Guest Star

From the Mouths of Babes

Lessons learned from lesbian pulp.Almost as if Mitch knew what would follow, she held the top of the sheet back while Leda moved down and lightly kissed Mitch’s breasts. A soft sigh broke free from Mitch’s throat and evolved into a plaintive cry. Leda pulled herself up and her lips found Mitch’s and crushed them, burning and moist.

“Mitch.” Leda whispered, and they held each other fast and hard. “Mitch.”

–From Vin Packer’s Spring Fire (1952)

Everything I’ve learned, I’ve learned from lesbian pulp novels.

When I was first discovering lesbian literature in the 1980s, the feminist publisher Naiad Press had just reclaimed Ann Bannon’s I am a Woman (1959) and Beebo Brinker (1969) as lesbian classics, and was promoting them, without their original garish cover art, as a kind of 1950s social realism. Pulps, lovingly preserved in private paperback libraries and held in a few archives, were dismissed or disparaged as popular fiction. In their day, as Susan Stryker tells us in her Queer Pulp (2001), they represented one of the most commercially successful pulp fiction genres. Beebo Brinker, the butch protagonist of Bannon’s novels, has held a cult status for decades among lesbian readers.

THE BOOK: I am a Woman (1959)
THE ADVICE: “I’ve probably slept with half of them [in this bar] — I’ve lived with half of the half I’ve slept with. I’ve loved half of the half I’ve lived with.”
WHAT I LEARNED: Love’s a bitch. You’ll sleep with a lot of them.

I haven’t been reading and collecting lesbian pulps over the last two decades just to salvage some small aspect of lesbian history. When I read them now on the subway, furtively hiding them inside a discrete quilted book cover, I am attracted by the irresistibly campy prose style, and to the plight of flawed and obsessive sex-addled characters.

THE BOOK: Girls Without Men (1964)
THE ADVICE: “Now [desperate housewife] Jill was in a strange mood. She felt disturbed but did not know why. Remembering the touch of Geraldine Lewis’s hands as they had moved across her naked body during the massage, Jill shivered, and she realized with a sudden shock she was experiencing a retroactive erotic sensation.”
WHAT I LEARNED: A girl’s got to have it.

Lessons learned from lesbian pulpNot all pulps featuring lesbian characters were
earnest tales of queer life. Outrageously titled paperbacks, like Satan Was a Lesbian and Tutor of Lesbos, adorned their covers with lingerie clad or half-naked young women sprawled at the feet of leering temptresses. Although these transparently misogynist novels share a style in cover art, unlike other lesbian pulps, the authors were not troubled by a need to create sympathetic characters or plausible situations. Even the worst of these sex-themed pulps featuring lesbian seductresses, just as George Simon’s Girls without Men (1964) or Clyde Allison’s Nautipuss (1965), have appeal as the illicit pleasure they were meant to be. Who can resist going down “the lesbos path” where predatory older lesbians chase nubile and willing virgins? The jacket cover of Girls Without Men tantalizes us with the promise of “strange temptations–eager victims” and “the siren song of forbidden love.”

THE BOOK: I Am A Woman (1959)
THE ADVICE: When Jack’s lesbian friend, Laura, insists, “I’d rather suffer alone,” he disagrees: “You’ll get over that. When you learn your way around.”
WHAT I LEARNED: When you’re waiting for love, who says you have to wait alone?

Lesbian pulp titles are now being republished largely because of popular demand. Among the first to be reprinted were two novels that launched the popularity of lesbian pulp. Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt (1952) is a lesbian road novel of youthful sexual obsession, blackmail, and an unusually happy ending; the other is Vin Packer’s Spring Fire (1952) which begins with an almost archetypal seduction in a girls’ dorm room, and features an aching climax, one proscribed by Parker’s editor, in which the lesbians must revert to heterosexuality or plunge into madness. Both novels sold over a million copies and brought their authors hundreds of fan letters from queer readers.

THE BOOK: I Am A Woman (1959)
THE ADVICE: Jack nags Laura to just move out: “You can set Marcie’s hair till the moon turns blue and she’s not going to crawl into your bed to thank you for it. … Marcie’s straight. Accept that. It’s a fact. If she’s playing games with you, she’s doing it for private kicks, not to give you a thrill.”
WHAT I LEARNED: Avoid sex with straight roommates.

With their eye-catching sensational covers, the angst-ridden stories, the steamy prose, and the campy and contrived sexual situations, it is hard to put down a lesbian pulp novel. Despite the passage of five decades, we can still learn something from lesbian characters consumed by passion, tortured by fickle lovers, and addicted to love.


This month’s Gutter Guest has been Nancy Johnston, a Toronto writer who plans to sell Nautipuss for $150 on eBay. If you have an idea for a maligned art form you’d like to write about, email us!

2 replies »

  1. The fantasy writer Marion Zimmer Bradley wrote a few lesbian pulps early in her career, under three or four different pseudonyms. The quality of the writing is obviously a cut above most similar books’ usual pulpy prose. Unfortunately, they are almost impossible to find. For a list, consult her entry in Contemporary Authors.


  2. Great stuff, G.G. How wonderful to hear that these obviously educational resources — you seem to have learnt a lot — are being republished. There are also various collections of pulp covers available online for the Googling: lesbian pulp, sf, detective fiction, you name it.
    Ryan, I may be mis-remembering, but didn’t MZB also write some slash fanfic?


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