Some of you may have noticed an evolution in my books. I started writing stories about the staff of a strip club finding love, stories intended to be subversive and challenge a lot of the assumptions we have about sex workers. Writing Love and Lapdances is still one of the things I do for relaxation, because it reminds me of so many beautiful, loving, complex, powerful sex workers I’ve met over the years, who have lived some of the most uplifting real-life romances I’ve encountered. I’ve got enough stories outlined to write those novellas for another decade, if I chose.
But as I kept writing, I found myself returning to stories with a heavy dose of suspense, and violence, stories that just couldn’t fit in that world without dramatically twisting the underlying ideas behind Love and Lapdances- namely that sex work is pretty normal. As I contemplated where I fit in the romance genre, it seemed more and more clear to me that my heart was pointing me far outside the contemporary romance flow. It pointed me to my gritty, pulpy roots, the books that stuck with me through the years. It pointed me to dark fantasy romances/PNRs, and bloody romantic thrillers that pushed even my boundaries. It pointed me to brutality, and trauma, and people powerful enough to survive it and still put love back out into the world.
Not everyone around me has understood it. There’s a number of books I’ve written that even my partner won’t read, because he knows enough of some of the kink to know it is just not his thing, and will never be his thing. After I discussed the outline for Siren with him, including the description of one of the kinkier/edgier scenes (You know the one, if you’ve read Restrain), he couldn’t meet my eye for an hour.
So often, when I talk to people about the darker side of romance, I hear some variation of “I don’t know why I’d want to buy into a character loving another character with no redeemable qualities.” But the thing is, and this is what makes me love dark romance all the more, there are redeemable qualities. They might not be save-the-cat level mercies; in some books they may simply be that antihero hero having a truly compelling written voice. That hero might have charisma, or such skill at their badness that you can’t help but root for them, with or without any kind of reformation. Maybe there’s even something extra satisfying about watching them corrupt their partner, watching the “good” character discover they’re capable of cruelty and violence, no longer forced to stay quiet in the face of it.
See, antiheroes are a mainstay in basically every literary genre. The doomed mafia kingpin who you can’t help but hope will escape the FBI trap slowly closing in around him. The vampire who has committed atrocities- and still will, for the “right” reasons, or because his bloodlust got away from him at the wrong time. Beauty and the Beast. House of Cards. American Psycho. On and on, deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole our fascination goes. We hate and love people who color outside society’s lines, due to our own resentment at the sacrifices and degradation needed to color inside those lines ourselves.
How could anyone think that those characters exist everywhere but romance?
And as for dark romance… it’s like a bastard love-child of romance and horror. It offers the adrenaline rush of reading disturbing things that you’d get from a horror novel, the how-far-can-you-push-people challenge in seeing exactly how the “normal” partner handles it, the catharsis of feeling angst and pain with them, sometimes masochistic tendencies in finding pleasure in the idea of severe pain or injury (or rape fantasies), the optimism in (sometimes) discovering that even the irredeemable can be redeemed, or the dog-eat-dog thrill of seeing the bad guy triumph.
Plus, dark romance offers a safe space for readers and writers to deal with trauma. One of my favorite things about the subgenre is that so much of it does cover not just the trauma someone might endure, but the recovery. For some people coping with PTSD or the fallout from trauma, this kind of literature can sometimes be a form of exposure therapy, allowing us to relive our worst fears, but with the assurance that it’ll be okay in the end, and that just as the traumatized protagonist has moved past it, we can too. This can make portrayals of trauma in romance subgenres (including dark romance) more powerful than ones offered in other genres, because that promise of a happily ever after means that that character will never be ruined by the acts of violence committed against them.
For these reasons, dark romance has captivated me for a long time. I have my pet peeves with it- particularly in the tropes that guide many authors’ (including dark romance authors’) representations of sex trafficking and sex workers, a seemingly natural topic for dark fiction in our current society. And I have a lot of quibbles with how it’s treated by etailers, since dark romance is particularly vulnerable to censorship by retailers who profit from these books while refusing to provide tools for labeling them- preferring to instead ban them the moment they offer them bad press or a reader complaint, which is all the more likely to happen when it’s not properly labeled. But by far, it’s my favorite genre to write in. Even my paranormal romance is dark by many people’s standards. As a woman who’s lived through a shitton of her own traumas, it’s the language I speak. It’s the subgenre where I’m most likely to see empowering and nuanced representations of survivors like myself.
Put it this way. Most of us like candy. Some of us like chocolate and gummy bears. Sweet stuff that’s like a culinary hug. Others like candies with a faint tart tang, like Jolly Ranchers. Still others of us like sour candies that are so goddamn strong, they’ll make your eyes water, and your teeth hurt. No one’s gonna make anyone else eat those candies ’til their tongues bleed and they can’t taste their other food. But some of us will choose to dive into that gluttony, and will love every fucked-up second of it.
Some readers nope out at explicit sex, or consensual BDSM. Others reach for power fantasies in which the reader’s consent to read the story is more important than the character’s consent in the book (dubcon rape fantasies, stories such as 50 Shades of Grey, where you can debate for hours the exact nature and authenticity of consent offered, in places). Others reach for even more graphic explorations of power, trauma, fear, and lust (Pepper Winters’ Debt Inheritance series).
Everyone has boundaries. Everyone has wants.
Me? I’ll eat that sour candy ’til my tongue bleeds. And when the bag is empty, I’ll show you my bloody, peeling tongue as a sign of pride.
For those readers interested in reading my dark romance, it primarily appears under my Tiger Tarantino penname, though some dark paranormal titles appear under K. de Long. Those books will always include a warning in the description that the book contains material some readers may find upsetting. Readers seeking to avoid that stuff should stick with Lila Vega, or K. de Long books that only contain mature content in the warning.