Thanks to everyone who is following my reading journey. If you missed my previous musings, links are at the end of this post.
One day in 1966, when I was in the 8th grade, I was perusing the rental shelf (5 cents per day, if I remember correctly), when my eyes spied a book I had recently heard about, the groundbreaking Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann. When I took it to the desk, Miss Clark looked at it with disapproval and said I needed a note from my “mommy” to check it out. What happened after that shaped my reading life forever.
But before that happened…
After I finished the “teen” books in our small library, I asked Miss Clark what I should read next, and she recommended Mistress of Mellyn by Victoria Holt. I wish Miss Clark were still alive so I could thank her for how she changed my life. First of all, I was so enamored of the story, setting, and shocking revelation at the end that to this day, there’s nothing I like better than a good gothic novel with a creepy manor setting, a sense of unease, and a twist that knocks my socks off. And secondly, her help made me realize how much fun it can be to help someone find just the right book for their reading pleasure.
I went to read the rest of Victoria Holt‘s oeuvre, including Bride of Pendorric, The Legend of the Seventh Virgin, Kirkland Revels, and more. After that, I scoured the shelves for books by other authors with covers featuring terrified women fleeing manor houses with menacing towers or other dark and foreboding covers that would send chills down my spine. I read books by Phyllis Whitney, Dorothy Eden, Mary Stewart, Barbara Michaels, and anything else with phallic symbols on the cover.
Yes, that’s right. Did you know that back when gothic novels were “hot,” book cover artists were instructed to create covers with towering phallic symbols? Who knew? You can read all about it in my review of Grady Hendrix’s Paperbacks from Hell. Hmm, maybe the subliminal message went into my subconscious, which may have influenced my next reading obsession…
The Blue Years
When Miss Clark told me I needed a special note to check out Valley of the Dolls, I must have looked at her with puppy dog eyes and said something like, “Oh, Miss Clark, you’ve known me for a long time. May I please take it today?” And she relented. I was absorbed from start to finish, and quite frankly, I can’t tell you anything about the plot and characters, and I’m sure some issues went over my 13-year-old head, but I was ready to read more of this kind of book. I’m sure by today’s standards, the content would be relatively mild (and I did end up reading worse a few short months later, but I’ll get to that in a minute), but it was reasonably risqué for that time.
After that, it was a short coaster ride down the slippery slope to reading more smut. It wasn’t long before I discovered novels by Harold Robbins, such as The Carpetbaggers, but my favorite was The Adventurers, where I even learned a few Spanish words! Heh.
(If you have read his books and have the time, this 2019 article about Harold Robbins is fascinating.)
Then my stepmother started watching the TV series based on Grace Metalious’ shocking Peyton Place, so how could I resist getting the book which was described as “…a tale that includes incest, abortion, adultery, lust, and murder.” Hooboy! Right up my trashy teen alley! I bought it at the corner drugstore (for 95 cents) and inhaled it along with the sequel, Return to Peyton Place.
Next up were William Goldman’s Boys and Girls Together (same author who would later write The Princess Bride and Marathon Man), Robert Rimmer’s The Harrad Experiment, and even Kyle Onstoff’s Mandingo (and sequels if I could find them). What can I say, if the paperback had a lurid cover, I would easily part with some of my hard-earned allowances.
But Where’s the Carnival?
One day during my 8th-grade language arts class, a boy who sat behind me handed me a paperback book to read, and since by now everyone has pretty much noticed I’ll read just about anything, I took it. I don’t remember the full title, but the word “Carnal” was included (no, it wasn’t Carnal Knowledge), and I thought it sounded interesting. Well, it turned out to be pure explicit porn, but that didn’t bother me as much as trying to figure out why the “carnival” was never featured! Silly me, eh? (Side Note: The boy who loaned me the book seemed a little disappointed when I handed it back saying it was an interesting story. I think he expected me to be shocked.)
(When I was doing readers’ advisory, and a parent expressed concern when a tween/teen wanted to check out a book with “content,” I usually responded that I read Valley of the Dolls when I was 13 and I turned out OK–well, I think I did anyway. I never told them about the “Carnival” book.)
But not everything I read was considered trash. Next post I’ll get into my late teen years and how a book finally taught me the real “facts” about the birds and the bees.
I loved this one, Robin. When I was in 7th grade my friends and I pooled our money at the Spokane bus depot and bought a copy of Peyton Place. I was the keeper and the other girls sneaked it home long enough to read it. It sat on the shelf in my bedroom for years, and it wasn’t until after I was married and through college that my mother picked it off that shelf to read and threw it away as “pure trash”. I bought another copy for myself at a used book sale somewhere later.
I was raised in a house with a big living room with a baby grand piano in one corner. Many slumber parties were held in this room where *Peyton Place * was avidly read under the piano by lots of teenaged girls!😄
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Waaaaaaah! I had a deprived childhood and didn’t know it! With the exception of Rosemary’s Baby, which I made my way through in stolen moments with a copy discovered on my mother’s nightstand (and which, unlike your adventures in pop lit, led me to swear off anything scary again), I didn’t know those kinds of books existed until I was in my 20s lol. Maybe I’d have become a more passionate reader if I’d been exposed to more passion-filled material!
I used to love those gothic paperbacks too!! I would buy them whenever I found them at used bookstores. What is it about them that’s so appealing to early-teenagers? 😂 Besides the covers, which I remember being really into (your description of “covers featuring terrified women fleeing manor houses with menacing towers” is perfect!). I read Valley of the Dolls around the same time too. I so love that you’re writing these stories, Robin!
Thanks so much. And the gothic genera is still beloved by readers. Many times would I say to a patron or librarian colleague, “This has a definite “gothic” tone and their eyes would light up.
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There’s something entrancing about it for sure!