I had a nice and proper post all ready for today, the day that many are dancing away at ThrillerFest. It was about my attempt to lengthen a short story into a novel, with all sorts of references and tips. But then something got in the way. Dorothy Hughes.
I had heard about Hughes from Denise Hamilton, whose upcoming standalone is set in the post-World War II era. She told me how Hughes’ IN A LONELY PLACE, published in 1947, holds up so well over time. She was absolutely right. I picked up IN A LONELY PLACE earlier this week and I devoured it in huge delicious bites. (Who needs chocolate cake when you have good books!)
It has a pulp fiction plot with a subtle yet mesmerizing sociopathic voice. The lead character is Dix Steele, an educated drifter, a former serviceman who makes his way to Southern California. IN A LONELY PLACE, which was very loosely adapted into a movie starring Humphery Bogart and Gloria Grahame, was apparently one of the earlier works of psychological noir in the 20th century, predating Jim Thompson and others.
Then I discovered that this reprint of IN A LONELY PLACE is part of a Femme Fatales series published by Feminist Press. I can’t wait to get my hands on GIRLS IN 3-B by Valerie Taylor, and BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING by Evelyn Piper. Take a look at the titles, covers and descriptions of the books in the series and you might get hooked as well.
I haven’t felt this excited about discovering voices from the past since I stumbled across TO LIVE AND TO WRITE: SELECTIONS BY JAPANESE WOMEN WRITERS 1913-1938, edited by Yukiko Tanaka. Although I knew that Japanese women, both past and present, could not be classified as exotic geisha, I was still surprised by the raw and political nature of these stories. Nothing seemed taboo—adultery, female sexual domination, Marxism. Many of the writers were either active anarchists or communists. They created a Bluestocking Journal (Seito-sha) way back in 1911 (!) to tackle various feminist issues. (As an interesting aside, I just learned that 11 Edgar Allan Poe stories were translated in the first and second volumes of the Bluestocking Journal. A scholar, Tamaki Horie, explains that these translations “show the enthusiasm of the women who got together for the journal to seek freedom.” Poe and women’s liberation—who would have thunk it?)
CAPTION Noe Ito, who was the last editor of the Bluestocking Journal. She, her lover, and her lover’s 6-year-old nephew were arrested for anarchism, beaten to death and thrown in a well by military police in 1923. Called the Amakasu Incident, the killings sparked outrage in Japan and was the basis of a movie, “Eros Plus Massacre” .
These works, both the Feminist Press series and the Bluestocking stories, have all caused me rethink of how we often depict “The Past” with “That 70’s Show” external gloss. Yes, the hairstyles and clothing are right, but how about the rest? For instance, were all the American women in the Fifties as passive, restrained and compliant as is popularly depicted in our present-day interpretation of that time period? Or was something a little more subversive going on?
The writings also highlight that creativity abounded among these women authors, but at a cost. Sometimes the work could not be sustained because of domestic demands. (At the height of her career, Dorothy Hughes had to abandon novel writing to help care for her grandchildren and sick mother. She developed an impressive body of critical reviews and biographical books and was honored as an MWA Grand Master.)
This past week I got together with three other high school girlfriends for our annual get-together. As the night progressed, we became more honest about the struggles in our lives. As I walked home, I thought that while we’ve all had fruitful careers that our female predecessors could have only dreamed of, the balancing of the domestic life with the “outside” life still remains very tenuous.
Dorothy Hughes and the contributors to the Bluestockings Journal are reminders that women of different times and places managed to be vibrant, active and sometimes even wild despite the repressive confines of the society they lived in. They were all madwomen in specific ways, and I’m absolutely mad about them.
Great post. The Girls in 3-B was a Gold Medal paperback original. Obviously a classic. I await your comments.
Can you recommend any other female pulp writers who should be on our radar? I know Christa Faust is a die-hard Helen Nielsen fan. Any others?
And can you think why Japanese feminists in the 1910s would embrace Poe’s stories?
I’d add Megan Abbott and Sara Gran to that list, Naomi. Wonderful reads.
And I so envy you discovering these past era books/writers. I’m in such a rush to read all the new books I can, that I don’t give myself the gift of looking back at some of these stellar earlier ones.
Naomi,Thank you for opening yet another world to me. That’s the glory of literature . . . that even if we’re sorely uninformed, we can, eventually, find these stories.
And, no, I don’t for a minute believe that women in the 1950s, or most other times for that matter, were as depicted in mainstream media.
To me, the mainstream views we’re given are merely reflections of someone else’s intentions — not reality.
I guess I have a “history is written by the conquerors” attitude.
Personally, I think women came over as stronger characters in noir movies and books in the 40s and 50s than they’re dipicted today.
You’re absolutely right, Simon. I think that we equate sexual liberation with women’s liberation. What happened to plain smarts?
As always, your post is a good read, Naomi. The movie version of In A Lonely Place with Bogie and Gloria Grahame (!) and directed by Nicholas Ray is playing in a double feature with Casablanca at the Stanford Theatre in downtown Palo Alto from August 11-14. Worth a trip. See http://www.stanfordtheatre.org/stf/calendars/Summer%202007.html
On the Gold Medal list, there’s the great Vin Packer.