Obsession: Tales of Irresistible Desire

Paula Guran et al.

Legends and myths of all cultures tell of those possessing captivating allure we are powerless to resist. Sirens, demon lovers, femme fatales, and others compel our love, drawing us into realms of forbidden desire and uncontrollable passion. These seductions are not always supernatural, nor even sexual. We can be haunted by unrequited desire, ensnared by our own minds, or swept away by another’s madness. Obsession overwhelms, takes us to irrational extremes, involves us in dangerous liaisons and fatal attractions . . . obsession consumes. Enticing, compulsively readable tales from nineteen masterful storytellers.

  • “Medusa’s Child,” Kim Antieau
  • “Hot Eyes, Cold Eyes,” Lawrence Block
  • “Hymenoptera,” Michael Blumlein
  • “She’s Not There,” Pat Cadigan
  • “My Lady of the Hearth,” Storm Constantine
  • “Calypso in Berlin,” Elizabeth Hand
  • “Lady Madonna,” Nancy Holder
  • “In the Cold, Dark Time,” Joe R. Lansdale
  • “Nunc Dimittis,” Tanith Lee
  • “The Girl with Hungry Eyes,” Fritz Leiber
  • “Tallulah,” Charles de Lint
  • “The Snake Woman’s Lover,” Catherine Lundoff
  • “Land of the Lost,” Stewart O’Nan
  • “The Oval Portrait,” Edgar Allan Poe
  • “The Hound Lover,” Laura Resnick
  • “Barbara,” John Shirley
  • “An Apiary of White Bees,” Lee Thomas
  • “Close to You,” Steve Rasnic Tem
  • “The Light That Passes Through You,” Conrad Williams


Obsessional does not necessarily mean sexual obsession, not even obsession for this, or for that in particular; to be an obsessional means to find oneself caught in a mechanism, in a trap increasingly demanding and endless.
—Jacques Lacan, French psychoanalyst (1901-1981)

Lacan was referring to a neurosis—but we all have experienced obsession, at least in its milder form: having a compulsive, even unreasonable (at least in the view of others) idea or emotion. You are totally fixated on something or someone—a sport, video games, junk food, a pop singer or film star, collecting certain things, a potential or actual lover, even work—at least temporarily.

Extreme passion can be a positive, driving force, especially for the creative. Claude Monet called color his “day-long obsession, joy and torment.” Barbara Streisand is quoted as saying, “I think it takes obsession, takes searching for the details for any artist to be good.” Mikhail Baryshnikov saw dancing as his obsession, his life. For Brooks Robinson, “baseball was a passion to the point of obsession.” According to Anne Rice, “Obsession led me to write. . . . with every book I’ve ever written. I become completely consumed by a theme, by characters, by a desire to meet a challenge.”
But obsession is, by its very nature, often dark, disturbing, and destructive, especially when one is compelled by forces beyond one’s control or can no longer control what was, initially, a choice. This anthology’s stories explore many variations of irresistible desire.

Stewart O’Nan’s story, “Land of the Lost,” is a slice of a quiet, normal life into which an all-consuming obsession creeps. Is the overwhelming need to do something positive also a negative?

Caring for children is necessary for humankind’s very existence. In the war-torn near-future dystopia of Joe R. Lansdale’s “In the Cold, Dark Time,” children run in hungry, naked packs, and one man’s need to not see them suffer becomes both his duty and obsession, his reason to live. Maternity and protecting one’s children are basic human instinct. But as Nancy Holder shows in “Lady Madonna,” instinct can become a devastating, horrific compulsion.

The girl in Pat Cadigan’s story, “She’s Not There,” wants something so much that . . . well, desperate need drives people in strange directions.
In Michael Blumlein’s “Hymenoptera,” a famed fashion designer whose life had been dedicated to dressing women finds a new nonhuman muse to inspire and obsess him.

A man’s obsession with a mysterious liquor—in “An Apiary of White Bees” by Lee Thomas—opens doors to dark human desires from the past and a provides a transformative commitment to something not at all human.

Tanith Lee reminds us that true love is also true devotion in her unforgettable “Nunc Dimittis.” After a century and a half of service, a vampire’s companion faces death, but his obsessive desire to serve his mistress compels him to fulfill one final responsibility.

In his concise masterpiece “The Oval Portrait, Edgar Allan Poe—a writer who dealt with obsession more than once—portrays an artist so overwhelmed by his passion for art, he cannot see his lovely wife—who is so obsessed by her love for him, she meekly accepts the situation—except though his painting of her. The story of the painting itself is framed within a mysterious tale by a narrator who is, himself, captivated by the painting when he first discovers it. Compared to most of Poe’s fiction, this work is relatively obscure.

Of course, obsession is often sexual. Steve Rasnic Tem’s “Close To You,” for instance, shows a couple consumed by mutual passion.
More often, the obsessional relationship is, however, not as egalitarian.

In “The Hound Lover” by Laura Resnick, a modern-day writer-heroine encounters a supernatural lover who gives her something she would never have refused, even if she had realized the consequences of the “gift.” Tales of such “demon lovers,” incubi/succubi, and other nocturnal sexual assailants/partners can be found in the earliest stories recorded.

The concept of the siren—in modern context, a woman who lures men to their destruction—is based in Greek mythology. Part-bird and part-woman, the sirens lived on an island and lured sailors to their doom on its rocks with their fatally enchanting songs. But song is rarely the enchantment used these days and dry land is a more usual locale for seduction than the sea.

The femme fatale—“deadly woman” in French—is a close sister to the siren. She ensnares a lover and beguiles him with lust. Her charms can be literally or figuratively fatal. The femme fatale is almost always a woman of decisive, often supernatural, power. Though in Conrad William’s story, “The Light that Passes Through You,” his character Louise is so fragile she is in danger of fading away, winking out completely. . . until she receive a letter she sees as an irresistible invitation.

“The Girl with the Hungry Eyes,” Fritz Leiber’s classic story of dangerous beauty, recognizes the primal urge that turns “image” into an inescapable worldwide cultural icon that devours even while providing satisfaction and escape from the mundane. Kim Antieau provides a twist on the siren theme with a model/muse who preys on artistic creativity in “Medusa’s Child.”

The deadly and delusional Barbara, in John Shirley’s story of the same name, wreaks havoc when her all-consuming “love” is thwarted. Lawrence Block’s siren in “Hot Eyes, Cold Eyes” scorns obsessive adulation and makes those who desire her pay dearly.

In Charles de Lint’s “Tallulah,” the titular namesake is not as deadly a seductress, but is no less compulsively mesmerizing. Tally’s love haunts a young writer, but she herself seems as bound to the city as the mythic sirens were constrained to live on their rocky island.
The Calypso of Elizabeth Hand’s story, “Calypso in Berlin,” is a character straight out of Homer’s Odyssey, but she lives in the twenty-first century. A sea nymph lovelier than any woman; wilder, stranger, more passionate than mortal females, she usually tires of her mortal lovers, but she is as obsessed with Phillip as she once was with Odysseus.

Catherine Lundoff also calls on old legends as the basis for “The Snake Woman’s Lover” and portrays the dark forces of supernatural love. The power of love and sexual magic bring a very special lover to the protagonist in Storm Constantine’s bittersweet story, “My Lady of the Hearth.”

Although I would never wish an obsession on anyone—especially after compiling this anthology—I do hope you find these stories to be compulsive reading.

Paula Guran
February 2012

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