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.