It was a night like a thousand other nights before it. Sitting on my back porch, I tipped back another slug of whiskey and thought: What's it all for, anyway? The wind whipped through the trees like the thoughts and regrets churning through my brain at a fevered pace. Rocko's voice still echoed in my ears: Stay away from me, see? You an' me, doll, we're nothing, see? Casting my red-rimmed eyes on one tiny tree almost broken in half by the cruelly gusting gale, I let down my guard and a single tear trickled down my cheek. I've been where you are, baby, I whispered to the tree. I've been where you are.
Before I had a chance to collect my thoughts, I had another, more imposing force of nature to contend with: a brute in black leather crashing through my yard, charging toward me with the wild abandon of a herd of mustangs. "Who are you?" I called to him. In response, he knocked the bottle of whiskey from my hands. It smashed into a million pieces, almost as many pieces as my heart had been smashed into the day before. "That was a big mistake, mister." I said, standing up.
Black Leather grabbed me by the wrist, pulling me in close to him. We stood there for a minute -- a million minutes, maybe -- staring at each other, me and this untamable stallion of a man. The smell of booze was all around us, booze and leather and... rebellion. Finally, he spoke.
"I've got something to show you, baby." He jerked me in harder, and a couple of buttons snapped off my blouse into the spreading pool of whiskey at my feet.
"What's that, tough guy?" I said defiantly. "Show me what you got."
He reached down into his jacket and thrust something toward me. "Here." he whispered. "Read this." It was a copy of "Cherry Ames, Student Nurse." I looked down at Cherry's sunny, smiling face, and felt new tears welling up. I looked up to thank my anonymous black leather benefactor, but he'd already disappeared into the night.
Okay, truthfully, I suppose I developed a taste for retro and pulp novels well before I developed a taste for whiskey. And strictly speaking, "Cherry Ames" probably wouldn't even fall into the pulp category. But when I see those brightly colored hardcovers, those pocket-sized paperbacks with the lurid taglines and the tantalizing cover art, I just can't resist. For as long as I can remember, I've had a soft spot in my heart for pulp fiction. Of all types. The Technicolor covers, the musty basement smell of well-thumbed pages, the water damage at the corners. Maybe it's the bad-girl/good-girl dichotomy. Or the promise of plucky girl detective adventures that wrap up neatly in less than 200 pages. It's an addiction, I admit. But I have no plans to seek treatment.
Pulp novels, to me, are like reality television or Hollywood B-movies: churned-out contrivances with predictable plots and a vaguely confused mix of stereotyped characters, all tied together with a roots-showing-smack-on-the-ass-falling-out-of-your-dress brand of sex. Vacant and yet titillating, these glimpses at life on the wrong side of the tracks, in the glittering footlights, behind closed doors in the best neighbourhoods are a guilty pleasure beyond compare. And while it's true that I've occasionally invited Eugene O'Neill or D.H. Lawrence to join me in the tub, they're just occasional interlopers. My true bathtime companions are much more likely to be Jacqueline Susann, Helen Gurley Brown or the gang of juvenile delinquents who make up the cast of Pat Stadley's "Black Leather Barbarians."
So I'm not a purist. And I'm not the kind of collector who keeps things wrapped up in neat little plastic bags. I buy my books to read them, to display them. I suppose it's possible that visitors may cast disparaging glances at my bookshelf, make harsh judgments, shoot me quizzical looks. But when it comes right down to it, which of these two books has gotten more attention from my houseguests--my copy of "Jude the Obscure" or "Nancy's Dude Ranch"?
And despite the family strife this fetish of mine may have caused (as the child of two Ph.D.s in English Lit, my love of trashy dime-store novels was somewhat puzzling and not necessarily celebrated) I'm continuing to cultivate my collection. At thrift stores, garage sales and secondhand bookstores, these little treasures abound. Here's a quick primer for the uninitiated:
This is where it all began. They're seedy. Maybe a little bit smutty. In early days, they were tales from the bohemian underworld of the Jazz Age, of wanton women and the men they dazzled, of reform school girls, of motorcycle gangs, of hardboiled detectives, of (gasp!) lesbians. These lurid tales are a rare delight to find at your average thrift store. Whether you're reading "I Married a Dead Man" or "Loves of a Girl Wrestler," these books are worth picking up for the shelf cachet alone. Published for 30 golden years between the '30s and the late '60s, these are as collectible for the cover art as for the steamy content.
Helen Gurley Brown
Those three little words that mean so much. Now, purists would probably argue that Helen Gurley Brown isn't a fiction writer, but I have to take my hat off to someone who's worked so hard to make her own life so remarkably fictionalized. And out of all the many, many sexy advice books I've read from the '60s and '70s, "Sex and the Single Girl" is the most hilarious. Whether you're looking for advice about your gay friends ("Homosexuals... are they really monsters?"), decorating tips (Brown is chockfull of valuable tips on how to decorate your apartment to land a man, from painting your kitchen in man-friendly colors to leaving a huge bowl of loose cigarettes on your coffee table) to recipes (cooking for that unexpected breakfast guest) to just plain forcing-him-to-pop-the-question advice, Helen gets my vote every time.
These books provided me with my first exposure to pulp, and in some ways, they remain dearest to my heart. Hardbound, with propaganda-like illustrations on the front cover, these books hail from a kinder, gentler time. They taught girls to yearn for the day when they too would become girl sleuths, nurses, airline stewardess or, possibly, ponies. Most often chronicling the continuing adventures of a single character, these books differentiated themselves from their pulpier big sisters by the complete lack of any sexual tension between the heroine and her male companions. Unrealistic expectations and the inescapable happy ending make these books a fun, if pulp-lite, read. They also look spectacular lined up on a bookshelf.
Some great ones to check out are: the Cherry Ames series (as in "Cherry Ames, Dude Ranch Nurse," plus 20 or 30 other nursing adventures), Trixie Belden (not as polished a girl sleuth as Nancy Drew, but she got the job done) Vicki Barr (think Cherry Ames as a stewardess) and Donna Parker (Donna actually has a fairly boring 1950s life, but reading about her nursing her cockatiel back to health somehow makes my own problems seem even more important).
A subgenre of the Junior Miss book is the Celebrity Junior Miss book. Imagine a series of novels using Britney Spears as the main character. Not buying? I'll bet if I wrote a series of "Pat Benatar, Ghosthunter" novels, they'd be flying off the shelves. That's the theory, anyway, behind the Annette series, starring Disney's own Annette Funicello. These books are just like the other Junior Miss books, but with a real person as the hero. The Annette books are fairly easy to come by these days; a rarer find is something from the Lennon Sisters series (a 1950s teen girl group who were famous for their song "Mickey Mouse Mambo" as well as their appearances on The Lawrence Welk Show).
The swinging '60s and the sexy '70s
These are by far the most plentiful at thrift shops. Stories of desperate starlets, sex-hungry secretaries, bored housewives and pill-popping fashion models, these bikini-bedecked covers are an invitation to decadent, self-indulgent reading. For my money, the must-have of this grouping is Jacqueline Susann's timeless classic "Valley of the Dolls," which traces the lives of three women (a cold New England beauty, a Judy Garland-esque stage actress trying to make it in movies and a voluptuous model with a torrid past) as they wind their way through the sordid world of Hollywood. The dolls of the title refer to the countless number of pills that each one of them takes along the way. Susann's other novels "Once Is Not Enough," "Dolores" and "The Love Machine" have never quite measured up for me in terms of sheer camp, but her first book, "Every Night, Josephine!" is worth reading simply because she wrote an entire novel about her dog.
These aren't so much pulp as moral warnings. In particular, I remember reading a couple of books in a series about wayward girls. The plot was fairly predictable: a teenage girl has a pretty okay life until she gets involved in crime (in the first one I read, she became a con artist, but I've also seen books where the poor dear ends up courting Sweet Lady H), which sets on the inevitable path toward addiction or pregnancy (sometimes both), before ending up at a Christian halfway house in upstate New York (advertised in the back of the novel). I haven't seen too many entries in this genre out there, but I remember that the titles were always girls' first names (the first one I read was called "Julie"). "From Witchcraft to Christ," whose title is pretty self-explanatory, is another favorite: a young woman gets herself involved in a dastardly coven of witches, but meets a kindly priest and starts a new life.
Never really having been a science fiction fan, this genre escaped my notice completely until one rainy day at the Wee Book Inn, where I found myself captivated by an entire rack of gloriously bizarre paperbacks. I bought one immediately for its cover. I haven't quite worked up the courage to read "The Fireclown," but if the book's back cover description is even vaguely accurate ("...a mysterious cosmic presence who came out of nowhere with the incredible promise to free the dying planet... Alan Powys has the one chance in a million to reveal the Fire Clown's secret!") it promises to be a crowd-pleaser. These books are immediately recognizable by the cover illustrations of scantily clad ladies surrounded by menacing tentacles.
There are other genres, of course, including westerns, and my new passion: the hardboiled detective novel. So, ignore what your parents told you: judge a book by its cover. Buy it. Read it. Because, all in all, pulp has taught me some pretty valuable lessons:
1. Bad boys get all the breaks; bad girls get what's coming to them.
2. A career is fine for a woman, as long as she gets to meet some nice men.
3. You can't solve all the world's problems, so why not have a martini?
4. Life is cruel, the streets are hard and your past will always catch up with you.
5. When all else fails... seduce someone.
Catherine Walsh is an Edmonton actor, playwright and regular contributor to Vue Weekly.