The Ianthe Complex
In the deep depths of a Boston winter, on a cold and grey afternoon, David Neville gave blessed thanks to his patron goddesses Isis and Ishtar for owning a used bookstore. Sagging shelves that groaned with paperback Playboy novels, dog-eared Tantric sex manuals, and voluminous textbooks on STDs from broke medical students provided better insulation than a handwidth of asbestos.
A brief blast of winter swept through the racks of used books and magazines, and few errant December snowflakes settled on the stack of yellowing Penthouse Forums by the window. A woman kitted out for an arctic expedition struggled through the front door carrying two document boxes. David eyed the boxes with a professional air, and swept aside a variety of phylacteries and cards advertising services from “hot massage” to “astral body stimulation” to clear a space on the counter.
Trade-ins were the lifeblood of his store, had been even back when he was semi-respectable and A1 Books had been just another cramped bibliophile’s paradise that fed off of the steady traffic of Boston’s many colleges and universities. Time, circumstance, and if he was honest with himself a particular bent in his personal beliefs and reading habits had forced a distinctive change to the kind and type of materials A1 now had to offer. Some of it was Neville’s own fault: every semester for a decade he’d trek to local campuses to read aloud from 120 Days of Sodom and The Golden Ass in order to expand minds and try to shift the apparently unmovable old stock of leatherbound classics he’d inherited from the death of another bookstore years earlier. The books had sold, finally, and given Neville and his shop their particular reputation.
Setting the boxes down, the woman doffed her skicap and leather gloves to reveal a blonde pageboy haircut and well-manicured fingernails painted pink with little white snowflakes. When she unzipped her coat a little David’s brief erotic fantasy was only mildly dashed by a sweatshirt advertising the local highschool hockey team and an upscale kabbalistic amulet.
“Hi.” Hockey Mom said. “I had a—relation pass away recently, and I found these boxes among their things…”
David listened politely as she’d told a story he’d heard many times before. Winter claims a lot of old folks, and grandpa hadn’t made it to see New Years. Going through his stuff she’d finally come across the old boy’s porno stash. Now normally, the kids or grandkids find this stuff earlier: the dildo at the bottom of mom’s sock drawer, grandpa’s supply of carefully hoarded 1980s magazines and taped skinflicks off of cable, maybe a small love-grimoire to rekindle the old fires—these discoveries set the sexual tone of generations. Half the people that sold their parents’ porn were back next week surreptitiously repurchasing a few key items that had been the building blocks of their adolescent masturbation sessions, and thus their entire sexual life. Magical life too, sometimes; more than one teenager had first become aware of and tapped into their subtle energies by ritualizing their first sexual experience. David tuned back in as Hockey Mom was winding down the abbreviated history.
“…and I hate to just throw things out. I know that they must be worth something.”
Neville chewed that one. He’d expected disturbed and a bit scandalized; her natural instinct to dispose of the material as quickly and quietly as possible before her sons, husband, or other relatives discovered it. The curb was unthinkable, because anybody could get at it, and she didn’t want it in the house. Hockey Mom didn’t seem that uncomfortable hauling around pop’s boxes-o-porn, though. Maybe this wasn’t a matter of simple disposal—but then, why the hell else would she be here?
David Neville at A1 Books bought porn. It was quietly hinted at there in the little two-inch ad he’d purchased for the Yellow Pages, and more explicitly on the website which nowadays drove the bulk of the store’s business.
“So you’d like to sell?”
“Of course. We’re always buying.”
David gritted his teeth. He hated asking this next question, hated that he had to ask it.
“Before we continue, I have to ask: do the boxes contain any obscene materials?”
“I’m sorry? I’m not sure I know what you mean.”
“Child pornography,” David said. “Or pornography depicting bestiality, simulated or actual rape, urination, defecation, mutilation, or murder in a sexual context, or illustrated depictions of the same, such as manga, cartoons, etc. Also, any magical writings containing the same and/or pertaining to a sexual purpose or context, including but not limited to rites involving cannibalism, murder, necrophilia, nigromancy, and invocations or conjuring of ghosts, succubi, incubi, orgone elementals, the Black Goat, her young, or any related spirit or quasi-spiritual entity by name or sign.”
Neville watched her face as he ran through the list. No blushes, just a faint twinge at the mouth or eye or nostril that suggested recognition, disgust, but not surprise. He didn’t feel like he’d taken a couple shreds of innocence away from her she hadn’t known she’d had. Whether on the internet or somewhere else, Hockey Mom had seen and heard a few things.
“I haven’t gone through it, but I’m sure there’s nothing…she wasn’t like that.”
David blinked. He’d foolishly assumed the collection had been from a father or grandfather, but a female relation—well, why not? Apparently even a seller of used porn couldn’t escape sexual stereotyping.
“I’m sure she wasn’t ma’am. The United States government, however, has laws against certain types of pornography and magic which might be deemed ‘obscene,’ and the purchase and transmission of such materials is illegal, and there are some local regulations as well. So if you don’t mind browsing the store for a few minutes, or perhaps going and getting a cup of coffee, I’m going to take a look through the boxes to get an idea of what’s in here and how much to offer for it…and to make sure there’s nothing either of us will get in trouble for.”
Neville keenly remembered the last friendly local vice unit sting last November that had involved a cop and three folders full of kiddie porn straight from some Boston PD evidence locker—one of which depicted a Black Mass, the altar of which was a nude 15-year-old girl. The cops had hidden the pics in a pile of skin mags you could bury a man in. Neville had been an easy arrest. A warrant was obtained and the store was searched for more, eventually turning up a stack of sixty year old Tijuana bibles starring the underage character Little Orphan Annie and an x-rated version of The Testament of Solomon. David’s lawyer had screamed entrapment and freedom of speech but the cops had threatened to go federal, which carried a maximum sentence of forty years in prison…and juries were notoriously unsympathetic to proprietors of small-time used porn stores. So David had copped a plea, gotten a slap on the wrist, and swore never to buy lots sight unseen ever again.
“If there is anything…” Hockey Mom half-asked.
“I sometimes make a nice little bonfire in a metal garbage can in the alley out back, because of the cold. I typically start it with old odds and ends too damaged to sell. You’d be welcome to join me. There’s no law against burning books.” David said sourly.
“I see. Yes. Thank you.”
“No bother at all ma’am, as you can see we’re not particularly busy at the moment. Just a quick peek through your material to make sure there’s nothing that will get us in trouble, and meanwhile I’ll check the prices on any old, scarce, or expensive items.”
He caught her look.
“There’s a market for everything, ma’am. Please rest assured, I’ll give you a fair price, and if you don’t care for my offer there’s no obligation for you to sell.”
David crossed his toes. He’d sold an early issue of Playboy in mint condition for a couple hundred of dollars on ebay just the other day. It was a real classic, from back in the days when girls revealed their age and zodiac signs; when a man with the interest in such things could cast a real horoscope and glimpse the future of such a beauty. Such sales were rare and depended on one’s ability to delve into the seedier internet marketspaces to find out what people were willing to pay for. Neville had by necessity become knowledgeable on a wide spectrum of erotic media, from early 20th-century slides of topless women, sold as souvenirs to lonely tourists and overseas soldiers and sailors, to erotic manga from Japan, China, and Korea and the neotantric scrolls all the rage in California.
Hockey Mom wandered over to the sex magick aisle to browse through the spellbooks and fertility rites, and Neville popped the top of the first box to begin sifting the contents. Initial results were promising; the first few layers of shiny-paged Hustler and Foxx magazines stuffed with grainy color print-outs from some internet site that specialized in pantyhose shots and foot fetish material soon gave way to paperbacks from the 70s and even a few hardbound novels. Stacking the books on the counter, the mental value of the contents ticked ever upward. The first edition Sleeping Beauty trilogy, near mint condition, was undoubtedly worth something to Anne Rice fans, and even if no one bought it David would feel good about keeping the old hardback copies of A Man and a Maid and Histoire d’O on the shelves. The Man from O.R.G.Y. paperbacks were in acceptable, though not terrific shape.
The third box, by contrast, was primarily academic and magical texts: Hubbard’s Homosexuality in Greece and Rome, Cantarella’s Bisexuality in the Ancient World, Robert Anton Wilson’s Sex, Drugs and Magick—David had been looking for a copy of that himself—a few dog-eared publications from the Ordo Templi Orientialis with L. Ron Hubbard’s notes on the Babalon Working, Crowley’s De Nuptis Secretis Deorum Cum Hominibus and The Book of Lies, and a copy of Sapho’s Hymn to Aphrodite—on virgin parchment no less!—were among the treasures he pulled forth. It was as David pulled the last stack of moldering pulp from the third box that he caught sight of the grand prize.
David smelled it before he could see it, the familiar fragrance of old leather and thick, heavy paper. It sat on the bottom of the box like a brick, the size and shape of the family bibles of old, dyed black and going slightly brown at the creases and corners. Neville examined the stern cover, ran his fingers over the impression of the title stamped into the leather and the board beneath it, gilt filling in the elaborate and arabesque letters. The Ianthe Complex and Other Cases: A Pornography. Lifting it out of the box, David did a quick skim. A glimpse of the occasional black and red ink illustration caught David’s interest; these were not bawdy cartoons or even updates of ancient woodcuts, but etchings and engravings of a highly explicit sexual nature and executed with the skill of a medical school cadaver drawing from a textbook.
One picture in particular caught his attention: a four-panel full-page depiction of an intersex woman displaying and fondling her bizarre genitals, apparently successfully penetrating herself with her own semi-erect phallus—a genuine hermaphrodite, or so the caption claimed, in the act of autocopulation, depicted in clinical detail and from different angles or positions in each panel. A flip to another leaf revealed a daguerreotype photograph of man and a woman in the act of coitus labeled “John Baptisa dos Santos and Blanche Dumas, 1865”. The man possessed a stunted third leg or limb of some kind tied against his left leg, and two penises; the woman also had a third leg, though smaller and formed, and two vaginas, side-by-side. The woman was holding her extra limb out of the way to enable the penetration. The awkward position of the penetration and the confusion of limbs made Neville wince and turn the book for a better angle. David quickly flipped to the beginning of the book, looking for publishing details. No author or publisher was given, just a date and a place—October 31st, 1918, Blackfriars, London—and an elaborate hermetic sigil David didn’t recognize, a double-circle divided by a nonagon and filled with Enochian characters.
Neville sat the old book down lovingly on the counter, almost afraid now to even touch it. At first glance this was your actual anonymous scholarly volume describing in explicit detail the lives and activities of prostitutes. Hidden erotica, the kind of private, elite porn that had been invented by the Victorians and kept in private libraries and gentlemen’s clubs—a literal pornography, taken from the Greek pornea (prostitution) and grapho (to write), a socio-medical text on early sex workers which had branded entire methods of expression as taboo for the better part of a couple centuries.
Well, not real Victoriana, at least if the date was to be believed. By 1918 Queen Victoria was long dead, porn was moving out of the secret libraries and back into the streets: naturist magazines, half-tone photographs, penny gallery peep shows. Neville shifted his ass uncomfortably in his seat, no idea what to offer for this gem. He needed help.
A quick click of the mouse brought up David’s suite of search engines. Different tabs led off into databases of rare books, indices of love-spells, underground comix, invitation-only online auctions and the slightly seedier companies that kept track of what was sold and how much it went for. Six minutes of rotating icons and clicks through advanced search options menus later, Neville had a couple dozen failed and empty search pages loaded. There was absolutely nada on the Ianthe Complex.
David sat back in his chair, stunned.
The internet had failed him.
Neural pathways grown rusty with years of disuse fizzled and snapped in David’s head as ancient, forgotten skills were called for once more. An unfinished degree in library science had left its traces on him, and his brain settled on the dusty shelf full of ancient book catalogues behind him—a special collection, an esoteric armory of illicit titles, lists of banned books and works censored from the gentle eyes of the porn- and magic- consuming public. He was about to get off his ass and start looking when Hockey Mom, done browsing, came back to the counter.
The Ianthe Complex was still on the counter, half-hidden from her view by the teetering pile of her grandfather’s old skinmags. Neville assumed his best poker face as she walked toward the counter.
“Two hundred cash,” he said. David kept his eyes on hers, almost willing her not to see the old book. Then, almost as an afterthought: “or two eighty store credit.”
Hockey Mom took another glance at the store, this time with a slightly different interest, and judged the bulging shelves and occasional nipple peaking out on a glossy cover with a speculative eye. For a moment, he thought she’d take the store credit. David almost kicked himself, but it was his usual pitch. Only determined consumers took the store credit; it required giving a name. Anyone looking for fast cash or to just get rid of something didn’t want any evidence of the association.
Neville tapped the Sleeping Beauty set.
“Cash, I think.”
“Of course.” David said. The register clicked open and he counted out the only four fifties in there. A twinge of guilt made him ask: “Would you like a receipt?”
“No, thank you.”
She took the greenbacks and re-armored herself against the Boston winter. Without looking back, Hockey Mom turned walked out of his life, her pornography left in David Neville’s capable hands. Neville gave another little prayer to his goddesses, then reached for the first forbidden book index.
It took half an hour of thumbing through the indices before David got a hit, working his way through from the modern lists of censored works back through the decades until he hit the 1948 edition of the Index Librorum Prohibitum; the last official version of the Roman Catholic Church’s own list of prohibited books, finally abolished in 1966. The entry gave little besides the title and date of publication, but the author listed was John Conan Yeovil.
Turning once more to the internet, armed with this new factoid, David opened up a new collection of search engines. The results were sparse; a Dr. Jack Yeovil (b.1876, d.1958) was listed as receiving a doctorate from “The Worshipful Society of Apothecaries of London”—a quick check on the internet confirmed that the Worshipful Society, one of London’s livery companies, was headquartered at Apothecaries’ Hall in Blackfriars, London.
Neville leaned back in his chair, stretched to get the kinks out of his back. Part of the mystery, at least, was solved. The book was likely either a private project commissioned by the Society for a few of its members, or possibly was Yeovil’s dissertation for his doctorate, repackaged for the more sensual consumption of rarified tastes. It was probably worth a mint if—when—David decided to sell it, but there was plenty of time for that. No matter how mercantile the bookseller, you don’t up running a literotica store just because that’s where the market is. Neville knew he had his own tastes to cater to as well, and before he thought about selling the Ianthe Complex, he wanted to read it. Neville took off his glasses and wiped them on his shirt; when he put them back on the room looked marginally clearer than it had before.
David piled up Hockey Mom’s porn into a little fortress on the counter, behind which he laid the Ianthe Complex. He opened the cover, flipped past the first blank pages where the preamble or introduction should have been, the page with the mysterious sigil, past the sparse and elegant table of contents to the first case in the book—the eponymous “Case of the Ianthe Complex”—and began to read.
The prose was heavy, formal, but not entirely a dry academic work. David guessed Yeovil had known precisely what sort of audience the book would find, and written in a half-anecdotal style, with plenty of lurid details. The section began with a brief overview of the necessary theory, beginning with a sketch of Sigmund Freud’s psychological theory that children unconsciously express the desire to eliminate the parent of the same sex in order to possess the parent of the opposite sex. Typically, this was termed the Oedipus Complex in boys, who desired their mothers; and the Elektra Complex in girls, who desired their fathers. Both forms owed their names to Greek literature, which by chance or expression of some universal human desires had expressed these or sufficiently similar elements.
Yeovil, it appeared, believed these designations were insufficient to capture the full range of human sexual attraction in children. In particular, he recounted the tale of Ianthe and Iphis, from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, as one such example. Neville tapped away at the computer for a minute, just to figure out what the hell the good doctor was on about, and a précis popped up on screen near the top of the search results.
Iphis was born a woman, but by circumstance was raised by her mother as a man, and while living as a man fell in love with another woman, Ianthe. Iphis prayed to the gods, but nothing happened; but when her mother prayed to the gods, Iphis became a man and married Ianthe, and the two lived as husband and wife. David turned back to the book and read on.
The key theme, Yeovil wrote, of gender identity and the taking on of the masculine role by the female provided a complement to the standard Oedipal Complex: an Ianthe Complex, where the child wishes to possess the parent of the same sex, and eliminate the parent of the opposite sex. While a logical theory, the author claimed that actual evidence for such a theory was surprisingly scarce. His initial research focused on children who had been raised as members of the opposite sex, but the “true proof” of the theory had come to him in the form of a 1722 court case of a prostitute who suffered from an unusual and acute mental illness, an “unnatural and incestuous carnal affection”, possibly brought on by her upbringing.
Neville assumed the first part was a bit of formal prologue setting up “the action” so to speak, much as how Golden Age pornographic movies had worked to provide context and motivation for the on-screen coupling. With these preliminaries out of the way, the text broke into a second, longer section, giving the history of the prostitute and her case. Here, the text was more florid and elaborate, giving way at times to come back to clinical prose as Yeovil made an authorial comment or took direct quotations from the testimony of the prostitute.
Maria Saunier was a whore’s daughter, and her mother had been a whore, and her mother’s mother, and “as far as she knew every generation back to Eve’s nameless daughters” had spread their legs for a bit of silver. Maria and her mother Anne lived in a room in Whitechapel, where Anne would ply her trade of prostitution, love-spells, philters, abortifacients, and French letters. As a young girl, Maria would watch her mother entertain gentleman callers and was instructed in traditional whore-magic, the spells and nostrums to attract love; ensure, prevent or destroy pregnancy, and many other things besides.
Anne enjoyed a “close Sapphic relationship with another doxy,” and together the two women were the only family that young Maria ever had. Daylight hours of lesbian languor and nighttime revels of lusty business were all that the young girl knew, until she herself turned about the age of twelve and was indoctrinated into her mother’s profession.
A wealthy and regular client had brought his son with him that evening, and had through “money and strong arguments” convinced Anne that it was best his son learned these important matters under supervision. So her mother had laid young Maria down on the bed, and took the master’s son in hand, so to speak, and with wise words and warm caresses had guided them through that first act of love.
That was the first, but not the last such bit of business. Other gentlemen called, sometimes on Anne, sometimes on her lover. Some of them brought their sons with them, and it fell on Maria to entertain them in like fashion to how her mother entertained their fathers. Those first few times, Anne was always there to help her daughter, to hold her during the first clumsy, painful penetrations and prevent a bruising grope on Maria’s bare and developing chest, buttocks, and thighs. Seldom after that were her attentions necessary, and Maria merely aped the motions she had seen so often her mother and mother’s partner perform. She brought the boys with her to climax as best she could; the clink of coin and perhaps a kind kiss her reward.
David read on as Maria testified that missed Anne’s kisses, the feel of her “knowing hand unfolding the petals of her sex.” She began to cast jealous glances at her mother’s lover as they lay together in bed, or shared a casual kiss or embrace. In a recurrent dream, Maria was a small girl again who would bury herself in Anne’s skirts, hug her close about her waist, or else to lie in bed and feel the weight of her mother’s breasts against her back, or of herself as a man, her mother accepting the proffered coins from her hand, “pushing her prick in and out of her canal until she spent inside her own origin.” Maria testified as well that she had attempted to bewitch her mother’s lover with a powder made of black cat bone, a dried frog, and some of the woman’s menstrual blood, which Maria rubbed into the lover’s undergarments, in an effort to make her leave.
In time, her mother’s lover grew ill; a canker in the belly, or perhaps a bastard child that died inside and poisoned her from within, but her waist thickened and heavy blood poured from her cleft, and quite quickly she died. Anne was desolate at the loss, bereft. For long days Maria’s mother stayed in bed and wept softly, and at nights Anne worked to support them both. At times, Maria would lay down next to her mother, where her mother had been, one hand brushed through her mother’s hair, or settled on her mother’s hip, to feel the heat in her own body, the fever that she could feel rise within her when she thought of the mere cloth that separated her from Anne’s flesh.
One day, perhaps a week after her mother’s lover had died; Maria embraced her mother as she lay on the bed. Her young breasts were pressed into Anne’s back, and her left arm wrapped around Anne’s breasts. The young woman planted kisses on that familiar neck, her right hand on her mother’s belly and stole down, even as she had seen many gentlemen do, under her clothes, until the tips of her fingers tickled the hairs that lead to her mother’s mound…
David fe1t his ears burn. The biography had by degrees launched into a tale of incest that equaled or surpassed anything he already had on the shelves. The actual taboo no more shocked him than the many “incest” stories already tucked away in the pages of books around him. The brain was the greatest erogenous zone in the body, and the power of such stories to titillate depended entirely on the ability of the reader to suspend for a moment their disbelief—to inhabit the carnal world where to fuck your mother was not only a tantalizing possibility, but an exciting and real possibility. Virtual gratification leading, if you fingered your prick or your slit, to physical relief.
The seduction of the mother was not unexpected, but the foreshadowed Victorian moral that David half expected came through. Mother and daughter were picked up for prostitution, the depths of their crimes revealed, and the dominatrix daughter had gone to a madhouse while her mother, deemed less complicit, had been relocated to a home for fallen women. Both were lucky to escape being hanged for witchcraft.
Typical treatment in a madhouse at the time the case was recorded had included imprisonment, drenching with cold water, enemas, and some more forceful measures, but had failed to relieve the basic condition. Maria suffered in her imprisonment, and David was personally glad the author had not spun out another half-chapter in BDSM-style torture porn, but stated simply that after a few years time a “natural solution” was provided in that the object of the patient’s affections—her mother—had died. Maria was declared cured, released, arrested again for some petty magic and imprisoned, where she seduced a guard, became pregnant, plead her belly to escape being hanged and was eventually transported to America.
The final leaf of the chapter were two half-prints—one of Anne, Maria, and another woman that David assumed was Anne’s lover—taken when Maria was about twelve years old, with mother and daughter holding hands but otherwise decent; the second was of Anne and Maria, both nude on a bed, with Maria performing oral sex on a sprawled Anne. Judging by her budding breasts, Maria couldn’t have been more than 17 years old.
Neville had his doubts whether the whole thing was real or not—1722 was the date that Daniel Defoe had famously published Moll Flanders, another tale that involved incest, prostitution, and transportation, among many other common themes. Assuming he wasn’t ripping on a two-hundred year old story, it was a valuable case study in sexual obsession and prime wank material for somebody.
Outside, the street was dark, the lights from a passing car illuminating the light snowfall. Nights come early in Massachusetts during the winter, and David decided to pack it in for the night. Standing up elicited a great series of cracks along his spine, and the tension in his neck reminded him of how long he’d been sitting hunched over the old book.
Neville wrapped the old book in a newspaper, then threw on his coat, scarf and hat, stuffed a wand in his pocket and turned off the space heater and the lights. The Ianthe Complex clutched under one arm, he drew the gate and chain closed and locked the seven locks, and made the conjuration against thieves. Then, without a glance around for police or anyone else, he slipped into the side alley that led around back of the building.
He lifted the lid of the trashcan and laid the wrapped book on top of the cold, dry ashes. From his pocket he took the wand, and with a quiet word a tiny green flame shot out from the tip, which he directed at one of the book’s corners. The pornographer held the wand until the newspaper caught, then withdrew it and blew out the flame. Neville spoke the old ritual as the book was consumed, committing the book to return to the earth from which came. Green sparks shot out as the fire broke the sigil, and a lover’s sigh escaped in a puff of smoke as the cover collapsed in on itself.
Neville watched the pages burn down to embers, prodded it occasionally with the wand to ensure nothing survived. This is what the law had reduced him to. He couldn’t afford to be arrested again, not over a half-print of an underage prostitute from the last century. It didn’t matter to the cops and inquisitors if the story was fact or fiction. The thought was crime enough.