Hip Pocket Sleaze
391 pages • Headpress • October, 2011 [PB]
Hot (as it were) on the heels of their recent fiction offering, The Hellhound Sample (reviewed here) comes a non-fiction work from the publishing house Headpress entitled Hip Pocket Sleaze: The Lurid World of Vintage Adult Paperbacks, by John Harrison.
This compendious work contains everything (and to my taste, rather more) than one could ever want to know about the esoteric, not to say erotic, world of ‘pulp fiction’. This term was coined in the USA to describe fiction magazines from the 1920’s to ‘40s which then transferred to paperbacks. They appeared from the ‘40s (to feed the insatiable appetite of wartime GIs for something spicy) through to the late ‘70s
The work is undeniably an impeccably researched and comprehensive labour of love (or should that be lust?) aimed at a specialist niche market which, at £15.99 a throw, caters to connoisseurs of the genre who are apparently prepared to pay quite dearly for their elicit pleasures.
In his introduction, Harrison explains that his own fascination with adult fiction began in 1978 when, as a fourteen-year-old, he frequented a secondhand bookshop in a sleazy area of Melbourne near where he grew up. It had a backroom to which he was never allowed access. Obviously the forbidden pleasures within must have exercised a profound effect upon his adolescent mind and this led him as an adult to a lifetime of collecting and cataloguing it, the results of which he now shares with the world in this meticulous, scholarly and probably definitive exploration of the form.
As he himself acknowledges, the fascination of the genre lies as much, if not more, in the cover designs than the contents, although he admits that several authors managed to produce work of surprising quality in this limiting format. Cover artwork is illustrated throughout the book, sadly in black-and-white only, though a flavour of the original garish colours can be gleaned from the montage on the book’s cover.
Neither the covers nor the contents are subtle in any degree, which presumably was the whole point. These works were designed for instant gratification and Harrison freely admits that their purpose was deliberately titillatory and largely masturbatory.
I was intrigued to note that the first section of the book, Strange Sisters & Queer Daddies, is devoted to gay erotica, which formed a surprisingly large portion of the early output. Discussing author, Victor J Banis, Harrison says: “Banis wrote a series of very funny 007 spoofs featuring an effeminate gay spy. Known as The Man From C.A.M.P. series, these twelve titles are amongst the most sought-after by collectors of gay erotica, with their combination of 1960s homosexual cliché images (some traits of the character can even be found in Mike Myers’ Austin Powers persona) and the vibrant, pop art influence of Robert Bonfil’s cover illustrations.”
Lesbian erotica also formed a significant part of the genre, mostly to satiate a straight male audience, although Ann Bannon’s novels, inspired by lesbian writers such as Radclyffe Hall, are apparently well-regarded as literature. The book includes a lengthy interview with Ann Bannon, which offers a fascinating insight into the process of writing lesbian pulp fiction
Indeed, interviews with several surviving pulp fiction authors punctuate the book which, along with selected bibliographies and a comprehensive index, will make this work a must-have for aficionados of the genre which, along with gay, lesbian and trans themes, includes fetishism, voyeurism, sadism and sado-masochism, bestiality, paedophilia; slave plantation, blaxpoiltation and interracial, prison and concentration camp, sci-fi, easy riders and leather, orgies, satanism and many other minority interests. There is also a section dedicated to classic smut and film rags. In short, all human life is here (though not necessarily always in its most uplifting of manifestations).
Noel Coward famously remarked on the potency of cheap music and Harrison’s comprehensive overview of paperback sleaze is certainly a testament to the potency of cheap fiction, sadly now superseded by the ubiquity of internet porn.
On the subject of potency, Harrison makes a very appropriate, though presumably unintentional pun when, in reviewing The Love Clinic by Gil Hara, he writes de rigor instead of de rigueur. I’m perfectly sure that inducing stiffness in his readership was precisely Hara’s intention, as it must have been all other writers who inhabit this curious historical cul-de-sac of fiction.