Welcome to Freaky Friday, the one day of the week when you can turn the lights down low, and get freaky with a forgotten horror novel from the past that knows how you like to have your flowers rearranged.
Paperbacks from the Seventies and Eighties have a smell — an overpowering stink of rotting wood pulp and cheap cardboard that makes your eyes water and your tongue go dry. It’s the stink of wet library, used bookstores, and Goodwill. But these books also have another smell beyond that smell. It’s a rich, deep musk that smells like hairy chest, chiseled chin, and blow dryers. It’s the smell of Queen Anne’s Lace, pink wine, and orange sunsets. It’s the smell of denim stretched over hot packages, bearskin rugs by roaring fireplaces, Japanese whiskey on the rocks, leather driving gloves, and mounted longhorn horns. It’s the smell they bottled to make Mandom. It’s the smell of Tipalet cigarettes. The smell of Weyenberg Massagic shoes. It’s the smell of sex, Seventies style.
Seventies sex lasted into the early Eighties, but died around 1985 as AIDS and the rise of the moral majority took the fun out of boffing total strangers. But for almost fifteen years, Seventies Sexy was tops: manly men, surrendering women, belly bracelets, and lots and lots of hair. Not only was it in movies, pop songs, and television, but it infiltrated horror novels, too. Which brings us to today’s Freaky Friday and our discussion of two of the gears on the transmission of Seventies Sexy: Swinging and Hemingway.
There’s a third gear on the gear stick of Seventies Sexy: Rapey. It’s pretty much a downer, although it was the driving force in Satyr (1981), Incubus (1976), and the most famous of the bunch, The Entity (1978) about a woman whose house is suddenly invaded by a ghost that wants to either have sex with her or smack her around, depending on its mood. The Entity feels undercooked, but the 1982 movie version starring Barbara Hershey is a classic that can be read from a number of different angles, and it even inspired the totally freaky Outer Space, Peter Tscherkassky’s 1999 experimental found footage film. But let’s put Rapey aside for another day when we’re more prepared to cry a lot, and move that gear shift smoothly into “Swinging.”
The Night Visitor (1979) starts with Martin and Nina Gerard moving from Italy to the elegant Barkley Arms apartments in New York City and we begin when all is peaceful. The hefty super, Sal Bartolo, is eyeing his chub wife, Ursula, and feeling frisky after they fill up on a heavy Italian meal. The building’s two lesbians, Elva and Tracy, are getting ready to use their ouija board because, well, Seventies lesbians. Dr. Ernest Kaufman is watching his “subnormal” daughter, Helga, masturbate because he is a psychotherapist. Halley and Vince are doing rugged Seventies lovemaking in a “nest of cushions” in front of their fireplace, which I assume means that they’ve pecked their cushions into bits of fluff, then mixed them with their saliva, and built a structure out of the goo in order to protect their eggs. Meanwhile, artist Steven Street is staring at his paintings because they are really bad.
Why do we know all these things? Because a sexy invisible ghost called an “incubus” is watching everyone. When the lesbians have a seance he appears and makes Helga burst through their apartment door naked, like the Kool Aid man, and masturbate all over their apartment. Also, he makes Steven Street a good painter except he is painting everyone in the building doing Seventies Sex and that makes Vince so angry he slugs him. Then he makes Ernest Kaufman really horny so that he has sex with his “mentally defective” daughter, and when his wife catches them she smashes his brains out with a statue. Chaos!
It’s up to Isaaic, a retired archaeologist, to call a tenant’s meeting with a special presentation by his friend, an incubus-ologist, to sort out what’s going on. It seems that, while in Italy, the Girard family ran into a little trouble with their neighbor, the Countess, who trapped Mrs. Girard on her wanton disco floor of depravity and unleashed her sexuality. The Countess also has a pet incubus who came over to the house and said to Mrs. Girard a lot of double entendres like “I have come to work in your garden,” and “I would like to water your shrubs,” then he turns into a woman named Lily and has sex with Mr. Girard, but it’s okay because as a demon incubus he has 1,000 years of experience seducing women and he can hypnotize them with the bulge in his pants so none of them even stand a chance, not even Melissa Girard, their nine-year old daughter to whom he gives a box that smells “pungent and spicy, and gives off a strange heat” that she is told to hide from everyone and I’m just going to drop that overly-symbolic symbol right there and move on.
The next time someone makes fun of the Seventies you should show them this book because everyone in it is so sophisticated. They casually chat with their neighbors about whether or not they should have an abortion, they hold seances together, chill out and have nightcaps, and do macrame, when they’re not holding non-denominational multi-ethnic exorcisms. Eventually it turns out that Melissa’s “box” has to be wrapped in lead and locked up and thrown into the river after Isaaic performs a Unitarian exorcism and defeats the incubus by blowing his shofar really hard while he has a big boner. Not coincidentally, this exorcism also turns the lesbians straight because that’s how it was in the Seventies.
The swankitude of Swinging Seventies Sexy crosses over into Hemingway Sexy via a bridge made of bulging crotches. Swinging Sexy lets men hypnotize women with their crotch bulges, but in Hemingway Sexy there is no need to seduce something as weak and simple as a woman. No, in Hemingway Sexy you must seduce…a bull! That is a target for a real man! Especially in Academy Award-winning screenwriter George Wells’s one and only novel of erotic horror, the crotch-exploding Taurus (1982) about the passion and danger that exists between a bull…and a bullfighter!
In 1924, Ramon Catalan the bullfighter lost his eye in the bullring to the demon bull, Azazel. He poked out one of its eyes, too, and for the past nine years he has returned every year on the anniversary of their mutual de-eyeballing to stare into the eye of the bull. Azazel has been retired to the Mordero Ranch where he is a stud to many cows and has given birth to a new race of demon bulls that “think like men”! Also, the bull “is the most virile animal the world has ever known”! But I would also think Ramon is pretty virile too since when his eye got popped out and dangled on his cheek by its optic nerve he just tore it off and flung it into the stands of the bullring without crying even a little bit.
Full of wise sayings like “A man is not a man when he is shitting his pants,” and “Like mescal, women are a necessity, never a joy,” reading Taurus is like watching Ernest Hemingway smack Norman Mailer in the face with his Hollywood loaf while sailing an ocean of Scotch on a raft made of raw steaks. “The bull and the man are locked together as one,” someone intones and whores and unhappily married women are drawn to Ramon by his macho melancholy, his wise sadness, and his lack of depth perception.
When Ramon arrives on the Mordero Ranch for his annual interspecies staring contest he brings with him the silly young actress, Camilla Silvetti, who does not respect the bull. She is having her period and the bull senses it and goes bananas. Camilla feels herself drawn to the bull, and that night she goes into the field and is killed by Azazel but not just killed because when they find her body the next morning it is “some jellied mockery of human form.” Why “jellied”? Because Azazel also covered her in bull sperm because he sexed her to death. Then he leads six other Mordero bulls in a break for freedom and now seven bulls are roaming the Mexican countryside, determined to screw the entire country into submission.
The bulls murder nubile young women with sex as Ramon and his vaqueros track the bulls (getting turned away at one point by rude American border agents — some things never change). It seems that the bulls are not only rapist murderer bulls, but they’re also high on mescaline they’ve sucked out of agave plants and their brains have been rewired so that they have orgasms when they murder, leading to a scene where they murder 320 cows at once, leaving the grassy plains thick and swampy with dead cows and bull semen.
Obsessed with scrotal injuries, the books opens with Azazel goring another bull in the balls, then tearing open an old man’s scrotum and totally ruining his boners, before another bull rips off its own scrotum while clambering over a barbed wire fence, and finally a kindly doctor gets Azazel’s horn rammed “full-length into his groin” with a “bone-shattering crunch.” This is not gratuitous crotch focus. Rather it is a slow and steady building up of symbolism as Ramon realizes that he is fated to defeat Azazel alone. “I am saying,” he says. “Azazel cannot die except through me.” To lay a trap for the bull, the matador must lean back, thrusting his groin forward, offering the bull his softest, most vulnerable parts. And so Ramon goes out alone, armed only with his tiny hat, his capote, and his vulnerable groin to do battle with Azazel and die in the process. Because in Hemingway Sexy, death is the ultimate man-gasm, and there is no bond more romantic than that between man and anything else with a bulging, hypnotic groin.
Grady Hendrix has written for publications ranging from Playboy to World Literature Today; his previous novel was Horrorstör, about a haunted IKEA, and his latest novel, My Best Friend’s Exorcism, just came out this past Tuesday. It’s basically Beaches meets The Exorcist.