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Gay pulp power

Song of the Loon propelled gay publishing boom

When I was younger (this is a history column, after all) there were some cultural references I thought I got, only to realize much later to my chagrin that I had been wide of the mark.

Take Song of the Loon. For the longest while I thought it was a Nelson Eddy-Jeanette MacDonald film, coming somewhere in between Indian Love Song and The Girl of the Golden West.

When I finally realized that it was a book — a gay pulp novel and an underground bestseller put out by Greenleaf Press in 1966 — Loon promptly went on my list of books-to-read-before-I-die-in-bed-surrounded-by-grieving-family-and-still-handsome-boyfriend-and-our-cat-Mister-Tiddles.

It was considerably down the list after Dominick Fernandez’s Porporino ou les mystères de Naples but way before the King James Bible whose endless “begats” in Matthew 1 and Luke 3 are bound to discourage all but the most obstinate reader. A few weeks ago then, as I stood in the middle of Little Sisters, it dawned on me that its time had finally come.

I purchased the Little Sister’s Classics edition by local publisher Arsenal Pulp Press and ran home to read it. By the time I had finished, I was bemused. Not that it’s a bad read. Far from it. But it reminded me that while all books are books, some books are even more history. Loon is one such book.

Loon tells the story of a handsome young man who undergoes a spiritual awakening as he traverses the wilds of 19th century Oregon, fleeing an ex-lover and his own internalized homophobia. This spiritual awakening is accompanied (compounded?) by sex, more sex and still more sex as he meets and falls in love with various members of the Loon Society, into whose brotherhood of handsome and sexually available men he will eventually be inducted.

By the end of his journey, our hero will have found true love with a fur trapper, reconciled with his ex, accepted his own sexuality and its need for expression through free love. The book ends with our hero bounding off into the woods to have more sex because it’s springtime, and winter has been long and hard.

In its sweetly euphoric way, Loon announced the Summer of Love, and envisioned elements that were to become typical of gay culture in its first flowering, liberation phase. D C Hampton of The Pop Culture Cantina blog lists the following: “… the formation of a community of men who openly identified as Gay; the freewheeling sexuality that came to characterize that community… the phenomenon of “Clones,” large groups of rugged, masculine-identified Gay men who rejected effeminate behavior; the rise of a rural-based “Radical Faerie” movement… ”

But I think that it is primarily as a publishing phenomenon and cultural milestone that Loon should be remembered. It is said to have sold over 100,000 copies, many in grocery stores alongside romance novels.

According to Mark MacDonald, the editor of Little Sister’s Classics, “the success of this book opened the door for hundreds of gay writers. Publishers saw a new, untapped market, and the gay publishing boom of the ’70s and ’80s was born.

“Even gay books published today that are not focused on erotica owe something to the evolutionary step that The Loon enabled. Based on the success of our edition of the book, I have to assume that it still resonates with today’s readers.”

Why did Loon resonate with its first readers? It may have been published as a pulp paperback, but author Richard Amory (Richard Wallace Love) had the kind of literary culture that led him to model Loon on an erotic 16th century Spanish narrative by Gaspar Gil Polo, hardly a surefire recipe for commercial success one feels.

But resonate it did, and for a very simple reason Mark MacDonald opines.

“Books equal community. Pulp novels served as a way to unify the experiences of many lesbians and gay men. Access to representation, even bad representation (many characters in these books are killed or take their own lives), is helpful in creating identity. You must remember that at this time in history, there was little or no representation of queer sensibilities in the popular media. Our sexuality was still being treated as a mental illness. This context is critical to appreciating all of our cultural efforts, I think.

“In my view, the novel has both feet planted firmly in the pulp tradition. I just think that it happens to be an exceptionally good pulp novel. Its popularity seems largely to have been a word-of-mouth thing. Neither the author nor the publisher had any idea it would become such a hit. Of course, as our edition reveals, the author got totally screwed by the publisher and never saw any real reward.”

A final word about Loon. The edition I picked up is a handsome one. A black cover (so slimming) with an insert of the original and touchingly kitsch cover art, an introduction by pulp specialist Michael Bronsky (Pulp Friction), and appendices featuring period interviews with Richard Amory and other Greenleaf authors – all of whom hated their publisher and longed for a gay alternative. It’s ironic to think that we owe so much to Greenleaf Press and its venal practices.