In the music of the spheres, Love is the chord that holds everything together
Somewhere in her youth writer Jennifer Stevenson pieced together way too much about betrayal, loss, healing, death, and second chances. Wanting to understand, she soaked up information from family, books, and schools, ending up with advanced degrees in counseling and (I suspect) simultaneously realizing that she knew too much—and too little—about human nature.
On this journey it looks like she became interested in stories that addressed all the things she valued, and realized that 1) the bass note of her musical universe was the enduring nature of Love, and 2) all forms of human sexuality are real, no-we’re-not-kidding magic. Stevenson dove headfirst into reading about ancient religions, patriarchal suppression of joy and sexual expression, and how our ancient ancestors viewed the many forms of magic (yes, there are multiple kinds). Then she realized that writing fiction might be the only place she could address all these concepts in a manner any woman (and many men) might find entertaining. . .inspiring . . .
Stevenson’s work is all about how whether we like it or not, the world revolves around fertility I.E. sex, I.E. love. Why? Until very recently for humanity, fertility was everything. Raising up children—many of them—to adulthood was the only way to keep a homestead together, to have a roof over your head in old age, to see immortality in the face of a descendant. In pre-patriarchal religions almost every goddess was petitioned for abundant fertility, relief of sexual problems, and for safe pregnancy and childbirth. Even the warrior goddesses of many cultures were also fertility goddesses, something that first the men and then later cultures and religions tried to sever.
The curious can find over at Wikipedia a sampling of the fertility spirits and deities whose names are still known to us. Stevenson recommended to me Patricia Monaghan’s Encyclopedia of Goddesses and Heroines (New World Library (May 6, 2014)). When I looked at parts of the world not as well known to me, I kept finding unusual names and the words “believed to be a goddess in [XYZ] culture.” The goddesses whose tales we still know are the powerful ones, the ones worshipped most recently–or still worshipped. Their names were impossible to erase and many were absorbed as wives to patriarchal gods or as saints.
With her highly praised novel Trash Sex Magic (Small Beer Press, June 1, 2004) Stevenson tackled class issues, sexualization of children, and animistic magic. Her family of trailer trash sex workers is deeply rooted to the land they have magically claimed. With this novel Stevenson set up three “rules” for what was happening and why. First, that sex itself is magical and transcendent—so much so that we instinctively attempt to tame and control it, essentially making it less magical. Second? That people can and do work magic all the time—they just don’t recognize it as magic. Her third premise is that people in the dominant American culture who are best at animistic magic mostly don’t know how they’re doing it. No one gets any training, they have no language or replicated ritual for their magic, and they may even be embarrassed about their powers and attempt to hide or dismiss them. Animistic magic is messy—but it’s powerful.
Once down the rabbit hole of multiple forms of magic, Stevenson could not resist examining where psychology and ritual magic intersected. Her Hinky Chicago books take place in an alternative contemporary world where magic is inexplicably erupting into urban centers. Some cities have already been overwhelmed. In Chicago, IL they cope with the weirdness and fight to keep it off the front pages of newspapers and social media.
Originally planned as romantic comedies where an alpha male was magically locked into a bed (and could not escape until he had satisfied a hundred women) the Hinky Chicago series morphed into questions about consent, self-image, personal power, sex workers, pornography, and sexual harassment. Its magic is rooted in curses reflecting deepest desires and personal character flaws, rebounding and resonating through time. Ritual magic weaves together scholarship and psychology—but emotion can undermine it every time.
Jen Stevenson once told me that most grimoires (written books of spells and reflections on magic) reflect what the men writing them pursued—the medieval equivalent of fantastic wealth, immortality, and their neighbor’s beautiful wife. (If you do a little research, you’ll find that the few grimoires found written by female magicians pursue different goals.)
These tendencies sent Stevenson off on another path. Jewish and Christian traditions (among others) have versions of demonic entities that exist to entice men and women into sexual “sin” as defined by the newer religions. If you read up on what the old dominant religions were in the areas where the new patriarchal religions began to flower, you will see everything that existed to celebrate and enjoy fertility and sexual congress was suddenly labeled as evil. In many cases, goddesses from earlier pantheons became demons of the next religious roundup.
Turn the kaleidoscope another 5 degrees and you may ask, “Where do retired gods and goddesses end up?” Stevenson suggests that many of them end up as incubi and succubi, working for the new religions (specifically, for the Regional Office—Hell—which tempts in opposition to what the Home Office—Heaven—claims it wants, including sex.) If your culture mistrusts sex, or women, or both, there’s work for sex demons.
Why not? Hell doesn’t want souls (no one can take your soul, it’s you). It wants people tempted to its side of the line. At least that’s one story—as we wander through the Slacker Demons books, we recognize two bloated, opposing administrations that are barely functioning. Working as a sex demon is a great way to duck dealing with your problems for a few decades. . .centuries. . . millennia.
But woven through the Slacker Demons and Coed Demon Sluts books is the mysterious woman called Delilah who implies that she’s a recruiter for Hell. Who is she? Does she really work for Hell? (Are the slacker demons and sluts themselves really working for Hell?) What’s her end game? It’s not really a spoiler to say that some powerful deities of love, sex, and fertility are still trying to push the ultimate drug—love. (Heaven and Hell, on the other hand, are pushing their version of sex, love and fertility. Cultural versions always come with strings attached.)
More—if ancient gods turned incubi sleep with the same person too many times, their power “rubs off” on their partners. They start to turn a mortal into a Power.
From It’s Raining Men:
With a wave, she silenced me. “Whether you love or not, the process will continue until you are fully yourself. Because your powers are activating, this will happen far more rapidly than it does to–” she stirred a hand vaguely in the air “–all these ordinary women.”
“It could happen to any of them? I don’t believe it! Why doesn’t anybody know? I can’t believe, with all these heavens and hells, that nobody knows what love can do!”
“You think all those heavens and hells want ordinary women to know that they could be goddesses?” Aphrodite gave a silvery laugh. “They would hide it from you. They have hidden it from you.”
“But you’re telling me.”
Aphrodite smiled. “Ah, but I am a reckless goddess. My purpose is to propagate life at all costs. If I give away the secret that sexual magical power is inherent in everyone and in everything? So what? It’s not really a secret. It is the juice that makes life happen when you throw a forkful of lightning through a mud puddle. . . .”
Stevenson calls the magic of the Slacker Demons series contagious magic—if you look hard for it throughout history, the belief in it may be older than dirt.
Her Coed Demon Sluts, on the other hand, are ordinary women offered a chance to solve (or avoid dealing with) their own problems by becoming succubi. When researching for her books, Stevenson asked a lot of men and women, gay and straight, what it would take to get them to sign a contract with Hell to become a sex demon.
“A broad, informal survey of my acquaintance showed that my male friends, and my lesbian friends, all agreed that the reason they would sign up for a gig as a sex demon was simply the sex.“But my straight women friends had lots of different answers.“I’d do it for the power.“I’d do it to be the boss in bed for once.“I’d do it to have more fun in bed.“I’d do it for the money.“I’d do it because I’m bored.“I’d do it to be young / thin / healthy / normal.“I’d do it to make myself extraordinary.
A nearly immortal, nearly indestructible body, malleable to whatever you want to look like, free rent and utilities, thirty pieces of antique silver a month (so the pay ranges from excellent to sky’s the limit) and a requirement to eat 4500 calories a day or you get fat. You will like sex—the body is designed to be a man’s greatest fantasy. The price? Tempt three people a month into indiscretion—bonus if they act on it! The catch? You are still you—the problems you are running from still need resolving.
Of course craziness follows. And if you have a good imagination (and these women do) you can do—and be–all sorts of things with this body. The creative drive begins here. This is what Stevenson considers the shmoo form of magic—magic that can be or do anything through wish fulfillment. It’s an irrational magic, and this form is what infuriates people who rave against “making things up.”
Of course all these tales are talking about magic—sexual energy–as the ultimate metaphor, the creative impulse that humans struggle to understand, explain, corral, form into patterns, or simply accept as the oldest story ever told. Aphrodite is Life, and she’ll use whatever it takes to form new creations. Her job is to start things, to plant the first seeds—of love, bonds, marriage, child-rearing, community-building. You may start out toying with sex (or any other form of creation) but if you get hit with one of those arrows of love? You’re down the rabbit hole into wonderland. There is no greater drug, and romance readers return again and again for their favorite hit.
Of course romance novels are one of the most subversive forms of writing out there, celebrating variations of partnership and equality, the idea that committed relationships can and do work, and that the millions of complications thrown at lovers can be defused, averted, and overcome. But examining that facet of Stevenson’s mission is another story.
Where will Stevenson go next? I know she has promised her fans some funny romcoms, and has another Hinky Chicago book in the works. But she’s also mentioned a thriller delving into the dark side of knowing the soul of someone you love. In the meantime, remember the immortal words of Delilah the hidden goddess:
“Aren’t you tired of doing everything right?
Wouldn’t you like a second chance to go back and do it wrong?”
Partial bibliography of suspected and confirmed goddess, magic, and feminism sources for Stevenson’s works:
Art of Memory, Frances A. Yates
The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture (Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature), Mary Carruthers (Stevenson recommends reading The Book of Memory after The Art of Memory)
The Craft of Thought: Meditation, Rhetoric, and the Making of Images, 400-1200 (Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature), by Mary Carruthers
Devoted To You, ed. Judy Harrow
The Book of Goddesses & Heroines, Patricia Monaghan
Eros & Magic in the Renaissance, by Ioan P. Culianu and Margaret Cook
Eros, Magic, and the Murder of Professor Culianu, Ted Anton
Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, Frances A. Yates
God of Desire, Catherine Benton
Golden Dawn Society writings
The New Women and the Old Men: Love, Sex, and the Woman in Question, Ruth Brandon
The Occult Sciences in the Renaissance, Wayne Shumaker
The Qabalistic Tarot, Robert Wang
Real Magic, Isaak Bonewits
Reflections on Gender and Science, Evelyn Fox Keller
The Theosophical Enlightenment, Joscelyn Godwin
Women Who Run With The Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estes
About Katharine Eliska Kimbriel
Cat Kimbriel walks both sides of her preferred genre’s line. She’s written about future world colonization with a gaze at odds with traditional space adventures, and writes alternative history fantasy about a tough young pioneer teen. She’s currently working on a contemporary fantasy about curses, forgiveness, and very different—even radical–ways of looking at the twilight worlds. She’s also working on a short Nuala piece and mulling over a new Alfreda novel.
You can find her fantasy & science fiction, including free samples, at her Book View Café bookshelf. Cat builds worlds that contain compassion and justice — come join the journey.