[9 October 2003]
IN A LONELY PLACE
by Dorothy B. Hughes, Afterword by Lisa Maria Hogeland
Feminist Press at the City University of New York
November 2003, 256 pages, $39.00 (cloth), $14.95 (paperback)
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The girl didn’t move for a moment. She stood in his way and looked him over slowly, from crown to toe. The way a man looked over a woman, not the reverse. Her eyes were slant, her lashes curled long and golden dark. She had red-gold hair, flaming hair, flung back from her amber face, falling to her shoulders . . . She wasn’t beautiful, her face was too narrow for beauty, but she was dynamite.
Dorothy B. Hughes In a Lonely Place
In the past decade, pulp fiction, the sensationalistic popular literature of the 1920s through the ‘60s, has enjoyed a rapid and undeniable renaissance in both popularity and critical interest. From its label as trash fiction—printed on cheap “pulped” paper for immediate consumption and disposal—it has come to be seen as an important genre in its own right, a reflection of the mass psyche of the American mid-20th century, as well as a crucial sub-cultural movement, a place where subjects deemed too gritty or too risqué for the mainstream could be explored free from the censor’s gaze.
Just this past summer, the Brooklyn Museum of Art mounted an exhibition of cover art from early pulp magazines. A large room displayed lurid, candy-colored paintings filled with descending spaceships, leering villains, square-jawed men, and pneumatic women in various stages of undress and/or types of peril. The curator’s comments, splashed on the walls or printed on plaques beside the artworks, noted men’s anxiety about their masculinity in the years of the Depression and after, and how, to its readership, pulp fiction provided comforting fantasies of hard-boiled heroism. Astonishingly, however, the comments elided the deep misogyny of many pulp works: the portrayal of a narrowly averted rape, for example, allows the reader to be both savior and rapist at once. Pulp’s classic “femme fatale” is Clytemnestra in Chanel no. 5, all temptation, castration and, in her inevitable defeat, the eventual restoration of masculine order.
Given such a climate of fear and machismo, it might be surprising that women authors joined in. A new series of reissues from the Feminist Press at the City University of New York (CUNY) shows how. In reprinting three classics of pulp fiction—one from each decade of the ‘30s through the ‘60s—“Femmes Fatales: Women Write Pulp” provides a welcome addition to the growing pulp canon, as well as a necessary corrective to the popular view of pulp writers as a trench-coated boys’ club. The afterwords printed in these editions—all somewhat clunky and academic, though not egregiously so—provide useful information on the biographical, historical, and critical contexts, as well as the reasons behind choosing these books, among all others, for reissue.
Pulpy though they may be, however, (and with the original jacket illustrations to prove it), these first three books in the series are tame by today’s standards. Valerie Taylor’s The Girls of Apartment 3-B promises a titillating glimpse into the lives of three young single women in the big city, but—a few adventures in sex and drugs notwithstanding—ends as a mildly disappointing morality tale, in which the three heroines’ problems are solved by entering into stable romantic relationships. Even the lesbian relationship—the main reason, it would seem, for its current reprinting—effectively telegraphs the knight in-shining-armor paradigm of more traditional romance novels. (However, as Lisa Walker notes in her afterword, considering that lesbians in pulp were more often portrayed as sexual and emotional predators, such a sympathetic picture is somewhat shocking in itself.)
Faith Baldwin’s Skyscraper, the saga of sensible-yet-spirited working-girl Lynn Harding, will remind readers more of so-called “women’s fiction” than what is commonly called pulp. Dorothy B. Hughes’ In a Lonely Place is clearly the strongest of the three in terms of literary merit, as well as the most “hard-boiled.” A strikingly subtle and stylish psychological portrait of a serial rapist-murderer in post-war L.A., it ranks at least on a par with other, better- known, classics of noir. (In the movie version, starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame, Hughes’ suspiciously normal protagonist, Dix Steele, is reduced to a man mixed up in shady doings not of his own making, and the violence is pushed to the margins. A remake may well be in order.)
The pleasure of these books, however, comes neither from their salacious details nor from their stand-up feminism (readers looking for Irigaray with a shiv will be disappointed to say the least), nor even from the sociological and historical insights the novels provide or their kitschy earnestness. The pleasure, rather, lies in the dynamic coexistence of all these aspects in each of these novels, and how their respective authors negotiate the space between pulp formula, popular appeal, and a woman’s particular point of view.