Continuing my journey through the pulp oeuvre of R. V. Cassill–a novelist and short-story writer whose mainstream fiction is nearly as forgotten as his more quotidian work–we come to The Hungering Shame (1956), his fifth novel and his first paperback original for Avon Publications.
One would have to be thick not to figure out that it’s a story about rape. “Four Men, A Lonely Road, and A Girl” is splashed under the title, on which we see an attractive woman examining the torn sleeve of her dress, her hair slightly mussed. These were the days before Avon became noteworthy as the publisher of Latin American and other innovative fiction, days when its marketing aim was not so high(brow).
But, as I found with The Wound of Love (1956), his second Avon original, and Naked Morning (1957), his third, the lurid cover and blurb of The Hungering Shame deceives by disguising the seriousness of Cassill’s purpose and his results.
The Hungering Shame is not actually a story about rape, but rather one about the effects of rape. Cassill uses a set of first-person narrators to play out his drama, which concocts an unstable mixture of characters and circumstances and then sets it alight.
Unlike his next two books, The Hungering Shame is set not in Iowa but in a resort town in the Colorado Rockies. Late the summer before the story opens, a local girl, Joy Everest, was picked up by four visiting frat boys, taken up a deserted forest road, and raped. One of them was the son of Bob Horn, manager of one of the big resort hotels in the town. A divorced father with a weak heart and a guilty conscience, Horn had helped Joy get medical care after the crime and convinced her not to report it. Engaged to marry Al, a local boy, Joy had her own reasons to keep quiet.
Now, a year later, the marriage has disintegrated. Still traumatized by the rape, Joy has been unable to sleep with Al. Then several pieces of bad advice upset the precarious balance of Joy and Al’s psyches. Joy, we learn, has already been scarred from discovering, as a child, her father’s dead body after his suicide, and Al is a nascent sociopath. Add to these ingredients Bob Horn’s genetic predisposition to bad luck (his father tells him that just about anyone other than a Horn “has a better chance than you nor me when it comes time to do the right thing instead of the wrong thing”), a social climbing young woman, and the reappearance of one of the rapists, and it all explodes.
Men might have been hoping for some good old fashioned sleaze in The Hungering Shame, but I doubt they would have been prepared for the brutality of the finale. Al spirals down the path of a classic sociopath, cruising for women, contemplating molesting a young girl, caught masturbating in his car, taking Joy along as he shoots cornered animals, and finally, attacking a couple necking in a parked car. Cassill goes well beyond conventional literary psychology of the 1950s, revealing that Joy finds relief for her own pain by helping Al inflict it upon others.
Bob Horn also discovers unpleasant truths as his fragile world comes crashing down. I liked how Cassill captured the voice and sensibility of an ordinary man being forced to look past the limits of his comfortable notions of evil:
I guess there are, for unlucky men, those times when you are forced to look clear past the edge of what people ought to be asked to stand. It’s a mistake to think there’s nothing out there, a lucky mistake, because in the dark around us there’s a slop and muck and stink that’s stronger than all the daylight we’ll ever get. It moans at you through its stinking lips and says Help me and if you’ve been caught where you hear it you’re tempted to gather it up in your arms and pat it.
The savagery of The Hungering Shame‘s denouement is really quite shocking for its time. I speculated in my post on Naked Morning that Cassill may have used his pulp fiction as experiments where he could try out techniques for use in more serious works. In the case of The Hungering Shame, his ability to work with highly combustible materials proved short of the mark just at the book’s very end.
Q: How to end a story that’s already gone over the edge?
A: Put all your volatile characters in a car and send it careening off a cliff.