Ian Young Books


 No Time For Poets

Stalked: An Anatomy of Sexual Obsession

by Larry Townsend
(L.T. Publications)

Reviewed by Ian Young

N ow that sadomasochistic imagery has become fashionable, it may be hard to imagine a time when S/M activity was the most taboo aspect of a hidden gay subculture.

 Larry Townsend

Gay S/M first began to emerge from the social shadows after the Second World War. Many veterans had left America as naive boys - and returned as experienced young men. And some of them found they didn't fit into the uptight society of postwar America. Many joined motorcycle clubs, prowling for heavy action of one sort or another in out-of-the-way places. They were On the Road on their bikes long before Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty traversed the country by car. Perhaps some of them remembered fondly those sessions with the old Sarge. The law of supply and demand soon provided the first leather bars.

For a while, S/M remained a secret activity, under heavy social sanction. In the late 1940's, the great sexologist Dr. Alfred Kinsey took a strong interest in it, filming S/M sessions and interviewing the participants. But the "leather" world remained even deeper underground than the rest of the gay society until the early Seventies. In the Fifties and Sixties, leathermen maintained fairly rigid codes of dress and behavior, which William Carney stylized almost to the point of parody in his classic Sixties novel The Real Thing. These accepted signals and folkways helped to screen out psychopaths and other criminals, but also made life in the leather world as constricting as it was in the rest of American society. In those days, if a guy known as an S, a Top, felt like playing bottom for a while, he felt obliged to flee to another city for a weekend so as not to be discovered!

Then came Stonewall, the last hurrah of the disruptive Sixties, and in its wake gay life changed forever. There were those who realized that if gay shame could become gay pride ("shame" was once a code word for homosexual; now "pride" has taken its place), the S/M world could stand some airing out too. A little group in New York City formed the Eulenspiegel Society, the first S/M liberation organization, open to straights, gays and bisexuals alike.

By 1972, a paperback porn house published the first exploration of the gay leather scene by an insider, Larry Townsend's The Leatherman's Handbook. Since then, the Handbook has been through various editions, and Larry Townsend has become the best known author of gay S/M adventure and erotica, rivaled only by the late John Preston. Stalked is his thirty-ninth novel.

By now, Townsend has built up a loyal readership - and a formula to satisfy it, based on the conventions of porn fiction. There is a gay, usually S/M, sex scene in almost every chapter, and the plot and characters, are merely serviceable vehicles for the required erotica. While Townsend lacks the spark and style of his illustrious precursor Samuel Steward (a.k.a. Phil Andros), he has nonetheless been one of the best porn writers around for several decades. But there are aspects of his latest book that made it difficult for me to finish.

The story is about Ryan Franklin, a young Hollywood actor who gets stalked by a murderous, sexually confused drifter called Glenn Leach. When Glenn slouches into Ryan's pampered Hollywood world, things soon get very ugly. And there's a lot of ugly in this novel.

Here, as in a number of Townsend's books, erotic S/M periodically gives way to gloating renderings of brutal, decidedly non-consensual, sexual violence. The characters - selfish, jaded, amoral and sexually driven - are unappealing, and only the most unappetizing aspects of their Hollywood milieu are reflected. A more gifted writer might provide all this with some flavour, but Townsend's humorless, meat-and-potatoes prose is not up to the task.

Stalked is a story very much about macho guys. The only important character who isn't one is Ryan Franklin's manservant Eddie Phillips. Eddie is an older, effeminate man. Throughout the book, he is repeatedly referred to (by various other characters and by the author) as "Cunt," "Sissy," "the wispy queen," "Ms. Eddie," "that old fag secretary," "the old faggot," and so on - so often that it becomes a kind of sneering refrain, an intrusive literary tic. The author seems to have such loathing for his most inoffensive character that by the time Eddie is beaten to death, literary fag-bashing seems virtually inevitable

The Leatherman's Handbook and its sequels were important books in their day. But Townsend's recent fiction has become increasingly rancid. Perhaps his dislike of effeminate men is the other side of the coin to his love of brutality. As for his view of Hollywood, no doubt there are good reasons for his cynicism. But cynical writing about cynical people makes tiresome reading

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