House Of Dark Delights
by Louisa Burton
(Bantam, $13.00, NC-17) ISBN 0-553-38412-3
If one wants to get technical about it, House of Dark Delights really isn’t Louisa Burton’s debut. Having already published contemporary and historical romance under the name Patricia Ryan, and historical mysteries under the name P.B. Ryan, Burton takes on a new persona to indulge her passion for mythology and erotica. This is also the start of the Hidden Grotto series, and while it succeeds in atmosphere and eroticism, it falls short on character development and pacing.

Hidden away in the French countryside is Chateau de la Grotte Cachee, an exotic and beautiful estate home to a variety of sexual demons. There is Elic, an elf with the ability to transform from male to female. His sole purpose in life is to take “seed” from a man, and impregnate a worthy woman who will then give birth to “gifted” children. Lili is his true love, a succubus with an insatiable sexual appetite. Inigo is a satyr, who lives life to have sex and play the charming lecher. Rounding out this group is Darius, a djinni; a shape shifter who can read human desires should he get too close. He is then obligated to fulfill said desires.

Written as an anthology, the first story, “‘Twixt Sleep And Wake” begins in present day, when Elic turns into “Elle” in order to have sex with a visiting tennis star. He then seeks out that man’s fiancée, in order to impregnate her with a gifted child. Color me crazy, but I’d rather have a snow globe from a tacky souvenir shop to commemorate my vacation.

“Lick Of The Flame” transports the reader back to the mid-18th century and is the longest story in the collection. The visiting Hellfire Club is in residence, looking for a secluded place to hold their meeting. The meeting involves a satanic mass, an orgy and plenty of ripe virgins. Lili is offered up as a figurative “sacrifice” only to become busy thwarting the advances of a club member that leaves her cold. Darius meets up with the cool Countess of Somerhurst, and learns her desires falls into the pain, punishment and humiliation realm. These two are soon partaking in a bit of BDSM, although Darius must fight his instincts to take it too far.

“Body Of Knowledge” brings the reader into the late Victorian era, when a visiting mythology scholar and his daughter are visiting the estate. The daughter, a bluestocking bordering on prudish, has repeatedly thwarted the advances of her father’s colleague but begins rethinking the idea after having a sexual awakening thanks to Darius. There’s also quite a bit of back-story surrounding the chateau’s early druid and Roman roots.

“A Demon Of Flesh And Stone,” travels back to a time Before Christ, and tells the story of how Elic came to live in the area. A young druid is set to take his rightful place as clan leader when his father is killed fighting the invading Romans. Of course, his shrewish, power-hungry mother has something to say about that, and wants her “crippled” son to wed a woman he doesn’t love in order to beget more gifted druids. The young man wishes to wed his true love, a girl with no special gifts. In order to achieve this plan, he needs Elic’s help.

House Of Dark Delights falls into a literary erotica category. It’s the sort of book snooty English majors read because they want to read about “sex,” but don’t want any sissy “love” stuff getting in the way. It takes a few pages to get in tune with the writing style, but once the reader develops an ear for it, it’s a very smooth read.

Not so smooth is the pacing. It wasn’t until halfway through the second story featuring the Hellfire Club that any sort of plot shows up. Burton lays some groundwork on her setting, the mythology, but spends little time on character development. The reader has to have some patience for an actual plot to development, and once it does, the stories begin to work. The characters take on more dimensions as the stories progress, and with future installments planned in this series, readers can expect more insight into the lives and minds of these sexual demons.

All of the stories end on a positive note, but Burton shies away from traditional romance novel happy endings. While the Hidden Grotto series is an interesting concept, and it gives the author ample opportunity for world building and exploring mythology, the target audience seems vague. With mythological creatures, it seems too genre for literary readers, yet lacking in some traditional genre conventions it might be too literary for genre readers. That said, readers interested in a paranormal realm anchored in ancient traditions should find this concept pleasing, and it will be interesting to see if Burton’s world will bear fruit in future installments.

--Wendy Crutcher

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