Summer of tainted love: A season of strictly adult stories about the shadow side of love and sex

Boyd Tonkin looks into a grown-up literature of dark desire

This summer, in the broad mass market, vampires rule. As they so often do. The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner, Stephenie Meyer's novella-length spin-off from the Twilight series, last week sold more than five times as many copies as its closest contender in the UK charts (Patricia Cornwell). Eclipse, the third film adaptation of Meyer's wholesome young suckers and their winsome prey, opens in a fortnight's time. Meanwhile, older lads of the Stephen King-adoring type who might feel a little left out by Meyer's feast of girl power can devour the doorstop du jour: Justin Cronin's novel The Passage, with its apocalyptic plague of the viral undead. Will our toothy passions never die?

Ever since Lord Byron's doctor, John Polidori, created the modern romantic bloodsucker with his tale The Vampyre (published in 1819), the sexual significance of the genre has hardly skulked in the shadows. Rather, the fanged creatures and their victims have offered authors a crypt-full of ways to write about the violence of erotic obsession. In recent decades, sagas of recklessness (Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles) and restraint (the Twilight books) have both served as a mirror for our culture-wars.

When it comes to the thrilling menace of desire, nothing could be more blindingly obvious than a vampire yarn. And, strangely, the universal currency of this metaphor seems to have sucked some of the life out of more earthbound fiction. Now it's rare to find a contemporary, realistic novel of sexual relationships that manages to match the electric crackle of more fantastic tales. Yet, this summer, a few writers have at last gone back into the bedroom and returned with stories that carry a distinct chill without a trace of supernatural machinery.

From honest chick-lit to posh erotica, too much mainstream writing skips across the terrain of potentially deadly desire without quite touching the ground. It can do saucy, soapy or soupy, but not much else. So when writers do try to dig deeper – down to where it hurts – we should pay attention. The grown-ups, that is – kids of whatever age will be safer sticking with Aunt Steph.

The demon lover has stepped back over fiction's threshold. And in some cases he resembles not so much Dracula as the Count's great twin among Gothic archetypes: Emily Brontë's Heathcliff. Earlier this month, the American writer Maureen Gibbon published Thief, a novel in which a traumatised woman falls for a convicted but – apparently - wholly repentant rapist named "Alpha". For Julia Pascal, reviewing it in The Independent, the questions the novel raises "about abuse, attraction and damage... are so subtly explored as to make the reader want to complete the novel in one sitting".

Thief seasons the lurking horrror of an amour fou with a sanely bracing humour. That sense of saving wit as a light that shows the way through dark places of the heart also informs Mud, Michèle Roberts's new "stories of love and sex" (Virago, £13.99). Here, a series of twists allows legendary lovers from literature and history – Tristan and Isolde, Jane Eyre's Mr (and the first Mrs) Rochester, Emma Bovary, Colette – to tell a story from the other side of myth in the manner of Carol Ann Duffy's The World's Wife. The darkness here comes in the depiction of an affinity between the glamorous heroines of fable and the exploitation of urban waifs – girls adrift in the city, trafficked women – today: sisters under, and in, the skin.

With striking zest, Roberts grapples with a masculine tradition of libertine fiction that can still shock, stun and even move. Pushkin Press has just issued a new edition of one of the masterworks in this incendiary vein: The Devil in the Flesh by Raymond Radiguet (translated by Christopher Moncrieff, £10). This short novel ranks, notoriously, as the most precociously worldly work ever composed by a teenager. Radiguet, who died of typhoid aged 20 in 1923, wrote it between the ages of 16 and 18. His semi-autobiographical tale depicts – in disarmingly elegant, nerveless prose – the seduction of a slightly older married women by a teenage student while her husband fights at the front during the last year of the First World War.

The libertine line in fiction – which, in France, goes back to Sade, Laclos (Les Liaisons Dangereuses) and beyond – draws its real power not from obscenity: The Devil in the Flesh contains nothing at all pornographic. Instead, it turns on a cold-eyed analysis of sexual desire as a power-play in which one partner's rise means the other's fall: passion as a zero-sum game. The cynical juvenile narrator imagines himself as an angel of destruction for lover Marthe – and, I noticed this time, as a sort of vampire too: "When we first became lovers, when I bit her, hadn't she said: 'Mark me?' And hadn't I marked her in the worst possible way?"

With the moral chaos of world war as his backdrop, Radiguet takes up deep into the territory of domination and submission – purely in the head, rather than the banal paraphernalia of whips and chains. Indeed, even when fiction does enter the fetishist's workshop, it only survives for long if its feelings ring true. The most (in)famous example remains Story of O, written in 1954 by "Pauline Réage", who worked in her professional life as publisher and translator as "Dominique Aury", but whose birth name was Anne Desclos. She died, a distinguished literary lady, aged 90 in 1998. For years, critics both conservative and feminist used to claim that Story of O could not have been written by a woman. They were wrong, but also right. For Aury wrote it to please and appease her boss and lover, Jean Paulhan, whom she desperately feared losing.

Not surprisingly, even the boldest women writers have generally sought the distance that genre- or fantasy-fiction lends before they stray into the woods where power and desire cross paths. Angela Carter did so, brilliantly, in the the adult fairy-tales of The Bloody Chamber. Before her chronicles of the vampire Lestat, Anne Rice herself had – under the pseudonym "AN Roquelaure" – composed a trilogy of erotic fantasies with SM motifs around the fate of Sleeping Beauty.

Then, in 1986. Jenny Diski swapped forests and palaces for everyday suburbia in her sulphurous debut Nothing Natural – which, in its forensic dissection of dangerous desire, cut with a knife as sharp as Radiguet's. Now the Welsh writer Deborah Kay Davies has gone down into the same corner of the erotic underworld. Davies, who won the Wales Book of the Year Award for her short-story collection Grace, Tamar and Laszlo the Beautiful, plunges a nameless, listless narrator into a self-destructive affair with a "cruel bastard" and "absolute shit" in True Things About Me (Canongate, £10.99). This ballad of sexual dependency –and, finally, rebellion – gallops along with the crazy logic and hallucinatory clarity of an exhilarating, terrifying dream. Glinting with pitch-black humour, Davies's razor-edged style has a lucidity and ferocity that imakes much "literary" prose sound like soggy mush.

For her lonely benefit-office drudge, an ex-con client becomes the fatal Heathcliff or Rochester who makes her feel alive again. At an orgiastic party, she finds that "the flavours of everything tasted extreme". And how. Davies's flailing victim of wild passion grasps the archetypal aspects of her plight: "One minute ready to run away from big, bad wolfy, the next romping with him in the freaking forest". But on the whole True Things About Me exerts such a visceral grip because its fatal attraction plays out on such a meticulously observed, familiar stage. In Sade, or even Carter, doomed lovers will not listen to The Archers in the car on the way to the pub: "Two old, posh agricultural people were making love. The Archers had changed...".

In Nabokov's fiction, however, they might well tune into a soap. Davies tells me that for her Lolita represents "absolute, ultimate genius" in fiction. She makes no apology for her heroine's perilous passion – "There are lots of women out there who love bad guys" – and does not worry that some people might find the story "shocking or anti-feminist".

Davies explains that True Things About Me grew out of a short story written on her PhD course; from this "abbreviated version", she decided to "expand it and make it much more psychologically credible". Yet that credibility involves no therapy-lite forays into the heroine's past to account for a lust for danger.

"Readers are intelligent. I wanted to tell the story for itself: people can make their own connnections," she argues. To tag every passion with a pedigree ignores the truth that "people do things for no reason", while tick-box psychology in fiction – which "bores me stiff" - "distracts from the mystery and fascination of human behaviour".

So Davies keeps her gaze firmly fixed on the progress of this frantic infatuation. In The Shape of Her (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £12.99), by contrast, Rowan Somerville investigates cause-and-effect in obsessive desire. On a Greek island, the novel's sexed-up summer idyll for two privileged youngsters darkens into dread and recrimination.

The narrative alternates the curdled passions of the present with a back-story that helps account for the weight of misery borne by his unhappy couple, Max and Tine. Max fears that his teasing inamorata wants to "suck at him like a vampire". Soon enough, however, we learn via flashbacks that here both boy and girl are not predators - but prey. Others, way back in their variously troubled childhoods, have sucked life and hope from them.

"The echoes of what had happened in the past" resonate through their frenzied trysts. As Somerville comments, "I have observed the connection between childhood injury and adult misery in minute detail that I wouldn't wish upon anyone." In his novel, unresolved trauma brings its danger to this liaison, like the jagged boat-wrecking rock that lurks underwater beyond the golden beach. As a family friend on the island says, "it is because it is hidden that people forget about such a thing, then it becomes dangerous."

Somerville reports that he aimed at illumination rather than titillation: "In erotica you create words or images to stimulate desire, in pornography you are trying to fulfill desire, but in this book, the main drive was... to uncover the hidden and disguised causes of what goes wrong between and within people." Although aware of "the tediously tittering spectre of the Bad Sex Award", he still found that close scrutiny of sex and its discontents opened a fast track to understanding: "My aim was to describe the sex of my protagonists, so that the way they have sex, and think about sex" becomes "a device which would reveal truths about them that they themselves could not see."

As the gulf in style and approach between Somerville and Davies indicates, on the wilder shores of fictional love, one size does definitely not fit all. Sexual relationships in their darker dimensions present serious writers with choices about tone, register and focus no less complex and nuanced than any other form of fiction. At least a few now seem ready to rise to the challenge again – and without a creaking coffin or flashing fang in sight.

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