2017, Sinful Press; 2012, Sweetmeats Press.
I know this is a strange thing to say, but the horrible Coronavirus situation that is raging around the world got me thinking about an excellent book of erotica that I’ve been meaning to review: Named & Shamed, by British author Janine Ashbless. It’s an odd connection, I’ll admit—pandemics aren’t particularly sexy, are they.
I recently posted a question on social media asking how the Covid-19 lockdowns were affecting eroticists’ work, and most writers said that the conditions of the pre-pandemic world, and marketplace, were already suppressing their libidos and output, and now things are even worse. But I also noticed discussions on Twitter concerning how all this horror could be eroticized—Rule 34, after all: if something exists (or even if it doesn’t), there is porn about it.
Most of the ideas centered around lockdowns and self-isolating—what is a couple (or more) to do when legally ordered to stay inside? And if they don’t really know each other beforehand, that adds a new level of tension and potential, doesn’t it?
My own brain tends toward darker Black Death-era Decameron porn: the wealthy flee the infested city and take refuge in a locked-down estate; naughty hijinks ensue. But because I’ve never cared for erotica that romanticizes the wealthy as especially decent people, I envision, oh, say, a young attractive couple knocking on the heavy doors to offer themselves as servants in return for safety—and servants they will become, though not (necessarily) in ways they’d originally envisioned. The threat of banishment adds to the stakes and tensions, and yes, alters the issues of consent—although, in my imaginary version at least, does not completely break them. A sort of Sleeping Beauty/City of Dreams* situation, but even more dub-con. Mmmm, yes….
…Where was I? Oh yes. Plague porn. Named & Shamed is not at all about any kind of viral pandemic infecting humanity. But threats of highly infectious diseases inevitably bring about talk of the Black Death, and the weird medieval conclusions as to what caused it all, and doctors wearing those weird bird-masks—and just when we think about how far we’ve come, some evangelical preacher will point out how this one is caused by our acceptance of homosexual marriage.
We are still filthy superstitious peasants, Renaissance and Enlightenment or no, if you ask me. In Britain, people have been setting fire to 5G cell phone towers because they think they cause the virus. In America, people were hoarding tonic water, making life difficult for those of us who like a nice gin and tonic while in lockdown. We are one presidential Tweet from burning black cats and women who float when they’re thrown into the river by the local Inquisitors.
It’s hard to shake those years of European and New World idiocy, our misunderstandings of cause and effect, our steadfast certainty of what amounts to magic, and folklore—have you really paid attention to the lyrics of those old children’s songs that are still lingering around?
Which brings me to this review.
As I said, Named & Shamed is not about a viral invasion of Britain and Europe, with its accompanying medieval cultural trimmings. It portrays an invasion by those horrific legends and myths themselves. In this world created by Ashbless, all the once-supposed causes of human suffering—the witches, fairies, and ogres of the Middle Ages—have come back, from the netherworld, from whatever dimension they’ve been in, and they are causing societal havoc. People are self-isolating, afraid to leave their houses—and let me tell you, they are no kinder than a mindless virus. They just have a far more wicked sense of humor.
Named & Shamed is not only one of the most outright filthiest erotic novels I’ve ever read (possibly the filthiest—that’s a compliment, btw), it is primarily about how those old stories linger, even into our modern age—there’s something in our collective psyches that has never quite let go.
I’ve never been a big fan of supernatural erotica, I have to admit. Vampires, zombies, and werewolves have always bored me, as do superhero movies. But this book, I couldn’t put down. First because of the unremitting filth of it all, yes, but also because there was so much depth to the myths and world-building behind it. Ms. Ashbless knows her stuff. And it is oddly relevant, now, though perhaps less so when it was originally written in 2012. (It was gorgeously re-released in 2017 by Sinful Press, but the original Sweetmeats Press edition had illustrations?) It is an incredibly well thought out (and hot) look at how the human race might cope with an invasion of a different kind of unseen enemy: every damn species of mythical creature the paranoid medieval mind was able to think up.
Is this a bit of a tenuous connection I’m making, trying to find relevance between our modern crisis that is causing real pain and the ancient myths that are buried deep in our culture but have become primarily children’s entertainment? Maybe. But it’s a damn good book, in any case.
An erotica author whom I adore once offered me the advice, after reading and (generously) reviewing my novel Blue, that I might consider, for my next book, slowing down the sex and punishment scenes just a bit—leave a few sexless chapters between them; give readers a chance to build up a little anticipation before starting in again.
Let me tell you right now that if Ms. Ashbless ever received such advice before writing this novel, she did not heed it in the least. In the least. Named & Shamed is one of the most relentlessly filthy novels I have read. Shall we discuss this aspect?
Named & Shamed is not really a BDSM novel, and its main character, Tansy, even remarks that she has never been into such specific kinks as restraint, impact play, and submission (though more on this in a moment). It is, however, without a doubt a novel about power—its loss, its exchange (willful, or not, or both), and the desire for that exchange.
One of the most common tropes of BDSM fiction, especially short stories, is that of the sub’s punishment—the comeuppance story. In stories featuring happily consensual couples, for instance, this is usually depicted as the submissive partner breaking some rule while out on the town; there is then a period of that sweet mix of dread and anticipation until they get home. It’s the juice that fuels BDSM.
One of my favorite twists on this trope, however, is what I call the innocent’s comeuppance: an obedient submissive is punished for something they did not do. This is particularly delicious when they are punished for simply not knowing the rule (so unfair!), or, in a more complex fictional world, a sub or slave might be accused by a lying, conniving competitor, and the person in charge reacts without proper investigation. (This sometimes leads to the turning-of-the-tables trope, but that’s another essay.)
What Named & Shamed does so brilliantly is straddle the line between these ideas—it exists somewhere in between deserved and not-deserved suffering, and uses some very clever devices for its premise. Minor spoilers to follow:
Tansy, an expert in folklore (as is Ms. Ashbless, to have written this book), has been searching for a rare poem, an early draft of a real-life 19th Century work by Christina Rossetti titled Goblin Market, which was somewhat risqué for its day. She finds out that a certain older gentleman who owns a rare-books store is in possession of this handwritten draft, and, rather explicitly, seduces him into showing it to her. Upon reading it and seeing the more blatant sexual differences from the published version, she decides it wouldn’t hurt to borrow it, just temporarily, in order to make a copy. Just for her own use, you know. Not evil behavior, no—after all, the storeowner certainly got something in return—but not exactly nice, now, is it? Because the problem, you see, is that the store is also occupied by a large and very powerful female Ogre—and this ogress believes the manuscript belongs to her.
In stealing borrowing it, Tansy has put poor Edmund, the store’s proprietor, in deathly jeopardy. Not exactly an “innocent,” Tansy—though she did intend to return it, and quickly. But the road to hell is paved, as they say, with the most honorable of intentions, and a series of small disasters in the initial chapter leads to Tansy’s car being towed, with the poem in it. Not only does this almost certainly doom Edmund, but no one—no one—wants to be walking alone late at night through London, which is exactly what she is forced to do. She heads to the impound lot, which, to her severe dismay, has already closed.
Fortunately, help arrives. Unfortunately, it is one of the Gentry, the Good Neighbours, Them There: a Ganconer, a (very hot) fiddle-playing seducer of Irish origins. (I’d never heard of one, either.) He approaches her at the locked gate of the impound lot, and offers his assistance—which Tansy knows far better than to accept. But she also knows that rudeness is the one thing that offends all these various creatures more than anything. “What are your terms?” she asks. “A mere eight inches of your flesh, wrapped around eight of my own,” he answers. They negotiate, or rather she attempts to nail him down on the precise specifics of his proposal—these Folk are tricksters, more than anything—and finally she decides, what could it hurt? He verbally promised not to hurt.
This is the smartness of Ms. Ashbless’s novel: Tansy is not a bad person, but she is also not exactly pure of heart in either her non-theft nor her acceptance to trade what she thought would be a quick fuck for the poem back—yet her actions lead directly to her getting in way over her head with what will become a true predicament with no easy way out. She will, it turns out, get her comeuppance, and more.
Let me say here that the remainder of Part One (of three) is perhaps the filthiest, most fluid-soaked, raunchiest, sex-fest I have ever read. (Did I mention this is a compliment?) Should you be offended by multiple penetrations by multiple and simultaneous partners (male and female) resulting in pints, quarts, perhaps gallons of various (predominately male) bodily fluids filling, overfilling, covering a woman’s body, face, hair, orifices (all orifices), clothes (have I left anything out?); in addition to various beverages, foods, mud, filth in general, all over her… you should perhaps search for your erotic entertainment elsewhere.
Because the Ganconer has technically delivered on his promise: one sexual encounter (and what an encounter it is), and nothing but pleasure for Tansy. But the problem is always in the details, the exact wording, with these creatures: he has promised nothing but her pleasure. She does get home with the manuscript (but not the car; wait for it), and the next morning feels a bit…needy. She gets herself off in the shower, there, that’s taken care of. But no, it’s not taken care of. She does it again. There. Done.
…No. Out of the shower and in her robe, Vince, the boyfriend of Gail, her cousin and roommate, wants to ask her for some advice on how to try a new thing with Gail (anal, if you’re wondering). Tansy has never been interested in Vince, but he looks somehow different to her, this morning. More desirable. She flirts and then throws herself at him, which she has never done before. She does at least halt it, and then runs to her room for more masturbation—but nothing seems to quell her need. She also discovers she is unable to eat: everything tastes awful, and causes her to gag (though nothing else does).
She realizes she has been placed under a curse. She is uncontrollably horny, all the time. And each encounter does nothing to stop it; in fact, they only make her want more. And more. And oh my god, the scene in the impound lot’s repair shop with the five mechanics when she goes to retrieve the car. Poor Tansy’s journey is just getting started.
In Chapter Five alone, I tell ya… (Again, minor spoilers.) Tansy, following an old crone’s advice, finds the Ganconer by following the sounds of his fiddle through what turns into an alternative, magical landscape, only to be, essentially, raped by his harem of nine women. But—and this is the catch, the cleverness of Ashbless’s approach—Tansy wants it all so fucking bad that even while she fights as they pin her down and penetrate her (repeatedly), she also begs for more, and more and more. The Ganconer then refuses his own services, as she begs far more than he requested. The bastard! He also will not release her from his curse—is she not getting nothing but pleasure? But he does give her the clue to her freedom: if she can say aloud his true name, she will be free of this “blessing.” Of course at this point she cannot.
She awakens, disoriented, on the street. But Chapter Five is nowhere near over. Walking home in the dark, she encounters a huge, horrible Bridge Troll, who demands a toll to cross. Tansy, sinking deeper and deeper into sexual need and thus unable to help herself, takes him on, though he is far too well endowed for her to take in. So she does what she can. Did I mention fluids? The Troll is satiated, but not Tansy, and their encounter is interrupted by two human police officers concerned for her safety. They are at first angered at her defilement—but soon realize that Tansy was into it. And now they are angered at her. Nothing is more perverse, in this world, than a troll-fucker.
She is then put through the third wringer of Chapter Five. In any other context, this encounter would be a most horrible rape, by both officers, in the most intrusive ways, followed by even more degrading acts and demands, which she obeys. She is helpless, and, it should be said, truly hates her situation—yet she still craves it. She cries for more, cries tears, cries out in pleasure and hates herself as she cannot help crying out for even more. Finally, trembling against her own front door, she fumbles for the key and her roommates greet her in horrified panic at her appearance—it turns out she’s been gone for three weeks.
This chapter exemplifies, as I said, the brilliance of Ashbless’s tricky approach. The core of sexual fiction featuring dubious consent—Dub-con—relies on the submissive/slave/victim’s attraction to what is being done to her (or, less often, him), and/or the person doing the terrible things, usually despite herself. Conflicted feelings, conflicted desires. It lets the reader, if you’re a fan of this kind of fantasy, experience these conflicts vicariously, without undergoing a kidnapping or a curse yourself. (And I’ll refrain from my recurring argument that “fantasy” does not necessarily mean “I want this to actually happen.”)
But this novel takes a different and complex approach to this end. Dub-con novels are nearly always sadomasochistic in nature, if not properly consensual “BDSM.” They use the tropes and paraphernalia of Kink—whips, discipline, cuffs—to increase the helplessness, the intensity. Tansy states early that she’s never been into all that. Her cousin Gail likes a good spanking; Tansy’s open-minded but has always thought it a bit silly. But she realizes, since the curse’s job is to bring out her deepest needs and force her to pursue them, that her kink is shame.
She is unable to stop it. As the Ganconer reminds her, as she is begging for what she truly wants, even though she does not want to want:
[…] “See what I have done for you? Are you not grateful?” […] “No. It’s not me.”
“Ah. Do you still want my cock, pretty slut?”
“Yes.” My voice was hoarse from all the screaming.
“Isn’t this the real you?” he asked softly. “Haven’t you ever wanted to be used, truly used? Like an animal? Like a simple object? Haven’t you ever wanted to be fucked by all sorts of men, by anyone, by the whole world? Treated as a thing purely desirable, with no will or say of your own? Have you never wanted to be seen only as a body, made to receive cock and fingers and tongue? To be nothing, and everything?”
I opened my mouth to deny it, then thought better of lying. Better to kiss his shaft. Better to admit what he already knew.
It is not consensual, what is happening to Tansy. But because it is what she truly wants, deep down, it is consensually non-consensual. But it was imposed on her without permission—the big moral no-no—so it is non-consensually consensually non-consensual! Because this is literally a fairytale, it is by definition an over-the-top fantasy—if you demand a realistic portrayal of the issues and dilemmas of such a curse, you should look elsewhere. Good luck finding that. Realism is not the goal, here. In real life, permission is crucial, but in fairytales, it is never asked. Quite the opposite. Just read your Brothers Grimm. Risk, and peril, and threat, make far more interesting stories than propriety and respecting rights ever will.
I was telling an erotica author friend of mine about this book, that it’s more about humiliation than any physical pain, or submission (though there is, in fact, both), and she said that’s never really been her thing, her kink. But I didn’t explain it well: it’s not “humiliation play”—“You’re a worm, you’re a slut” (okay, there is a lot of “You’re a slut”). It’s that the curse causes Tansy to absolutely crave the degradation of a bukkake gang-bang with half a dozen greasy mechanics, even while they laugh as they watch her clean up; the disgusting filth of being drenched in odd-smelling Troll come; thanking the police officers as they anally use her without asking—because that’s where her fantasies secretly dwell.
It’s a tricky, tricky thing to pull off—and many fans of more cozy erotica will probably not approve. Let them. I fully understand that this novel might not be everyone’s proverbial cuppa, but it is an unabashed fantasy—it’s Troll come, after all—and as such, the curse is entitled to be fantastical as well.
In Part Two, Tansy, showered at least, begins her Quest to break the curse, with Gail and Vince in tow. They care about her; they want to help. The sexual hijinks continue, though she now has two people looking out for her, keeping her in line. Sort of. They head out into the countryside, following clues, and learn that it is even more dangerous out there—primitive—than in the city. She can’t help but get herself, and them, into more trouble, with both humans and the more unworldly types. They get sidetracked, tricked and trapped, make slow progress. They have to let her masturbate in the back seat more than once as they make quick escapes, just to keep her functional.
Things worsen the closer they get to her goal. Literate in the ways of The Good Folk, she at least understands the clues she is finding, but her time is running out. She can’t eat; she will eventually starve to death (a consent problem, without a doubt). In Part 3, she finds what she has sought, and her challenge truly begins. What is the Ganconer’s true name? I’m not gonna tell you.
This book is, at heart, a classic Quest story. While her behavior could be called less than “heroic,” she follows the very template of the Hero’s Journey. She is in a frantic search for the cure to both save her life and to stop this uncontrollable drive for more and more degrading and dangerous sex. She must solve the puzzle, the Ganconer’s true name, and she must overcome each obstacle and dirty trick as she gets nearer and nearer to the place she might announce it and gain her freedom. Her quest is a different sort of series of battles and struggles than more traditional myths and legends are made of; Tansy does not acquire injuries and scars, not physical ones at least. She acquires shame. It accrues. Will she come out of her ordeal changed, as heroes always do, or merely damaged; or, for that matter, will she survive at all?
In the original medieval fairy tales, you just never knew.
*Read Janine’s thoughts on Brian Tarsis’s City of Dreams and other erotica that influenced her early on in her entry for my Kinked Ink column here.