Mind Caviar

"If lesbians were purple, none would be admitted to respected places.
But if all lesbians sudenly turned purple today,
society would be surprised at the number of purple people in high places."

~ Sidney Abbot & Barbara Love (1972)

Mind Caviar, Vol. 4 Annual Issue, 2003

Pulp Frisson: Sex Off the Rack The Lesbian at the Drugstore

by William Dean

The world’s first paperback book, perhaps fittingly, was Goethe’s Faust, published in 1867.  As you know, the story of Faust is about a bookish man who sells his immortal soul for, among other things, a devilish and sexy tryst with Helen of Troy, “history’s most beautiful woman.”  Obviously, this was not the paperback as we know it, but literally a cheaply printed book in stiff paper wrappers instead of the usual leather binding of that time.  It was, however, indicative of the trend to come. Faust was a popular tale, with all the elements: sexy beautiful women, sinful behavior, a comedic (if sardonic) sidekick to a powerful lead character, and some sort of moral (or immoral) plotline.

Lesbian Pulp Fiction Paperback
In 1935, Penguin published the first paperback in a style more recognizable. In fits and starts, popular literature began filtering out to the reading public.  The size, weight and shape had a lot going for it.  It could easily fit in a pocket or purse.  People were traveling more, by ship, train, and airplane, and the little paperback was the perfect thing to entertain a reader’s mind as the miles passed beneath them.  The paperback grew immensely in popularity during World War II when GIs and sailors carried them around and exchanged them to fill in the time between jobs and combat.

Without the cheaply produced paperback, it’s easy to speculate that a lot of fiction would never have seen the light of day.  But suddenly, something strange was happening during the 1930s and ‘40s, which grew to become almost tradition in the 1950s.  Hand-in-hand with their sisters, the pulp magazines of short stories, paperbacks began acquiring lurid, sexy cover art that shouted and seduced from the racks in train and bus depots, airport terminal stalls, and yes, even the corner drugstore in middle America.  Something was happening inside the covers, too.  As genuine literature began poking and probing behind the glossy scenes of everyday life, with such salacious works as Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road, so the publishers and readers began saying “Hey! Give me more like that.”  So was born pulp novels that emphasized the sensual and illicit and even seedy underbelly of life. Tobacco Road spawned “trashier” tales like Swamp Girl, Baby Doll, and The Shack.

Lesbian Pulp Fiction As the straight heterosexuals bought up these sleazy tales for bedtime reading, certain publishers with an eye on the marketplace started creating a venue for books that dealt only with the sex, graphic sex, dirty words, people actually fucking and sucking in descriptive purple prose.  At first, these were sold “under the counter.”  There was no such beast as the “adult bookstore” back then.  Partly because American women had been prominent in the workplace during World War II (but then unemployed when the “boys came back home) and partly because naive American young men had been thrust into the more permissive atmosphere of wartime Europe (but then sent back to the farms, small towns and drudgery of nine to five jobs) --- the thrilling, sexy, and edgy lives in paperback fiction created a mass market.  And publishers and writers rushed in the fill the gap at pennies per word or less.

By 1950, a new breed of paperback appeared on the shelves of drugstores, where most paperbacks were sold at the time.  They featured similar highly colored cover art, often featuring the same scantily clad women, but the usual man figure was strikingly reduced in size or absent altogether.

And one woman seemed to dominate the other.  So began the era of the lesbian pulp novel.  First Fawcett, with its Gold Medal series, then other publishers joined in.  Early genre or niche-marketing emerged with formulaic plots that catered to those who preferred lesbians in prisons, bisexual love triangles, lesbians redeemed by straight men, and lesbians in criminal situations or military ones.  The simple narrative storylines and graphically portrayed sex appealed to straight readers, but they also suddenly empowered and inspired a new generation of lesbian readers, who, despite the warps and weaves of pornographic prose, found some of their own lives, dilemmas, and pleasures in a work of popular fiction.

Academia and the upper-class literary world, of course, had had its lesbian fiction since even before Virginia Woolf and Radclyffe Hall, but now - with the advent of the cheap paperback-- Rosie, the butch former-riveter, and Alice, the lipstick femme waitress, could be found reading: tales of lesbian romance, such as “I Am Woman,” by Ann Bannon:

"Come here, Laura." She looked unearthly as she spoke, with her black hair tumbled, her cheeks crimson. ...They stood motionless, so close that they touched. ...Laura shook all over. She couldn't talk except to repeat the other girl's name over and over, as if she were in a trance...Neither of them heard the phone ring, felt the chill of the rainy night, knew of anything except each other.

Just as with the “crime” and “noir” novels of Dashiel Hammet, Raymond Chandler, and Jim Thompson, so the “happy homemaker” morality of Eisenhower era America cast a certain Puritan pall over pulp fiction.  Publishers felt justified by the usual “unhappy ending” of most of the novels.  The tales were served up as a warning about the perils and pitfalls of the “unnatural” sexual appetites of men and women; lesbians and gays.  While Grace Metalious’ Peyton Place sensationally ripped back the dirty sheets that had made “Our Town” and “Spoon River” seem more innocent and benign, two of today’s better known mainstream novelists were spinning lesbian stories of lust, desire, and yes, even fulfillment.  Marion Zimmer Bradley, now known for her Mists of Avalon series, churned out the purple pulps as Lee Chapman, Miriam Gardner, and Morgan Ives.  Lawrence Block, with his current prolific mysteries (starring Bernie Rhodenbarr, Tanner, Matthew Scudder, and Keller), wrote under the pen names Jill Emerson, Sheldon Ward, and Andrew Shaw.

The early classics of lesbian pulp fiction appearing at the beginning of the 1950s are collectors items today, as much for their suggestive covers as for the even more suggestive, even campy fiction between them.  The plotlines and blurbs are still inspiring to the salacious sisters-in-desire:

Leonard Bishop’s Creep Into Thy Narrow Bed, published in 1954:

Adam could survive the sadistic beatings, but he could not bear the thought of what would happen to his inverted sister if he tried to escape the racket." Adam recruits patients for an abortion racket, but agonizes most over his 'inverted' sister, Petey.

John Evans’ Halo in Brass, published in 1950, combines two pulp worlds: the lesbian and the detective. Private detective Paul Pine is hired by an old Nebraskan couple to locate their daughter, but he suddenly finds himself on a trail of murdered lesbians, including a few living as men.

Reed Marr’s Women Without Men, published in 1957, tells the  "true story" about women in Kennetank prison. This is classic “women behind bars” copy which starts with the evil “Queen” who’s cruelty and lust traps the other hapless inmates until Mary shows up to take over the crown and control of the prison-with gentler hands (and lips).

Tereska Torrès’ Women's Barracks, published in 1950.  The women here are in the French army, and the book is their "true stories" as told to the author. All the cliches of the genre are in this book, but especially innocent girls preyed upon by experienced, hungry women.

Claire Morgan, a pen name used by mystery author Patricia Highsmith, published The Price of Salt in 1953.  Leaving the dull safety of the orphanage to forge an acting career in New York, Therese has to settle for a job in the toy department of a large department store.  There, on the opposite side of the counter, she meets Carol. After some obligatory and flirtatious doll sales and a thank-you card, Therese ends up at the rich older woman’s country house to find womanly desire, love, and, surprisingly, happiness ever after.

By the early to mid 1960s, pulp paperbacks were becoming more popular, lurid, and available.  The old titles from the ‘40s and ‘50s were still being reprinted with new cover art and plenty of new novels were appearing, including more lesbian books.  I remember as a teenager, left on my own in Las Vegas, trolling the large souvenir-slash-drugstores and buying (yes, I looked old for my age) such books as Ann Bannon’s Beebo Brinker and Paula Christian’s Another Kind of Love.  Stashed among the “candid” exposes of life in Hollywood or among the “beatnik generation,” lesbian paperbacks were sold as commonly and openly as books on the mafia. the high profile criminals of the 1930s and 1940s, and man-eating tigers in India.

With the sudden social trend of the hippies, in the mid and late ‘60s, however, paperbacks began to feature “free love” (almost entirely heterosexual) and “drug orgies.  Along with the re-printing of “fantasy fiction” like Lord of the Rings and science-fiction by Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, and Frank Herbert, the lurid, provocative lesbian books were pushed aside in favor of “trippy” and outlandish books.

They found a new home, along with gay pulp, in the emergence of the “adult bookstore.”  About this time, too, Women’s Liberation and “feminist” activism began to envelope many lesbians so that their time was spent reading (and writing!) political tracts and sociological manifestoes.

Today, the original lewd cover paperbacks-- the forerunners of today’s prominent gay and lesbian erotica novels - are being eagerly collected by universities as historic literary references.  Their contents, however, are being reborn in republished droves, for today’s less academic readers to marvel at and enjoy.  It’s good to know that what was once considered perverse and “unnatural” is proving to be immortal, isn’t it?

Copyright © 2002 - 2003 William Dean. All Rights Reserved. Do not copy or post in whole or in part.

William Dean William Dean is an erotic rambler, a media dude, and a graphic artist. He’s Associate Editor and Graphics Artist for Clean Sheets. He creates graphics and writes the monthly column "Into the Erotik" for Erotica Readers Association. Dean also hosts the column "Erotik Journeys" at BackWash.com. He's published in SoMa Literary Digest, Hoot Island, suspect thoughts, Literotica, Other Rooms, and more. His short stories have appeared in Desires, Tears on Black Roses, and Clean Sheets: From Porn to Poetry. He is a regular features contributor to Mind Caviar. Email William Dean.

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