One of the most important gay books of the 20th century was Richard Amory’s Song of the Loon: A Gay Pastoral in Five Books and an Interlude (Greenleaf Classics). While of doubtful literary value, Song of the Loon made gay literary history with its explicit depictions of gay male sex, its positive portrayal of male love and its poetic, almost mystical vision of a gay brotherhood that transcends racial and cultural barriers.
For his “gay pastoral,” Amory took “certain very European characters from the novels of Jorge de Montemayor and Gaspar Gil Polo, painted them a gay aesthetic red, and transplanted them to the American wilderness.”
Angelo d’Arcangelo compared Song of the Loon to The Last of the Mohicans and “Hiawatha,” while I myself described protagonist Ephraim MacIver as “Natty Bumppo after Stonewall.” Song of the Loon was so popular that it inspired a movie of the same title, two sequels—Song of Aaron and Listen, The Loon Sings—and even a parody: Fruit of the Loon by “Ricardo Armory.”
Fortunately, Song of the Loon is back in print, in a handsome edition published by Vancouver’s Arsenal Pulp Press as part of its Little Sister’s line of lesbian and gay classics. It certainly deserves the honor. The publication of Song of the Loon in 1966 launched a wave of gay erotic pulp fiction, as paperback publishers discovered the genre’s financial benefits.
The rise and fall of gay pulp fiction is the main topic of The Golden Age of Gay Fiction, an anthology edited by Drewey Wayne Gunn (MLR Press). In this book, the “golden age of gay fiction” runs from 1948 to 1978, though Gunn and his contributors recognize the landmark importance of Amory’s first novel.
In his introduction, Gunn writes about the historical importance of fiction that was “for, by, about and out” gay men. Contrary to popular belief, the gay men who populated pre-Stonewall novels were not always doomed “to suicide, institutionalization or (assumed) celibacy in the priesthood.” Rather, gay pulp heroes “never practiced celibacy (quite the contrary!), did not kill themselves, and were institutionalized, if at all, only in prisons (in order to have lots of sex with guards and fellow convicts). Even more extraordinary, they often fell in love, and though monogamy was seldom part of their vows, they fully intended to live lives committed to others unto death.”
Critic David Seubert, writing elsewhere, described the state of affairs in gay pulps as “homotopia... where everything is imbued with sexual content, no one is straight and characters stumble into one sexual encounter after another without danger, fear, or for that matter, without even really trying.”
Gay pulp fiction did more than make gay sex writing possible. According to Gunn, “it is among the pulps that such distinctive genres as gay horror, the gay gothic, to a large extent the gay mystery and the gay spy story, the gay cop story, and the gay western developed.” (Song of the Loon, of course, was a major contributor to this last genre.)
The Golden Age of Gay Fiction includes detailed studies of gay science fiction, gay mystery, gay horror, gay western (including Loon) and gay military fiction, and in all counts the genres were well-established by the time gay militants faced the cops at the Stonewall Inn.
One of the characteristics of gay pulp fiction was the use of pen names by authors shy about being exposed as creators of smut. In fact, some authors used many pen names: In the Golden Age, Victor J. Banis wrote pulps as “Don Holliday,” “Victor Jay” and “J. X. Williams,” among others.
Since then, Banis has come out of the literary closet, and has written many books under his real name. Banis also contributed an essay to The Golden Age of Gay Fiction, as did Jan Ewing AKA “Jack Evans.” Other contributors provide critical analyses of the works of Banis, Joseph Hansen (“James Colton”), Gordon Merrick and Lonnie Coleman.
All in all, The Golden Age of Gay Fiction is a valuable resource for lovers of gay literature, history and sex. If nothing else, it would lead to renewed interest in the works of our literary ancestors.