Gorgeous, twisted, and erotic: it’s a strange but tantalizing combination that is the collection Fist of the Spider Woman. Edited by the ever-fabulous Vancouver-based writer, filmmaker, and performance artist Amber Dawn, this book of “tales of fear and queer desire” is probably the most unique anthology I’ve ever read. It’s queer not just in the LGBTQ sense, but also in that older, more fundamental meaning: strange, odd, unsettling. With over half of the contributors hailing from Canada (nine out of fifteen), the book also represents a diverse group of queer Canadian women writers, who impressed me to no end about how far their imaginations could venture, both in the direction of the terrifying and the erotic. Actually, probably the most remarkable thing about this collection is how all of its contributors show that travel toward that which is frightening and that which is sexy just might be in the same direction.
Explaining the imperative behind the anthology, Amber Dawn writes in the introduction: “Maybe you remember this happening to you—a renegade coming of age when you realized that being different isn’t such a bad thing after all, a time when you stopped wishing you fit into the crowd and started building an identity based on standing out from it”; standing out, though, she reminds us, often means being afraid. What women who break out from the crowd are especially good at, however, is “revamping what burdens us, subverting things to our own advantage.” The aim in these ventures generally, as in this collection, is “not to quell our fears, but to embrace them”; to own, reclaim, and twist what is scary. Fist of the Spider Woman certainly excels at that.
It’s been a while since I’ve experienced that feeling of being deliciously scared; not every piece in Fist of the Spider Woman invoked fear, since there’s quite a range of tone throughout the collection, but it was actually really great to be reminded of how fun that sensation can be. I have to say, there are certain stories I’m glad I read in broad daylight! My favourite was Toronto writer Suki Lee’s “Sido;” it manages to balance being both sexy and scary and culminates in probably one of the most chilling and brilliant endings I’ve ever read. Nomy Lamm’s “Conspiracy of Fuckers” also balances sex and fright: there are some definitely hot scenes between the genderqueer protagonist (who’s also disabled) and their trans guy ex, but the paranoia about government conspiracy is palpable, and I’m still not sure whether the ending is triumph or defeat. Amber Dawn’s “Here Lies the Last Lesbian Rental in East Vancouver” is part ghost story, part anti-gentrification treatise, and part mean mommy and little girl kinky erotica. Other stories are simply terrifying and not so erotic, such as Aurelia T. Evans’s “In Circles,” which features an intersexual main character. You’ll never think of that silly sleepover game Bloody Mary the same way again.
There’s a number of stories featuring BDSM elements, but probably not as many as you would think given the theme of the anthology; personally, I appreciated this since most BDSM erotica I’ve read hasn’t really been my thing. Some of the pieces could definitely be qualified as erotica, others definitely fall into the category of sex work activism, and a couple are actually more funny than scary. In term of form the collection is also diverse: there’s a fair number of poems, including Elizabeth Bachinsky’s beautiful rhythmically repetitive “Further Postulation on the Violent Works of the Marquis de Sade,” where the eerily similar words ‘love’ and ‘loathe’ begin to blend together. And then there’s the opening story, “Slug,” by Megan Milks, which I can really only describe as the most fucked up story I’ve ever read (I mean this in the best way possible). “Slug” is queer stretched to its limit, for sure. I really didn’t know what to think about it for a while, actually; now I’ve decided that I’m in awe of how wild and amazing and absurd some peoples’ imaginations are. In fact, I’d say pretty much the whole book convinced me of that, which is kind of one of the best lessons you could learn, isn’t it?