It would seem romance is a genre that easily lends itself to camp. The larger-than-life heroes, the too-good-to-be-true heroines, the often overwrought storylines, and most especially the clinch covers–with the flowing locks and bare chests–are undertaken with a seriousness that belies the pulp nature of this form of entertainment. That more romances don’t come off as campy is, frankly, surprising and likely a testament to the skill of romance authors which manage to take their material seriously enough for it to be engaging and compelling; but not so serious that the material is easily ridiculous. Nina Bangs’ novel Wicked Pleasure, on the other hand, doesn’t find this balance and, despite a humorous style, falls firmly into camp.
When Kim Vaughn is summoned to the Castle of Dark Dreams in Galveston, she’s thrilled for the opportunity to establish herself as an architect and distance herself from the family business: demon hunting. It’s a bit difficult for her to estrange herself completely, as her sidekick, the faulty demon detector Fo (a talking cell-phone like device) erroneously advises Kim that every being they come in contact with is a demon. The camp element comes into play first with Fo, who speaks from whatever pocket Kim has stashed it in. More appropriately, Fo is a her, not an it, a mechanical device that has evolved into a sentient being; one whose humanity develops throughout the book. Fo doesn’t menace as HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey does —nor is she intended to—but is entirely too reminiscent of the magic flute from H.R. Pufnstuf, with dialog that is plaintive and whiny and always punctuated with a “Kimmie.”
To further hamper Kim’s attempts to dodge the family business, the castle isn’t really what it seems: on the surface it’s an adult play ground, a place to live out fantasies, but the castle is run by the supernatural McNair brothers, the fantasies enhanced by the attributes of Eric the vampire, Conall the immortal warrior, and Brynn, a demon cursed to sexual enslavement. Predictably, Kim and Brynn are immediately and groundlessly drawn to one another in ways that defy explanation. Kim, who is the least tuned into the extra sensory perception her family uses in the hunt for demons, can feel Brynn’s emotions (even prior to meeting him) and Brynn makes a place in his mind for Kim, even though his standard mode of operation is to forget and avoid women.
Brynn’s curse, or compulsion as he refers to it, forces him into sexual enslavement to women. Should Brynn spend an hour in any woman’s company, the compulsion kicks in and Brynn strips to offer his body for the woman’s pleasure. As a plot device this curse is strained and the ramifications of a demon offering himself to a demon hunter are a bit too easy and obvious. However, Brynn’s reaction to the state of his existence is the least predictable element of the book: he feels overwhelming shame and embarrassment. His feelings about himself and his actions—the acts he can’t control—are entirely unhero-like in their vulnerability and a breath of fresh air.
Unfortunately Brynn’s curse and his self-loathing are not mined too deeply for the plot. Early on a conflict is set up between Brynn and a vampire named Liz who happens to be staying at the castle. Liz knows all about the compulsion and is willing to use it—and the fact that unlike a human woman, Brynn can not erase encounters with him from Liz’s mind—to her best sexual advantage and Brynn’s determent. The set up is ripe for strife between Brynn and Kim: here is a man who really can’t be held responsible for being with other women. But this storyline is scuttled a third of the way into the book and a plot involving an arch demon’s desire to take over Galveston emerges. The arch demon plot is the focus of the remaining two-thirds of the book and doesn’t marry well with the demon-who-is-sexually-enslaved-to-women set up, or, in fact, make sense at all.
Making sense is a rather large stumbling block for Wicked Pleasure as too often the reader is left to flounder in an attempt to piece together what is going on. The setting is marred by a serious lack of world building. This story is the second offering in Bang’s planned trilogy about the McNair brothers and it’s difficult to ascertain if the lack of universe establishment is due in part to the assumption that readers would already be acquainted with the pseudo brothers and their Castle of Dark Dreams or simply a failure to adequately set the scene. Regardless the reason, the result is a paranormal offering that doesn’t take the time to establish the parameters of Bangs’ world or set out what folklore and mythology governs the story.
Wicked Pleasure is a mix of successes and failure, though the latter prevails, the story doesn’t need to be further saddled with the camp factor: there are not one, but two, talking cats; a wizard who actually wears a pointy hat; an arch demon who goes by “The One Whose Name Cannot Be Uttered” (an odd choice considering how litigious Scholastic and J.K. Rowling are) and a wedding cake that is a portal to hell. Ultimately, Wicked Pleasure reads as if the intention was camp, but it’s completely clear that the intent is sober.
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