Lesbian Pulp Novels Made Me Feel Normal
They were exaggerated, moralistic, and sensationalized, but they meant I wasn't alone
Growing up I was obsessed with monsters.
I was obsessed, specifically, with becoming one. When my friends and I were younger we would terrorize everyone into leaving us alone; we would growl on the playground, eat tanbark while crawling on the ground on all fours. When I went to sleep I would dream about changing, and I dutifully made sure this dream-change would be reflected somehow the next day: I dressed up in paper fur, I made my own claws. I would get upset, and instead of restraining myself I would immediately let it out on my surroundings — my parents patiently but fruitlessly dealt with broken furniture, with torn up rugs. I was uncontrollable.
When I was eleven my friends began to nervously apply makeup, go to dances, tentatively care about looking pretty. I, on the other hand, began to look monstrous to myself in a way that made me feel ill. I started to stare long and hard in full-length mirrors, my body roiling in a way that felt malicious. I stopped being feared, and instead, I was watched. My peers watched me, my parents watched me, and finally, I watched and watched as my feelings and my body escaped from my control.
I was uncontrollably angry, but not in a way that felt victorious. I got angry in the way that would end with me in tears. When I was eleven, I started to wear bigger shirts. I started to hide. I went from screaming my head off at anything that upset me to intensely quiet. And more importantly, I started to make more frequent trips to the library.
This is where I was, the summer before I would start 7th grade, bored as dirt, mindlessly flipping through the 50 cents bin in the library, when I saw Spring Fire by Vin Packer. The cover had the two female leads, scantily clad and falling demurely into each other’s chests.
I wasn’t clueless about the source of my feelings. I was old enough to understand the very fundamental binary: I wasn’t feeling any attraction towards boys, and I heavily valued my friendships with girls, arguably more than they did. I was an outcast at school. If I wasn’t one I had to be an Other.
The marketing for lesbian pulp fiction like Spring Fire, especially from a modern vantage point, is a horrible kind of funny. Ann Bannon, the author of Odd Girl Out and the Beebo Brinker Chronicles, tells me the covers for lesbian pulp reflect the way gay life was seen at the time: salacious and forbidden.
Pulp fiction revolutionized the publishing industry: printed on cheap “pulp” paper, the genre made an unprecedented amount of creative writing accessible to the public. Under-paying writers and publishing on inexpensive media meant that the genre had a low bar to entry, which allowed writers to be experimental. Science fiction covers, detective series — all had eye-catching subtitles, with portraits of pretty women, crazy monsters, and handsome men to get people to the cash registers.
At the start, the books were mainly targeted towards men. But there are a few reasons to believe that lesbian pulp wasn’t limited to the male gaze. For one, the books had a largely female readership, regardless of orientation. And the writers of lesbian pulp were, in fact, primarily gay women, who were able to use the genre not only to jumpstart their writing careers but to depict authentic lesbian experiences without the constraints of the more “traditional” publishing industry.
Many of these books were written right during or after the McCarthy Era, so while it was fully okay to capitalize on moral outrage, the books inside those salacious covers couldn’t actually validate gay life. Bannon recounts that for the lesbians in most of these stories, “In order to shut up Senator McCarthy and all of the morality cops, they had to be punished … The Post Office would not deliver the books unless one of the women had committed suicide, gone nuts, or been killed.”
Lesbian pulp thus became a Frankenstein genre: an imperfect, unsure vocalization of identity. Spring Fire, for example, featured two women, Leda and Mitch, who genuinely loved each other, the wakings of gay consciousness. Then, all of a sudden, the story veers off course. They are discovered, Leda goes crazy and is institutionalized, and Mitch changes her name to Susan and goes to a doctor to become heterosexual. The conclusion was very clean: being gay was monstrous, and amoral.
Vin Packer (real name Marijane Meaker, as I later found out) hated the imposed ending so much that she wanted the book all but buried.: “I still cringe when I think about it. I never wanted it republished. It was too embarrassing,” she states in a new 2006 introduction.
Horror and a lot of lesbian pulp bank on the same titillation: the idea of a desire that is fundamentally perverse. Like many gay women, I did not immediately understand my fascination with girls as attraction. And so before I had lesbian pulp fiction, I started to read more and more about male serial killers, and the awful things they would do to the young women they talked to on the street.
My friends started dating. I, on the other hand, became moody and hard to look at. As I directed my anger more pointedly within myself, I forewent loud and unnervingly ugly monsters in favor of the monsters who were observers — monsters that breathe quietly on phone receivers, monsters whose fearsomeness only comes from the fact they are never truly shown.
My obsession with women became just one of the long list of things that confirmed my own ugliness; I would look at girls in the corner of my eye in the locker room, I would avert my eyes too late when my friends would change in front of me; I watched women on the street from coffee shops and car windows. And when I did I would think about Ted Bundy, Andrei Chikatilo, how they hid their monstrosity deep inside.
Morality, beauty, and evilness were, to me when I was younger, very black and white. I knew that I was evil, and my parents and my friends were not. I fell in love with a girl when I was a teenager; I was watching The Descent with her on the couch, and while I realized I loved her I simultaneously fell in love with the main female antagonist, Juno, played by Natalie Mendoza. And as she was torn to pieces by crawlers, covered in blood, I kept imagining the walls pressing into me until I couldn’t breathe. When I went back home that night, I still heard the crawler’s screams, the scratching of their nails. I could imagine the surety all the girls must’ve felt in their untimely deaths.
It can be easy, now especially, to laugh or to pick at some of the derogatory tropes found in a lot of these books. But so many of these books were these women’s actual lived experiences —Bannon wrote Beebo Brinker Chronicles as a hopeful tribute to her “dream woman,” and
Spring Fire was based on Meaker’s actual life. For Meaker especially I can’t imagine what it is like, having to tack on an ending like that to a book about your life.
Before lesbian pulp, I thought this vulnerable, awkward, transitioning phase where I existed as a girl yet as something much worse was something only unique to me. I don’t know who I thought I was when I watched The Descent. To some degree, I was the girls in the cave, and me being torn apart by something horrible was a rightfully deserved ending for someone like me.
But when I shoved Spring Fire to the bottom of my bag, I felt the same way I felt watching Juno get torn apart — when I stole the book I fully expected to turn into a crawler myself, and ran down the street laughing when I got away with it.
As Bannon said, in the early 1950’s there was this pressure to sell lesbian pulp, but also make it adhere to a well-understood morality. Anyone who’s read Spring Fire can see where the story Meaker wanted to tell ends. The rest is a tacked-on moral, a typical horror shocker, as the two women are torn apart from each other.
But what I think the censors couldn’t really catch was that vulnerability and bravery that achingly real is hard to disguise. Because unlike when I watched horror movies, I was able to understand that Leda and Mitch, the characters I identified with, were not the monsters. The monster was the fear of being discovered.
What shocked me about lesbian pulp was this open celebration of being unsure. For many of these authors, these pulps acted as their vehicle for coming out, their tentative, and imperfect coming to terms of a potential autonomy that existed outside of what these authors have been told.
And reading the book, I realized that autonomy only seems monstrous when it is so breathtakingly unfamiliar.
I finished Spring Fire in a park two blocks from my house, with the cover dutifully taped over with red construction paper. And as I read the ending, with Leda being taken away, I felt for the first time that I was being recognized. Not just in the superficial aspects of sexuality, but by this vocalized embracing of ugliness.
Many of these books were treated as perverted. Not only in terms of what their content was actually about but how their expression was literally perverted or manipulated by publishers. Yet, this immediate indictment of morality and monstrosity imposed onto some of these books didn’t dishearten me. Instead, I found that there was something strangely heartwarming at the time about seeing how two characters love despite all narrative attempts to keep them apart.
Because as horrible as the ending may seem, there is nothing more exciting and horribly, horribly scary than finally being able to see yourself yearn in Mitch and Leda’s tender eroticism, in Leda so gently and lovingly embracing Mitch for the first time.
It should be said that not all lesbian pulps ended badly, or were manipulated against their will to change their manuscript; that would do a disservice to the genre. Bannon, Artemis Smith, and Valerie Taylor were prolific authors who published multiple pulp stories in which the two women were able to end up together. Meaker, after Spring Fire, published multiple books of acclaimed lesbian fiction, minus any tropes. The history of lesbian pulp fiction is hard-fought: many saw the books as disposable, so while some of the bigger titles like Women’s Barracks, Spring Fire, Odd Girl Out can be found pretty easily through most online booksellers, I had to find others through torrents or pdfs on a blog of a blog of another blog.
Much of the restoration is also done by the gay women who grew up with these pulp works. Bannon received academic acclaim decades after her career with pulp fiction ended. Forrest’s anthology, and her profuse thanks for the authors that came before her, was the closest thing to LGBT history I had when I was a teenager.
It was two years and thirty pulp books after I read Spring Fire alone in a park. I had just finished Forrest’s anthology, and for the first time, I realized I was scared.
As I read more lesbian pulps, my obsession with horror quieted. I stopped punishing my friends for nervously daydreaming about boys in our class. Instead, I obsessively turned inward, obsessing in the ways I could be seen as sick, contradictory, and more importantly vulnerable in a medium that I always saw as reflective of who I was.
Putting these books in context with Spring Fire, I realized that I deserved to be loved, and that I wanted to be loved in that way. And that if I were to finally accept that love, I would become a monster, in the proudest proclamation possible.
And sitting on my pile of hoarded books, I also realized it would take a very long time for me to finally have the bravery to become one.
When you are a preteen girl about to hit puberty like an SUV charging toward a brick wall at 100 mph, you dream about something either destroying you or destroying the quiet life someone else has built for you. Lesbian pulp is so divisive possibly because it manages to be both brave and embarrassing: for some, the genre may be too harsh of a reflection of shame.
Most of all, like many LGBT works, it thrives in contradiction, in confusion. And going beyond just sexuality, I think reading that confusion for the first time was when I started to forgive myself for a lot of my own failings.