Friday, November 18, 2011
No Rules: PETE RISLEY
PETE RISLEY is the author of RABID CHILD, one of the most disturbing but compulsively readable books written in the last couple of years. We started getting to know each other because of our mutual connection through New Pulp Press, and it didn't take long before I realized we had an awful lot of interests in common-- Crime fiction, of course, but also exploitation movies and garage rock.
The difference being, Pete's knowledge of these subjects dwarfs my own. Honestly, I thought I knew a thing or two, but Pete is a treasure trove of fascinating information about obscure stuff...
Following is a great example. Pete latches on to a writer I'd never heard of, a sort of rival of Mickey Spillane, and turns it into an amazingly interesting essay.
Here's PETE RISLEY.
David Karp’s HARDMAN And The Spillane Scare of the 1950’s
I’m certainly no spring chicken at this point, but I wasn’t around reading crime fiction in the 1950’s. Like a fair number of present-day devotees of what we now call noir, I first learned about writers like Jim Thompson, David Goodis and Harry Whittington mainly from critical works like Geoffrey O'Brien’s HARDBOILED AMERICA : THE LURID YEARS OF PAPERBACKS (1981) and from the eye-opening mid-'80's reprints offered by Black Lizard Books in the US and Zomba Books' Black Box Thrillers series in the UK. Thus, like many other readers, in the 1980’s I took up part-time residence on the wrong side of the tracks in mid-century America, doting over the work of writers of that era who were not well-known to the general public during their productive years.
Even so, for those of us who were around even as kids in the later 1950's or '60's, an earlier taste of something like noir fiction, though never identified under that term, came courtesy of mega-popular novelist Mickey Spillane. Unlike Thompson or Goodis, everyone had heard of him. For myself as a pre-teen in the mid-'60's, Spillane was one of the few authors whose books I'd be attracted to because the cover bore a familiar name, along with the sexy unclothed girl pictured there; otherwise, that type of cover art was usually the thing that would inspire me to leaf-through a paperback book, and sometimes actually try to read one, in hopes of finding the girl inside the book as well.
Of course, Spillane’s work was ultra-hardboiled for its time, and often for our time too. His protagonists, mainly P.I. Mike Hammer, were unrepentantly brutal in the way they dealt with miscreants – and frequently, in dealings with women, trod a dangerously alluring crossroads between violence and sex. His novels proved to be wildly popular in the ‘50’s, selling extraordinarily well in mass market paperback editions, especially in the US but also abroad. Indeed, Spillane's phenomenal popularity, beginning with his first novel I, THE JURY in 1949, though initially published in hardcover as were all his early works, virtually created the mass-market paperback-original crime fiction field, inspiring the launch of now-esteemed publishing ventures like Gold Medal and Lion Books, that gave us so much great noir back in the day.
Lion Books has a special place in the history of the noir fiction category. Founded in 1949 and edited by a man named Arnold Hano, and operated on a lower budget than some of its competitors, Lion published works by Jim Thompson, David Goodis and Day Keene that are now key titles in the noir canon. Thompson especially was associated with Lion, publishing ten of his paperback originals there, including his best-known novel, THE KILLER INSIDE ME (1953). Many noir enthusiasts today are inclined to dig deeper into Lion’s old ‘50’s list, finding great and/or fascinating stuff like Richard Prather’s THE PEDDLER, Fletcher Flora’s STRANGE SISTERS, THE LUSTFUL APE by Russell Gray (Bruno Fischer) and Curtis Lucas’ SO LOW, SO LONELY.
Another Lion author, who published four novels with them in the early ‘50’s, was David Karp. Karp’s name often turns up in surveys of the noir field, though to my knowledge, none of his novels in the category have been reprinted since the 1960’s. Karp, in fact, is most associated with a novel titled ONE, also published in 1953, which is said to be about a near-future dystopian society rather similar to what’s found in George Orwell’s NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR. That novel, which has been returned to print in recent years, was first published not as genre Science Fiction, but in hardcover from a mainstream press. An article about an interview with Lion Books editor Arnold Hano, by George Tuttle and included in THE BIG BOOK OF NOIR (1998, ed. By Ed Gorman, Lee Server and Martin H. Greenburg), quotes Hano as saying that, in contrast to the alienated and idiosyncratic Thompson, “Karp was more of a traditional writer and knew he could make it elsewhere and really wanted out from our publishing logo.” In a section about Karp in Paul Duncan’s study NOIR FICTION: DARK HIGHWAYS (2003), the author is quoted as saying in 1972, long after he’d gone mainstream, “if there’s such a thing as a moralist novelist, I am in that class or genre. I am a didactic writer.” Both these comments suggest that Karp is a very different deal than Thompson or Goodis.
Which brings me to the focus of my essay here, David Karp's Lion original HARDMAN (1953). The central character of the novel is himself a novelist, named Jack Hardman, who’s depicted as a very tough, mean, thuggish guy with no respect whatsoever for social niceties. He takes what he wants, and gives you a shove on the beezer for good measure. He grew up hard in urban backstreets, and began writing under the advice of a well-meaning judge after getting in serious trouble with the law as a young man. Hardman’s published works soon prove phenomenally popular and make him a celebrity, despite great disdain for his work among some, especially the supposed literati. Much guilty soul-searching is done by the agent who brings Hardman’s works to the public, as he frets over their baleful influence on society. An encounter with a flirtatious and neurotic heiress leads eventually to the unsurprising revelation that Hardman’s brutal attitudes are rooted in an aberrant and violent sexuality, and that proves his undoing.
It doesn’t take great insight to see the character Jack Hardman as an altered version of Mickey Spillane – and a quite unfair portrayal, if taken as that. As is well known, Spillane's work was very controversial and widely condemned in its ‘50’s heyday. Revered literary critic Malcolm Cowley, for one, denounced Spillane as a “homicidal paranoic.” Lee Server, in the entry for Spillane in his ENCYCLOPEDIA OF PULP WRITERS (2002), says “some of these attacks made it seem as though Spillane was the architect of the nation’s destruction.” In keeping with this judgment, near the end of HARDMAN, taglined in its original edition as “a novel of the evil workings of sadism,” the repentant agent says:
“This evil Hardman’s turned loose in the world is going to be hurting us for a long, long time. You can’t take the printed word and dirty it. You can’t take a thing as holy as a book and use it for your own illness and not expect to do something evil and mean and crippling to every person who’s ever written or dreamed or found the printed dreams of others something precious and valuable.”
While this passage reads like it could be a laughing-up-his-sleeve parody of earnest do-gooder claptrap, my impression overall is that Karp did have a beef with Spillane’s work, and with some other social trends reflected in his portrayal of Jack Hardman that don’t have to do directly with Spillane. One of these may have been with the rise of popular fiction about Juvenile Delinquency, at the same time as Spillane’s heyday. Jack Hardman, unlike Spillane to my knowledge, gets in bad trouble with the law in his youth, and his writing efforts begin with that sympathetic judge who thinks self-expression may somehow bring insight that would reform him. I find this a little reminiscent of Dr. Fredric Wertheim’s introduction to the first paperback edition (1950) of Hall Elson’s TOMBOY, a key work in the J.D. fiction category, and also a best-seller. Wertheim, notorious today for his influential stuffed-shirt-egghead attack on the vile social influence of comic books in a tome titled THE SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT (1954), says of Elson’s work:
“Ask the average reader what is the central theme of this novel and he will speak of complexes, psychopathic personalities and aggressive instincts. But the underlying theme of this book is fear. Not naked fear, but fear disguised as bravado, cruelty, brutality, hate and sadism. Even the daring exploits of Tomboy, the adolescent who sometimes seems to be afraid of nothing and is tougher than the rest of the boys and girls in the gang, are only a veneer.”
As for a popular or noted novelist having a criminal background, I don’t think there really was anyone fitting the bill in the U.S at the time of HARDMAN’S publication. I doubt that Karp was thinking of Jean Genet over in France, whom he surely knew about, but that’s a rather different deal. Chester Himes was around, but his work wasn’t on the best-seller list by any means. There were convict and ex-convict novelists to come years later in the crime fiction field, including E. Richard Johnson, Malcolm Braly and Edward Bunker, but they weren’t publishing in 1953, and anyway, while their works are valued today by noir enthusiasts, none of them were ever widely popular. Also, Norman Mailer didn’t stab his wife until 1960.
It appears to me that with HARDMAN, Lion Books and author Karp were rather hypocritically and ungratefully jumping onto the Spillane-bashing bandwagon, when it was Spillane and his work that had put down the ground beneath their feet. Thus, circa 1953, even a publishing venture generally seen as offering fare cheaper and sleazier than Spillane’s work sought to make hay out of the strait-laced fervor. Doing so is a standard ‘exploiteer’ move, as with the work of a number of culturally-incorrect writers and filmmakers whom I admire, so I won’t condemn it. Beyond that, I found HARDMAN to be an enjoyable and intriguing novel, in part for what I see as its faint but persistent ambiguities about the author’s own attitudes, despite his later claim of didacticism. After all, this is a work of fiction, and none of the characters can assuredly be said to speak for the author.
In fact, I think that at some points in his narrative Karp seems to sympathize perversely with his twisted bad-boy creation. An impressive passage comes late in the novel, after the psycho-sexual debacle in which Hardman has wrecked his own life and career, in which he vents his noirish spleen at shelves of presumably respectable books in the stacks of a public library:
“Hardman yanked books out, spilling them unto the floor. “What goes on behind the calm, reasoning brains? What goes on behind the buttery talk about honor and pride and justice and tenderness? The worm, gentlemen,” Hardman laughed and lurched down an aisle, his finger, crooked, swooping up and down past the title faces of the books, “the worm that works inside your heads – the worm that makes you want to rape your sister, kill your father, rob your brother, and spit in God’s eye. The worm you hide, you pious, pompous frauds!” … “The worm! Did you tell them about the worm? Did you turn him loose so that he could grow into a full-sized snake? Brother snake,” Hardman murmured, “dear brother snake, shake yourself loose and come out into the sun, and turn those yellow eyes up, the world’s yours. It’s his world, you bastards!” Hardman wheeled in a complete circle. “His world, you lily-white cruds!”
Pete Risley is the author of the novel RABID CHILD, published in 2010 by New Pulp Press.