Decades before Pornhub, gay men had to find prurient release in pulp novels with lurid titles like Hollywood Homo and Senator Swish. Now an effort is underway to revive these lost classics—both for their camp appeal and their role in LGBT cultural history. Maitland McDonagh even launched an imprint, 120 Days Books, to get some of these titles back in circulation.
But if reading’s not your jam, there’s a podcast devoted to midcentury gay paperbacks, too: Each installment of Gay Pulp features narrator Robert Maril reading a chapter from books like Gay Whore and To Want a Boy out loud. Think of it as a kind of Audible.com for queer erotica.
Below, we chat with Maril, a New York-based writer and musician originally from Ponca City, Oklahoma, about his unique auditory experiment.
How did you get the idea for a gay-pulp podcast?
A few summers ago, my housemate and I found a book called Summer in Sodom in our Fire Island share. It’s this crazy 1960s pre-Stonewall gay erotic novel about a growing man’s sexual awakening. We carried it around with us, reading to each other at the beach and by the pool.
I had so much fun reading it aloud—making up ridiculous voices for the characters, all of whom talk like they’re straight out of a Charles Busch play. Recording and sharing it with my other friends seemed like a natural evolution.
How do you choose what books to record?
I’m still in touch with the Assistant Dean of Students at my alma mater, DePauw University, who was also the queer-student liaison when I was there. She found out that I was interested in vintage gay erotica and entrusted me with a number of gay pulp novels she’d been collecting. Most of them are from a long-defunct imprint called French Line.
I choose which one to record by the salaciousness of the title and the blurb on the front cover. I read the chapters in order so that when each one is done it’ll become an audiobook.
At the time, these were intended just as “spank books.” Why is it important we revisit them now?
They’re a time capsule, a primary source of an era in queer history. These books were written at a time when being gay was a criminal act and from a perspective that people born after Stonewall can’t imagine.
Yes, there is a lot of sex, but there’s also a lot about what it meant to be a gay person in America in the 1960s, stuff that people writing it just took for granted. Stuff about the closet, about marriages of convenience, cruising for sex, cloak-and-dagger gay bars.
There was a whole underground gay world that’s described in these novels, and that history is still barely being told. These books were made to be disposable and most of them didn’t survive. They were the kind of thing that was hidden between your boxspring and your mattress and then when you died your friends threw them away with the rest of your porn and your dildos.
Making this podcast is a way of preserving these books and sharing them with people who would otherwise never have access to them.
Do you try to do different voices or otherwise “act out” the scenes?
Absolutely. It can get tricky because I don’t read the books ahead of time—I’m reading it cold into the recorder—but I love doing voices for the different characters. So far my favorites have been the disgusting, lascivious male “madam” from Gay Whore, who mysteriously came out Southern. I also love the hooker with a heart of gold from To Want a Boy.
The characters spring from my mouth on the fly but fully-formed. I’ll say something in some voice and it’ll be like “Where did that come from?!?”
When it comes to the sex scenes, do you try to play it sensually or just read it as you would any other section?
The sex in these books happens with absolutely no warning, so often I’m well into it before I realize it’s a “sex scene.” I think it’s much funnier to hear it read deadpan than it would be to try to sex it up. Some of the prose is absolutely absurd—flowery and garbled, like the author was just sitting there thumbing through a thesaurus looking for more synonyms for “semen.”
And that’s part of the fun of hearing it read aloud.