My Sister’s Keeper, by R. V. Cassill (1960)

Cover of 'My Sister's Keeper' by R. V. Cassill
Winding down my tour through novelist R. V. Cassill’s decade-long excursion into pulp fiction, I come now to the hot mess of psychological confusion that is My Sister’s Keeper (1960).

The title offers us the unsubtle suggestion that the book’s subject is incest, but as has been the case in the rest of his pulp novels, Cassill prefers to take sex on a tangent rather than head-on. Yes, young Joe Haver is more than slightly obsessed with his sister, Corlis, but he’s less interested in having her than in keeping anyone else from doing it. Which is why the most intense scene in the book is closer to sadism than sex. This, of course, didn’t prevent Avon Books from excerpting just enough of this scene on the front endpaper to lead would-be buyers to think the opposite.

In poor Joe–nineteen going on infantile–Cassill crams a baker’s dozen disorders. His mother’s dead, his father’s a useless lecher living off a grand inheritance, his father’s alcoholic mistress spends most nights sacked up with dad just down the hall from Joe, he spent a requisite number of miserable years in expensive boarding schools, and, as the story opens, has taken up stalking and breaking-and-entering as a hobby. Still a virgin, he’s reached the point of dysfunction where his approach to chatting up a girl is to put her in terror of rape or murder or both.

The one bright spot in his life is his 15-year-old sister, Corlis, just returned from a year’s study in Europe. For Joe, Corlis is the last bastion of innocence in his world, and he’s ready to do anything to anyone–including Corlis–to keep it that way. For her part, Corlis appears to have run much the same gauntlet as Joe with nary a mark–aside from a few from Joe’s belt.

Life would be challenging enough for Joe, but Cassill decides to spice things up by tossing in Dr. A. T. Steele, a “lay analyst” and Mephistopheles stand-in. In a history that Cassill leaves suitably muddy, Steele has been a Hollywood actor, playboy aviator, private eye, and all-around man of mystery. Or, as Goodreads reviewer, Karla, puts it much better than I could have, “a parasitic mind-fucker who leeches off the largesse and warped privileged psyches of his rich marks.” I’ve noted before that Cassill seems to have used his pulp fiction to experiment with different techniques and subjects, and I strongly suspect that Dr. Steele was the prototype of the title character of Doctor Cobb’s Game (1970), his “serious” novel based on the Profumo affair.

The result is easily the most interesting, if not the most artistically, of all Cassill’s pulp novels. While his aspiration might have been to weave a complex psychological drama, his final product is more rat’s nest than tapestry. If Cassill had been a chef, this is one dish he certainly would have been accused of overthinking. At the same time, there are plenty of choice bits in this potpourri, and it’s a shame that there appear to be, according to, no more than two or three copies available for sale at the moment.

My Sister’s Keeper, by R. V. Cassill
New York: Avon Books, 1960

Night School, by R. V. Cassill (1961)

Cover of Dell original paperback edition of 'Night School'On the downhill slope of my scenic tour of the pulp fiction of novelist and short-story writer, R. V. Cassill, a tour begun back in March with his tale of wife-swapping in small town Iowa, The Wound of Love. Published in 1961, Night School was his next to last paperback original, with only Nurses’ Quarters (1962) to follow.

As with all his pulp novels, Night School draws upon Cassill’s own experiences. Cassill was one of the first to plant himself firmly in academia and teach writing while continuing to write and publish, and among his early gigs in the mid-1950s was a stint teaching an evening class at the New School of Social Research.

I’ve speculated before that Cassill used his pulp novels to experiment with various techniques and topics while weaving in enough sex and violence to satisfy his editors’ demands. If this was in fact the case, then the experiment in Night School was just the sort of thing one might expect as a night school writing class assignment: tell a story through the viewpoints of multiple characters.

It’s one of the oldest situations in the books, dating back to The Decameron and beyond. And in the case of Night School, it gave Cassill to explore the different sexual attitudes and experiences of the students in his class–as well as of its instructor.

Houston Parker, Cassill’s night school teacher, is a divorced writer with one critically successful novel and many years of writer’s block behind him. For him, the class is a turning point–the bottom from which he will rebound or the trap door to even greater failure. The class is equally a turning point for a number of its students, but their dilemmas have more to do about love than literature. One student is a shark, trolling his way through half the women in the class. Another is an ingenue trying to decide whether to become an adventuress or settle for married monogamy and the stifle fantasies of her mother. And two of them, middle-aged, with complicated lives behind them, find a happiness worth risking all the security they have.

All this confirms Parker’s suspicion “that some of these ladies and gentlemen were looking for more than instruction in writing fiction.” And the fact that it’s a night school class means that most of the students have been working and living on their own for some time. So when some of the students get together for a drink after class, it’s usually in one of their apartments, and the conversation tends to be a fix of war stories and regrets for past mistakes. Most of these people–including Parker himself–know they won’t be the great successes they once aspired to be, but haven’t given up on trying to achieve or create something.

The sex–what there is of it–in Night School is more often about what doesn’t happen. One quiet, otherwise pleasant, man is celibate because, as he reveals to everyone’s discomfort during one of the after-class session, he views most of humankind with just rabid hatred that he could never be attracted to another person. After the shark doesn’t sleep with one of the women, she turns into a vengeful demon who threatens to castrate him.

And so, despite what the editors at Dell paperbacks might have been hoping, Night School turns out to be more about life choices and consequences than sex–which is why it’s also one of the more interesting and satisfying of Cassill’s pulps. Admittedly, his protagonist is just as uninteresting as 95% of writers in fiction. (There seem to be only two models: the out-of-control wild man (ala Dylan Thomas, Brendan Behan or Cassill’s Clem Anderson); and the angst-written clod. Cassill’s Houston Parker is one of the clods.) But Cassill did manage to create some convincingly grown-up characters among Parker’s students, and for that alone the book rates better than the average Cassill pulp.

Night School, by R. V. Cassill
New York City: Dell Publishing Inc., 1961


The Wife Next Door, by R. V. Cassill (1959)

Cover of 'The Wife Next Door'
“They met like two comets in the night–the bored and restless man, the lush and willing woman.”

That line and the cleavage, pink nightgown and knowing look of the woman on the cover of The Wife Next Door are classic examples of Gold Medal Books at their sleazy best. Anyone buying the book knew that at least one commandment would be broken in the course of this story.

As usual with Cassill’s pulp novels, he gave himself the opportunity to explore material he was interested in while also providing the publisher with material that fit the desired formula. In this case, the story is set at Blackhawk University, Cassill’s fictional version of the University of Iowa, where he studied and taught, which was also the setting of an earlier pulp, Naked Morning. Cassill also drew upon his own experiences, as he, like the characters, lived in the former Army barracks on campus that served as housing for married students during the boom in attendance after the passing of the G. I. Bill.

The story opens with a preposterous incident in which Tom, a hard-partying pre-med student, spies Karen (the wife next door) through his bathroom window, develops a drunken infatuation, and invades her apartment later that night with the aim of consummating his lust. He strips naked and staggers toward Karen, only to have her react as any normal woman might–screaming and kicking and trying to force him out of the place. Somehow Tom manages to escape without either Karen or his own wife learning his identity, although running around naked and drunk does eventually land him in jail.

The entire episode serves no purpose and could have been dropped entirely, for Cassill then begins where we might expect it to–namely, with Tom and his wife becoming acquaintances with Karen and her husband, their new neighbors. Indeed, it’s as if Cassill changed his mind, and from Chapter 4 on, made this more of a story of the predatory wife than the predatory husband. Karen and Tom’s wife Amelia become good friends, although Karen does seem to be more than a little interested in Tom and Amelia’s love life. In short, Tom is a stud while Karen’s husband Willard is … well, not, and Karen soon wants to find out what she’s been missing.

What for Tom is just a lucky jump in the sack becomes an obsession for Karen, and while he appreciates the occasion bit on the side, she convinces herself that the two are in love and destined to be together. While not quite in the league with Glenn Close’s character in “Fatal Attraction,” Karen is an early prototype of the jilted lover stalker. Once again fascinated with unstable substances, Cassill goes overboard by introducing a sub-plot in which the sight of Tom and Karen steaming up the car windows in a deserted Iowa state park sends a respected member of the Blackhawk medical faculty into an erotic fugue state that eventually leads him to rape Tom’s wife and then force her to submit to sex with a taxi driver. Even by Gold Medal’s standard, Cassill delivered way more sex, alcohol, violence and weirdness than they asked for. Who knew such things went on in Iowa?

In a way, The Wife Next Door is the most effective pulp novel by Cassill that I’ve read so far. It’s not a very good novel, even if we forget the ridiculous opening of Naked Tom in the Night. But it is effective as pulp fiction along the lines of, say, Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me, where the characters are fast, loose and out of control. I read the thing in about two hours and felt like I needed to take a shower to clean off afterwards. Which I guess is some kind of benchmark.

The Wife Next Door, by R. V. Cassill
Greenwich, Connecticut: Gold Medal Books – Fawcett Publications, 1959

Lustful Summer (1958), by R. V. Cassill

lustfulsummerI hate to say it, but the greatest pleasure I got from reading Lustful Summer was the fact that the copy I scored is in mint condition. I regretted opening it because it will never be quite as perfect as it was when I opened the package.

This book is almost as old as I am, and there are very few things left in this world from 1958 that are mint condition, and not many of those are paperbacks. I wonder how this copy survived the last 50-plus years without a scratch, and fantasize about a box of paperbacks from some Avon Books distributor forgotten for decades and then chanced upon by some lucky dealer. I picture seeing Lustful Summer next to Death Hits The Jackpot (Avon T-280) and Honeymoon Guide (Avon T-282, featuring Harold Meyers’ “Spicy gags and cartoons”). Perhaps I should have framed it instead, although I can’t imagine where my wife would have tolerated it.

Sadly, Lustful Summer is of greater interest as an object than a novel. It starts out with promise, with a voice that seems worth hearing more from:

If you are pretty, too many men try from the first minute of meeting to get at you. They crowd a girl too much. Because I was pretty they were always buzzing in my ear that I could have whatever I wanted….

This is a voice with some sass and spirit: “they crowd a girl…. they were always buzzing in my ear.” A voice that will take the world from a different angle. A voice that could spin a story that could hold up for 150 pages or so.

But it doesn’t even last through the first page:

Then I ran past it without recognizing it, so now I don’t even have anything like beautiful memories. The best memories I have hurt me. They hurt bad.

This stinks. It stinks bad.

Lustful Summer is about the short, awkward, and tedious love affair between Laila–our narrator–and Bruce, a married man who’s abandoned his wife to pursue his apparently muted passion to be a painter. We can at least be grateful that Bruce isn’t pursuing a passion to be a writer, given the kind of garbage he dumps out in an early love letter:

Beauty is the Mother. You send them forth and call them back. The dynamo that lights this sacrilegious island by night and illuminates the pageant of doormen shooing to their lust the handsome Westerners and the elastic and steel blondes. Makes the light by which I see the toothless pucker, blood-fringed, in the face of a drunk sleeping on Third Avenue.

What woman on Earth would take that kind of prose as anything but the ranting of a stalker?

John O’Hara took a character similar to Laila and wrote a pretty decent novel, BUtterfield 8, around her.

Read it instead.

Lustful Summer, by R. V. Cassill
New York City: Avon Books, 1958

Dormitory Women, by R. V. Cassill (1954)

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.

Dormitory Women, by R. V. Cassill
New York: Lion Books (216), 1954
New York: Signet Books (1646), 1959

A Taste of Sin, by R. V. Cassill (1955)

Cover of first edition of 'A Taste of Sin'Continuing to scarf down R. V. Cassill’s pulp fiction like potato chips, my latest handful is A Taste of Sin (1955), his third paperback original and his second for Ace Books.

Of the four Cassill paperbacks I’ve read so far, A Taste of Sin most easily fits the stereotype of a cheesy, sleazy book whose contents deliver the “whirlpool of wild parties, illicit loves, and degeneration” promised on the cover blurb.

It’s a fascinating exhibit in the museum of 1950s sexuality. Worth Hudson, a thirty-something ad man married–well, if not happily, then at least conventionally–to the efficient Margaret. Both head off to work each morning and return to the apartment they’re devoting most of their spare cash to fix up smartly. Sex is off limits on work nights, and openness and honesty all the time. Worth is bored and a bit frustrated but afraid to say so to Margaret. And so their marriage percolates along, steadily losing all flavor and interest.

And so it might continue for years if not for an agent of chaos in the form of Worth’s friend Harold, a loud, boozy and lecherous artist. Harold recognizes a patsy when he sees one, and regularly leans on Worth for help, whether its a hand-out or a drinking buddy or someone to break the bad news to a girl Harold needs to dump.

As the book opens, Worth and Margaret are sitting in a bar, and Margaret is pressing Worth to cut Harold off for good. Then Harold comes reeling in, and Worth’s descent into the maelstrom begins with that fatal phrase, “Just one last time.”

Lying, deception, adultery, prostitution, alcoholism, bunko rackets, nymphomania, group sex, rape, sadism and masochism–even a fist-fight in a lesbian bar–Worth’s decision to help out his old buddy leads him into a downward spiral that leaves Worth without a wife, a job, or any self-respect. Cassill actually does quite an effective job of using the same reticence that kept Worth from talking about difficult subjects with Margaret to make him a failure as a sinner, too. In situation after situation, Worth’s dithering about whether to take the wrong step–to bed an alluring call girl or to seduce his wife’s best friend–leads something even worse.

Indeed, A Taste of Sin works best as a character study. After losing all his self-respect–and having what was left of it wrenched away from him, Worth gets together again with Margaret together, ready now to rebuild their relationship on a foundation of honesty. It’s such an implausible and ineptly introduced ending you can see the staples. The book would have been far better ended a chapter earlier, with Worth chasing in vain after a woman who’d already demonstrated that her greatest talent was for leaving ardent and horny men shamed and frustrated. Someone once described Cassill’s paperback fiction as “Dostoyevskian.” Happy endings and “Dostoveyskian” don’t go together.

The most I could say of A Taste of Sin is that it could hold its place on the shelf next to James M. Cain’s two great fables about the unpleasant consequences of men thinking with the wrong head, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity. It’s cheap, sleazy, fast, rough, violent, and full of people you’re best off not knowing. Knock off the last chapter and it’s a great slice of pulp. If Jim Cain rates a spot in the Library of America, then someone ought to give a fair shot to Verlin Cassill as well.

A Taste of Sin, by R. V. Cassill
New York City: Ace Books, 1955

The Hungering Shame, by R. V. Cassill

Cover of original Avon paperback edition of 'The Hungering Shame'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.

rvcassill1955Unlike 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.

Effective–but crude.

The Hungering Shame, by R. V. Cassill
New York: Avon Publications, 1956

The Brigadier General Bar, from Naked Morning, by R. V. Cassill


The Brigadier Club had never endured for more than ten months under any single management and it had borne half a dozen names since the war. Bur it recurs, Martin thought, and may be here in a fresh avatar when the pigeon-loved bronze of General Dirksen has been sublimed away.

It had opened after the war as the clubhouse of a campus Veterans’ organization. The American Legion and the VFW had their own permanent buildings in the business section of town, but a large part of their membership was from townspeople or the incorrigible patriots who would always find something subversive in any organization they had helped found themselves.

The club had moved twice before it found quarters in the labyrinthine back rooms of a hotel that was thirty years fallen from its highwater mark of prosperity. It had gone broke and had been reorganized repeatedly. While it was still—with some pretense of legitimacy–a veteran’s co-operative project. Then it was “taken over” by an ex-aviator. For a while his name had been painted over the main entrance on a side street five blocks from the campus. He told all those who had by this time become addicted to it that “nothing would change.” He was going merely, to put it on a paying basis, “for them.”

Since then the club had been closed some ten times. Now and then it was closed (and disbanded) at the orders of the outraged university or municipal administration on a variety of charges which added up to something like mass moral turpitude. Sometimes bankruptcies closed it–at which times the onetime flyer “re-incorporated” and changed the name, clinging only to those names which had a common military denominator.

The outrage of authority sprang from semi-public disclosures that liquor was being sold here to minors, that obscene movies had been shown on stag nights, that the ROTC staff was using it as an outlet for the French erotic supplies they imported from tours of duty at overseas posts, or that whores from Chicago and Kansas City occasionally based there during the football season or the annual state basketball tournament.

The bankruptcies sometimes resulted from setting the price of drinks too low (the manager had moments of unbusiness-like compassion for his whole clientele), sometimes from over-paying the local police with bribes which they did not respect (a bribe plus a fine can ruin any business venture), and sometimes from emergencies in the manager’s private life (he fell head over heels for one of the Chicago hookers and went home with her when she left, carrying all his liquid assets and dissipating them on her in a six week binge).

But it was open again this fall, as it had been for at least part of every year, “under new management.” This merely meant that the manager would spend more time in a back room at one of the poker tables and less time hanging from the bar corner in ostentatious drunkenness, reaching for the girls as they danced. Each reopening was signalized by some amateur remodeling of the decor will wallboard and gaspipe, the immemorial peephole between the men’s and women’s toilets was usually plastered shut, and a new program of entertainment was advertised on mimeographed handbills. But essentially, year to year, college generation to generation, as Clare had promised–as he didn’t even need to bother promising, Martin thought–the club had not changed. As it had been, it would be.

Naked Morning, by R. V. Cassill

Cover of Avon paperback original of 'Naked Morning'After reading R. V. Cassill’s The Wound of Love (1956), which I discussed in a post a few weeks back, I’ve become intrigued by the rest of Cassill’s pulp oeuvre–eight or nine novels that he published as paperback originals between 1954 and 1963. One of the most influential writing instructors of his time, Cassill was also a prolific author in his own right, publishing around a dozen other novels as serious mainstream hardbacks and nearly ten times that number of short stories, several of which were included in O. Henry Prize and Best American Short Stories collections.

Born in Iowa, Cassill studied art at the University of Iowa and later became one of the mainstays of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. This experience is well reflected in Naked Morning (1957), which is set in the fictional town of Blackhawk, Iowa, home of Blackhawk University–Cassill’s stand-ins for Iowa City and his alma mater.

The novel’s actions play out over the course of about four days in early September, during the break between summer and fall sessions. One of the lead characters, a graduate instructor, “liked that time better than any other part of the year:

Then the campus lay ripe and vacant under a succession of fine days. It was a period when most of the human sounds vanished or were subdued by the heat. The noise of power-driven lawnmowers sham-battled through the afternoons and the shadow of campus trees was as blue as it could ever get.

Cassill knows this Midwestern university town well. He knows the upright but pallid character of the men in administration, the driven wives relentlessly fueling faculty politics, the frustrated cliques of artists and intellectuals feeling themselves exiled from the big time, and the townspeople always a bit bewildered or bemused by the university’s pretensions and eccentrics. He knows the great Victorian monstrosities–“like an oversized statue of two bisons and a wapiti”–now moldering away as faculty homes and student houses. And he knows the kind of bars that offer some of the few places where students and younger members of the faculty can cut loose:

The outrage of authority sprang from semi-public disclosures that liquor was being sold here to minors, that obscene movies had been shown on stag nights, that the ROTC staff was using it as an outlet for the French erotic supplies they imported from tours of duty at overseas posts, or that whores from Chicago and Kansas City occasionally based there during the football season or the annual state basketball tournament.

The cover of Naked Morning proclaims, “A young and innocent stray in a world of men.” In case that was too subtle, Avon Books plastered across the back:


“I have to get of in this here town unless I have some money. So if you want me to go with you….”

As was the case with Cassill’s The Wound of Love, a cheesy, come-on cover hides an otherwise serious work of fiction. In both books, there is a loose link between the cover and the contents. Naked Morning opens with a young man, a student returning to Blackhawk by bus, being approached by Sissie, a young girl somewhere in the vicinity of fifteen, who seems penniless, homeless, and ready to sell herself to survive.

The story revolves around the havoc her arrival in Blackhawk provokes. Sissie is something of a feral child, a corn-fed Lolita with no inhibitions, which, of course, means that she attracts a variety of abusers, exploiters and would-be saviours. A buyer hoping to find the salacious treats suggested by the cover would have been quite disappointed. Cassill only hints at Sissie’s sexual exploits–a glancing reference to a possible gang-bang in a frat house basement is as far as he goes.

Sissie really only serves as the spark to set off crises of character for the student on the bus, his girlfriend, and the graduate instructor. She is off-screen through most of the book, with much more space devoted to the others and their thoughts. And, as is too often the case with novels where the reader has to spend most of the time inside someone’s head, introspection is a poor substitute for action or description. The best parts of Naked Morning are not the result of Cassill’s ability as a story-teller or creator of characters but his ability to capture what Iowa City must have looked like, what it must have been like to live there, in the mid-1950s–as was the case for the small Iowa town setting of The Wound of Love.

Cassill’s superficial motivation for writing Naked Morning may have been money, but it’s clear that writing the book also had some artistic value for him–perhaps as a way to safely perfect his craft away from the harsh scrutiny of mainstream editors and critics. I suspect this was true for his other pulp novels, which is why I’ve ordered a few more to read over the coming months.

Naked Morning, by R. V. Cassill
New York: Avon Books, 1957

The Wound of Love, by R. V. Cassill

A prolific novelist and short story writer, as well as an influential teacher of other writers, R. V. Cassill spent most of the 1950s bouncing around the sort of jobs a writer could get–teaching, working on an encyclopedia, editing such noteworthy magazines as Dude and Gent. And writing pulp fiction.

Although he would go on to earn critical acclaim for such novels as Clem Anderson (1961) and Doctor Cobb’s Game (1970), Cassill produced an impressive series of novels for Ace, Avon, Gold Medal and Signet. The titles are evidence enough that Cassill might be called the Fifties’ equivalent of Tiffany Thayer:

The Wound of Love (1956) is one of these. “A respectable town and the iniquity seething underneath” proclaims the cover, which shows a Susan Hayward look-alike and a Mad Man making out in a corn field. Now, anyone who’s ever seen a corn field knows it’s a miserable make-out spot, but the story is set in Iowa and I suppose the editors asked the cover artist to tie that in somehow.
I came across The Wound of Love a couple of years ago in the stacks at Wonder Book in Frederick, Maryland–one of the dwindling number of bookstores in the U. S. where you can still find paperbacks from the 1950s and 1960s. I recognized Cassill’s name, but I also recognized the book as classic pulp fiction–a paperback original, under 200 pages long, with a lurid cover and plenty blurb promising sex within. At the time, I wasn’t aware of Cassill’s pulp career and picked the book up simply out of curiosity.

I finally got around to reading it recently, and I have to say that it wasn’t too bad. Set in Pinicon, a rural town somewhere between Des Moines and Omaha, the story centers on Dick Fletcher, who’s returned to his home town to work on his father’s newspaper after a few years as a journalist in New York and Chicago. Dick is finding it hard to get used to the slow pace of life in Pinicon, and his marriage to Marsie, a nervous girl from the East Coast is suffering under the strain of living under the same roof as Dick’s parents. He’s befriended by Vance Holland, a hard-drinking, hard-partying local entrepeneur, and soon things begin spinning out of control.

Vance’s farm is sort of the local hang-out for other restless young marrieds, and it only takes one party at Vance’s to find Dick in the backseat of his car with another man’s wife. Although Dick never strays again, Marsie takes to frequent visits to Vance’s, and Dick learns that Vance is also the facilitator of the local wife-swapping circle. Small-town sex intertwines with small-town politics, and Dick eventually gets caught up in a complex deal to buy the town’s co-op electric plant–an issue that Dick’s father has opposed for years.

Born and raised in Iowa, Cassill would return to the state a few years after publishing The Wound of Love, joining the faculty of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and the book is full of small touches that reflect a writer very familiar with his story’s setting and people. Dick’s father is a good Midwest Lutheran, which means he disapproves of Dick’s drinking and his marital problems–but doesn’t feel it’s his place to say anything about it. Even Dick hasn’t lost all sense of propriety. Early on he cools on Vance Holland simply because “He didn’t like people who insisted on a demonstration that you liked them.” It’s a comment very characteristic of a certain outlook you find in the Midwest.

Cassill manages to fit a fair amount of scandal into 160 short pages–not just the swapping of house keys and wives but gambling, bribery, shooting, alcoholism, and even a climactic airplane crash. Although it’s neatly integrated into the story, I can’t help but wonder if Cassill received a letter from his editor at Avon Books–something along the lines of Roger Corman’s instructions to Jonathan Kaplan when he hired Kaplan to direct one of his legendary low-budget films, “Night Call Nurses”: “Frontal nudity from the waist up, total nudity from behind, no pubic hair, and get the title in the film somewhere and go to work.” What Cassill created, in and around the sex and booze, is a neat exercise about the crisis of character, about the transition from youth and idealism to middle-age and ugly compromises.

Is it deserving of reissue? No, probably not, but it was certainly good enough to make me want to try another of Cassill’s pulp works. He once remarked that he wrote one of his pot-boilers while on jury duty. If The Wound of Love was that book, I’m eager to see what he did when he gave his full attention to what he was writing.

The Wound of Love, by R. V. Cassill
New York: Avon Publications, Inc., 1956