Sunday, December 09, 2007

Not All Suffering

Suffer a Witch, Rae Foley, Lancer Books, 1965

I’m seriously surprised.

I picked up this pulpy little pocket paperback at my last job, the soul-crushing one. Someone else at that job often brought in their finished pocket paperbacks either to loan or to get rid of, because there was always a stack of them in the break room, but no sign or anything indicating what they were all about. The books in the stack were your usual Grishams and James Pattersons and a few romance novels thrown in; almost everything was recent.

Except for this one. Between the corny name and the cheesy cover, I was entranced. I used to go to a used bookstore in college and in one room they had a wall covered with plastic bagged old pulp novels. I have a soft spot in my heart for the lurid, tawdry covers these books sport and could spend up to an hour scanning titles and laughing to myself. To this day, if I find a pulp treasure trove I’m all agog. Web sites like this really turn my crank.

So this book looked right up that alley.

Now the thing was, I’d really not spent much time reading these pulp novels. Oh, one or two in my time and all the ones that literature snobs had elevated to the status of demigod (let us not forget, kids, that Jim Thompson is not exactly Shakespeare; hell, let us never forget that Shakespeare is not exactly Shakespeare — but I digress), but I’d never really picked up a super trashy looking book and went all out for it.

And here was one sitting right in the break room.

So I took it home and it sat on my shelf for almost a year. Part of that comes from a busy reading schedule list that just doesn’t involve line jumping all that much. If you’re a new book around these parts, it’s the end of the line and maybe you’ll end up getting the look see within a calendar year. (So far, I’ve only read one of the few books my wife got me for my birthday, but I’m working on it, I’m working on it.)

Finally, I told myself enough. Enough putting it off, enough worrying that some stranger on the train will see the volume in question and laugh uproariously at your reading tastes (a rather peculiar paranoia of mine), enough keeping the book in some Platonic ideal abstraction of so-bad-it’s-good or so-bad-it’s-just-still-plain-bad. After all, why judge a book by its cover? I used to own a notoriously bad covered copy of The White Hotel and that never stopped me from pushing that book on friends. (On a related note: Sweet Bleeding Jesus, don’t let this be true. Brittany Fucking Murphy? Sigmund Freud’s cigars are spinning in their humidor graves.)

Two things that surprised me about Rae Foley’s sixties “Gilt-Edge Gothic.” First, it’s not nearly as bad as I thought it would be, though to be honest it is fairly cheesy in the way of most popular fiction of its time. Overwrought, melodramatic, a plot you could see coming around every corner, the novel tells this story, as quoting the Worcester Telegram on the reverse cover:

Stranded by a storm at a posh country inn, Elizabeth Boynton meets Gerald Finch and his sister. Gerald is handsome, charming and wealthy enough to devote himself to the study of seventeenth century witchcraft. Just returned from a trip to England, he is need of a secretary. Elizabeth accepts the job. This ideal position loses some of its charm when she discovers that two previous secretaries accidentally drowned. Anthropologist Bob Gottschalk, also at the inn, is alternately suspicious and suspected—trusted and feared. The mounting mood of fear and danger is developed in step with the rising fury of a storm.

(If you can’t guess from that depiction who the bad guy and who the hero is, you’re a dope, frankly.)

The second thing that surprised me about this author was that she was still churning ‘em out in 2000 and that the Rae Foley pages on Amazon run an impressive 18. 18! Eighteen pages of novels more or less similar to this one to judge by their covers, their titles, and the occasional short synopsis provided.

The somewhat convoluted plot is told in Boynton’s own telling of her fluctuating crushes on both Gerald Finch, the rich smoothie for whom she begins working, and Robert Gottschalk, a huge man with a gruff straightforward style. Torn between these polar opposites, Elizabeth zips back and forth from competent all-business to girily flightiness. Along the way she makes all sorts of snickersome comments on manliness we’d rightly laugh at today, like praising the way Gottschalk rather roughly seizes a woman and tells her what to do. “Even then the graceless man didn’t ask me to marry him. For some reason he just took for granted that I’d jump at the chance.”

Well, Beth, old gal, either Bob’s a good judge of character or you’re just one of those ninny headed girls who do what men tell you. The funny thing about characterizations like this is that it comes smack in the middle of a novel whose overriding message is that there are still a number of men out there who are afraid of a woman’s power and strength. Between such mixed messages, the reader is zipped as daffily as Elizabeth.

Other such entertaining touches come from period drinking habits wherein characters are always making pitchers of hard liquor based beverages and two people are drinking the whole mess of alcohol, barely the worse for wear. The pace of the novel almost seems fueled by a giddy alcoholic haze, the storyline taking place over five days of raging storms up in New England featuring flooding, downed trees, power outages, sudden appearances of minor characters from out of town (in the middle of historically awful storm conditions?). Characters are pelted with stones, beaten in the face, clubbed over the head, priced with needles, half-drowned, and clawed with fingernails. Suspicion is cast about over everyone save the one character we all suspect from the start. And happiness wins in the end.

The thought that most came to me as I read this cheap, short read was that this is the kind of book that could, like Whit Masterson’s Badge of Evil in Orson Welles’ assured hands, be turned into compelling cinema. There’s storms, darkness brewing, a starkly drawn group of characters. Elemental and simply and instantly accessible to a viewing audience, pulp novels of forty and fifty years ago retain a certain low grip on human sensibilities that filmed appropriately can make amazing art.

I’m not necessarily saying a critically acclaimed silk purse could be made out of this higher-quality-than-some pig’s ear, but I do recognize the novel’s appeal in its broadest terms. I actually am glad in the end that I read the thing. It was eye opening and it piqued my curiosity into tracking down other comparably tawdry novels. Sometimes you need just this very kind of thing to sufficiently cleanse the palate, a book that is all flash and surface, all plot and hardly any character.

I’ve been telling myself for some time that come January, I’m finally at long last going to tackle Proust’s A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu. Maybe reading a rash of pulp novels is just the thing to finally do the trick, to get me hungry for a slower, more interior novel.

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