The Visitors, by Mary McMinnies (1958)


The odd, alien green tint of the cover of the U.S. edition of Mary McMinnie’s second novel, The Visitors is somehow appropriate for this long out-of-print book, for it manages to be, at the same time, both highly realistic–indeed, drearily, tediously, relentlessly realistic at times, the kind of realism that’s so convincing that it can feel like the writer is holding your head under water and you want to struggle to break free–and utterly artificial.

The artificiality comes from the situation in which McMinnies places her main character, Milly Purdoe. A beautiful, lively but superficial woman, she find herself stuck in a grim provincial Polish city–a fictional equivalent of Krakow–in its bleakest, most repressive post-Stalinist days, the trailing spouse of a minor British Foreign Service officer. (The German title of the book was Seltsame Gäste–“Strange Guests.”) Quartered in a cold apartment in the town’s once-grand hotel, she has little to do but avoid tangles with her children’s stone-faced nanny, look for antiques in the pathetic stores and flea markets, and read Madame Bovary. Although the nanny is a novelty, a sign of her husband’s rise in the civil service, everything else is a little too familiar to Milly:

Already it was October. That was how time passed. Between departure from the last place, arrival at the next, and for a week or two either side, miraculously it stood still–if you could always be doing that, coming and going, going and coming. But no sooner had you arrived than you began, because it had to be and you were experienced at it, to settle in. No sooner were you settled in and starting to find your feet, yet still making discoveries like where to buy the best sausage and the bread and each day holding the promise of some novel experience before it close, than, before you knew where you were, the days would begin to assume a pattern, to merge into each other, yesterday like to-day, to-day like to-morrow; and in front of your eyes, little by little, the excitement would be fading, the novelty becoming stale, until in no time at all you knew you would be passing through the intermediate stage, the seemingly endless one you care for least, between coming and going. It would be like living in a dream; not uncomfortable, because only reality is that–your pulse-beat steady, you would be eating well, sleeping well; but certain times of day, the performing of certain actions, sherry at twelve, gin at six, brushing your teeth, pouring tea, seeming to come round with deadly regularity until you would feel something simply had to happen to joly you out of it, the dream routine; even if it were to be no more than a gale, like the gale with had raged the night before and had swept not only a great many leaves off the trees but a leaf off the calendar, too, and now it was October.

And so, like Flaubert’s romantic trapped in a dull French provincial town, Milly soon finds ways to keep busy that are undoubtedly amusing to her but also clearly dangerous and self-destructive when carried out under the eyes of a paranoid police state.

The Visitors is a big, ambitious book, rich is characterization and description, ruthless in its social satire, mesmerizing in its powerful narrative vortex. Some reviewers found that McMinnie’s ambitions outstretched her artistic reach, comparing her work with that of the period’s biggest over-the-topper, James Jones. It was picked up by the Book of the Month Club, which boosted its U.S. sales, and was twice released as a paperback, the second time in 1967 as a Penguin paperback. It’s been out of print ever since, though, and McMinnies appears to have published nothing since. A couple of readers remember it with enthusiasm on Goodreads and Amazon, but their reviews and this one are the book’s sole mentions on the Web.

The Visitors, by Mary McMinnies
New York City: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1958

The Drunk, the Damned and the Bedevilled, by Terence Ford


The cover of The Drunk, the Damned, and the Bedevilled is chock full of all that is good in pulp fiction: sex, violence, alcohol and weirdness. The weirdness comes in part from the rather odd perspective of the picture (perhaps the artist had been punched by the guy in the tie and was looking up from the floor), in part from the Gregory Peck-like man in the middle, who seems outraged by the behavior of the guy in the tie but unable to get up from his chair, and in part from the title. Drunk, damned and bedevilled? We can easily imagine a classic pulp titled, The Drunk and the Damned. But Bedevilled? It comes across as hardly stronger than Befuddled.

The title is even odder when one considers that the novel’s original title was He Feeds the Birds, which comes from the Bible, Matthew 6:26: “Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?” One can see how this title wasn’t exactly fit for purpose if the aim was to grab the eye of a scanning would-be buyer of cheap fiction, but did Bedevilled slip in as an unconscious nod to the Christian basis of the original?

Finally, to top off things odd, when Berkeley Books decided to give Terence Ford’s book another try as a pulp in 1959, they steered in the opposite direction, going with the riveting title, Easy Living, and a cover that replaces a cocktail party fight with a starving writer listening to his wife’s pregnant belly.


The Drunk, the Damned, and the Bedevilled, by Terence Ford
New York: Avon Books, 1952

Classic Covers from Claude Kendall Books

I recently picked up a first (and only) edition of Felix Riesenberg’s 1933 novel, Mother Sea, and was intrigued to see that it came from Claude Kendall, the same publisher that issued some of Tiffany Thayer’s most notorious over-the-top pot-boilers (including Thirteen Men and Thirteen Women).

Doing a bit of Googling, I quickly learned two things about Mr. Kendall: first, that he was murdered in a New York City hotel room in 1937, a murder that has never been solved (courtesy of The Passing Tramp); and second, that while the literary standards of his firm may not have been the highest, their book covers are among the most memorable of their period. Here is a little sample for your guilty pleasures:

Uncle Sham, by Kanhaya Lal Gauba (1929)

This scathing satire of American life, subtitled “Being the Strange Tale of a Civilisation Run Amok,” which viewed the country from the perspective of the most virulent and self-righteous visitor, was a reaction to Katherine Mayo’s 1927 book, Mother India. The New Yorker’s reviewer called it “the best comic volume of the year.”

Lo!, by Charles Fort (1931)


Depending on whose side you take, Charles Fort was either a “satirist hugely skeptical of human beings” or “a patron of cranks.” Either way, he was well-regarded by some people and still is today. He’s got his own society (the International Fortean Organization) and a magazine (Fortean Times) devoted to the phenomena he studied. Lo! comes with an introduction by Tiffany Thayer, illustrations by Alexander King (viz. my pan of his memoir, Mine Enemy Grows Older), and cover plugs by Theodore Dreiser, Booth Tarkington, and John Cowper Powys.

Smoking Altars, by Gladys St. John Loe (1936)

smoking altars

Murder mysteries were a specialty for Claude Kendall, preferably set in exotic locations. This one takes place on a plantation in Kenya. Lionel Houser’s Lake of Fire was set in Burma, The Surrender of Helen in the South Seas, and Death Rides the Air Line on the then-novel mode of transportation. Murder in Bermuda, written by Kendall’s financial backer, Willoughby Sharp (who added his name on the books starting in 1934), is self-explanatory.


Pasha the Persian, by Margaret Linden, with illustrations by Milt Gross (1936)


Illustrated by the legendary cartoonist, Milt Gross, this might have been meant by Ms. Linden to be a children’s story, but Gross’ wild drawings put this solidly in the American tradition of tall tales, and might have been Gross’ attempt to out-do his compatriot George Herriman’s KrazyKat.

Twisted Clay, by Frank Walford (1934)


Fetching a whopping $2,000 on Amazon, this novel of a demented teen-aged lesbian, in the words of James Doig, “has the distinction of being one of the more bizarre thrillers published in the 1930s, which is saying something given the excruciating excesses of R.R. Ryan, Harry Keeler, J.U. Nicolson amongst others.” It was banned for decades in Walford’s native Australia, although from the looks of it, Walford might have been plowing the same row as Kendall fave Tiffany Thayer. You can read more about the book on Wormwoodiana, the Tartarus Press blog. Kendall also published another early classic of lesbiana, G. Sheila Donisthorpe’s Loveliest of Friends.

Claude Kendall’s house was, in a way, the Grove Press of its time. Kendall did attempt to gain U. S. publication rights for Ulysses, although it might have been as much for its scandalous reputation as its literary merit. He did release the first U. S. edition of Octave Mirbeau’s S&M classic, Torture Garden.


On the other hand, while Beth Brown’s two novels, For Men Only and Man and Wife, had historical settings (New Orleans of the 1890s), I suspect their attraction had more to do with their subjects (a madame and a prostitute, respectively). And the fact that the Kendall catalogue is rich with such obvious works of fine writing as Dark Dame, Six Lost Women, and Secret Ways tips the scales, I’m afraid, on the side of trash. On the bright side, one can honestly say that there is a larger audience of connoisseurs of fine trash now than there ever was, so I welcome them to dive into the vintage dumpsters of Claude Kendall (and Wiloughby Sharp) and see what treasures they can find.

There’s One in Every Town, by James Aswell

Cover of 1952 Signet paperback edition of 'There's One in Every Town'
Cover of 1952 Signet paperback edition of "There's One in Every Town"

“Completing engrossing on every page,” proclaims a plug by Erskine Caldwell on the cover of the Signet paperback edition of James Aswell’s short novel, There’s One in Every Town (1951). It appears beneath a James Avati cover featuring a wary brunette in a Carmen blouse (is there any other kind in a James Avati cover?). So we know we’re in Tobacco Road country, where beautiful white trash girls have a Viagra-like effect on all the men in town. Not surprisingly, as Aswell was an old college classmate of Caldwell.

In this particular instance, Jackie Vose (nee Cvasek) gets a reputation as a fast girl, but a few men believe her to be an angel at the core. One is her neighbor, who narrates the story, and the other the town’s doctor. The doctor eventually falls for her, to the town’s censure, and the two come to an end that reminded me of those Nancy Reagan fables that National Lampoon used to publish: where, no matter what sin the protagonists had committed, they always ended up run over by a runaway schoolbus.

Aswell, the son of a congressman, hailed from Baton Rouge, and published a number of novels about life down in the steamy South. Several of these also got picked up by Signet and graced with a dramatic Avati cover: The Young and the Hungry Hearted (Signet 116) and The Birds and the Bees (Signet 1121). The Midsummer Fires, however, only rated an Avon paperback release with a cartoonish cover–this despite the fact that a Natchitoches reviewer considered it to have beat out novels by Caldwell and James M. Cain as “the most nauseating book of 1948.”

Aswell died in 1955 of a cerebral hemorrhage. He was 48.

There’s One in Every Town, by James Aswell
Indianapolis: Bobbs -Merrill, 1952

Breaking Up, by W. H. Manville

Cover of first U. S. edition of "Breaking Up," by W. H. Manville

I was tempted to tag this post Justly Neglected?, as Breaking Up, W. H. Manville’s 1962 bizarre novel of obsessively apathetic love is really quite bad. But out of respect for the fine work of graphic arts legend, Tony Palladino, who also designed the cover for Robert Bloch’s novel, Psycho, I’m listed this under “Covers.”

For Breaking Up, Palladino came up with a simple, striking image: an upside-down aerial shot of midtown Manhattan. It worked its magic with me, as it was the cover rather than the jacket blurb that led me to buy and read the book. Well, that and the setting: I’m always a sucker for books set in Manhattan, particularly when the protagonist works on Madison Avenue. And one could imagine Bill, the husband whose wife leaves him in the opening chapter, working alongside Don Draper–although it’s clear he lacks any real talent as an ad man, sculptor, or lover. His creative director sums up his character succinctly:

You want to be the American Rembrandt of the sculpture guys, you want to succeed in this business–you’ll wake up to the fact you want the dough as much as anyone one of these days–you want to have the greatest love story of all time with your wife, you want to be the guy who can beat the system, who can do all the other things, too. All without working at any of them. You want all that. Result: you get paralyzed.

Which reminds me of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s wonderful assessment of one of his acquaintances, Barry Pink: “Pink wants to sit on six stools at once, but he only has one arse.”

For a good two-thirds of the book, the reader has to follow Bill around as he wrestles with that timeless question: does he, or doesn’t he? His eyes are eventually opened to the anguish his wife has suffered trying to reconcile herself to the fact that her husband is an apathetic lump (he helps her pack when she moves out). He comes across her diary from the months before the break-up:

He is teaching me sculpture. It is hard for him to do and I pretend not to be too eager. He feels it is his own and as if he is giving part of himself away to me. And he is–at last.

Bill, I’ve been starving for you.

He finds in it a refuge. Sometimes I’m glad he has something in which he is not locked up and incoherent, but it frightens me in him. So remote.

Thus the angst of the remote Bill, seeking an outlet in his art, is channeled and magnified by his wife. My own feeling about Bill can be summed up by a quote from Tom Lehrer: “I feel that if a person has problems communicating, the very least he can do is to shut up.”

Somehow the revelations of the diary trigger a burst of action from the clod, and in the final chapters, in the course of one frenetic night, he tries to win her back, tries to destroy the tubercular male model she’s hooked up with, tries to orchestrate a con by which his agency’s key account can be saved, and tries to win a big account on which he and the above creative director can set up a new agency of their own. It’s not only completely unbelievable but technically inept: it’s not too entertaining when the juggler is running around the stage chasing after dropped balls.

It’s a good thing I read this on board a transatlantic flight: it forced me to withstand the temptation to toss the book out the window. Breaking Up is one book that deserves to sleep with the fishes.

Breaking Up, by W. H. Manville
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1962

Keeper of the Flame, by I. A. R. Wylie

Cover of Popular Library paperback edition of "Keeper of the Flame"

This Popular Library edition of I. A. R. Wylie’s 1942 novel, Keeper of the Flame, dates from the early 1960s. There are some remarkable titles to be found among the best-sellers, bodice-rippers, and dreck that Popular Library released in the late 1950s and early 1960s. I wrote about a few of them about a year ago in the post, Digging into the Popular Libary at the Montana Valley Book Store.”

This is a particularly odd example. MGM purchased the film rights to Keeper of the Flame when the book was still unpublished. It was then published by Random House before the film was released, but subsequent runs featured a dust jacket with a still shot from the movie.

The film is best remembered today as Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy’s first, but it and the novel are nothing like their usual comedies. Steven O’Malley (Tracy), a celebrated foreign correspondent of the Quentin Reynolds-Vincent Sheean-John Gunter school, recently returned from Europe, takes an assignment to write the life story of Robert Forrest, a New England governor who’s inspired a nationwide populist movement. Forrest is considered a Lincoln-like figure, the great hope of the nation, but as O’Malley investigates, he finds there are some curious figures in Forrest’s household–including his wife.

I won’t spoil the ending, but let’s just say that Forrest proves to have been a little more like Lincoln Rockwell than Abraham Lincoln.

Aside from the unusual story, Keeper of the Flame–both the novel and the film–are far more interesting seen in the context of their external connections and references. One watches the film looking for hints of the budding attraction between Hepburn and Tracy. One reads the novel in light of the figures such as Charles Lindburgh and Father Coughlin who inspired popular movements in America in the 1930s and 1940s–movements we now see as having a darker side.

Having written recently about Wylie’s memoir, My Life with George, I was impressed by two aspects of the book. First, it’s hard not to think that Wylie wrote it for the screen: there are at least a dozen scenes that play out exactly as filmed, and the whole sequence of the narrative matches that of the film so tightly it could have been a novelization after the fact. Second, despite the many superficial and clichéd characterizations, it’s obvious that Wylie was a very world-smart woman: if she played down her intelligence, it was because she’d had, by the 1940s, also thirty years’ experience of making a living with her writing.