If we want to read positive stories about gays who are more or less like ourselves, we have plenty of gay books to choose from, books which focus solely or prominently on gay characters and are usually written by gay authors. Not only do major publishing houses occasionally take a risk on a gay novel (though none of these books has ever achieved notable mainstream success), there are also small gay presses that regularly release a wide variety of more esoteric gay titles.
Even before the so-called gay books of the past few years, gay characters had been appearing in other types of novels for decades: popular or pulp novels such as mysteries, detective stories, occult/horror, and suspense works, and even splashy bestsellers. The way these gay characters have been portrayed over the years in books that are not gay oriented, but which appeal to the broadest possible readership, provides an interesting parallel to how gays have been perceived in society in general.
Back in the thirties and forties, the heyday of the hardboiled detective novel, there was no organized gay movement in this country. Gays were just fruits, freaks, pitiful outcasts, and pathetic weirdos. Any halfway sensitive approach to the subject of homosexuality—usually to be found in paperback novels about lesbian lovers -- was masked by lurid cover copy that shouted "Perversion!" with every sentence. In such private eye novels as Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, homosexuals were much in evidence— but they were always slimy, villainous creatures who elicited the disgust and loathing of the macho detective heroes.
Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlow was certainly a homophobe—also a racist, it would seem—although Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer was a bit more sympathetic. Perhaps we can forgive these early writers their transgressions, though. The Forties was not a liberal period, after all, and their attitudes were typical of the time. Unfortunately, there are some modern-day hardboiled writers who still seem to be fighting World War II. What's worse, their prose lacks the lean, poetic craftsmanship of a Chandler, the compassion and insight of a Ross Macdonald. Modern-day hardboiled writers have not learned that it takes more than a cigar-smoking hero and a gum-chewing dame to make a good detective story.
My favorite detective writer, the late Ross Macdonald — not to be confused with John D. MacDonald (the Travis McGee series) or, heaven help us, Gregory Mcdonald (the silly Fletch series) — started out by writing quite a few savagely homophobic novels. In his Blue City, the virile hero is up against a nasty faggot criminal. In The Dark Tunnel (recently reissued), a novel that in some ways was ahead of its time, the hero battles a Nazi homosexual psychopath, and also discovers that the reason his girlfriend has been acting so strangely is that her homosexual brother has put on wig and make up and taken her place! At one point early in the novel, the protagonist sees the Nazi in a long, lascivious clinch with someone he assumes is his stolen girlfriend. What a shock it must have been for Forties readers when they realized at the book's conclusion that it had actually been a man kissing another man in drag. Although The Dark Tunnel does contain some clever, suspenseful plotting, its attitude toward homosexuals is strictly antediluvian. [In 1950 Mickey Spillane published Vengeance is Mine, in which one of the women who comes on to hero Mike Hammer -- and whom he resists in spite of finding her attractive -- turns out at the end to be a man in drag. Mike also takes a female date to a gay steakhouse -- and he's been there more than once!]
One suspects that Macdonald was writing more out of ignorance than hatred. He was one of the first mystery writers to attempt to expose the antiquated attitudes toward blacks in this country, and his later novels lacked the viciously anti-gay sentiments of The Dark Tunnel. In The Drowning Pool, his second Lew Archer novel. there is no pretense about the fact that a certain husband is homosexual and that his playwright friend is his lover. Though the book is hardly a gay lib novel, it's interesting that at its conclusion the two men (who are not the villains of the piece), are left alone to carry on. while everyone else has been rather shattered by events. (In the lousy film version with Paul Newman, as Lew Harper, the gay relationship is glossed over.)
A few evil gay characters popped up in subsequent Archer novels, but none so bad as the Nazi in The Dark Tunnel. And in Macdonald's last book, The Blue Hammer, bisexuality figures prominently in an overcomplicated plot. Macdonald, and his hero Lew Archer, seem more uninterested than homophobic, and both have always had a soft spot for the underdog.
Whenever homosexuals showed up in most early crime novels, it was as victims or villains, never anything in between (and certainly never as the protagonist). Since merely to be homosexual was considered a crime, homosexuals were invariably involved in the shady goings-on of the underworld. Like women, the authors seemed to feel, they could not be trusted. They were either weak, effeminate stereotypes, or brutal, overcompensatory muscle men with sociopathic traits. Sometimes gay characters were drawn from more respectable environs, in which case they were tormented husbands and fathers subject to blackmail, evil civil servants, or flamboyant, immoral millionaires dabbling in crime for the fun of it. It would be some time before more positive portrayals would begin to appear.
There has been a continuing debate in the gay community as to what constitutes a "positive portrayal." For our purposes, a positive gay character—regardless of sex, mannerisms, personality, occupation or sexual habits—is simply someone who feels good about himself or herself and about his or her lifestyle. (With the exception, of course, of murderers and villains who feel good because of lack of guilt over their actions.) Unfortunately, finding these positive characters is frequently like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack.
In the detective/mystery genre there have been some encouraging signs, however. Joseph Hansen has written a whole series of popular mysteries featuring an insurance investigator who solves crimes. The new wrinkle is that the hero enjoys being absolutely, openly and resolutely homosexual. I could quibble about some aspects of the series—some people claim that the novels have been accepted for public consumption and by critics because Dave Brandstetter, the gay man, is so bland a character—but the fact that the series has seen published at all by a major publishing house is certainly a good omen. A few of the books in the series have left me cold, but I heartily recommend Gravedigger. It's a good, solid mystery, with an interesting plot line, polished prose, and several poignant sequences. Brandstetter's gay orientation is always presented without apology—or fanfare.
Robert B. Parker (A Savage Place, etc.) has received much acclaim for his Spenser series, much of it undeserved. I find his work, for the most part, boring and derivative without adding anything new to the genre. The characters are one-dimensional and the plotting dull. With one exception: Looking for Rachel Wallace. The premise in this book is excellent: Spenser is hired to act as bodyguard for a famous lesbian/feminist author, then must track her down after she is kidnapped. The interplay between the very different lead characters is the book's raison d'etre; otherwise, it would be a pretty routine story. I have no knowledge of Parker's personal life. But I remember being amused years ago that Parker, who had a kind of grizzled, "macho" appearance, saying that he was scared to go into Boston's "Combat Zone" [where the strip clubs were]. What a wuss!
Then we have the Daniel Valentine/Clarisse Lovelace mysteries, written by one Nathan Aldyne (who is actually top horror specialist Michael McDowell writing with a collaborator). Valentine is a gay bartender, Lovelace is his straight female friend, and the mysteries are set smack in the middle of various gay milieu. Vermillion takes place in Boston, and centers on the murder of a young male prostitute. In the second book, when yet another hustler with Cobalt blue eyes is found dead in Provincetown, Lovelace investigates—while Valentine suns himself and cruises. The books are undeniably fun to read. The problem, at least for me, is that they're too campy and silly, and therefore not especially effective as mysteries. Valentine is just another bubble-headed clone who lets Lovelace do all the work. A gay book without a strong lead gay character is not really a gay book at all.
Gay characters in mystery/detective books run the gamut from psychopathic "faggots" to attractive, well-adjusted protagonists and supporting characters. A positive, continuing lesbian character appears in the Bernie Rhodenbarr series by Lawrence Block (The Burglar Who Liked To Quote Kipling, among others). On the other hand, The Dancer's Death by Phil Davis (which was often placed in the gay sections of local bookstores) deals with yet another psychotic fairy who happens to be a police lieutenant. Is the book supposed to expose police hypocrisy? No. It simply reiterates every possible cliche about gays. Simply wretched, incredibly homophobic stuff—how it ever got published is beyond me. Barbara Paul's The Fourth Wall, an absorbing mystery set in the theatre world, features a homosexual villain, but at least Paul has the good sense to also include a much more positive gay character in the story. Final Cut is a forgettable roman a clef about the controversy over the filming of the movie Cruising. And Vincent Virga's Gaywyck is a surprisingly good homosexual gothic that kept me happily enthralled.
There's a whole slew of male action paperback series, featuring characters with names like Penetrator, Death Merchant, Nick Carter (Killmaster), and Mack Bolan. Male homosexuals are often used as villains in these stories. But Fool's Flight (#2 in The Digger series by Warren Murphy) employs a pair of killer lesbians who, like most gay women (according to the hero), wear color-coded handkerchiefs!! (Poor Mr. Murphy seems a little confused.) Let's hope some of these authors have learned something in the past twenty years!
The ultimate men's adventure series is, of course, James Bond. Bond is now featured in a new series of books by John Gardner, who has taken over where the late Ian Fleming left off. Gardner's second attempt, For Special Services, seems more like something out of the Fifties than the Eighties. In it, Bond and a young woman staying at the mansion of a suspected villain, joke about what "queers" the host and his associate are. Bad show, 007. Otherwise, it was a very entertaining and suspenseful book.
Homosexuals often figure prominently in horror and occult novels. In many of these books, the Catholic Church, or representatives thereof, protect the world from the evil messengers of Satan or the Anti-Christ. (So far none of these books has suggested how the world can be protected from the Catholic Church.) Since homosexuals are not looked upon with great favor by the Pope, can you guess which side they would be on in the Catholic version of the epic battle of Good versus Evil? In The Guardian, Jeffrey Konvitz's sequel to The Sentinel, the answer is quite clear. We learn near the end that the typical urban couple who have been the book's protagonists are not quite what they seemed to be. The "wife" had once been a male homosexual named Jack. Therefore Jack/Faye and husband Ben are a condemned couple, their souls doomed to burn forever in hellfire. Apparently Konvitz didn't understand the difference between homosexuality and transsexuality. And in John Coyne's The Piercing, the hero-priest is constantly being tempted with, and tortured by, reminders of a homosexual incident in his youth. In most of these devil/demon books, gay characters do not fare well and homosexuality is more often a perversion than an alternate lifestyle.
In horror novels, homosexuals and other sexual minorities are dragged in to add some kinky spice to the whole gruesome stew. Whitley Strieber's abysmal The Hunger (filmed with David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve) features a bisexual she-vampire who sets out to win the heart of another woman without any regard for the lady's feelings in the matter. In Russell Martin's execrable The Desecration of Susan Browning, a woman loses her husband to a wealthy rival who turns out to be a transsexual (and in league with the devil, natch.) Thomas H. Cook's well-written Blood Innocents features two lesbians who are hacked to pieces by the son of one of their clients; they raised extra money by letting people watch them make love to each other). Despite the sensational aspects to the story, Cook is fairly charitable to the gay characters.
James Herbert, one of the most popular writers in the horror field today, always has one or two gay characters in his novels. Herbert is an enigma; one can never quite say his characters are "positive," yet one often senses he holds a strange compassion for them, as he does for all the other people he bashes, smashes, bloodies, and mutilates in his gruesomely descriptive prose. In The Rats (which, along with its sequel, Lair, is probably the best of the nature-gone-amok novels), the first victim of the mutated rodents is a middle-aged male homosexual who, unhinged when he is found out, becomes a pitiful drunkard. Not long afterwards, he wanders into a dilapidated house in a slum by the docks of London and dies. The rats had tasted their first human blood, writes Herbert. In the two or three pages that Herbert uses to give us a biographical sketch of Henry Guilfoyle, he works up surprising sympathy for the man, whose life has been ruined by antiquated attitudes and by his own failure to fight back.
In The Survivor, Herbert creates a grotesque duo in Cyril and Emily Platt. Cyril is a closet homosexual and a transvestite. The section featuring this couple is told entirely from his wife's point of view. Emily feels that Cyril is possessed of an "aberration" and slowly poisons him to death. She gets her comeuppance, however, when Cyril's corpse rises from the bed, pursues the terror-stricken woman, and pushes her out of a second story window to splatter onto the concrete below. The Survivor is one of the scariest horror novels of the past decade, and if you love grisly stuff with eerie atmospherics, I recommend it highly.
In Herbert's The Fog (not to be confused with the John Carpenter film), two of Herbert's most incredible sequences are seen from the eyes of gay characters. In the book, a strange mist creeps from a crack in the earth, driving mad all the humans and animals it touches. Summers is the Deputy Headmaster (they just can't resist making us counselors, teachers, prison guards, and headmasters, can they?) of a private boys' school. Hodges, the bus driver, knows about Summer's homosexual tomfoolery in the army, and is contemptuous of him. After the fog overtakes the school bus, the boys go berserk during a physical education period, and are thrown into a violent sexual frenzy. Hodges walks in with a pair of shears, and as Summers writhes in fog-induced ecstasy, cuts off the Deputy Headmaster's penis. Later on, a young lesbian named Mavis Evers, in despair over losing her lover to a man, decides to walk into the sea—the old suicide chestnut again, with a difference. At the last minute, she decides not to do away with herself, but a fog-crazed crowd of thousands of seaside residents have come out of their houses to commit mass suicide and they push her unwillingly back into the sea and to her death.
In Herbert's The Spear, about a Nazi cult in England which uses demonic forces, the heterosexual hero is almost tempted into making love with a hermaphrodite [today we would say "intersexed" ]who resembles a sexy woman. The hero pulls himself away before he can be "tainted."(Surely one of the corniest bits in Herbert's otherwise fine repertoire of horror.) In his more recent epic The Dark (A Fog reversal; this time humans are driven mad not by a white mist, but by an inky blackness that covers London in its evil grasp), a bunch of hoodlums—one of whom is struggling with his own homosexual feelings—set out to beat up queers at a midnight trysting place, and fall victim to the dark just as the gays fall victim to them.
Herbert has never exhibited any particularly liberated attitudes toward gays, but neither does he seem to detest them. Everyone dies horribly in Herbert's books, except for the hero and heroine, who are generally the same two people with different names. Until such time as he chooses to address the subject in interviews, we'll have to be kept in—pardon me —the dark as to Mr. Herbert's feelings toward gays.
Anne Rivers Siddon's The House Next Door is a spooky potboiler about a house that brings out the worst in the people who live there. In the hilarious first section, a young couple's lives are destroyed when the husband is found in the bedroom having sex with a male business associate during the house-warming party! The inference that one's repressed homosexual instincts are the worst part of one's character is rather odious, though Siddon could conceivably argue that the house alters lives regardless of gender or sexual orientation. The homosexual interlude does serve to break up the couple's relationship and change the future of both husband and wife. The segment is, for the hip reader, an amusing joke on hetero suburbia; although the female narrator of the story finds the incident shocking, we can only smile at the irony of it. We know that what a lot of married men do behind locked doors has nothing to do with the opposite sex. Siddon lacks the wit and sophistication to do the scene for all it's worth, so instead of a comment on suburban socio-sexual hypocrisy, all we get is an illustration of so-called evil influences at work.
Two positive notes on horror novels: Michael McDowell's six-part epic Blackwater (about the effect a strange young woman has on a wealthy Southern family) features a couple of interesting lesbian characters. McDowell, incidentally, has written some splendid horror novels, among them Katie and The Amulet. And Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker by Joseph Burgo and Richard Natale is about a psychotic woman who murders a gay repairman. The book is distinguished by the authors' sensitive and sympathetic treatment of the murdered man's gay lover. The film version with Jimmy McNichol has received only limited release so far.
You can find gay characters in those super-hyped novels on the bestseller list, too. Sidney Sheldon's The Naked Face and Rage of Angels both feature unhappy male homosexuals as supporting characters. Sheldon admirably opposes the moral majority's attempts to censor books; if only he'd wise up when it comes to homosexuals. [Sheldon had another nasty gay villain about a decade or so after this was originally published.] Jackie Collins' trashy book Hollywood Wives is full of bitchy queens and child molesters. The only comparatively positive gay character is a ridiculously caricatured hairdresser.
Lawrence Sanders often deals peripherally with the subject of homosexuality. The Case of Lucy Bending, about an 8-year-old nymphomaniac, features a fairly intelligent and sympathetic study of a young boy, Lucy's next door neighbor, who is coping with his emerging homosexuality. The Seduction of Peter S. is. about a man who opens a male brothel— for women only—but at least one of the hustlers is really AC/DC. Sanders is sharp and often perceptive, but not enough of an artist to take his controversial themes as far as they could go.
Robin Cook's Godplayer is about a series of murders at a hospital, where several of the victims are suffering from AIDS. Howver, the killer's motive turns out to have nothing to do with homosexuality. Stuart Wood's Chiefs, turned into an NBC mini-series, is about a small town beset by a series of murders -- young men killed by a sadistic homosexual -- over a period of decades. And Robert Bloch's Psycho Two (which made clear what we've always known, that Norman Bates wasn't gay) featurs a wild sequence set in a gay Hollywood brothel where the male hustlers are all lookalikes for famous macho movie stars. [I worked there for awhile as the Tyrone Power lookalike -- just kidding!]
It is my belief that authors of popular fiction should be encouraged to deal more positively with the subject of homosexuality. Bari Wood, co-author of Twins [one of whom was homosexual], once wrote to me: I don't think we are, or should be, solely concerned with the social or political implications of the fiction we write. For us to have changed the book to suit the ends of any special interest group would have made us poorer writers. But writers should nonetheless be aware of alternatives to the old gay cliches and stereotypes that have littered the pages of so many books for such a long time.
For instance, writer Herbert Lieberman (City of the Dead) responded to a letter from me as follows: You have helped me to see a side of this issue that I might well have remained unaware of had you not written. All a writer can do is reflect what he sees about him each day. I think I have tried to give a balanced picture. I am grateful that you took the trouble to point out to me those instances where my scales went out of whack. In other words, if we don't let our favorite popular authors know when they're out of whack, who will?
How does our most popular author of popular fiction, Stephen King, feel about the subject of homosexuality? I have no feelings on the subject one way or another, he wrote a few years ago in response to a letter of mine in which I mentioned the inordinate amount of homophobia on the part of the townspeople in his novel Salem's Lot. He continued: I do think gays have a right to live their own lives and work out their problems in their own way—with or without what Ann Landers so coyly refers to as 'professional help'—and we have stopped buying Florida orange juice since that woman went crazy down there. Apparently King became more "Republican" as he got older. His novel Needful Things featured a gay male couple who were also, believe it or not, child molestors! Awful stuff. When you think how many people pick up attitudes toward and supposed knowledge of gays via popular fiction!
Regardless of how many gay novels there may be, more people (both gays and straights) read popular fiction. Like it or not, the books I have mentioned in this article reach and influence more readers than Holleran, White, and all other trendy gay writers combined. If you read something that pleases or offends you in a popular novel, why not take the time to write to the author? It's time we started taking our image in these books more seriously than we have in the past.