We call them promiscuous. We call them poor misguided creatures who are going to burn everlastingly. We call them any number of hateful, hurtful, condescending and childish things - but we never stop and think of them as people. We never consider their humanity.
I think that's one of the things a great story should do, force us to examine aspects of society we might not otherwise consider or at least take people we think of as somehow inferior and make us reconsider them. Of course, no one wants to be preached at. We just want to be entertained, but if you consider a handful of movie comedies, you'll see my point. "Blankman," "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," "Being There," "Rubin and Ed," and "Buba Ho-Tep" - just off the top of my head - take characters who are initially unattractive and, by the time the movie ends, forces you to care about them. I don't know about you, but "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," in spite of the zaniness, always brings a lump to my throat by the time Arthur and Bedivere arrive at castle "Arrrrrrr" in the last reel. The journey has forced us to grow and even thought they use coconuts for horses, we are forced to accept these sometimes silly, arrogant and stupid people as our fellow human beings.
Lucy Taylor's genius lies in her unflinching, uncompromising honesty, her vision which is willing to take us to the furthest edges of insanity and her strong humanistic streak which brings us back. She takes that area of the human psyche everyone else has buried in clichés, brushes it off and then forces us to take another look. This is the hallmark of a GREAT writer - even if the field she chooses to work in is "erotic horror."
Frankly, I have a problem with the label "Erotic Horror." When I hear the term "erotica" I think of it as an euphemism for "porno," material intended to give your libido a buzz - the literary equivalent of a long, slow toke from a bong. Well, "The Safety of Unknown Cities" features some extremely graphic bodily functions and a panoramic view of some of the most demented sexual activity this side of Hieronymus Bosch, but I don't find it arousing. Not that Lucy Taylor couldn't write arousing porno if she wanted, but that's not what this material is about. Sexual desire, once all of the taboos and cultural baggage has been stripped away, is simply another part of the human condition and as such, merits HER hard work and OUR serious, literary consideration.
As for the writing itself, the lady is staggeringly good. There is no deadwood in this novel and not one single passage that reeks of `just moving the plot along.' Her prose and command of the English language are beyond praise.
As to the present work: "The Safety of Unknown Cities" won the Bram Stoker Award for First Novel in 1995 from the Horror Writers Association and the International Horror Guild Award for Best First Novel, also in 1995. It is very much a product of it's time reflecting the influence of Clive Barker (The Hellbound Heart,) Thomas Harris (Silence of the Lambs) and one could ague, "Aliens." However, this is not derivative hackwork, no pale re-telling of stuff you've already read. It's the difference between "The Spanish Tragedy" and "Hamlet:" there are certain similarities but a WORLD of difference.
Briefly, the plot of "Safety of Unknown cities" revolves around Val, an insatiable hedonist driven by internal demons, the madness of her birth mother and an abusive childhood, as she drifts from city to city, love affair to love affair trying to find fulfillment through erotic pleasure. She hears of a magic place called "The City," where pleasure is constant, unending and everlasting and since she's tried everything else, she embarks on a quest to find it. Unknown to her, she is being stalked by obsessive, psychopathic killer and former lover, Arthur Breen. Breen is someone you do not want to meet anywhere but in fiction - the ultimate, obsessive, can't-let-go-of-the-past, twisted, "demon lover." He is made more chilling because you probably know people like this. Beneath the surface urbane sophistication, he is an overgrown, self-centered child self-hypnotized by his own sensualist whims. You easily believe this guy kills for the pleasure of killing. It must have been what Ted Bundy was like behind the charm, what John Wayne Gacy was like behind the clown act.
Serial killers, a powerful demon, magical gateways to parallel worlds: it's all here, but the behavior of the characters against this setting is what's important. Although extreme and "out there," the novel is grounded in the reality of believable characters who are true to their given natures.
As you probably have surmised, I wasn't immediately sympathetic towards Lucy's self-indulgent protagonist, Val. My initial reaction to "Safety of Unknown Cities" was "Ho hum, it's `Looking for Mr. Goodbar' as written by Clive Barker." But as I started slogging through the depravity, I came to realize that Val doesn't really hurt anybody, outside of a few broken hearts (- and any REAL man has had, or bloody well SHOULD HAVE HAD his heart broken a couple of times. It builds character.)
As the story progresses, Val's own inner-demons, her drives and psychological motivations are revealed, most importantly, to herself. She eventually learns to put aside her quest for the perfect orgasm and place the good of other people above her own pleasures. As a result, we start to care about her - especially when we compare her relatively innocent peccadilloes to the perpetual, demonic freak show in which she eventually finds herself.
And so, on one level, "The Safety of Unknown Cities" is a cautionary tale of what happens when you give too much of your attention to satisfying your libido. It is also a plea for perspective, proportion and tolerance. (One of the most sympathetic characters in the book turns out to be a hermaphrodite. In most circles hermaphrodite is the worst label you can attach to someone -- worse than "Geek" was back in the `50s when it meant 'one who bites the heads off of live chickens,' but again Lucy Taylor reminds us that it is THE BEHAVIOR of the human being, his/her CHARACTER which is important and not that person's appearance, gender, race or sexual preference. The person, the human being, is much more important than the tag or "fetish word" we attach to them.
Don't you love the term "fetish word?" Communicates A LOT in a brief space, doesn't it?
"Fetish Word" is a concept I stole from Lucy's newest collection "Unspeakable," a book that, in my opinion, takes the horror short story about as close to the realm of "pure art" as it's ever going to get. "Unspeakable" is a book that will grab you by the skivvies, hang you up on a coat hook and then gleefully smack you around until you see things a little differently.
Indeed, "The Safety of Unknown Cities," will also force you to examine yourself and hopefully, grow a little. So, as someone who doesn't even like erotica who has been thrust uncomfortably into the role of gushing fan, I've got to give it 5 stars.