Dormitory Women was R. V. Cassill’s second novel. His first, The Eagle on the Coin (1950), had been a substantial, serious novel published by a substantial, serious firm, Random House. It would be a decade years before he published another one. In between, he wrote a dozen cheap paperback novels–most of them original works, a few of them novelizations of films like The Buccaneer (1958).
I’ve become fascinated with Cassill’s pulp novels after reading Wounds of Love a few months ago. In truth, they’re not great pulps, not in the way that, say, Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me is a great pulp novel: stripped to the narrative bone, full of rough men and tough dames, with no pretension and no apologies. Nor are they great as serious novels, worth proclaiming as undiscovered masterpieces.
What they are, I’ve decided, are experiments. We can appreciate the qualities of a good piece of pulp fiction now, but at the time, the criteria for getting something published by a company like Lion Books or Gold Medal had more to do with the writer’s ability to produce on time and to formula. Chances are that title of Dormitory Women existed before the book did (“Get the title in there and go to work,” to paraphrase Roger Corman’s instructions to the director of one of his sleaze films). The story had to involve women on a college campus and it had to be lurid. The rest was up to Cassill to fill in.
Cassill wasn’t the only writer to recognize that as long as he stayed within its simple limits, the pulp format offered him freedom to try out notions that were risky for mainstream fiction. In A Taste for Sin, he was able to work with sexual material–domination, rape, homosexuality–that would have been tough to get any hardback publisher to accept–material he would later revisit frequently in Doctor Cobb’s Game and other novels of the Sixties and Seventies. In Naked Morning, he tried out a story set in the campus environment he was familiar with from teaching at the University of Iowa, Columbia, and other schools. In The Wound of Love and The Wound of Love, he tossed sexual hand grenades into quiet small town settings and let the havoc ensue.
In Dormitory Women, the material Cassill experimented with was psychopathology. The men who picked it up in hopes of getting some steamy scenes of sophomoric sex did get a little taste of what they were looking for early in the book. Within the first two chapters, we are treated to that scandalous fifties fad, the panty raid. Soon after, Cassill offers up an attempted rape out on Lovers’ Lane.
But then the tale swerves wildly off track. The would-be rapist leaves the girl in the dust, blasts onto the highway back to town, and goes up in flames in a wreck. And we launch into the warped perspective of Millie, the girl. “I’ve got to go all the way through it again,” she says to herself. All the way through what?, the reader wonders. Well, we soon discover that Millie had some traumatic encounter with a man dressed in white in the barn behind her Grandpa’s house, and her attack by the aggressive frat boy sparks a series of psychotic episodes.
Although she convinces her roommates that her nightmares and ravings are just anxiety about getting into her college’s “good” sorority, Millie is actually in schizophrenic fugues in which another voice urges her to sink a butcher knife into the chest of her unwitting targets: “I knew how people could divide themselves and send one part outside time and space by a crooked path that let them sneak up on those they had to kill in order that those they loved be protected.” Twenty years later, Stephen King was able to take similar material and turn it into a best-seller, but in Dormitory Women, Cassill struggled–unsuccessfully–to put his agent of chaos to good use. Maybe readers in 1954 were naive enough to wonder about Millie’s flash-backs to Grandpa’s barn, but any adult today could figure out that she’d been raped by Grandpa (um, he worked in a bakery?). And, despite her violent fantasies, the murder of her favorite professor’s wife and children turn out to be entirely coincidental. In the end, the only thing Cassill can do with Millie is ship her off to an asylum.
For me, Dormitory Women was a failed experiment. Yet it was the only one of Cassill’s pulp novels to earn a review in a major paper, and Anthony Boucher’s praise in The New York Times was enough that his last phrase was quoted on many of his subsequent ones:
R. V. Cassill attempts (and successfully) an even more ambitious study in psycho-pathology in Dormitory Women (Lion, 25c). Disregard the lurid jacket copy (“an explosive novel of sex on the campus”) on this one: it’s a serious and completely terrifying account of the flight of a 17-year-old girl from almost-normal adolescent fantasy (“I am a princess … I can make things happen to people”) into full psychosis. The university background is admirably realized and the novel well-conceived and well-written. Previously known to readers of little magazines and Foley annuals, Cassill shows here that he can combine paperback storytelling at its strongest with subtle literary quality.
One might think that having the main character go mad is one of the cheapest and easiest tricks in the book, but Dormitory Women is proof that it’s harder than it looks.