by Janine Ashbless
It’s a dark and stormy night. Trees creak and sigh in the wind. Wolves howl in the distance. A flash of lightning reveals a half-ruined castle perched atop a mountainous outcrop, a dim light flickering in one window. On the rutted track a carriage drawn by terrified black horses hurries toward that isolated fortress – and inside that carriage is a young woman, all alone, clinging to her courage and wondering what fate awaits her …
Hee hee hee.
There’s something about the traditional gothic set-up that draws me in every time. It’s there in a hundred Hammer films, a thousand ghost stories … and, er, in Scooby Doo. Despite the clichés, I can’t resist the mystery, the sense of danger, the foreboding hint of the supernatural. The clash of innocence and corruption, civilisation and nightmare, science and superstition. The society that is outwardly so restrictive and respectable but harbours those willing to push beyond the bounds of propriety, rationality and even sanity. The Spooky Old House (always a symbol of our own labyrinthine psyches) that must be explored. The masculine figure whose ambiguous nature, both enthralling and terrifying, is not resolved without mortal peril. The maiden whose nascent sexuality drives the plot as she is threatened by a Fate Worse than Death.
Much, much Worse.
Hey, why re-invent the wheel? Why stick your vampires in LA and give them guns? Why expose your deepest terrors to the withering (and detumescing) light of day? Lovecraft said: "The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear. And the oldest and strongest kind of fear is Fear of the Unknown." That applies to erotica too.
Which was why I was delighted to submit a story to CatScratch Books’ anthology of gothic romance novellas, and even more delighted to get the title slot (and the cover painting). My story, Bound in Skin, is a gothic tale I’ve wanted to write for years. The story of the orphaned and destitute Cassandra Otley who travels across Europe to a remote Balkan castle in the hope of being permitted to take up the position her late father had been offered, cataloguing a private library. Only it turns out that some of the books are most unsuitable for an innocent young lady to read. And her handsome employer is, of course, hiding a dark and beastly secret that will threaten her life...
I dedicated this story to my teenaged self, and to all the grouchy virgins out there who can’t or won’t get what they want, for whatever reason. Because as I remember it, virginity is in no way a state of innocent bliss and Cassandra, though virginal, is neither ignorant nor "pure" . She has learned things from books that young Victorian women are not supposed to know. In fact she has a naughty habit of sneakily reading the filthier books in the library. She knows what she wants - but she also knows the consequences that society will inflict upon her if she takes it. For her, sex is a battle between mind and body. And in the scene below, where she’s snuck downstairs to do some midnight reading, her employer is just about to tip the scales…
I brought to my desk a volume I had uncovered that morning and wanted to peruse again. It was handwritten on fine paper in a script that I judged was Hindustani, but the interest of the book was not in the text but in the illustrations on almost every page: delicately detailed paintings in jewel-bright colours of couples - and not just couples but entire parties - engaged in copulation in the most perfectly maintained gardens and pavilions. The men depicted were unprepossessing to my eye: plump, unshaven and rather grumpy-looking, their virile members as curved as scimitars. The women were equally sullen in appearance but made up for it with extravagantly feminine figures and a litheness that bordered on contortionism. I tilted my head this way and that as I scanned the pages, trying to decipher the knotted positions of the participants and wondering if they were possible for a woman of English frame; wondering if I would ever be inducted into such practices. My heart beat swiftly. My hand crept down between my hot thighs. I was completely absorbed.
I don’t know what it was that made me look up, but the Margraf was in the library doorway, leaning against the frame and watching me, his arms folded. I could have leapt out of my skin. I jumped to my feet instead, without thinking how guilty this made me look, and slammed a folio of innocent architectural sketches over the pornographic book.
Margraf Goran took that as a cue to approach from the shadows. He was dressed with the minimum of decency - shirt and trousers - but he was barefoot, which explained why I hadn’t heard him enter the room. His paces were long and measured, without hurry. I think he was savouring the moment. A dark smile played about his lips. As for myself, I stared and panted with all the wit of a deer cornered against a fence. I had no skill at dissembling.
‘What are you reading, Miss Otley?’ he asked politely. ‘Something quite gripping, I have to assume? It’s very late.’
I didn’t answer. I knew without doubt that I had just lost my position of employment here and I was so panicked I could not move.
‘Hm?’ He looked down at the sketchbook, eyebrows raised in enquiry. ‘Go on. What is it?’
I pressed my hands flat onto the cover, determined that he’d have to use force to take a look at what lay beneath. I didn’t move even when he walked round the desk and round me, stopping to look down over my shoulder. Quietly he reached forward and laid his left hand over mine. He had long, strong fingers. The movement brought his body into contact with my own, all along my arm and shoulder and back.
‘Please,’ I whispered.
The Margraf slid his fingers between mine, splaying them wider. His hand felt warm and dry. He waited a moment for me to yield, but my arms stayed locked. I heard him smile, though I could see nothing of his expression. With his other hand he very gently lifted the locks of my undressed hair from my neck and bent his head to breathe the scent of my skin. ‘It must be something quite exciting,’ he murmured. ‘You are quite warm, Miss Otley … and damp.’
I shut my eyes. My heart was pounding so hard my tense arms were jumping with each beat.
‘Sir,’ I entreated.
I think he’d lost interest in the actual book some moments previously. Releasing my hand, he scooped my chin up and drew my head back and away, exposing my throat. His lips brushed the sensitive skin in a slow sweep, his breath warm. With the other hand he traced the edge of my dressing gown around the scoop of my neck, his fingertips igniting my skin, and slipped the cotton back from my shoulder. What really horrified me was how gentle he was. There was no force involved at all, and with that he made me complicit in my own ruin. Even when I felt his teeth graze my ear I did not fight him. My eyes flew open again but I could not even focus them. The room seemed to spin.
‘Your skin is so soft,’ he whispered - and I heard an edge of unmistakable hunger in his voice. I shuddered in his hands.
Slowly he tugged free the fastenings of my gown and smoothed it off my shoulders, down to my elbows. Underneath I was wearing only long drawers and a sleeveless camisole top, its wide-scooped neckline decorated with a surf of lace and little blue bows, so that looking down over my shoulder he found a great deal of skin to admire. His chest was pressed lightly to my back. He traced the line of my collarbone. His touch - all fingertips and lips - was almost tender, but I knew without seeing the pale wolf-light that would be burning in his eyes. He found the loose lace directly over my right breast and played with the folds, making me gasp.
‘Shall I?’ he whispered hot in my ear, moving to finger the row of tiny buttons directly down my breastbone. ‘Or what about … this?’ Without warning his other hand slid round the waistband of my drawers, found the bow there and pulled it out in one long exquisite movement. Biting my lip, I pressed my mons against the desk edge, trying to keep those knickers in place. It didn’t stop him. Reaching under my dressing gown, he found the first sliver of bare skin between upper and lower garments and smoothed his palm down my hip and flank. My drawers, held up at the front by the hard line of wood, had no defence elsewhere and slipped to bare the curve of my bottom.
I was melting for him.
‘Wonderful,’ he growled in my ear, one hand on the satin swell of my buttock cheek, the other finally swooping to cup my right breast through the thin cotton. I felt like he was holding my whole being in his hands. Then he was pressed against me properly, lifting me up on my toes with the length of his body hard against my softness, my round backside tucked up into his thighs and crotch, his hand squeezing my breast, his mouth on my throat, teeth bared over my pulse. Through a few thin layers of cloth I could feel exactly how much he wanted me. My legs and arms were so rigid that they could take the strain no more. My mind whirled with the pictures from the book. Suddenly I was shaking and tears were spilling down my cheeks.
‘Sir, please,’ I sobbed.
Want to read further?
Bound in Skin: a collection of gothic romances both modern and traditional is printed by CatScratch books, an imprint of Cats Curious Press, a Texas-based publisher. (Incidentally, they were an absolute pleasure to work for, and even sent me a Christmas card!).
There are 6 other novellas in the anthology - featuring ghosts, secret passages, wicked murders, hidden secrets, witchcraft and of course, isolated and eerie houses. Be aware, this is a gothic romance collection - the submission criteria specified "erotic but not erotica" so although there is sex between these covers you won’t find the same level of gynaecological detail and bedroom gymnastics that you’d get in a Black Lace book, say.
Buy at Amazon (US)
Buy at Barnes & Noble (US)
Buy at Amazon (UK) (you’ll have to go through Amazon Marketplace "new & used" because CatScratch is a US imprint)
But of course you have a chance to win a free copy here! All you have to do is comment on this post and I’ll pick someone’s name from my red velvet bag of Tarot cards - results in Coming Attractions this Sunday. Funny how I keep drawing Death, and the Lovers…
Costume pictures courtesy of my friend Jema Hewitt who makes period costume for weddings and re-enactors, and helped me with sartorial detail for this story. Find her costume website at Kindred Spirits.