Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Two, the Hard Way and Murder 0ne

One could easily mistake this pair of hard-boiled mysteries by Sydney Harper for the start of a series distinguished by gimmicky numerical titles. Well think again, babe.

First, Murder One and Two the Hard Way are essentially variations on the same story, a minimalist mystery in which a handsome, rugged detective with obvious but unacknowledged sexual-identity issues catches a nasty gay-related murder in a cold, outdoorsy city -- Minneapolis and Denver, respectively – gets in touch with his inner homosexual, meets his equally manly soul mate, has sex with underage hustlers and discovers that his case hinges on the victim's fondness for very young boys. Reading them back-to-back reading multiplies the creepiness factor exponentially, for reasons to be discussed in due course.

Two, The Hard Way
Blueboy Library, 1976

Two, the Hard Way opens in the lavish but tastefully decorated Denver apartment of 38-year-old businessman Harold Deter, as he's being serviced by underage hustler Billy Marsh, already an eager and seasoned pro at the age of fifteen. Neither hears the front door open or notices the approach of a stealthy gunman who kills both with a shot to the head.

Some time later, movie-star handsome homicide detective Larry Baldwin, 32, is dragged out of bed for a briefing about the double homicide. Not that he's sorry to leave this particular bed, which belongs to the hot cocktail waitress who picked him up a couple of nights ago and probably wishes she hadn't, given that he's proved a non-starter in the sack. Maybe Larry could have risen to the occasion had her bathroom not been a filthy tarn of damp stockings and half-used cosmetics... or maybe not. In any event, the vicious murder gives him an excuse to both clear out and stop thinking about the whole business.

The cops know when the crime occurred – Deter's nosy neighbors put the time at 4:11PM – and have a suspect in Deanna Baldwin (everyone calls her DeeDee, she purrs), the victim's beautiful business partner and in-name-only wife. Four years earlier, she claims, Deter suddenly turned gay, but they stayed together because divorce is bad for business and their business – Deter Electronics – was thriving. Unfortunately, Deanna has a solid alibi for the time of the killings: She was luxuriating in the building's deluxe, well-staffed spa. And she professes ignorance of the underage hustler stuff; as far as she knew, her late husband favored men like hunky, Denver-based country-rocker Bruce Tallman.

Larry, one month away from embarking on a new career as a lawyer and already burdened with plenty of cases he'd like to close, wants no part of the Deter homicide: It was all the earmarks of a sordid, time-consuming quagmire. But the department is short staffed, so he's stuck with it: The only upside is that it's a perfect excuse to blow off Laura, and so what if the bitch calls him a "goddamned fairy?" Without any real leads, Larry decides to interview Tallman, but like DeeDee, the singer has an ironclad alibi: He was in Aspen doing a live TV appearance. Tallman also turns out to be a hell of a nice guy and a great host, assuming you can overlook the fact that he plies Larry with hashish-laced hot chocolate and then takes sexual advantage of him.

Fortunately, Larry emerges from the experience positively glowing -- even longtime colleague Sid notices when he stops by the office for an update – and bearing the names of two persons of interest: Realtor Clark Cavanaugh, who had a brief fling with Deter, and engineer Bert Johnson, who was apparently trying to sell Deter some new invention. Sid's news, by contrast, is all bad: The murder weapon was wiped clean and the rent boy had no criminal connections – he was just a spoiled rich kid who hung out with "a group of fags" at a notorious queer cruising place. Huh… Larry realizes that Sid always talked about homosexuals that way, but he's suddenly bothered by it.

Cavanaugh turns out to be a penny-ante creep, but Johnson went missing several days earlier, which is suggestive but of no immediate help. So while Sid looks into Johnson's background, Larry heads out to interview Billy Marsh's best friend, Bobby Larson. He finds the truant teen home alone, and learns that the Billy and Bobby were lovers who hustled for walking-around money: Bobby is poor and Billy's homophobic dad was a skinflint. Deter propositioned both boys the day he was killed, but Bobby begged off to go fishing with his dad. And then next thing you know, hot-eyed little Bobby has his hands down Larry's pants and isn't taking "no" for an answer... not that Larry is actually saying no to the little nympho's eager ministrations, even though he knows Bobby is only 14 and has the rounded, baby-fat body and "cute little cock" of a boy several years younger. Let's pause for a recap: Billy is seriously underage, Larry is old enough to be his father, an officer of the law and doesn't even have the excuse of being drunk or high, but he just can't help himself and eaderly agrees to come back for more. Your tax dollars at work.

Sid, meanwhile, has located Johnson, who admits that that Deter Electronics optioned his design for a revolutionary remote control but says the deal stalled so he started secretly shopping the device to other companies, which puts him out of town when Deter was killed. DeeDee, on the other hand, is looking more and more guilty: Filing a claim way in excess of the insurance coverage she led Larry to believe her husband was carrying makes her a liar, and if she'll lie about money who knows what else she's lying about. But there's still the matter of that alibi…

Larry needs a break and jumps on Bruce's invitation to spend some quality time in his weekend cabin; they run into Bobby along the way and take him along. Larry once again gets his erotic horizons expanded, starting with a three-way shower grope. And amazingly enough, he still has the energy for a brainstorm: A little highly illegal breaking-and-entering later, Larry has proof that DeeDee staged her alibi using cutting-edge electronic equipment. The case is closed and Larry leaves the force for a new life as a happily gay man with a new career, well-hung lover Tallman and, presumably, little Bobby to warm up those cold, dark Colorado nights.

Nice gay-positive ending and all, but there's no getting around the Bobby problem…
I mean, we're not talking a "high school hotties" novel in which humpy youngsters under the age of consent fool around together. Narratives dealing with mutual sexual exploration between teenagers may be aimed at horny older readers, but are by their nature less tainted by highly-charged issues of power, authority and meaningful consent than novels like Murder One and its follow up, Two the Hard Way, which blow past issues of significant age difference (20-some-odd years), economics (rich dilettante vs. poor scrambler) and social standing (cop vs. underage hustler) as though they didn't exist. And we haven't even gotten to the matter of tone, which counts in a big way.

Two,the Hard Way fairly reeks of predatory self-justification: Oh, no, it's not the 32-year-old cop or the hunky, middle-aged celebrity in charge here: It's the insatiable, hypersexual child ("child" being the noun most often associated with Bobby) who makes the first move and directs the carnal circus. Add the fact that Harper describes Bobby in a way that suggests someone even younger than 14 and there's no getting around it: Larry and Bruce are screwing a kid, which is both unsettling and puzzling, in that by 1976 most porn professionals had figured out that the business was all about niche appeal, in that most people's erotic triggers are fairly specific and what doesn't appeal often actively repels. So titles generally made clear what the consumer should expect -- if you never imagined that Fathers and Sons and Lovers or Basket-Kissing Cousin involved incest, well then, more fool you. But running smack into pedophilia in the hard-boiled Murder One, well, that could be a shock to the system.

Blueboy Library actively solicited reader feedback, encouraging them to write in "about any subject, likes and dislikes, concerning our books" and promised that "all suggestions are weighed when making editorial decisions." I'd love to know what kind of correspondence they received concerning Two, the Hard Way, because I can't help but think that some readers would have preferred their neo-noir sex fantasies without the side of child molestation. Blueboy published Harper's Murder One the following year (which means it was almost certainly in the pipeline when Two, the Hard Way came out), and as far as I can tell, that was the last of Sydney Harper.

Murder One
Blueboy Library, 1977

Set in freezing, snowy Minneapolis, Murder One begins with blond-haired, blue-eyed, 32-year-old homicide detective Bert Sonderstrom watching a gay stag movie recovered from the apartment of middle-aged murder victim Mel Aanerud. It gets Bert to idly reminiscing about his first sexual encounter, when he was 11 and his best friend, Jimmy, was 14. Not that he's gay or anything. Bert is dating a girl named Betty and has even thought about proposing, though he liked her a lot better when she was a trembling virgin... Maybe sweet talking Betty into bed wasn't such a great idea, because she took to sex like a tigress to raw meat and Bert just isn't into sexually aggressive women.

Anyway, back to the crime: Aanerud, a quiet, well-off financial consultant, was married, but his invalid wife has been in a Maryland convalescent home for years. His upscale apartment is tastefully decorated (too-chic '50s Paul McCobb moderne, if you please) and "neat as a pin," a dramatic contrast to Aanerud's messy corpse. The dead man was both shot in the head and castrated, though oddly enough, the castration occurred several hours after death. Bert's partner, Barney, cleverly pegs it as "a fag murder," but the only clue is a receipt from a gas station in semi-rural Anoka, some 35 miles north of the city and not exactly Greenwich Village's contry cousin. Bert checks it out anyway, and the chatty station owner not only recognizes Aanerud's photo but directs Bert to his isolated weekend house and volunteers that Aanerud never had visitors, but local kid David Martin looked after the place during the week.

Bert is checking the place out – making careful note of Aanerud's substantial collection of gay porn -- when who should show up but pretty little David, who quickly reveals that he and Aanerud liked photographing themselves recreating poses from a favorite porn book. The snapshots are nowhere to be found, but just thinking about them excites David, who proves well trained (Harper prefers the word "conditioned") in the art of servicing adult men and had Bert's repressed number at hello.

Bert knows fooling around with an 11-year-old is 100 different kinds of wrong, but -- like Larry Baldwin -- can't resist the aggressive child's hairless body ("covered with a layer of delightfully plump baby fat") "cute little penis" and insatiable lust for cock. David proceeds to blow Bert's, um, mind six ways to Sunday, and several hours later the dazed cop has gone from same-sex virgin to master of the gay Kama Sutra thanks to the tutelage of a precocious pre-teen (it's surely no coincidence that Bert was Bobby's age when he dallied with Jimmy, though he's apparently so stupefied that the whole business has abruptly slipped his mind). Everything is downhill from there: Someone tries to run Bert off the road as he drives back to Minneapolis and Betty is just plain nasty when he isn't in the mood for sex, accusing him of being queer before throwing him out on his ass.

The next day, Bert pursues David's casual remark that Aanerud had a friend named Jerome who ran a gym, eventually locating the Roman Palace Heath Club and its owner, Jerome Whitman. Jerome swears that Aanerud had no enemies and has an airtight alibi for the time of the murder: He was in jail on a DUI rap. He also knows all about the dirty photos and is puzzled that they weren't at the house – that's where Aanerud kept them. He suggests that Bert check up on a coke-addicted lowlife named Carter Duncan, with whom he and Aanerud briefly fooled around. The well-endowed Jerome also applies himself vigorously to furthering Bert's sexual education.

Duncan turns out to be a fat creep who frequents porn theaters, but he also has an alibi and anyway, Bert is convinced that the missing photos are the key to Aanerud's murder. He heads back to the house, where Jerome has promised to meet him later, but first makes a detour to the Martin farm on the chance that David's dad, taciturn patriarch Harvey, might know something useful about his late neighbor. He doesn't, but promises to send his son over after school. By the time little David arrives, Bert and Jerome are sick of searching for the still-missing photos and primed for some seriously orgying, though they first have to listen to the child's assertion that his father would kill him if he knew what he was up to… Not that David cares, since he and Aanerud once saw the oh-so-righteous Harvey having carnal knowledge of a sheep.

When Jerome and Bert finally tear themselves away from David's pliant young flesh and head for their cars, someone runs Jerome down and barely misses Bert, who suddenly realizes who the killer must be. He asks Barney to meet him at the Martin farm, where old man Martin, ranting wildly about sodomites, tries to kill them but accidentally shoots his wife instead. Barney kills him, and he and Bert deliver the remarkably untraumatized Bobby into an uncle's care. But Bert has an idea: What if he were to adopt David; you know, give the boy a fresh start in a loving and understanding home? The end... or the beginning?

Having tested the child-diddling waters with Two, the Hard Way's 14-but-looks-younger Bobby, Harper abandons all pretense in
Murder One: Natural-born exhibitionist David Martin is barely old enough to come and yet too avidly aggressive for grown men to resist.

Granted, this particular brand of boy lust is nothing new -- you have to turn a very blind eye indeed not to see it in the slyly sensual putti that litter the work of painters from Annibal Carracci (1560-1609) to Leon Bazille-Perrault (1832-1908) – but that doesn't make it okay and may well why Mr. "Sydney Harper" -- whom I have no reason to believe is in any way connected to the numerous singers, artists, ad marketers, athletes, police officers, crafters and students, almost all women, named Sydney Harper who crowd the web -- quietly left the stage after writing these two books.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Master of Monfortin

The Blueboy Library

Prolific adults-only author Peter Tuesday Hughes wrote everything from sexed-up spy tales (The Eyes of the Basilisk, The Executioner) to erotic sci-fi (Alien) and libidinous political satire (The Other Party). But he appears to have had a special fondness for period pastiches like The Wisteria Club and Master of Monfortin, a savvy spin on Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone.

Not that that’s any great critical insight: Hughes cheekily acknowledges his inspiration by having protagonist Simon Monfortin – a classic imperiled gothic heiress in all respects save that he’s a young man -- mention the pioneering detective novel while formulating a theory to explain the goings on at his gloomy ancestral manse.

Simon was born in America, taken abroad at age three, orphaned in Africa as a teenager and then raised in London by his intrepid governess, Miss Fentriss. Before his parents, Samuel and Deborah, were murdered during a native uprising in Mali, they filled his imagination with Monfortin lore: Simon’s great-grandfather and grandfather, Jean LeDuc and Benjamin Montfortin, fled the French Revolution, barely escaping its angry mobs with their lives. They landed in Canada and then moved to Maine, where Jean made a fortune in shipbuilding and other enterprises; his son traveled the world and came home with jewels, gold and other precious things.

As Simon’s father told it, Benjamin Monfortin’s voyages were undertaken in the spirit of good, clean adventuring. Simon's mother took a less rose-colored view: “Your grandfather Benjamin was not a very nice man,” she said. “He stole things from people.” And one of those things was said to have been an enormous emerald from Peru, a gem almost the size of little Simon’s head called the Inca-Light. In any event, it's now 1882 and a ripe and randy (if relatively inexperienced) Simon is returning to the home he barely remembers: His Uncle Martin’s death has unexpectedly left him sole heir to both the Monfortin Shipping Works and the family's vast chateau just outside Portland.

As the luxury liner Lady Anne (“luxury” being a decidedly relative term) docks, Simon searches in vain for Toby McCuen, the handsome American with whom he embarked on a passionate affair during the storm-tossed voyage. But Toby is nowhere to be found, and Simon’s luggage is soon piled dockside by comely and sweet-natured porter Ritchie. Simon expects to be met by his cousin, Claude, but is instead picked up by Claude’s groundskeeper, Daniel D’Ete, who says his employer was called away on short notice but is expected back the following day. Simon takes an instant dislike to D’Ete, despite his muscular frame and bewitching golden eyes; D’Ete is incredibly rude to the hardworking little Ritchie and addresses Simon in a vaguely insinuating tone that’s not at all appropriate to his station. Worse still, Simon must spend his first night in the guest house, which is hardly a potting shed but falls far short of Monfortin manor’s baronial splendor.

Simon’s restless sleep is disrupted at 3:45AM – 15 minutes shy of the hour of the wolf -- by the sound of footsteps on the gravel driveway and, seeing a light over at the Monfortin place, assumes that cousin Claude has returned. He follows the sound of a harpsichord to the second-floor library and finds Claude slumped in a club chair, apparently dead by his own hand. There’s a pistol on the floor, an eerie automaton playing a tinkling tune and an empty, satin-lined box that once clearly held something large and round tucked into a niche in the wall, a niche that would have been undetectable to the unsuspecting eye, but has been left gaping carelessly open. Simon boldly searches the house, but finds no-one, then rouses D'Ete from what appears to be an ether-induced stupor and sends him to fetch the police.

When D’Ete returns with Inspector Alfred Trotsworth, Simon is shaken to discover that the pistol and the mysterious box are gone and the wall niche is again hidden; more disturbing still, D’Ete and head hoisekeeper Madame Lelia, seem determined to undermine his credibility, dropping broad hints that Simon is exhausted from his long voyage and perhaps given to flights of fancy. And there are more shocks in store: First Trotsworth lets it slip that D’Ete and Madame Lelia are mixed-blood siblings. Then Uncle Martin’s widow, Mrs. Ellen Blaine Monfortin, arrives for a visit with her illegitimate (and very possibly mixed race) son, who’s none other than Toby McCuen. Another cousin, Captain John Blaine, who runs the Monfortin shipping business, makes an appearance; there are ugly rumors about how he came to control the source of the family’s wealth. Dr. William Hampton, whom Trotsworth calls in to examine Claude’s body, opines that they’re not dealing with a suicide – Claude's death was cold-blooded murder -- and Ellen dies soon after, apparently the victim of poisoning.

Everyone seems to agree the Inca-Light doesn’t exist, though Simon’s near-death experience of being trapped in a hidden room crammed with loot pilfered from around the globe suggests otherwise. The later revelation that D’Ete and his sister are really Peruvian Indians leads Simon to suspect that the “non-existent” Inca-Light may have been stolen from an Incan Idol (enter the Moonstone allusion). Perhaps Simon’s increasingly active sex life is to blame for his subsequent, almost suicidally heedless behavior: He renews his white-hot relationship with Toby, only to lose him to a boating accident; sleeps with guileless and soon-to-be murdered footman Dougherty; blunders into virile Captain Blaine’s surprisingly welcoming bed and stumbles drunkenly into the arms of studly new footman Vinton – but it takes a remarkably long time for him to realize that the person behind the deadly doings at Monfortin, who seems especially hostile to Simon's lovers, is no more than an arm’s length away.

Hughes pays admirable attention to period minutia, given that Master of Monfortin was published by the Blueboy Library, an enthusiastic purveyor of smutty reading for gentlemen of a certain persuasion. Simon's casual acceptance of his homosexuality, which could be perceived as anachronistic, is the product of his upbringing in a London enchanted by the young and flamboyantly queer Oscar Wilde. His parents are murdered in "Timbouctou," the period-appropriate, French spelling of Timbuktu. Speaking tubes were all the rage in late 19th/early 20th-century luxury homes and Honore de Balzac's observation about vast fortunes and heinous but cunningly executed crimes (Le Pere Goriot, 1835) was already ingrained in the popular imagination.

Hughes also has the courage to play gothic clichés straight (as it were): Pelting rain, glowering skies, hidden passageways, deviously administered poisons, foes masquerading as friends and friends mistaken for foes, noises in the night, dark family secrets, mysterious strangers and a plucky little innocent forced to negotiate shark-filled waters blindfolded and hands bound. And how can you not applaud the fact that poor little Simon, under attack from every side -- including sides he didn't even know existed -- at least gets to have his ashes hauled at regular intervals rather than being forced to make do with longing looks and restless dreams. Master of Monfortin may not be a great book, but it's a beguiling pastiche with a heart as pure as the driven slush and a decorously delightful happy ending.

Man Eater

Gay Way/F.S. Publishing
Early 1970s (no copyright date, but most sources say 1971)

"This is a bizarre tale, unusual in this kind of literature," warns the back cover of Man Eater, and yeah, fair enough: Though gay smut of the 1960s and ‘70s is more diverse than a neophyte might think, it rarely ventured into such outright libido-shriveling territory as genital mutilation, serial murder and cannibalism. Not without fair warning, anyway.

But "Dick Jones" (if that's not a pseudonym I don't know what is) rushes in where tarnished angels fear to tread, and the result is a memorably nasty and psychologically astute thriller in which Vietnam veteran-turned-covert investigator Jake Gold is forced to hunt a bestial serial killer while still in the grips of post-traumatic shock syndrome. I venture to say that the vast majority of buyers who picked up Man Eater expecting a titillating one-handed read got an ugly surprise when they discovered just how literal the title was. But some four decades down the line, the real shocker is how vividly it anticipates Thomas Harris’ 1981 Red Dragon, filmed as Manhunter in 1986 and remade in 2002 under the original title.

Three and a half years ago, 25-year-old Jake was in country, having enlisted in hopes of proving to himself that he could control the raging libido that cut short his college career (getting caught in flagrante with a fellow member of the football team – by their coach and in the locker room, yet – was the deal-breaker). And it worked for a while. Then he met Dave, his rugged, manly soulmate, only to lose him four months later to a landmine. “I wanted to touch him, to hold him,” Jake remembers, “and I could only stand there and look at the pile of ground meat that had been my lover."

Dave’s death sent Jake off the deep end and into war-crimes territory, but he had the good luck to be recruited by the United Nations Crime Control Commission (UNCCC) rather than court martialed.

Now based in Berlin, Jake is on nightmare-making case number UNCCC45763-299H – the Man Eater – and after six months and four victims has gotten absolutely nowhere. The sociopath Jake is hunting targets upscale gay hustlers, castrating and cannibalizing them with a set of custom-made steel teeth, and when hestrikes again, butchering 22-year-old Juan Carlos decorates in Madrid, Jake is en route to Spain within the hour. His cover story is that he works for the TransEurope Film Syndicate, which allows him to scout "talent" and make contacts in upscale nightclubs, notorious dive bars and every gay-friendly hangout in between. Unfortunately for Jake, as long as he's in Spain he's stuck reporting to regional director Furguson, who never misses an opportunity to disparage fairies, faggots, cocksuckers and ass bandits in general and Jake in particular

Juan’s trail leads to celebrated bull fighter El Cordova, a notorious lover of pretty boys and freaky sex games. Jake gets a welcome thrill out of sleeping with the matador (Jake's unspoken motto is that the shortest route to whathe wants to know cuts through the bedroom) and would like to eliminate him from the investigation, but the fact is that El Cordova hated Juan and was in within easy travelling distance of all five murder sites on the appropriate dates. Jake also picks up English ex-pat James, who turns out to be a sadistic lunatic who threatens convincingly to screw Jake to death with a razor-blade studded dildo, which makes him look like a viable suspect as well. UNCCC closes the case after James kills himself with the lethal sex toy and El Cordova dies in the corrida, but Jake has reservations he tries to suppress by way of an epic bender that lands him in the arms of an aging whore and a pair of handsome, acrobatic, identical twin Danish rent boys. He knows he needs a break, but UNCCC sends him to London on a drug case.

That gets back-burnered when the man eater strikes again, this time in Rome. Once again, the slender leads Jake uncovers lead nowhere… but this time he gets an idea and orders up a psychological comparison of the victims. Bingo: They were all queer militants who proselytized aggressively, so Jake goes under cover as "Miss Mary SuperThing," activist hustler and drifts deeper and deeper into the sexual underworld, from open-air hotspots in Rome to orgies in Berlin, the sex-suffused streets of film-festival crazed Cannes to perpetually-permissive Amsterdam, where he cuts himself a break one night and abandons Man Eater detail for what promises to be a stimulating, unthreatening rendezvous with a pleasant, graceful fellow named Paul.

You knew where that was going, of course... the first part, at least. After some sweetly steamy foreplay, Jake is cold cocked and wakes up naked, gagged and tied to a bed by the man eater. Terrified and helpless, Jake is a captive audience to not one, but two hairpin-turn revelations: The first is that "Paul" is a woman. The second is that she used to be an effeminate gay man who was pressured into sexual reassignment surgery that left her miserable and filled with murderous rage.

Jake breaks free and kills "Paul," learning later that he escaped only because his bindings were carefully designed to give way under persistent pressure: The Man Eater wanted to die and chose Jake as his/her executioner. So Jake gets his man and his vacation and little something extra. "I've got to call a connection about a matched set of seventeen-year-old Nordic twin brothers [who] have learned some new tricks," he says. "I should be fun: There are some things that I want to show them."

I don't know about you, but I worry for those Danish boys: Like Harris' demon-haunted FBI profiler, Will Graham, Jake Gold got the job done at the expense of taking a good long look into the abyss. And once you lock eyes with the abyss, you're its bitch. Make no mistake: Red Dragon is a better book than Man Eater. But my gut is that if Man Eater had made its way through the mainstream publishing process, a gauntlet of editorial oversight, copyediting, fact checking and professional hand-holding – rather than the "crank 'em out" gay-sleaze sausage factory, it could have been every bit as good. The raw material – not just story, but also characterization, socio-political/psychological underpinnings and straightforward but skillful prose style -- is all there.

Not to play the "mute inglorious Milton" card, but if Dick Jones is still alive, I'd be thrilled to hear from him (or her, I suppose – it's unlikely but possible): The writer who made the effort to produce a book both so prescient and so much better than it needed to be deserves a shout out.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Boy Avengers

The Other Traveller/The Olympia Press

Grant Rogers Lattimer, the product of old money and generations of dirty little secrets, narrates “Karl Flinders” tale of extreme boarding-school bullying and elegant revenge. But what appears to be a satisfying corrective to the “sad young men” school of gay novels in which homophobes and gay bashers prevail turns out to have a nasty sting in its tail… a sting subtly foreshadowed on the second page and sprung on the last like a bear trap lurking unnoticed in a cluttered garage.

Grant’s discretely unnamed parents were beautiful, vacuous hedonists bound together by complicated finances and mutual vanity. His father, a legendary but penniless beauty, was once the lover of Grant’s maternal grandfather, who both engineered his boy toy’s marriage to his own daughter and set up a generous trust fund that liberated her for life from the puritanical purse strings of her sexually repressed mother… or maybe Grant’s maternal grandmother wasn’t repressed at all, but simply mad as hell at the social strictures that led her to marry a man anyone a little more worldy would have realized was gay and then, having discovered what she signed on for, buck up and deal with it like a well brought-up girl. In any event, Grant’s parents loved him in their fashion, but loved themselves and their lovers more.

Nine-year-old Grant’s first crush was live-in tennis instructor Jack Foster, the handsome, sensual fruit of the bad branch of a good family; his animal magnetism was such that Grant carefully drilled peephole through the wall separating their adjoining rooms in hopes of seeing his conspicuously well-endowed tutor in the nude. He eventually saw much more than that: First both his mother and his father in the throes of carnal ecstasy with Taylor, and then his parents attempting an angry sexual reconciliation that ended when Grant’s father bludgeoned his mother to death with a brass candlestick.

Selectively sheltered by his grandmother, who manages to keep Grant out of the public spotlight but not her late husband’s extensive collection of pornography or the hands of a 69-year-old Italian price who undertook to school the then 11-year-old stripling in the ways of same-sex love -- Grant is abruptly sent to boarding school at the age of 15. Not just any boarding school, of course, but Cornhill (known to the cogniscenti as “cornhole,” for reasons that soon become clear), whose generous Lattimer-family endowment deals Grant a high card he quickly learns to play.

While still processing the shock of finding that Jack Foster is now Cornhill’s athletic master and getting his first, albeit second-hand, taste of prep-school bullying, Grant notices fellow transfer student Jefferson “Jeff” Talbot, a pretty 14 year old whose exquisitely delicate looks instantly attract the attention of upper-class sadists Jamie Crawford, Tony Applegate, Gordie Phillips, Lloyd Waterman and Corkie Jennings, all privileged members of Taylor’s soccer team.
Poor Jeff is a sensitive, lonely boy given to late-night prayer in the chapel Grant’s grandmother funded in memory of her late husband, and it’s there that Jamie and his toadies surprise and gang rape him. Once spent, they warn Jeff to keep quiet unless he wants to spend the rest of time at Cornhill the butt of sidelong looks and smutty jokes.

Grant intercepts the violated Jeff immediately after the assault and tends to the younger boy’s injuries, persuades him to confess the whole ugly story and sends him to bed with painkillers and the promise that the guilty parties will be punished. But both the headmaster and Foster shrug off Jeff’s ordeal as “boys will be boys” roughhousing and insinuate that the only reason Grant cares is that Jamie and company got to Jeff before he did.

Having given the system its chance to step up, Grant goes to plan B: Using his family influence, he secures a suite of rooms with a private bath – displacing junior faculty member Bill Butterworth (whom he later discovers is queer, horrified by Cornhill’s tradition of sexual sadism and deeply sympathetic to the poor, brutalized Jeff) in the process -- and has Jeff assigned to room with him.

Grant’s next move is to hire straight but gay-friendly artist Tom Little, who moonlights as a private detective, to find a beautiful, VD-riddled prostitute willing to infect Jeff’s rapists, whom he now thinks of as “The Five.” Grant is undecided about how he should deal with Taylor until Taylor attempts to persuade him to make nice with with Jamie and company in return for their assurance that they won’t assault Jeff again.  Tom meanwhile comes up with the instrument for Grant’s revenge: Beautiful society girl Sandra, who deliberately contracted gonorrhea and syphilis so she could seduce and infect men who abused young gay boys like her late brother, Clyde. Sandra’s fiancée, angry that she wouldn’t put out, turned to her brother and then persuaded him not to seek medical attention when he suffered serious internal injuries during their spiteful liaison. After Clyde died of blood poisoning, Sandra's path was mapped out;  Grant thinks her mad but perfect for the task.

Tom, Grant and Jeff’s association leads them down all manner of interesting paths: Tom’s surveillance videos develop into a thriving career in high end pornography and awaken him to a powerful curiosity about how the other half loves, one which eventually finds him happily paired off with shy sensualist Mr. Butterworth.

 Jeff, after suitably gentle instruction by sex coach Cary Jenks – one of Tom’s apparently inexhaustible stable of experts -- realizes that he’s gay, even though his first same-sex experience was his degrading, brutal rape by a pack of supposedly straight boys. And Grant acknowledges that more than anything he wants Taylor to pay for his part in the deaths of his parents, to which end Jeff agrees to seduce Taylor as Grant secretly films them. The stills Tom subsequently prepares from Grant’s efforts sell at a premium via a “very special dealer in New York” and so compromise Taylor that he hangs himself.

And now to that sting: “[Taylor] took a deep breath,” says Grant, eye pressed to a secret peephole, “[and] leaped into the air, at the same time kicking the chair so hard he sent it crashing against the heavy oak door. His body seemed to leap upwards, almost to the beam from which his life was suspended. The resulting fall surely doubled the effect of the weight of his husky body. The fall clearly broke his neck, and I am certain, killed him instantly.

“And at that moment of quick, violent death, a great fountain of semen spurted from his magnificent cock.

“It tasted quite ordinary.”

Wow… didn’t see that coming, as it were. The revelation that Grant is the kind of flat out sociopath  capable of matter-of-factly lapping up the last emission of a dying man and rating its aesthetic qualities shouldn’t come as a total surprise: Go back to the beginning and the clues are all there.

The neat twist of the knife is that it doesn’t change the way you think about what Grant has engineered. Jamie and his sadistic pose of prep-school punks needed a good lesson in consequences, one they certainly weren’t getting from Cornhill's faculty. Poor Sandra’s date with the dark angel was made long ago, and she committed suicide knowing she helped redress the wrong done to a gentle boy the same age as her beloved brother. Tom didn’t need coercing to let his bi-curious flag fly; he just needed to meet Bill Butterworth, and that was happy coincidence rather than part of Grant's scheme. As to Taylor, he was a manipulative, selfish, amoral bastard long before Grant boxed him into a corner from which suicide seemed the only reasonable exit: Taylor’s callous carelessness with other people’s lives and feelings would have caught up with him sooner or later.

The fact that Grant is a sociopath is a tidy little one-two punch none the less, even if several of his pawns are happier when he's done fingering their lives and the ones who aren’t are privileged creeps who deserve the comeuppances they get. But Grant is still mad, bad and dangerous to know: Re-imagining Bluebeard as an extreme life coach who helps silly girls get their priorities in order and uses his money doesn't negate the fact that he's a murderer.

As is so often the case, I have no idea who “Karl Flinders” is, and as far as I can tell, this is his only credit. His inspiration is another matter: Grant's back story draws liberally on facts of the notorious 1943 murder of cafe-society golden girl Patricia Burton Lonergan, heiress to a brewery fortune, by her husband Wayne, who beat her to death with a candlestick during a "twisted sex" encounter. Their
marriage was engineered by her father, a bisexual roue and Lonergan's lover from the time the two met at the 1939 World's Fair, where the 21-year-old former lifeguard was working as rickshaw boy, until his death a year later. (Below: Patricia and Wayne Lonergan)
Patricia's mother adopted their two-year-old son, legally changed his name from Wayne Lonergan Jr. to William Anthony Burton, and did an admirable job of keeping him out of the public eye; he inherited $7,000,000 when he turned 12. The case was still news in the mid-1960s, when Lonergan was paroled and deported to Canada.

In any event, I’d love to know Flinders' identity, because The Boy Avengers is an offbeat little book that takes a bold walk on the wild side and yet somehow winds up in my grandma’s living room, metaphorically speaking, of course, in that it agrees with her basic approach to life: You should take people as they are and judge them by what they do, weighting kindness over cruelty and emotional honesty over fancy-folk manners and two-faced politesse. Damned if I know what to make of that little conundrum, but it burns with a pretty blue-white flame.

Friday, August 5, 2011

The Gay Haunt

The Other Traveller/The Olympia Press

Victor J. Banis' comedy of self-delusion and rude awakening -- credited to frequent pseudonym Victor Jay, one of many names under which he wrote a mind-boggling array of genre novels, from gay smut to female-friendly fantasy -- revolves around Paul Ross, who abandons his literary ambitions and honest gay identity to pursue a life of man-in-the-gray-flannel-suit conformity. The final step in his plan: Partnership in engineering firm Seller & Seller, a prize contingent on his marriage to the boss's plain, plump, prudish and pampered daughter Margo.

Fortunately for Paul, he's got a guardian fairy: The luscious, lascivious ghost of his late lover, happy hustler Lorin Gebhard, who choked to death five years ago on a diamond that dropped unnoticed from his cuff link into a delicious cocktail. Living Lorin was the self-appointed ambassador of "anything goes," but Paul is only going to pursue self-deluded quest of normality over Lorin's dead (but remarkably lusty) body.

Lorin makes his first appearance -- stark naked -- at Paul and Margo's engagement party and throws Paul for some exponential variation on the proverbial loop. The more vigorously Paul insists his queer days were just a phase, the more forcefully -- in all senses of the word -- Lorin applies himself to jogging Paul's repressed memories of smoking hot sex, drunken debauchery and gay times, landing him in one mortifying but pretty damned funny situation after another.

Paul is arrested for driving under the influence of Lorin's lustful lips and later compelled to hijack a fire engine in the nude. Still bare-ass naked, he blunders into the apartment where no-nonsense chippie Doris is trysting with her married sugar daddy, and the two of them wind up enjoying a zipless fuck while the cops haul her bewildered lover to the pokey. He screws Margo's cute, gayer-than-gay and none-too-bright cousin Don (though only after Lorin paves the way)  and is forced to flee a party thrown by Elliot Maxwell, the stable, studly, intellectually stimulating painter he threw over for flighty, thrill-a-minute social-butterfly Lorin... in a dress, yet.

Lorin's reign of "know thyself" terror culminates in a nightmarish weekend at the Sellers family "ranch," during the course of which Paul promises to sneak into Margo's bedroom for a night of passion but instead goes looking for Don, only to find himself groping Margo's delighted mother; is caught in flagrante by Margo's father but manages to extricate himself from this nightmare of impropriety by claiming he was just looking for the bathroom; returns to his own room but beats a hasty retreat when he realizes Mrs. Sellers has occupied his bed. Paul finally finds Don's room, minus Don, and decides to call it a night; he passes out in the safety of Mrs. Sellers' abandoned boudoir, only to be awakened by Lorin's expert caresses... except that it's not Lorin doing the caressing.

When the lights go on, Paul and a seriously traumatized Margo -- who just paid a surprise visit to Paul's room and was seriously surprised to find her mother and swishy cousin making the beast with two backs -- simultaneously discover that he's under the sheets with Mr. Sellers. Feydeau couldn't have choreographed a comedy of sexual errors more exquisitely attuned to the hypocrisies and shared social fictions of its time.

And it only gets better: Paul beats a hasty retreat with Don, who's atypically morose because he's just realized he's probably going to be disinherited, only to find Lorin waiting chez Don to offer his particular brand of pick-me-up. No sooner has Paul retreated to his own place than Mr. Sellers shows up, Margo in tow, and puts his cards on the table. Margo wants Paul, Paul wants to make partner and Mr. Sellers wants everyone to forget last night ever happened. From where he’s sitting, it looks as though the smart money is on a quickie marriage. Trouble is, putting the cards on the table can queer a bad deal (if you’ll excuse the expression) as easily as it can close a good one; once Paul and Margo take a hard look at the hands they’ve been trying to play, they both fold.

Margo is heartbroken but wiser, and one day she’ll realize just how devastating a bullet she dodged. Paul calls Elliot, who comes running but makes it painfully, thrillingly clear that he’s through playing Mr. Nice Guy. And as to Lorin, well, it's time for him to go back where he came from, with cute little victim-of-love Don in tow: Thanks to a gas leak that went unnoticed as Lorin was teaching Don some new tricks that produced literal sparks, Don’s apartment is in flames and his mortal coil has been shuffled off. Not the usual happy ending, but a happy ending nonetheless.

Unlike most of his contemporaries, Banis was convinced that sex and humor weren’t mutually exclusive and proved it with the 1965 The Man From C.A.M.P. (credited to “Don Holliday,” another frequent nom de plume). A parody of spy thrillers whose title pointedly tweaked The Man from U.N.C.L.E. series -- which for all its macho machinations was the campest thing on ‘60s TV until Batman came along -- it introduced Jackie Holmes, elite agent of a top-secret organization dedicated to eradicating crime against gay men. He works out of C.A.M.P.'s Los Angeles office, whose high-tech nerve center is reached through a secret panel in the men’s room of gay bar The Round-Up, and Jackie’s default cover is a pretty, dandified pansy with a poodle. The Man from C.A.M.P. spawned nine sequels and three spin-offs (including a cookbook), and the series outsold everything else the prolific Banis wrote. Everything except The Gay Haunt, which Banis figured sold about 150,000 copies – a runaway bestseller by gay pulp standards.

Banis readily acknowledges in his hugely entertaining and informative autobiographical memoir Spine Intact, Some Creases (2004, Borgo Boviews/ Wildside Press)
that The Gay Haunt is a variation on Thorne Smith’s hugely popular 1926 novel Topper, in which the madcap ghosts of wealthy jazz babies George and Marion Kerby (played in the 1937 film by Cary Grant and Constance Bennett) show a stuffy, hen-pecked banker how to loosen up and have a little fun. But Lorin life coaching is more problematic than Team Kerby's: For all their drunken carousing, George and Marion are fundamentally nice people whose antics never really hurt anyone else. Lorin’s good deed from beyond the grave -- showing Paul that playing straight just makes everyone miserable – is unimpeachable without being selfless, since he sent Paul off the rails in the first place.

Before Lorin, aspiring writer Paul and Elliot were sharing la vie boheme, supporting each other’s creative ambitions and sharing mutual goals, overlapping interests and a circle of smart friends with provocative ideas. The sexy, bitchy, spontaneous, shallow, fun-loving and self-centered Lorin bewitched Paul, but their wild fling that devolved into a mind-numbing bender that cost Paul Elliot, his old friends (supplanted by Lorin’s chattering coterie of silly party boys) and his passion for writing. Lorin's death broke the spell but left Paul nursing an emotional hangover laced with self-loathing that convinced him he hated being gay, when what he really hated was the kind of superficial, hedonistic and self-destructive gay life Lorin epitomized.

Lorin owes it to Paul to rectify the damage, but can’t resist doing it with the same kind of fabulous, chaotic, self-serving drama he used to live for: After all, don't the top girls say there's nothing like a little disaster to sort things out? And yet by the time the dust starts settling, Paul is both back on track and able to acknowledge the good things about Lorin without forgetting the bad, which allows them to part on a note of bittersweet acceptance. That’s a complicated knot of emotions and intentions to untangle, especially in an adults-only, supernatural sex farce. But Banis nails every note and makes it look like a breeze -- no wonder the book was such a hit.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Concentration of Hans

101 Enterprises Inc.

Were you so inclined, you could argue that Carl Coolen’s 1967 stroke novel The Concentration of Hans is marginally less offensive than highbrow Italian filmmaker Lina Wertmueller’s The Night Porter (1974).

Both traffic in Nazi/prisoner concentration-camp eroticism, but while Wertmuller dared suggest that Charlotte Rampling’s Jewish love-camp slave Lucia was deeply, irrevocably in love with SS officer Max Aldorfer (Dirk Bogarde), who used and degraded her, Coolen’s 14-year-old Hans Mueller quickly abandons any perverse fantasies that befriending some Nazi might save him: Hands simply vows “to stay alive at any cost, at any expense, even… submitting to the fondling and the cruel manipulation of the camp guards.”

Hans’ blonde, blue-eyed youth, of course, smacks of pedophiliac allure, but overall The Concentration of Hans strikes an appropriately appalled tone as it recounts his ordeal. Which is not to say that it isn’t one hot potato of a gay smut novel, reveling as it does in the teenager’s relentless torture and sexual humiliation.

Orphaned as an adolescent, Hans found refuge with brutish Dutch farmer Oskar, who taught him to pleasure other men and keep his needs and desires to himself. But when Oskar tried to rape him, Hans resisted and was caught midflight by Nazi invaders. Hans and fellow hot young thing Pieter are bought at a humiliating slave auction by decadent Lieutenant Haas, who get off on pitting the boys against one another. The prize is never specified and “winner” Pieter gets nothing more than the privilege of being Haas’ girl for the night and a bullet in the head in the morning.

Hans is soon shipped to Bergen Belsen, where he falls in love with swarthy, equally well-endowed Yugoslavian youth Joseph: Each gives the other a reason to endure the hunger, pain and mortification of their daily torment. Hans is flogged and raped, sucks and fucks uniformed men of all ages and watches the guards sic sex-crazed dogs on boys just like him. The nadir comes when he’s chosen for a potency experiment and, under the influence of libido-enhancing drugs, viciously rapes four boys no less helpless and brutalized than himself. And “then the bombers came.”

The Concentration of Hans ends with Josef and Hans strolling on a Riviera beach, both still startlingly young and comely in their abbreviated swimsuits. Hans has reinvented himself as one Henri Maleaux (which, for what it’s worth, means “bad waters”) and is on the verge of achieving French citizenship. Both are haunted by things they’d rather forget – things so shameful that neither wants to share them even with one of the few others who would understand -- but grateful that they survived when so many others died.

For all its sleaziness, there’s something perversely endearing about Hans, something that has nothing to do with Coolen’s lurid evocation of love camp atrocities and everything to do with Hans’ fundamental decency: It’s tough not to root for him, even when basic empathy bleeds the hot right out of most of the baroquely twisted situations in which Hans finds himself.

The Wisteria Club

The Blueboy Library

The prolific Peter Tuesday Hughes, an original member of Richard (Song of the Loon) Amory's Renaissance Group, a coalition of gay pulp writers that included Dirk Vanden and Samuel Seward (writing as Phil Andros) and whose (unrealized) goals included founding their own author-friendly publishing company,  cut a broad path through any genre that could be bent (as it were) to the needs of frequent queer sex scenes, including political satire (The Other Party, 1969), science-fiction (Alien, 1972) and gothic thriller (the popular Master of Montfortin, 1977).

Arch and cheerfully mannered, The Wisteria Club is the picaresque tale of an American orphan making his way up the ladder of late 19th-century London society, one horndog at a time. It begins in 1880: Kevin Edwards, a handsome, part-Native America lad of sixteen, staggers out of the Atlantic Ocean somewhere along the Dorset coast. He's one of two survivors of a the shipwreck that killed almost everyone else aboard, including his beloved parents; teh other is grizzled seaman Willie, who gets young Kevin as far as London before both are arrested for stealing food for which they have no money to pay.

Kevin is soon transferred to Miss Frederick's Home for Unclaimed Children, whose proprietress regularly throws tea partie at which dissolute aristocrats can, for a price, arrange to rent handsome boys. She loses little sleep over the fact that those who leave with regular Lord David Edenburry are never seen again.

Kevin, who's not quite as clever as he is handsome, is nonetheless clever enough to survive his weekend with Edenburry and his equally perverted friend, Mark Windom, helped by a felicitous combination of luck, pluck and fuck-worthiness. It's that last that makes Windom postpone drowning Kevin in a deep lake on Edenburry's estate whose floor is doubtless white with the bones of handsome orphans, to make time for one more depraved dalliance. The debauchery ends with Windom and Edenburry's cruel and humiliating tag-team assault on serving boy Albie Hawkes, a local lad three years Kevin's senior but considerably less worldly. Kevin and the humiliated Albie escape together later that night, and during the long walk from Edenburry's Kentshire estate to London they fall deeply and sweetly in love, and vow solemnly that they'll someday have their revenge.

They take refuge with elderly baker Harold Fountain, whose family hails from Middenburgh, where Albie was raised; unfortunately, Kevin is also acquainted with Fountain, who catered the get-togethers at Miss Frederick's. But small-town ties supersede big-city loyalties, and Fountain shelters both boys. He also tells them about the Wisteria Club, a very exclusive group to he, Edenburry and Windom all belong, though Fountain hastens to add that fervently disapproves of the cruel practices in which certain members indulge.

Feeling safe -- relatively safe, anyway -- for the first time since the shipwreck, Kevin quietly begins formulating a plan that starts with blackmailing Windom and Edenburry into getting both Albie and himself accepted into the Wisteria club. Always the more polished and ambitious of the two, Kevin has within a few years risen to the position of club secretary and used the connections he's forged to amassed a considerable fortune by catering to the whims of the idle rich and picked up a number of their vices. He and Albie share a discretely luxurious home, but Kevin is so focused on the social advancement that will advance his agenda he notices neither Albie's growing unhappiness (primarily over Kevin's casual infidelities) nor vicious extent to which his success is resented by Edenburry, Windom and their snobbish circle: Jean "the Monkey" de Bressie, scion of minor French aristocrats; Sanford Browne and Courtney Cunningham, respectively physician and legal counsel to the elite; and 21-year-old Scott Burroughs, the breathtakingly handsome, illegitimate son of an actress and a duke -- soon to be known collectively as The Six.

The two dovetail when Kevin and Albie have a bitter fight and the Edenburry/Windom alliance seize the opportunity to put Kevin in his place: They lure Kevin into a recklessly indiscreet opium-fueled, S&M debauch in a Soho brothel that guarantees he won't tell the police all he knows when he finds Albie hanging from a chandelier,  to all appearances a suicide. And so Kevin calmly concocts a new plan to punish the men who killed the love of his life, no matter how long it takes. And fortunately for him -- perhaps via the gods of cosmic payback -- he manages to find both a new boyfriend, sweet little Italian Edmundo Chiavari, and a powerful protector before he's done.

Hughes was a remarkably flexible writer and in addition to managing a fine approximation of 19th-century popular fiction's mannerisms and mores, from parenthetical asides ("Poor stupid Kevin!") and arch digressions to hairpin reversals of fortune, he could (and did) construct satisfying plots around genuine characters. The equal of Jane Austen or Henry James? Well no... but then again, who is? The Wisteria Club is a ripping yarn, young Kevin an engaging protagonist and Hughes' portrait of Victorian London, high and low, considerably better than it had to be. And even Oscar Wilde might have managed a tear for for poor, open-hearted Albie, sacrificed on the altar of Victorian hypocrisy, followed by a giggle at multiple-murderer Kevin's happy ending, sheltered in the stately home of broadminded Gregory, Bishop of Chichester, disporting himself with both sex-starved young curates and the loyal Edmundo, and occasionally swishing around town in a slimming black cassock. Sweet!

All sarcasm aside, Hughes managed to tap into the erotic frissons of status-quo upholding depravity (anything involving Edenburry and Windom, decadent despoilers of fresh-fleshed youth), guiltless hedonism (almost anything involving Kevin, whose Native-American roots apparently free him from the conventional drags of propriety and bourgeois convention) and avant garde eroticis, exemplified by the sex-positive mores of Gregory's crumbling pile of a country mansion, which might as well have "Do What Thou Wilt Shall be the Whole of the Law" chiseled over one or the other of its doorways. Kevin is the bridge that links them: As a friendless orphan, he survives by submitting to what Windom and Edenburry want; as a newly free man, he loves Albie with his heart and flesh and never for a moment feels guilty; and as an older and wiser man he uses what he has (including sweet little Edmundo) to get the revenge he wants. To sum up: Period raunch wrapped in a real story... not a bad little deal.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

From Steve, With Love

Parisian Press

Like John Jackson’s Intensive Care, also published in 1972, From Steve, With Love aspires to be more than a dirty book, which is not to say it isn't plenty dirty. But if less than a classic coming-of-age story (pun not intended, but no doubt inferred), it's actually better than a whole lot of variations on that well-worn theme put out by mainstream publishing houses.

Hot for teacher Allan Carstairs, small-town Wyoming boy Steve Corey gets quite the extracurricular education from the handsome Shakespearian scholar. Their affair is discovered and Allan flees in disgrace, Steve sets out to find his lost love but instead learns how hard life can be for romantics.

With nothing to go on but Allan’s advice that Steve should get out of Levittsville as soon as he can and explore his sexuality in a gay-friendly like “San Francisco or New York or New Orleans,” handsome Steve quietly packs a suitcase and makes his way to the bus station. His unsentimental education begins on the late-night bus to San Francisco: He enjoys a little sleepy fooling around with a handsome stranger named John and wakes up in San Francisco to find his wallet and all his money gone – all except the $20 hidden in his shoe.

The avuncular driver directs him to an inexpensive hotel and assures him that work is easy to come by; sure enough, three days later Steve has a job at a seedy movie theater – it’s not much, but it keeps a roof over his head and food on the table… if only fat, lecherous, alcoholic manager Mr. Colt would stop leering at him.

Steve meets the handsome, charismatic Craig Merriweather, some seven years his senior and well on his way to financial security, while swimming at the YMCA and there’s instant chemistry between them. But after a fabulous night together, Craig fails to follow through on his promise to call. Three weeks later, Steve quits his job following a humiliating experience with Mr. Colt and lets himself be picked up by a nice-looking older man who’s willing to pay $25.00 for an hour of his time.

Steve’s trick, Nikos, turns out to be an aging male model (Steve spots him in cowboy drag on a billboard advertising a popular brand of cigarettes he coyly neglects to name.. gee, could Nikos be a Marlboro Man?) who’s seguing into a second career as a pimp. Within a few months Steve’s circumstances have improved substantially: He has a nice apartment in Pacific Heights, new furniture and enough regular clients that he doesn’t have to worry about money. He’s lonely, though… and Christmas is one hell of a depressing day.

Then he meets Robin, a cute guy his own age, while sunbathing in Aquatic Park. They move in together with the understanding that it’s nothing heavy or exclusive – they’re just friends with benefits long before non-judgmental terms were coined... and then it gets complicated: It’s almost Christmas again and Robin – who’s started getting serious with a guy named Scott – throws a huge party. And who should turn up but Craig? Steve and Craig get back together, but a lot has happened since they met and they have to reinvent their relationship if it’s going to stand a chance.

From Steve, With Love is exhibit A in the case for genre: From drawing-room mysteries to porn, genre fiction is written to formula, which stifles great writers but gives the next few tiers -- the good, the promising, the competent, the pedestrian but reliable -- a time-tested structure within which to work. In order to keep those sex scenes coming (no pun...), From Steve, With Love has been stripped of the agonizing conversations and angsty interior monologues that make so many coming-of-age stories all-but unreadable.

But Johnson, whoever he may be, isn't a total hack, and makes Steve’s picaresque journey from bed to bed more than an excuse for serial hook ups. Each relationship, however brief or pragmatic, forces Steve to examine the beliefs with which he was raised, make hard decisions about what really matters to him and recalibrate his moral compass accordingly. As Mary Poppins would never say, just a spoonful of naughtiness makes the moral reckoning go down, in the most delightful way.


And now, a curious aside: In 1985, a variation on From Steve, With Love's cover art turned up on the 1996 CD reissue of cult audio-collagists Peach of Immortality's perversely titled "Talking Heads '77" (1985). How'd that happen? Beats the hell out of me, but I'm looking into it. (Thank you, Ken!)

Things Never Went Right...

Gay Way
circa 1972 (no copyright)

This unhappy gay-boy story may be rooted in self-hating stereotypes, but its underlying theme -- that the price of child abuse, exploitation and casual, low-rent sex trafficking increases exponentially -- is shockingly toxic and painfully believable.

Randy is only 16 when Pete, his new stepfather, catches him jerking off to some dirty pictures and rapes him. Within a year Pete is selling his stepson’s ripe ass to every pervert in town and Randy’s mom has made it clear that she couldn’t care less. Randy eventually demands a cut of the profits and has accumulated a substantial nest egg by the time he’s 18. After an anonymous call to the police that gets his mother and stepfather thrown into jail, Randy movs to Hollywood and strikes out on his own and – not surprisingly – becomes the worst kind of hustler, rolling and beating up in a vain effort to quiet his inner demons.

Randy eventually gets arrested and sent to prison, where he learns some new tricks and decides to set his sites higher: Instead of hustling, he wants a sugar daddy or mama and he really doesn’t care which. Fortunately, Randy cleans up nicely and quickly gets a job at the ABC Manufacturing Company, where boss lady Marcia Banning looks like a good prospect, except that she’s already married. But her husband, Ralph, is kinda gay, so Randy gets to work. First he seduces/rapes Ralph, then takes him to gay bars and a gay party that ends with Ralph being gang raped; that, Randy figures, should convince him to leave Marcia. Which Ralph does… but he turns up at Randy’s door, suitcase in hand, just as Randy is scoring with Marcia’s secretary, Rose. She bears uncomfortable witness to Ralph’s last humiliation: Randy mocks him and throws him out, which is enough to convince Rose that she doesn’t want to stay either.

Ralph commits suicide, and Randy – whose veneer of affable normality lies lightly over a sociopathic inability to understand the way most people think and feel – puts the moves on Marcia right after Ralph’s funeral. He rapes her when she resists, and she retaliates by hiring a pair of goons to beat the hell out of him. When he turns to Rose for comfort she tells him to go to hell – she doesn’t know what he did to Marcia, but she can guess. “He had a stupid urge to cry like he hadn’t done since he was a kid,” writes Carter. “The last time he had cried had been the time his stepfather… raped him.”

Randy goes on to get drunk, pick a fight with a barfly that gets him thrown out, picks up a young guy in a nearby park (“there was always a faggot where there was a park,” he figures) and beats him to death just as a cop comes by on his nightly rounds. I’ll leave the rest to Carter: “There was only, suddenly, a quick, hot pain in the small of his back and it seemed as though he had suddenly become lighter, as if his feet had taken wings.
“Then he realized that he was falling, tumbling over and over into the damp grass.
Things had never gone right for him.”

Vic Carter's Things Never Went Right… is terrible porn, depressing and mired in the kind of day-to-day misery that's better than an ice-cold shower for inducing libidinal shut down. But it isn’t a bad book… in fact, it’s a pretty well-written chronicle of the making of a sociopath. The first few sentences are impressively vivid:

“The trouble began for Randy soon after his new stepfather, Pete, moved into the house. Randy hated him; hated lying in his bed at night listening to Pete and his mother fucking in the next room; hated the way Pete ignored his right to privacy and thought nothing of walking into the bathroom when Randy was using it; hated the way he sometimes caught Pete looking at him, as though they shared some really dirty secret.”

They nail a certain kind of teen unhappiness, a mix of restless fury and impotent frustration, while also hinting that there's something about Randy that makes him especially susceptible to negative influences. One might ask, for example, why Randy continues to leave the bathroom door unlocked after the first time Pete barges in while he’s taking a piss. And to his credit, Carter isn’t suggesting that Randy wanted to be sexually abused; he’s foreshadowing the desperate need for attention that drives the adult Randy to rash and brutal acts of violence. All that said, Things Never Went Right… is nevertheless incredibly unsexy and depressing, the polar opposite of a turn on – it’s a cold shower between covers that doesn’t even leave you feeling clean.

And what a cover! For the longest time I wondered why it showed Randy about to bash a girl over the head with a bottle of gin when there’s no such scene in the book (not that pulp paperback covers always go with the text inside), before finally realizing that the pretty, curly-haired person in the low-cut, belly baring blouse is supposed to be a guy. That’s how crude the drawing is, though the uncredited artist clearly took considerable care in his (I assume) rendering of Randy’s muscular torso and crotch.

I assume Vic Carter is a one-off pseudonym: He doesn’t seem to have written any other books and while it’s a surprisingly common name, none of the Vic Carters I’ve run across are old enough to have been writing in the early ‘70s. I hope one day to find out who he is or was; Things Never Went Right… isn’t an overlooked masterpiece, but it’s good enough, particularly considering the constraints of its genre, that I’d love to know where he came from and what became of him.

The Sexual Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

The Other Traveller/Olympia Press

The Sexual Adventures of Sherlock Holmes predated the K/S-driven birth of bonafide slash fiction by several years, which hasn’t stopped touchy-feelie true slash believers from going after it with knives honed and eyes all a-bloody.

I, who first read and loved the Holmes/Watson stories as a pre-teen and return to them regularly, don’t quite understand the brouhaha. For my money, writer Larry Townshend (whom the unpaginated first edition coyly credits as "J. Watson") is a fortuitous combination of no-nonsense pornographer and Holmes fan who's unafraid to rework the canon with both a twist and a certain sly sensitivity.

My guess is that beneath all the highly specific complaints about acts and attitudes, the problem lies largely with the fact that Townsend is a pornographer: In my experience, the slash community likes exquisitely refined feelings described in graphic detail and base fornication cloaked in a shimmering veil of euphemistic vagueness. I'm

London, 1881: Twenty-five year-old physician John Watson had just finished his training when he joined the Army Medical Department and was dispatched to the Afghan front as a field doctor. Though lucky to have survived the injuries he sustained shortly after his arrival, Watson returned home too enfeebled to establish his own medical practice and is now scraping by on a meager government pension in a city where affordable housing is an oxymoron. He's lonely, living in a depressing lodging house and more than a little worried about his future. 

A chance encounter with onetime comrade in arms (and bed) Stamford, who appears to have prospered in civilian life, sets his life on an unexpected course. Young Stamford, Watson learns over a genteel lunch, has become a high-toned procurer — sufficiently high-toned to quietly wait out the inevitable show of indignation when he suggests that the still-handsome flesh his old friend used to share freely could be the answer to his current financial difficulties. Once Watson has finished paying lip service to propriety, Stamford arranges a meeting with the client he thinks would be a perfect match.

"[W]e came here on business," Stamford says briskly to Mr. Sherlock Holmes (one of many lines lifted verbatim from Doyle that takes on a rather different meaning in this context), and once the business is concluded, Holmes and Watson repair to 221B Baker Street, where the undergarments soon fall where they may. It’s a testament to Stamford’s sound judgment that Holmes and Watson prove sexual soul mates, and within days they’re snuggling in their cozy front room while the great detective-to-be marvels that “a bit of buggery should so completely change one’s life.”

It's not long before Scotland Yard's Inspector Gregson appeals to Holmes for help in a conspicuously queer case of murder: An American named Enoch Drebber has been found dead in an empty house, clad in nothing but a pair of frilly, pale-purple ladies’ underpants, with no signs of violence upon his person. This is, of course, more or less the beginning of Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, and the primary difference between the original novella and Townshend's pastiche is the sex of the young person cruelly destroyed by Mormon zealots.

In the former, the despoiled innocent is a lovely girl named Lucy, while in the latter it’s beautiful boy Lucius. In both, heartbroken lover Jefferson Hope arrives too late to save his beloved and instead devotes his life to vengeance, and in neither version does anyone feel particularly good about bringing him to justice.

This sad, brutal narrative segues into a sexed-up variation on The Greek Interpreter, in which Mycroft Holmes calls upon his little brother to untangle the (again) queer business into which a linguist named Mr. Melas has stumbled. Brought blindfolded and in chains from the basement of the Diogenes Club, Mycroft's home away from home, Melas, who's blessed with the lean, flexible “body of a gymnast,” tells this puzzling story: Hired on short notice two long days earlier for what appeared to be an ordinary job, Melas was blindfolded, bundled into a carriage with blacked-out windows and borne to God knows where. Once at his mysterious destination, Melas was ordered to mediate between new employers — Latimer and a man named Harold — and a naked, viciously abused Athenian named Paul Kratides. Melas' improvised efforts to get to the, um, bottom of the strange matter are dashed by the unexpected arrival of Paul, Kratides' delicate, handsome lover (in Doyle’s original, Kratides’ delicate, beautiful sister, Sophy). Poor Paul is sexually abused in an effort to get Kratides to reveal some piece of information to his captors and Melas, though compelled to participate the degenerate goings on, went to Mycroft in the hope that he could unravel the mystery and save Kratides and Paul.

Though too late to save Kratides, Holmes and Watson rescue Paul from The Roaring Bitch, a disreputable male brothel, and send him on his way with Kratides’ legacy — the deed to a private island resort that will support him for the rest of his life. Watson notes sadly that the relentless sordidness of this case cast a pall over his relationship with Holmes, who subsequently surrendered himself to drugs and debauchery, and that he soon after bought a medical practice in “an outlying section of London,” moved out of 221B and set up housekeeping with sweet little Jeffrey Phelps, nephew of the Percy Phelps Holmes helped in The Naval Treaty.

"I have referred to this period as my 'marriage'," Watson writes, and for the sake of apparent conformity, lithe, pretty Jeffrey agrees to wear women's clothing and play his wife. But the day-in/day-out masquerade creates a rift in their relationship, and when Holmes comes looking for Watson’s help one last time -- Jeffrey, conveniently, is away -- Watson makes his choice.

With The Final Problem looming, Holmes reveals that he has finally tracked down "the Caligula of London,"  a brilliant, amoral sociopath who uses his perverted sexual magnetism to seduce, destroy and control young men from wealthy, well-connected families.  His name is Professor Moriarty, and he has challenged Holmes to a duel of sexual superiority (it's impossible to keep the word cockfight at bay) that will determine who will continue to ply his trade and who must retreat into the shadows.

En route to the fateful rendezvous, Holmes and Watson have hot sex in a train car (immediately after Holmes has shed his latest disguise, the robes of a priest — calling all Catholic fetishists!), and after Moriarty and Holmes plunge together to their (presumed) deaths in the roiling waters of Switzerland's Reichenbach Falls, Watson accepts Jeffrey’s heartbreakingly graceful farewell, closes his medical practice and returns to Baker Street with Moriarty’s pale and equally devastated Swiss boyfriend, Friedl… and that’s how it all ends.

Born in 1930, Townsend is best known as the author of pioneering S&M how-to manual The Leatherman’s Handbook (1972) — also published by The Other Traveller — and its sequels, The Leatherman’s Handbook II (1983) and The New Leatherman’s Workbook: A Photo Illustrated Guide to SM Sex Devices (1984); he also wrote dozens of gay-oriented novels, some under pseudonyms and many under his own name and was lauded as an "authoritative but principled voice for sexual liberation" who championed extreme sexual practices within the context of mutual consent and respect.

I have no way of knowing the exact extent of  Townsend's investment in the Holmes stories, but I appreciate his keen eye for the suggestive phrase, like Holmes' offhand remark that Scotland Yard Inspectors Gregson and Lestrade are “as jealous as a pair of professional beauties;” sudddenly Townsend's notion that they're former lovers whose romance has curdled into bitter rivalry makes all the sense in the world.

And it takes no more than the addition of the phrase "yet prettiest" to turn Watson's description of the Baker Street Irregulars -- “half a dozen of the dirtiest and most ragged street Arabs that ever I clapped eye on” -- into a rather different sort of appreciation.

It's Doyles' Stamford who describes Holmes as "a little queer in his ideas" (a note for the pedantic: the earliest printed examples of "queer" in the gay sense date to some 30 years after A Study in Scarlet was published, but it could easily have been used much earlier within the insular London underground of male brothels, hot-to-trot telegraph boys, horse guards and slumming aristocrats). It's Doyle's Holmes who calls the Diogenes club as "the queerest... in London" and his brother Mycroft as "one of the queerest men," but it's Townshed who grabs that ball and runs with it.

And let's be honest: Hardcore Holmesians expend a lot of time effort attempting to wrestle the evident intensity of Holmes and Watson's relationship into a comfortably normative context, a task made more difficult by Doyle's conspicuous lack of interest in details. Not only did Watson's wound migrate from his shoulder to his leg (with one additional reference to an unspecified limb), but the stories' internal chronology forces attentive readers to conclude that Watson's 1888 marriage to Mary Morstan (The Sign of the Four) was actually the second of three: References to his wife both pre- and postdate Mary's death,  which occurred sometime between 1891 and 1894. It's actually easier to go with the gay scenario, which situates all the inconsistencies within the context of a fundamentally honest fellow trying to stand by a big, fat lie in the face of ever-increasing scrutiny.

Holmes' cold use of his lover to determine whether Drebber was suffocated during an act of oral rape is another sticking point (if you will) for fans who'd rather not believe that the man who worried about Watson facing a venomous snake in The Speckled Band (which by Watson's reckoning took place two years after he and Holmes met) would be willing to half asphyxiate him to prove a point. To which I can only say, back to Doyle:

"[He's] a little too scientific for my tastes," warns Stamford. "It approaches to cold-bloodedness. I could imagine him giving a friend a little pinch of the latest vegetable alkaloid, not out of malevolence, you understand, but simply out of a spirit of inquiry in order to have an accurate idea of the effects. To do him justice, I think that he would take it himself with the same readiness."

Sharp lad: As late as The Devil's Foot, which takes place in 1897, Holmes tests a mind-altering, plant-based poison on his dear friend and himself, condemning them both to the bad trip of all time. Sure, Holmes apologizes profusely after the fact, but does "I'm sorry" really cover a trip to Miltonian  hell? And not for nothing, but this is how the "platonic" pals wind up: "I dashed from my chair," writes Watson, "threw my arms round Holmes and together we lurched through the door, and an instant afterwards had thrown ourselves down upon the grass plot and were lying side by side, conscious only of the glorious sunshine which was bursting its way through the hellish cloud of terror which had girt us in." Not that there's anything gay about a sensual guy nap after two longtime companions have taken a mind-bending journey to the center of their minds.

The Other Traveller, the legendary Olympia Press' gay-oriented companion to its Traveller's Companion line, published several other Townsend novels, including polymorphously perverse science fiction tale The Scorpius Equation (in the future, fretting about gay couples will be so 3000 years ago and marriage will be a utopian group grope in which the right balance of gay, straight and bisexual partners guarantees fulfillment of everyone's sexual and emotional needs) and Run, Little Leather Boy (both 1971).

The Long Leather Cord

Pleasure Reader/Greenleaf Classics 1971

“Larry Townsend” (1930-2008), whose real name was Bud Burnhardt, was one of a handful of writers who used the throwaway medium of pulp erotica to explore a deeply personal erotic landscape at considerable length and depth. Long before Townsend found his niche with the how-to manuals The Leatherman’s Handbook and The Leatherman’s Workbook, he explored bondage-and-discipline fueled sexuality in pulp novels like The Scorpious Equation and The Long Leather Cord, the nonchalantly transgressive story of teens Chuck and Steve, who move in with their smoking hot dad after their mother and stepfather die in a small-plane crash.

Steve and Chuck quickly learn that he’s simultaneously involved with notorious Hollywood madame Beverly Wickersham and deep into gay S&M role playing with his boyfriend Bill. These revelations both open up worlds of erotic possibility and force the (inevitably) handsome brothers to make mature decisions about their sexuality earlier than the average youngster.

Townsend was driven by a black leather/submission and dominance kink but, like fellow pulp writer Carl Corley, he was a romantic at heart. His little leather boys wanted to be bound, beaten and besmirched, but less by studly strangers than by men who loved them… even if those men wound up being their fathers. Townsend’s “Leather Notebook” column dispensed advice to bondage boys for almost 30 years, first in Drummer magazine and then in Honcho, and he lived with partner Fred Yerkes for 44 years; their relationship ended with Yerkes’ 2006 death.

Townsend stood out from the crowd of pulp auteurs by virtue of his straightforwardly good writing: It wasn’t elegant, but it was clear, accessible and to the point. He dwelled on neither who-did-what-to-whom details nor on swoony emotions: You always know exactly what’s going on and how his main characters feel about it, but the story keeps moving forward at a brisk clip.

Highly ritualized sadomasochism is a specialized predilection, but Townsend managed to make it seem ordinary – not mundane, mind you, but well within the erotic parameters of the average, broad-minded adult (you know, the one with no interest in all-mod-cons dungeon play but susceptible to the rosy glow of a smartly but lovingly-spanked bottom) – without stripping it of its kinky kick.

See also: The Sexual Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Intensive Care

Parisian Press

Like John Jackson's From Steve, With Love, also published in 1972, Intensive Care is has all the marks of a serious novel that wound up in the hands of a sex-book publisher because no mainstream imprint was interested in a gay-themed book by an unknown writer.

The victim of a brutal sex crime, 20-year-old college student Tim Laird has been transferred from UCLA Medical Center to an upscale psychiatric facility at the request of his wealthy, self-centered parents. Tim can’t – or more to the point, won’t -- immerse himself in therapeutic rituals: He’s tortured by dreams that force him to relive his ordeal every single night, so why would he want to suffer through it every day as well? He swears he wasn’t trying to kill himself by overdosing on painkillers – he was just in shock and pain after surviving the traumatic assault and took more pills than he should have. And besides, Tim knows the real reason he’s been committed is that his shallow family saw an opportunity to put him in the hands of Dr. Greer, a psychiatrist who specializes in “curing” homosexuals.

Most of the staff toes the Greer party line, but there are exceptions, like “psychiatric technician” (whatever that means) Carl Greene, who’s assigned to look after Tim’s day-to-day physical needs. After spending some time with his young charge, Carl -- who's gay and sees sexual orientation as just one part of the unique confluence of desires, experiences, perceptions and influences that make up every individual's unique personality -- is convinced that there’s nothing wrong with Tim except that something horrible happened to him and he needs time to recover. Tim also has an unexpected ally in middle-aged staffer Mrs. Ryan, who administers the usual battery of psychiatric tests and comes to the same conclusion as Carl.

Tim wants nothing to do with Dr. Greer; he shows for his scheduled sessions but reveals nothing about what he thinks or feels. Carl is another matter: he gets permission to take him out on day trips, and each gradually opens up to the other. Carl shares his lingering grief over the death of Robbie, an ex-boyfriend who died in a car crash shortly after they broke up, and Tim finally tells the story of his ordeal at the hands of Al and Steve, whom he met in a bar. Whatever the inexperienced Tim expected, it wasn't to be tortured mercilessly in an isolated house where no one could hear him scream; escaping took the last ounce of strength Tim had. Sharing their darkest secrets allows Carl and Tim to look forward, and they begin making plans to move in together. All they have to do is hang on until Tim turns 21 and can check himself out.

But they underestimate Dr. Greer, who hates being thwarted: Two weeks before Tim's 21st birthday he forces Carl to take his unused vacation times and sets about breaking Tim. Greer torments, harries and goads the vulnerable boy into attacking him, after which Tim collapses into the refuge of a catatonic state. And that’s when Mrs. Ryan shows what she’s made of: She calls Carl, who in turn gets the usually apathetic Mrs. Laird on the phone and persuades her to start throwing her money around and and have Tim transferred to another hospital immediately. Revealing a strength of character no one imagined she had, Mrs. Laird not only does as Carl asks but gives his relationship with Tim her tacit approval. When Tim emerges from the cocoon of sleep, Carl is at his bedside, ready to take him away.

As I said at the outset, Intensive Care -- like a number of other “erotic” gay pulps of the 1960s and ‘70s -- isn’t really a stroke book. It’s a standard-issue coming-of-age novel whose main characters happen to be gay, and author Jackson (which I assume to be pseudonym) cleverly places a narrative damper on the hot guy-guy action by making Tim the damaged victim of sexual violence and Carl a mature man who realizes that a nurse – sorry, psychiatric technician -- should know better than to rush such a patient into potentially traumatic intimacies.

None of which is to say Carl and Tim don’t wind up doing all manner of things that go way beyond the parameters of patient-caretaker behavior, just that Jackson doesn’t dwell them. The average smutty-book buyer was probably disappointed by Intensive Care’s low lust-stoking factor, but four decades later it holds up surprising well. Parisian Press, a queer-pulp powerhouse, published at least two other novels by Jackson -- It’s Show Biz and From Steve, With Love -- in 1972; both share Intensive Care's better-than-it-needs-to-be qualities.