THE BLOG

Early Gay Literature Rediscovered

05/28/2014 05:54 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016
Photo by Brad Sloan via Getty Images

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Valancourt Books is an independent small press specializing in the rediscovery of rare, neglected, and out-of-print fiction. James Jenkins and Ryan Cagle (who've incidentally been together for 10-plus years and were married in Iowa in 2009), began the press to bring back the many great books that remain out-of-print and inaccessible. Specializing in gay titles, gothic and horror novels, as well as literary fiction, they founded Valancourt Books in 2005 to restore many of these works to a new generations of readers. It's an impressive and fascinating list. I got so lost in it, and had so much fun looking around at all the great books I've never even heard of, I just had to interview these guys.

Trebor Healey: I'm always amazed when a new press emerges. Knowing how difficult it is to get a start and to make a go of it, it always reminds me that the passion for literature is as strong as ever, and book lovers will always find a way to share their enthusiasms and the treasures they find in the enormous world library of books. Tell us your story.

JJ: My whole life, I've been someone who loves to read, but my reading tastes have always been a bit off the beaten path, and I continually found myself frustrated by the fact that so many great books that I wanted to read were out of print and unavailable. As an undergraduate, I became really interested in the Gothic fiction of the late 18th and early 19th centuries and eagerly devoured the few books that were in print: The Castle of Otranto, The Monk, Ann Radcliffe's books, and a few others. But there were hundreds and hundreds of other titles that sounded really enticing, yet weren't available anywhere, either to buy online or get at a library. The specific impetus for starting the press came when I was doing research on the Gothic novelist Francis Lathom (1774-1832), who was rumored to be gay, and discovered that the only place in North America where you could find his books was on microfiche in Lincoln, Nebraska. It just seemed ridiculous in the 21st century -- with the modern technology we have now for making books available -- that books of such interest to readers and scholars should be out of print. So in early 2005, we began reprinting some of these old Gothic novels, and over time, we expanded into neglected Victorian-era popular fiction, including old Penny Dreadfuls and sensation novels, as well as a lot of the decadent and fin de siècle literature of the 1890s. More recently, in late 2012, we discovered -- to our surprise -- that there was a ton of great literature from the 20th century, sometimes even as recent as the 1970s or 1980s, that was out of print and almost impossible to find in libraries or secondhand copies, so we've begun republishing a lot of neglected modern works, most of them either of gay interest or horror/supernatural (though, of course, the two often overlap!)

TH: I've worked as a volunteer at ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives, and what I loved about working there was the thrill of discovering some amazing old gay novels -- books like John Horne Burns's early gay classic, The Gallery, from 1947, and Luis Zapata's Adonis Garcia. I also worked with Winston Leyland and Gay Sunshine Press for a few years in San Francisco before he shut it down and I was impressed with all the obscure early queer lit he'd published and kept in print: Charles Warren Stoddard's Cruising the South Seas, Adolfo Caminha's Bom Crioulo, Oscar Wilde's Teleny, the Gay Roots series, etc. Now I can add Valancourt Books to that list of resources for hard-to-find gems of gay lit. Your reprints of Walter Baxter's Look Down in Mercy and Martyn Goff's The Plaster Fabric are great examples of gay men at war, and I also find myself drawn to Francis King's work, such as The Dividing Stream. I definitely think you guys are onto something -- this is the next wave of what's been happening in publishing, and one of the positive things about the internet and books. How do you go about rediscovering the books you end up reprinting?

JJ: The ONE Archives sound wonderful -- I'd love to check out their collection sometime! Many of the gay classics we've been reissuing are ones that were last published in the 1980s by the UK's Gay Men's Press in their Gay Modern Classics series. We've reprinted most of that series now -- great titles like Kenneth Martin's Aubade, about a teenager's first love (written when Martin was only 16!) Gillian Freeman's The Leather Boys, the first novel to focus on love between young working-class men, (everything before that time had featured gay men who were wealthy aristocrats, emperors, etc.), and Michael Nelson's A Room in Chelsea Square, a wonderfully camp classic about bitchy queens in 1950s London that elicits some really strong reactions from today's readers -- people either think the novel is hilarious fun, or else they view the main character, Patrick, as a reprehensible predator. I think it's great that a gay novel from 1958 can still inspire such interest and passionate responses.

As for where we've discovered some of these other great books, sometimes it's just serendipity. The excellent Francis King, who you mentioned, I first "met" when I was corresponding with him about something he'd written on Forrest Reid, one of whose books we were republishing. Not having read any of Francis' novels and not knowing much about them, I afterwards picked up one of them, An Air That Kills (1948), and was really blown away by it. We're now publishing six of his, and also five by his mentor, the perennially underrated C.H.B. Kitchin, to whose books Francis introduced me.

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You mentioned Walter Baxter's novel of the British campaign in Burma, Look Down in Mercy, which is a really terrific book. WWII-themed novels were still very popular in 1951 when it was first published, and it was a bestseller in both the U.S. and UK, perhaps a little surprisingly, since a significant portion of the book has to do with the love between an officer and an enlisted man. An intriguing thing about the book is that in the UK edition, the officer is consumed by guilt and self-hatred and throws himself out of a window at the end, but in the U.S. edition, the author rewrote the last chapter to give a happy ending and a possible future for the two men. I should mention, too, that one thing that sets our editions apart from many publishers who reprint older books is that our editions all have new introductions either by their authors or by leading writers or critics. Look Down in Mercy, for example, has an introduction by Prof. Gregory Woods, who wrote the landmark History of Gay Literature (Yale Univ. Press, 1998), a book that meant a lot to me when I came across it at age 18 or 19 or so, and which helped me discover a lot of great gay authors.

TH: That is important to provide the new introductions, and a great service to your readers. It offers much-needed context. You also republish a lot of gothic horror and books dealing with the supernatural. Since publishing with Steve Berman's Lethe Press, I've been amazed at the huge horror market among gay readers. Why are gay people so into horror?

JJ: It's interesting you mention gay people and horror - it's a connection not a lot of people make (probably some readers are perplexed at why we focus on two seemingly such different areas as gay fiction and horror), but it actually goes back a long way, all the way back to the old Gothic novels of the 1790s and early 1800s, which is what we first began with publishing. In books like Matthew Lewis's The Monk (1796) and Charles Robert Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), you often come across fairly obvious gay themes. In The Monk, for example, the monk falls in love with one of the young novices, who ends up being revealed as a girl in disguise, but up until that point the gay subtexts are pretty clear. A lot of those Gothic authors, like Lewis, William Beckford, Francis Lathom, were homosexual, and I think the traditional explanation for the gay/horror connection is that it was impossible for them to write openly about gay themes back then (or even perhaps express them, since words like "gay" and "homosexual" didn't exist), so they sublimated them and expressed them in more acceptable forms, using the medium of a transgressive genre like horror fiction. Gay subtexts are something that run through horror fiction from that point all the way to the present day -- in Victorian times, of course, there's Bram Stoker's devotion to Sir Henry Irving, reflected in the homoerotic aspects of Dracula (Dracula's line "This man belongs to me!" as he warns off the female vampires and claims Jonathan Harker). As you mention, in more recent times there are plenty of gay authors working in horror -- Poppy Z. Brite, Clive Barker, the late Michael McDowell and Michael Talbot, both of whom we're republishing, and a ton of others.

TH: I'm a total aficionado of Pan, fauns and satyrs, as you likely figured from whatever you know about my work, so of course Forrest Reid's The Garden God jumped out at me. And I wonder if there is more material you've come across that deals with either Greco-Roman mythology or the whole Pan/faun sublimation of male eros, etc. in those earlier times (I love that your "gay titles" header bar is a boy playing a flute).

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JJ: You're right, these do show up often -- both in gay and horror fiction (Arthur Machen's really wonderful The Great God Pan being the obvious example of the latter group). The image you mentioned from our website is a detail from M. S. Corley's beautiful cover art for Harmonica's Bridegroom (1984) by Paul Binding, an author influenced by Forrest Reid's classic (and unjustly neglected) novels like The Garden God (1905). It was pretty common in older gay works to include references to Greek or Roman themes, since gay men then commonly understood ancient Greece and Rome to be societies where homosexual relationships were tolerated and even encouraged -- often allusions to Greek mythological characters essentially functioned as code that gay readers would recognize, a way of identifying an author or book's sympathy with gay readers and gay themes that would probably be overlooked by straight readers. (These sorts of coded, subtextual ways of writing about homosexuality were often necessary, since up until the 1950s British authors could be prosecuted for writing openly about homosexuality, and in the U.S., authors and publishers could also face legal action and suppression of their books, not to mention social or moral condemnation that might end an author's career.)

TH: Gay men often think that it's the older generations who value books and that younger queers read less or perhaps don't feel the need for gay literature since the movement has, in a sense, been a victim of its own success and there are now lots of voices/stories out there on TV and in the movies and media. This is obviously a generational misconception, as you guys are both of the younger generation and seem to be very into books. What are your thoughts on this?

JJ: That's an interesting question. Though I think most of our books have something to offer to readers of all ages, I do think our audience for some of the gay classics of the 1940s, 50s, 60s, tends to be a little older, while our horror books appeal to all ages, but particularly perhaps to a slightly younger demographic.

The huge advances in gay rights over the past decade, with Lawrence v. Texas in 2003, the spread of gay marriage starting with Massachusetts in 2004, and more recently so many states' gay marriage bans falling one after the other, have completely changed life for gay people in this country -- to the point where future generations of young gay people will never really have lived in a time where being gay was illegal, where you could be fired or evicted for being gay, where gay people couldn't marry, etc. And it's possible that some of those young readers may have trouble seeing the relevance of those older books or may think it's silly that they invariably end with the self-loathing gay character dead from suicide or murder. But I think it's important still to read the gay classics of earlier generations and remember what the struggle was like then and how thankful we should be for how far we've come. And, most importantly, a lot of these books feature really interesting, engrossing stories, even if some of the gay issues are occasionally a bit dated. One that we're publishing this month is Rodney Garland's The Heart in Exile (1953), which was a surprise bestseller in both the US and UK and was released in the '50s and '60s in some lurid-looking pulp paperback editions. It's believed to be the first gay detective novel, and in it, the main character is a psychiatrist who descends into the "gay underworld" of London to investigate why his former lover committed suicide. Though dated, the story is still a page-turner, and as Neil Bartlett notes in his introduction, it's pretty amusing when the author, in all earnestness, tries to explain to heterosexual 1950s readers what "camp," "butch" and other similar terms mean.

TH: In discovering out-of-print gay classics that clearly will have great interest today, have you found any gay novels by people of color? I know this is likely challenging as those voices, outside of such figures as James Baldwin, Langston Hughes and Yukio Mishima, were often not heard before the 80s. But those would be amazing discoveries and of great interest to a lot of readers.

JJ: Those are some great writers -- Baldwin and Mishima in particular are writers I really admire. I'm sure there are gay classics by other writers of color, though I have to confess that - possibly because we specialize in British fiction -- I'm not able to cite any offhand. Interestingly, though, there are a couple important American works we've stumbled on lately about gay black characters, both of which we're looking at to see if they're something we might reprint: Blair Niles's (she was a straight woman) Strange Brother (1931), which was a success when first published and focused on the gay scene in Harlem, and George Baxt's A Queer Kind of Death (1966), by a white author, but which introduced the first gay black detective in fiction, Pharaoh Love, and which has gone on to become something of a cult classic.

TH: I've spent some time in South America where I came across lots of gay writers who are not translated into English. I know translation is costly and ambitious for a small publisher, but have you considered bringing some of these gems into print in English? Chilean Pedro Lemebel comes to mind. His beautiful novel, My Tender Matador, has been translated, but the majority of his work has not, and he's a huge gay presence in South America that I think American readers would appreciate and/or learn from. As someone who prefers reading on an international level, I love that you are bringing back lots of British novels and just wondered if you've had the opportunity to look further afield outside the English-speaking world.

JJ: The Chilean and other South American literature you mention sounds really interesting. We just visited South America for a couple weeks earlier this year and loved it down there! I'm sure I'd enjoy discovering and learning about the authors and works you're talking about. At this time we don't have any immediate plans to move into translated literature, though it's something we'll likely look at in the future. But you're right -- translation costs are high, so it probably wouldn't be possible without grant funding. Most likely, we'd be looking at reissuing out-of-print books for which translations already exist.

TH: How do you guys handle the logistics? I'm sure it can get overwhelming since you don't exploit the working class ala Amazon! The book biz is tough and I'm curious how that part is going.

JJ: Being only a two-person operation and republishing mostly little-known titles, we rely heavily on modern technology to make our work possible. The paperbacks are printed on digital presses and done on an "on demand" basis, so that readers anywhere in the world can order them at any time and have a copy printed and bound and sent to them quickly. The old traditional way of publishing (printing thousands of copies and warehousing them somewhere until they sell) just isn't viable for most of these neglected titles that have been out of print for 30, 40, 50 years.

The advent of e-books has also been great for the kind of work we do. We're traditionalists -- we love printed books, and we put a lot of time and care into the design and typography of the books to make them visually appealing and attractive -- so we prefer to sell them as paperbacks. But we recognize that many people like the convenience of e-books, and because there's no printing cost involved, we're able to offer them at low prices ($6.99-$7.99); many readers are more willing to take a chance on a neglected classic as an inexpensive e-book rather than paying more for a paperback. So, though we like traditional printed books better, e-books have been really helpful in allowing more readers to discover some of these great titles that they might not otherwise have read.

You mentioned Amazon -- both as readers and publishers we have sort of a love/hate relationship with them. They do stock all our books and they're instrumental in making them available to readers at affordable prices worldwide, but we're also strong supporters of independent bookstores and are constantly looking for ways to get our titles on the shelves of more brick-and-mortar indie booksellers. We've had one or two rather serious issues with Amazon, probably the worst of which was when they claimed a scholarly edition of a gay Victorian novel we published was "pornographic" and banned it from their Kindle store. It's more than a little terrifying for the future of reading when one company has essentially a monopoly on the sale of e-books and can arbitrarily censor books and deny readers access to them.

TH: That is ominous, and I'm glad you mentioned it as we all need to remain aware of the power of Amazon and how that power can lead to censorship. Finally, what are turning out to be the bestsellers from your list (and are you selling more in ebook format or print?), and what books have you got forthcoming in the near future?

JJ: Overall, it's the horror titles that sell best: readers can't seem to get enough of J. Sheridan Le Fanu's lesbian vampire classic Carmilla (1871), George Brewer's bizarre Gothic fairy tale The Witch of Ravensworth (1808) or the weird and macabre stories of some of our rediscovered modern authors like Gerald Kersh and Charles Beaumont.

Of our gay-interest offerings, I wish I could say that our best-selling title was a literary masterpiece, but it's actually a Victorian erotic novel called The Sins of the Cities of the Plain (1881), which mixes fact and fiction (and a lot of sex) in telling the story of a male prostitute in London around the time of the Cleveland Street Scandal and the Oscar Wilde trials. There is only one known copy of the original edition (at the British Library), so it's a very rare text and has gotten a ton of interest. Of our 20th century gay-themed offerings, readers have really responded to Francis King's brilliant Never Again (1947), a heartbreaking tale based on his own childhood;, Michael Campbell's equally moving Lord Dismiss Us (1967), the story of two gay people at a boarding school: a teenager unashamedly coming to terms with his identity and a tortured teacher who is unable to accept his own; and, the witty satires of C.H.B. Kitchin, whose Ten Pollitt Place and The Book of Life are neglected masterpieces.

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Among our forthcoming titles, we're extremely excited to be republishing (for the first time ever) two of the very best novels from the horror publishing explosion of the 1970s and 1980s, both written by gay authors, both of whom we sadly lost very young at the height of the AIDS epidemic. The first is Michael McDowell's The Elementals (1981), which Poppy Z. Brite has called "surely one of the most terrifying novels ever written," and which led Stephen King to proclaim McDowell "the finest writer of paperback originals in America today". Though best known today for his screenplays for Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas, McDowell is finally beginning to win recognition as an important and highly individual Southern Gothic horror novelist. The second is Michael Talbot's vampire novel The Delicate Dependency (1982), which many people think is one of the best vampire novels ever written. In addition to his three horror novels, Talbot published a really strange and remarkable book entitled The Holographic Universe - still in print today - which posits the theory that the entire universe is nothing more than a hologram. We're really thrilled about both of these and are hoping for a great response from readers.

As for traditional books vs. e-books: At the moment, for most of our titles, traditional books are outselling the electronic ones by about a 2:1 margin. But not long ago, it was a 4:1, 3:1 margin, so the e-books are certainly gaining ground. Some of the books, especially the pulp horror titles, actually sell better as e-books.

TH: Well, it's amazing that you are rediscovering all these fascinating titles. I think it's a huge boon to gay literature and I commend you guys for bringing these great stories to the community.

JJ: Thanks, Trebor, for taking the time to talk to us. I've really enjoyed having the chance to chat with you and share a little info on what we're doing here at Valancourt Books!