Oct 302013
 
Paperback 716: Gold Medal 250 (PBO, 1952)

Title: Dark Intruder
Author: Vin Packer
Cover artist: Amos Sewell

Yours for: [not for sale]

GM250

Best things about this cover:
  • Hide-and-seek fail.
  • He doesn't look that dark.
  • The only way that pose of hers makes any sense is if she's plunging her left arm down into the hay in hopes of recovering a lost earring.
  • OMG his right hand WTF? For Halloween, I'm gonna dress as this guy's middle finger. Frightening.
  • Vin Packer is a pseudonym for Marijane Meaker, a fine writer of PBO thrillers. Also, a woman. Also, the lesbian paperback writer Ann Aldrich. Also, the children's lit writer M.E. Kerr. And other things.

GM250bc

Best things about this back cover:
  • "Father and daughter rode roughshod..." is not my favorite phrase.
  • "Then Luke Came" would be a great gay porn paperback title.
  • It's interesting to me how much the front and back covers play up "Spring Fire"—I think I underappreciated what a sensation that book was. See it here (Paperback 466).
Page 123~

She could not help thinking of what Raol had said about his mother, feeling a slow, teasing jealousy mount inside her.

First, yes, Raol, not Raul or Raoul. Second, the end of this passage makes me giggle.

~RP

[Follow Rex Parker on Twitter and Tumblr]
Jan 252012
 

In Whisper His Sin, Vin Packer revisits the collegiate setting of her first novel, Spring Fire. Instead of following a young woman in an all-girls school, however, this time Packer writes about a young man in an all-boys school whose affair with his dormitory advisor leads to murder. But despite the similar setting and central relationship, Whisper His Sin is, in my opinion, even better than Spring Fire. Daring and innovatively structured, the novel is as beautiful as it is bleak. Each chapter begins with a snippet from a newspaper account of the crime, or an interview with someone who knew the boys, casting a mist of inevitable dread over every page. Even when things seem to be going so right for the boys, from the very first page we know just how badly things will end for them.

Whisper His Sin is loosely based on the real life Fredan-Wepman murder case, which was still a recent headline when the book came out. In this fictionalized version, the main character is Ferris Sullivan. When he was younger, Ferris was expelled from school for having relations with another boy. Since then, his mother has tried to make him “normal,” and to turn him away from poetry and fine clothes; his father, on the other hand, has just ignored him. Sent away to college, Ferris was hoping to find acceptance. Instead, he wound up sharing a dorm room with a bullying jazz-head and a muscle builder, neither of whom have any tolerance for their new roommate. Ferris’ only ally is the senior dorm advisor, Paul Lasher, whose attentions shelter Ferris as much as they single him out and bring him more shame.

On Christmas break, however, Paul introduces Ferris to a side of New York he had never seen before, and for the first time Ferris finds himself surrounded by other gay young men like himself. Happiness is short lived, however, as a bully from their past forces a confrontation that threatens to oust Ferris and Paul’s relationship, which would not only cause a school scandal, but bring both of their personal lives crashing down. And now that they’ve tasted just how sweet life can be, the lovers would give anything—or do anything—to keep their secret safe, and to stay together.

It is emblematic of Packer that her sympathy lies with the pariahs and the outsiders, those who live shadowy lives pretending to be someone else in order to survive. In this case, they are also murderers. Packer doesn’t pass judgment on her characters or their actions. She’s more interested in exploring how social oppression and sexual repression affect a person’s mental and emotional state.

Vin Packer’s books, when looked at as a whole, are like an alternate history of the 1950s. It was a decade that we now associate with conformity, but she was looking behind the curtains, exploring characters whom society wanted to forget about, those people who didn’t conform to the norm and strived to be individuals in a world that wouldn’t let them be who they wanted to be. As Ferris’ mother tells her son, “A man who can’t walk with other men, and walk like other men, is a misfit, and a misfit is never happy! Not ever!” A palpable fear of being different runs through many of Packer’s novels, and it is clearly pronounced in Whisper His Sin. Some six decades later, society has a come a long way, but we’re still facing a lot of the same issues, and it’s remarkable to look back and see someone writing so pointedly and honestly about these issues—and, most remarkably, getting them printed. Packer’s Gold Medal books are priceless gems of subversion and social commentary, and Whisper His Sin is a marvelous example of not only her politics and sympathy, but also her meticulous craft.

Gold Medal wanted to capitalize on the topicality of the story—the front cover even advertises, “How a strange and twilight love lighted the way to frenzied murder.” (Oddly enough, the front cover shows a man and woman—perhaps showing two men together might have been too racy?) Packer, however, is not interested in exploitation. She is, at heart, a humanist, concerned with getting into the hearts and minds of her characters, understanding them as real people, unlike the world that sees them only as miscreants and aberrations.

Though the plot might not seem like something out of Woolrich or Goodis, Packer’s characters share a similar mournfulness and despair, and they’d be at home in any of those more classic noir novels.

“Hope was dried up in him, leaving a vacancy he could fill with no other emotion. Not hate, not pity, certainly not love—not even fear. Only envy now, a thin thread of it, for the simplicity of the people around him, for what he was sure they had. Dull, uncomplicated lives, minds that did not have to think, and the ability to sleep.”

Packer also goes to lengths to show that her characters, while not justified in their actions, acted out of human fear and desperation.

“Should I live my life out in a state of abject misery and loneliness, just so strangers who don’t give a hoot about me won’t talk about me? Is that a life?”

And while much of the world considered their homosexuality a sign of mental illness, Packer made it clear that her characters were not insane, weird, or otherwise mentally disturbed.

“Lasher half fought the memory because of an insidious fear that there was something sick about him and Sullivan together like that. He had never been really innocent, he reflected. Sentimental, self-pitying, yes. Soft, and by nature more than a little depraved. But not ever diseased, or deranged to the point of despising innocence, to embrace despair.”

Another of Packer’s recurring themes is that her characters—pariahs, forsaken, and murderers alike—aren’t so abnormal and atypical as one would like to think. They’re in every big city, every small town, every school, and every home. In a way, Packer is able to sneak in an ounce of hope into her novel. Maybe one of her readers feels that he or she is different and that there’s no one out there like them, no one to understand them—as Packer’s novels show, they’re not alone, and that the problem isn’t with them so much as with a society that wouldn’t acknowledge or accept difference.

“I used to feel that way too. Then I shipped out a few times. My God, was I naïve! People all over the world are like me. No matter where I go, I’ll find my own kind. I’m not such a minority as I used to think!”

Vin Packer aired the dirty laundry of the 1950s, turned social norms inside out, and made private shames into public issues. There’s still something very refreshing about the honesty of her novels, and they hold up as not only insights into their time, but also well-crafted and entertaining crime novels.

Whisper His Sin is available from Stark House Press in a two-novel anthology that also includes The Evil Friendship.
Dec 062011
 
A truly frightening psychological thriller on par with Jim Thompson, Vin Packer’s The Twisted Ones (1959) is written with cold desolation and unflinching violence. Structured as a triptych narrative about a sixteen-year-old rapist, a nineteen-year-old murderer, and an eight-year-old arsonist, it is a stark portrait of how three seemingly ordinary young people are driven to murder for reasons beyond even their own understanding. Though their crimes are monstrous, Packer doesn’t treat her characters as monsters, and she gets into their heads with chilling sympathy.

It is, on the whole, a complex and prismatic look at the social, sexual, psychological, and emotional conditions that can contribute to a crime. Some of the situations are ordinary—such as an aloof high-schooler still getting used to his father’s new, and much younger, wife, or an aging momma’s boy struggling for his own independence—while others are more extraordinary—such as an eight-year-old wunderkind with photographic memory winning thousands of dollars on a national game show. But what each of these stories share in common is a deep-seated fear of being different, an unshakeable sense of isolation and anxiety, and an inevitable sense of doom. The family situations, the loneliness, and the alienation felt by the characters seems so ordinary that to witness everything snowball into murder is profoundly disturbing. Packer manages to make her criminals as terrifying as they are identifiable.

Packer is mostly known for her daring and controversial subject matter, but she was also a highly skilled writer who deserves more praise for her formal experimentation. 5:45 to Suburbia unfolds on a series of March 6th birthdays that jumped back and forth between the 1920s and 1950s, while Whisper His Sin, The Girl on the Best Seller List, and The Evil Friendship preface each chapter with excerpts from fictionalized books, interviews, and newspaper accounts. The Twisted Ones is written in seven parts, each broken down into three individual narratives (one for each of the characters) that could almost stand alone as separate short stories, even though by the end characters in one story learn about characters in the others through the newspaper and television. The clean division of the chapters both mirrors the isolation felt by the characters, but it also speaks to the synchronicity of their traumas, as well as their shared social and personal problems. Though they feel alone, their issues aren’t only their own—they are problems that need to be faced by society as a whole, which is a recurring message throughout Packer’s novels.

The big question in The Twisted Ones is—how, as a society, do we even begin to make sense of these seemingly senseless crimes? It is one thing to commit murder to get someone’s money or property, or out of revenge—but what about when even the criminals don’t understand what they did? And how do we come to terms with the fact that they are so young? Youth violence continues to be a much talked-about topic in today’s news: a few years ago it was school shootings, and now it is bullying and suicide. Packer’s novel continues to be relevant some half a century later because she faces the complicated issues of youth violence head-on, examining it from multiple perspectives, and avoiding any reductive conclusions. It’s interesting to compare The Twisted Ones to portraits of youth violence in movies at the time, such as Rebel Without a Cause. As great as Nicholas Ray’s film was, Packer’s novel is far more disturbing, and it lacks the self-destructive glamour of James Dean, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo. There’s nothing romantic or alluring about the crimes in The Twisted Ones. The book still packs a bleak and unsettling punch, and like a lot of Packer’s novels, this one still has a lot to say to modern readers.

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Cover art by Robert Abbett
Dec 022011
 
Vin Packer’s first novel, the controversial hit Spring Fire (1952), is famous for being among the first paperback originals to explore issues of homosexuality in contemporary America (in this instance, on a college campus). For her second novel, Dark Intruder (also 1952), Packer chose an even more taboo topic: incest. But as in the case of Spring Fire, Packer isn’t really interested in exploiting the subject for sleaze appeal or shock value. Instead of judging her characters as freaks of nature or perverts, Packer sympathizes with them as social outcasts: people who either can’t or won’t conform to moral standards. Packer’s gift to readers is a great sensitivity for difference, a sociological and psychological insight into human behavior, and an understanding that what is typically labeled as “abnormal” might be more normal—and common—than many would care to admit.

Dark Intruder was published by Gold Medal in 1952. Set in the town of Hillsboro, VA, the novel centers on Jett Black, the 18-year-old daughter of wealthy horse breeder Blake Black. Since her mother died during childbirth, Jett has been the only female in her father’s life. As the father-daughter-lover boundaries get thorny, however, an accident leaves Blake crippled. Enter Luke Hetherington, a temporary manager to keep the ranch going until Blake can get back on his feet. At first, Jett is resentful of Luke’s authority on the ranch, but soon she finds herself increasingly attracted to him. As Blake’s chance of a full recovery becomes less and less likely, he becomes more possessive of all things around him, not only the ranch, but also his daughter. But Jett is no longer the compliant daughter she once was, and no matter what decision she makes, no one will walk away clean from this mess.

One of the things that Packer does well in Dark Intruder is to counter the “backwoods tramp” archetype. In a different setting, Jett could be like one of the young college girls in Spring Fire: naïve, confused, and full of feelings and urges she can’t control. Like the sorority girls in that first novel, Jett doesn’t sit well with the standard life-path that has been set out before her. Strong-willed and independent, she doesn’t want to go off to college—which would most likely culminate with her getting married and becoming a housewife. Instead, she models herself on her father, and wants to hold a position of social and economic power. In this sense, she reminds me of Barbara Stanwyck’s character in The Furies (based on the novel by Niven Bisch), another story of a father-daughter ranching dynasty with incestuous undertones. Ultimately, Packer doesn’t see Jett as just another myopic conception of a girl with “daddy issues”—her troubles go deeper than even she realizes. She’s a young girl who doesn’t fit in her with times or surroundings, and she acts out in the only way that seems natural to her.

Even though Dark Intruder ends with the restoration of conventional morality, just like with Spring Fire, Packer still manages to work in a lot of social criticism. Also like in Spring Fire, Packer’s representations of orthodox heterosexuality are subversive and disturbing. Jett’s first sexual encounter with Luke is particularly shocking in its violence. Packer describes Jett feeling as though “a knife of terror cut through her” when Luke touched her. The whole scene feels more like rape than love—an ironic, and complex, counterpoint to the relationship between Jett and her father. But even that bond wasn’t without its violence—their first kiss ends with him pushing her to the ground. Packer doesn’t endorse incest, but nor does she comply with standard hetero-normative partnerships, either. Her common concern with both relationships is the brutality that Jett must suffer at the hands of both men. Vin Packer was able to smartly subvert the titillating theme of the book and make some smart and progressive comments on contemporary gender politics.

While Dark Intruder might share some of the same themes of Spring Fire, it didn’t have quite the same emotional pull for me. There was something so recognizable—and surprisingly modern—about the characters in Spring Fire. Those adolescents seemed so much more relatable and realistic than anyone in the Dobie Gillis series. The confusions and crises faced by those characters were things that we all went through in our own way and in our own time. That sort of connection didn’t happen to me with Dark Intruder. Packer is such a skilled writer that I could sympathize with Jett, but only from a distance. Luke is, by necessity and design, little more than a store-window hunk—a hyper-masculine fantasy that Packer doesn’t in the least believe in. He’s there to fulfill a plot-function, not as an object of our sympathy. Blake, on the other hand, we understand a little more, but I don’t think we’re supposed to care about him, either. In his own way, he is just as misleading, confining, and corrupting an influence on Jett as anyone—or anything—else in the book.

Fifty-nine years later, Dark Intruder is still an interesting and worthwhile read. Its subversive politics and criticism of conventional gender norms make it stand out from other novels of the time, and singles out Vin Packer as one of the most perceptive and socially progressive writers of the Gold Medal lineup.

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Cover art by Amos Sewell

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