The Deuce, the forthcoming David Simon and George Pelecanos' HBO series premiering in September, will take viewers to Times Square; not the candy-colored tourist attraction of today, but the urban Sodom and Gomorrah of the disco era when it was home to peep shows, flop houses and a population that existed at some of the darkest fringes of the "City That Never Sleeps." Seedy as it was, publisher and film scholar, Maitland McDonagh remembers those days fondly: a huge horror film fan, as a teen she spent hours walking its dirty streets, checking out the latest exploitation flicks in its rundown movie palaces and rifling through the strange offerings of its adult stores. It would be those neon-lit dens of iniquity that she'd come across some of the more interesting and esoteric titles in the world of porn literature: Senator Swish, The Gay Exorcist and Home of the Gay. With their lurid covers and blue content, the appeal of gay men's pulp porn of the Sixties and Seventies would prove to be strangely irresistible to this straight and female collector of kitsch and ephemera.
If McDonagh's initial interest was campy, her appreciation of the content came to be entirely serious. As she explains it, the books themselves provide a rare glimpse in to a world that was largely kept secret out of fear and shame. "They're not poking fun at what they're describing," she explains. "Some of them are funny and humorous but they take their subject as seriously as if they were mainstream books." Given the insight these "stroke books" provide into gay life of another era, she began to view them and their preservation as a way of honoring a past that has long been hidden to all but a select few. While it's easy to forget today, with LGBTQ culture being so central to mainstream pop culture and politics, that life deep in the closet was once the only life that many people knew in those years. Before RuPaul and Modern Family, were household words, gay characters were either the campy, swishy butt of every joke (such as Paul Lynde's "bachelor" Uncle Arthur on bewitched) or tragic, unspoken figures like Sal Mineo in Rebel without a Cause – if they were seen or spoken about at all. These books - whether they took place in the future, in the Wild West or among Cold War espionage - were a time capsule of a hidden history.
Produced quickly and cheaply by sketchy imprints that were often opened just for the purpose of releasing a few titles then dissolved even before authorities to catch up with them, these books were not easy to come by even in their heyday. In the days before triple-X cornucopia of the internet, porn consumption was hampered by both the inconvenience of finding materials through brick and mortar stores that catered to your specific tastes (largely only available in urban areas, such as New York or San Francisco) and the risk of receiving it through the mail, which was actually illegal until the Supreme Court's landmark Miller vs. California decision of 1973. So, just getting one's hands on a copy of something like The Queer Frenzy meant assuming the possibility of some level of exposure.
Given the stigma, it's also understandable that these were not the sort of collectibles most people would've kept around the house. They were disposable by design, which would make collecting them – even after the advent of eBay - something of a challenge. "People who bought them, read them and threw them away," she says, adding, "I think, that's part of the reason why, given how many of these books were published, (it's) kind of surprising how not many of them are available for sale online, right now." Because of their fragile existence, she also discovered the storytellers behind the stories were often lost to history. Largely written under some rather colorful pseudonyms (e.g., Barry Licshaft, Don Kedong, Roger Shaft, Lance Rogers, Rod Hammer, Thumper Johnson, Rich Cummings, Carl Creamum, Richard Ballsville and Ron Adcock were all authors of note) tracking down the actual writers has been difficult but not impossible. Although a few authors stepped up to claim their work in later years like Dirk Vanden or Victor Banis, many did not out of fear of being outed or just the literary shame of having written pornos. Writing these books, however, may have provided an otherwise unavailable outlet to some gay writers of that era (if you could get past the publisher's simple demands.) "You could write almost anything you wanted. You could write as good or as bad a book as you wanted as long as you gave them the one thing that they wanted from you, which was that you have good, big, sex scene at the beginning of each chapter."
McDonagh would eventually be able to suss out a few of the author true identities, not out of curiosity as a collector, but out of legal necessity as a publisher. After years of acquiring these books, and with the encouragement of her very understanding husband, she launched 120 Days Books, which used the print-on-demand Create Space to reissue some of her favorite (and legally available as copyright "orphan works") titles. Thus far, the reaction to her thriller double features like Man Eater/Night of the Sadist and Vampire's Kiss/Gay Vampire and others have done remarkably well for a DIY publishing house with no advertising budget. Moreover, the response from customers and the curious has been positive. Which she loves, since it means a whole new audience is discovering that this kind of pulp has some genuine merit beyond the Tom of Finland-like covers, fun titles and raunchy sex. "I'm really frankly charmed by anybody who posts, 'I just read this book and it was a really good story. I brought it because okay. I've got to see this and then realized it was genuinely a good book. Genuinely interesting.'"
In addition to being forbidden fruit, these books also marked a period in time that was finite: the golden era of narrative porn. While greatly diminished in popularity today, it might not be entirely gone. In its own way, the internet may have brought back at least a portion of the narrative porn genre that marked the structure of many of these books with the web's vast and varied dedication to slash fiction. If another era looked to monsters, cowboys and astronauts for erotic inspiration, a newer, more media saturated generation might see possibilities in Harry Potter, Star Trek and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. However, in the days before 24-7 access to information and fandom, it was a trend that couldn't last: gentrification, the AIDS epidemic, the sexual revolution and the gay rights movement would all have their impact in the demise of pulp porn, but the real killer, McDonagh believes was closer to home in the form of widely available VHS tapes. "Video. That was the absolute end of it, I think, because most people who want to consume pornography, if given a choice, want to look at it. They want to see people doing it. They don't want to read a whole book."
Why revisit works that were meant to be trashed? A number of reasons, not the least of which is that they're fun and they provide a unique window into a generation that otherwise faced historic erasure. Especially now with much of gay culture firmly in the mainstream and joyously out of the closet and Times Square cleaned up and family friendly, now may be an ideal time to reexamine a movement's move from its roots at the edges of society.