Monday, November 15, 2010

Hellcats and Honeygirls: When Sleaze Meets Art

by Peter Enfantino

Vince had been fifteen when he had first discovered how easy it was for him to get a girl to go the limit with him. He'd made another discovery at the same time, He discovered why it was that people spent so much of their time thinking about sex and talking about sex and planning for sex and having sex and chasing after sex. It was because sex was the greatest thing since rings with secret compartments. Girls, he had discovered, had secret compartments, too, and they contained a map to paradise. It was farewell Captain Marvel, a new marvel has been found.
-From So Willing by Sheldon Lord and Alan Marshall (Midwood, 1960)
Located somewhere between mainstream fiction and hardcore lies the titillation of sleaze. Inviting the reader in with covers adorned by bare flesh and erotic poses, the sleaze paperback was a unique field, one populated by several well-known and highly respected authors. Generally, these novels featured lots of sex, descriptions which may have been daring at the time but now come off almost laughable:
I was on the bed. Allison was standing next to the bed staring down at me. Then Allison was embracing me, the slippery velvet of her perspired body pulsating against me. Mouth on my mouth. Silken lips against mine. Hands and fingers stroking, clasping, fondling. Lips touching, brushing, sliding over my body. Agonizingly exquisite tongue seeking, caressing. I in the torturous ache of ecstasy, in the rapture of transport, then, quickly, knotted up with tension...release and flowing out and, "Allison, Allison, Allison, I love you. My precious darling. Allison, Allison, Allison..."
-From These Curious Pleasures by Sloane Britain (Midwood, 1961)

Not exactly Penthouse Forum but you (and the reader of 1961) get the idea. A man's equipment was a "throbbing lance" or a "flesh-colored rocket" and a woman would "open up her Tunnel of Love" or let a man "lay in her garden of delight." It's all fairly innocent now but serious business back then, as detailed in "Softcore Publishing: The East Coast Scene" written by Jay Gertzman and found in the pages of the indispensable Sin-A-Rama, edited by Brittany A. Daley (Feral House, 2005). Gertzman explores the fascinating world of the sleaze merchants and the legal trouble they encountered (I guess since the government had cleaned up comic books and sex and violence were still rampant in the streets, the paperback was the obvious next step) while his Sin-A-Rama compatriot Stephen J. Gertz gives us the "West Coast Blue" side of the story. Pretty scary stuff when you think that the objects of the legal system in this case were not heroin or cocaine but Suburban Sexpot and Sin on Wheels.

You can find exhaustive and behind-the-scenes history and horror stories in both Sin-A-Rama and in the online e-zine eI, edited by Earl Kemp and found here.

Kemp has been producing eI since January 2002 and filling it with the kinds of stories only someone who worked in this field could tell. Kemp read and purchased manuscripts for some of the most popular sleaze publishers and actually spent time in prison for his crime. Beware when visting eI: it's addictive and you'll want to read them all in one shot!

One of the authors that Kemp edited was Donald Westlake. This would have been after he had established himself as a top crime writer under his own name and the Richard Stark pseudonym. In addition to Westlake there are several other authors who have now been "outed" as sleaze writers: Robert Silverberg, Evan Hunter/Ed McBain, Harry Whittington, and Lawrence Block. Block and Westlake wrote three softcore novels together and, just as with most of the vintage sex novels of the early 1960s, all three are highly collectible and pretty expensive if you can find them.

To our rescue comes Subterranean Press with their latest release, Hellcats and Honeygirls, a collection of those three collaborative novels between two of the best crime writers of all time. For less than the cost of one of those vintage pbs, you can read all three. Of course, you may be one of those collectors who buys a book for its cover and then slaps it in a bag before shelving it (where it might just as well disappear for all the good it does), never to crack that VF spine. This book won't be your cup of tea. This is for the curious reader. Could there be value in a sex romp? Well, the answer, if Hellcats is any indicator, is that there's plenty of quality behind some of those cheesy covers (and book dealer Lynn Munroe will tell you exactly where to find it in Wednesday's column!).

Hellcats and Honeygirls opens with A Girl Called Honey. Honor Mercy Bane, raised in a uber-religious household in Kentucky, is tossed out on her ass one day after her parents catch her screwing a local school teacher. Forced to fend for herself, she turns to prostitution and finds she's good at it and the pay's not bad. Into her life comes Richie Parsons, AWOL from the Air Force, and as paranoid as a junkie, first as a john and then as her lover. The two jump from town to town, always after Richie imagines the Air Force is on his tail, and the life eventually begins to drag on Honey (as her clients know her). A wealthy client falls in love with her and arranges a plan to edge out Richie and keep Honey all for himself. That plan goes awry and leads to some dark places you'd never imagine between shags in the sheets.

Much lighter than the previous novel (and, believe me, after that climax—no pun intended—you'll need light), So Willing chronicles the escapades of Vince, not much more than a boy but knowing what he wants, and his various missteps in the puruit of a real life honest-to-gosh virgin. It seems that even in 1960, that prized commodity was rare. Vince thinks he knows the "look" of a virgin but his choices are always hilariously anything but:
"This is the first time," she whispered.
"I know."
"My sister," she explained, whispering in his ear, "always told me to never do it with a boy from my own school or my own town, because that way I'd get a bad reputation. She said I should only go for boys from other towns. I've never done it before. You're the first boy from our school that I've ever done this with." The full import didn't hit him for a couple of seconds, and then he practically yelped. She wasn't a virgin!

In the third and final novel, Sin Hellcat, Madison Avenue ad man Harvey Christopher becomes bored of his mundane life, of his frigid wife Helen, and the pressures of a job he's only working to keep up with the neighbors' lifestyle. He meets up with old flame, Jodi, once a college conquest, now a highly paid prostitute and the two have a nighttime romp. Harvey doesn't remember a second of it but that's okay since Big Al, an associate of Jodi's, has all the proof in some glossies he'll be sending to Helen unless Harvey does a job for the pair. Unlike most men caught with their junk in a wringer, Harvey couldn't care less if he's "exposed," and tells Al so much. Much to the surprise of Toni and Al however, Harvey wants to know what the ransom would be. From here, the book takes an unexpected and amusing turn.

The strange fruit of the bunch, A Girl Called Honey, is closer in tone to the work that appeared under the writers' real names. There's not much humor to be wrung from the hellish snapshots provided of the life of a whore and her slacker boyfriend. Sans softcore sex, this could easily have been a Lion or Gold Medal mainstream novel. So Willing and Sin Hellcat benefit from the writing skills of two masters but are very much different in tone. Prostitution, adultery, and massive numbers of sexual partners are vices to be made light of, not vocations that lead to murder and drug addiction.

Subterranean should be thanked and supported for releasing these unknown relics in a nice, affordable format.

Reading these novels is what has spurred me to take on a multi-part look at the sleaze paperbacks. I've been collecting vintage paperbacks for over 35 years but never ventured in to this territory. I don't buy too many books that I don't intend to read and paying $40 for something that is, ostensibly, just a nice piece of good girl art (GGA) wrapped around something that wouldn't hold my interest for more than five or ten pages is a waste of dough. What impressed me the most about Hellcats is that all three novels were very readable and didn't revolve around constant screwing. Sure, all three had their scenes of carnal carnage, but there was a story to be told. So, how many more novels are there out there like this trilogy? How many undiscovered gold nuggets amongst the pap? Why would these successful authors write a great story, pepper it with sex scenes and sell it to a market that can't possibly reach as wide an exposure as their usual outlets? Do these authors write the books differently, saving their "best material" for their mainstream books?

Hopefully, in the next few days we'll find out together.

NEXT UP: An interview with sleaze dealer/historian Lynn Munroe.


Walker Martin said...

I collect vintage paperbacks also and back in the 1970's, I once had an opportunity to buy hundreds of sleaze paperbacks in nice condition for around a quarter each. I didn't buy them because I considered them unreadable and that they would never be collectible.

Turns out I was absolutely wrong. Each year at the NYC Paperback show put on by Gary Lovisi I see Chris Eckhoff and others with several tables of sleaze pbs selling them at fairly high prices. Gold Medal, Dell Mapbacks, Signets, sell for a couple bucks each while sleaze sells for far more.

The cover art is sometimes of interest, in fact I have five porno paperbacks original paintings, but I still find the stories unreadable. I just bought a copy of HELLCATS AND HONEYGIRLS and will see if I can read it.

Peter Enfantino said...

I think you'll enjoy the three Hellcats novels. Subterranean Press owner/publisher Bill Schafer just let me know that there will be more "sleaze" reprints from Lawrence Block from Sub Press, along with a volume of Robert Silverberg's "undercover" work. I'm looking forward to this.