Camp Art of Gay Pulps
by Brooks Peters
"Twisted!" "Warped!" "Evil!" "Shockng!" "Perverted!" "Tormented!" Early 1960s gay pulp publishers rarely minced words when enticing readers to snap up their racy, erotic tomes exposing the "shadow world" of the "twilight sex." The risque cover art, with provocative images of buff physique models and limpwristed fairies, captured the manic, repressed spirit of the era before pornography was legalized and the Sexual Revolution exploded. It's that camp pop art look -- sort of Roy Lichtenstein meets George Quaintance -- that makes them immensely popular and increasingly valuable collector's items today.
Literary worth was beside the point. These throw away tomes were "one-handers" -- books to be read in bed or on the john. The style was a lavender shade of purple, overstuffed with throbbing euphemisms and penetrating double-entendres. And the plots were as predictable and tawdry as the graffiti one finds scrawled on the walls in a high school boys room. And yet today some of these trashy reads, including those by Phil Andros (the alias of Samuel Steward) and James Colton (the pseudonym of noted mystery writer Joseph Hansen) are considered underground masterpieces and have found new homes in America's rare book archives and university collections.
The first time I laid eyes on a gay pulp was at an Army/Navy surplus store in Spanish Harlem in New York City. I was 15 and my mother had taken me there to buy a pair of sailor's button-down pants which were every teen's fantasy back then. As we were leaving, I spied a paperback novel nearly hidden under a pile of vintage postcards and old comic books in a box by the door. The title caught my eye: Pretty Boy by Jay Greene. And the photo on the cover of a husky Polynesian lad in a loincloth made my heart race. When my mother stepped outside to hail a cab, I grabbed the book and asked the man at the counter how much it cost. One dollar, he said. I quickly forked over a buck, stashed Pretty Boy in my pocket and didn't mention it to Mom.
When I got home, I hid the paperback behind some others on my shelf. That night, I read it by flashlight in bed. Pretty Boy was pretty tame by most pulp standards. But I didn't know that then. To me it was the Rosetta Stone; a whole lost civilization of exotic sensuality was deciphered and unlocked for me, albeit a distorted and neurotic one. The story concerned an idyllic island in the Pacific where nubile boys were indoctrinated in the joys of man-to-man love before they settled down in marriage. One day a ship loaded with sex-starved American sailors washes up, and the innocent lovemaking erupts into an orgy of violence and homophobic savagery. Jay Greene had a perverse genius for contrasting fantasies of gay utopia with the hypocrisy of civilized society. He wrote dozens of other pulps, each one more sensational than the last.
I bought them all, and branched out to other authors probing equally sensational themes. I became the keeper of the flame, combing junk shops, used bookstores, flea markets and antique malls. A homeless guy on Broadway sold them out of a suitcase with a snicker and a smile. And I stumbled upon a whole cache of them once at a YMCA tag sale. Eventually, in the '80s, I graduated to serious catalog dealers Elysian Fields and Paths Untrodden, which sold them through the mail. With the advent of the internet, in particular eBay, my part-time passion has become an all-consuming obsession. I now touch base with collectors around the globe, trading pulps as if they were baseball cards or Hummel figurines. I have thousands, filling my bookshelves from floor to ceiling, spilling over into my closets and cupboards, a fruit salad of camp classics.
While collectors toss around the phrase "gay pulps" or "vintage sleaze" to describe the genre, there are different kinds of gay paperbacks. Back in the 40s and 50s, a few ground-breaking literary novels with homosexual themes appeared. Strange Brother by Blair Niles. The Heart in Exile by Rodney Garland. Finistere by Fritz Peters. Gore Vidal's The City and The Pillar. Charles Jackson, author of The Lost Weekend, penned several books which dealt with "sensitive" themes. His The Fall of Valor has a memorable cover of two hunks at the beach lighting each other's cigarettes. McCaffery, by Charles Gorham, recounted the salacious tale of a cocky young fag-basher who becomes the kept boy of a queer millionaire.
As their popularity increased, these novels were reissued in paperback from mainstream pulp publishers like Avon, Dell and Ace, often with tantalizing covers that were far racier than their contents. Bud Clifton's Muscle Boy, about the relationship between a humpy physique model and his photographer, is a highly sought after remnant of this pre-Stonewall era, with its beefcake cover and hints of sado-masochism. In 1960, Regency put out Ronn Marvin's flamboyant expose of the dance world: Mr. Ballerina. Two years later, Wisdom House published All The Sad Young Men, whose tone of desperation and despair did little for the burgeoning gay liberation movement. Some early publishers, fearful of censorship, disguised their gay-themed books with bizarre female nude covers, such as So Sweet, So Soft, So Queer which dealt with a lusty stud who "soared into the ecstacy of love" with a drag queen.
By the mid '60s, savvy publishers began to cater more openly to the out subculture, hiring struggling gay writers to churn out a flurry of campy titles. The most successful was The Song of The Loon, which Greenleaf brought out in 1966. It spawned countless imitations and led its author Richard Amory to concoct a trilogy, adding Song of Aaron and Listen While the Loon Sings. It was eventually made into a popular porn film.
For the next decade, gay pulps flourished. The titles often were more memorable than the stories themselves: His Sex, His Problem; The Killer Queens; Romeo & Romeo; Like Father, Like Son; Gay Like Me; Senator Swish; and Fruit Punch. A favorite of mine is The Man Inside Me, by who else -- Jay Greene. The Man From C.A.M.P. series by Don Holliday combined clever titles with winning plot lines, spoofing James Bond flicks and sexy spy thrillers. Thirty years later, Austin Powers can't hold a candle to this hilarious flamer.
Gay pulps carried on for the first half of the '70s, with ever more explicit sex both inside and out, but lost out to the rise of uncensored smut, and the advent of video in the '80s. Camp became a quaint vestige of a more closeted time. The off-color jokes of yesteryear seemed embarrassingly homophobic in a period when gays sought respect rather than tongue-in-cheek self-mockery. Like the screaming bitches in The Boys in the Band, they had become hopelessly passe. But for those of us who love a cheap laugh, gay pulps will never go out of style.
Note: This article originally appeared in Australia's (Not Only) BLUE Magazine