Sonny Barker, Phenix Publishers, 1970
The classic monsters of literature and film are inextricably bound up with sexual love and its consequences: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) is rooted in rebellion against conventional notions of marital propriety, childbirth and parenting; Guy Endore’s Werewolf of Paris (1933, but set in 1870-71) embroils a hapless shapeshifter in the tumultuous waves of sexual violence and revolution; and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) fused centuries of folklore into a late-Victorian condemnation of perverse lust. But, oh, what would Stoker have made of Sonny Barker’s Vampire’s Kiss?
Irreverent and surprisingly witty, Vampire’s Kiss plays an often subversive game of “is he or isn't he…. closeted/in denial/out of his mind” with protagonist Damon Sanger (“sangue” being “blood” in French), an ambitious, married attorney from a small city just cosmopolitan enough to have a single gay bar, into which he accidentally wanders one sleepless night. Damon’s vapid wife, Margaret, is home asleep following a dull evening of cocktails and cards with neighbors and The Cave is the only place still open.
Damon is shocked, shocked to discover that all the ladies in The Cave are actually gents, but not shocked enough to immediately take his leave: He’s never seen anything quite like the scene in the men’s room. And then he meets pale, elegant, black-clad charmer Alan Drake, a vision with white hair — surely he's too young for it to be natural—and lips so red "he must have been wearing a touch of lipstick." Alan Drake’s allure is sufficiently magnetic to make the needle of a straight man's sexual compass spin. The next thing Damon knows, he’s dirty dancing with the handsome stranger and the next thing after that he’s in Alan's fabulous bachelor-pad RV, complete with floor-length black drapes, deep-pile red carpet and a black-leather chaise lounge — but, tellingly, “none of the usual … miniature stoves or refrigerators." One night with Alan sets Damon on the path to realizing that his orderly, ordinary life is a lie he's pulled over his own eyes to shield him from the truth: Damon is restless, bored, frustrated and has no idea what he wants except that it's not what he has, even as he tries to convince himself that he must have been drunk, drugged or hypnotized to have enjoyed mind-blowing sex with another man. No — all he needs is to get a grip: There are no vampires and he’s been hoodwinked by a queer con man. If only Damon could silence the mean-spirited subconscious that keeps telling him he hates absolutely everything about the life he was barely living before he hopped into bed with a member of the queer undead.
Vampire’s Kiss is surprisingly clever in its storytelling; Alan’s first-person narration is delivered via diary entries whose tone slaloms between romance-magazine swoon, pop-psychology cliches and fantastic excuses for his predicament. Alan imagines lurid, “Extra! Extra!”-style headlines ballyhooing his cascading dilemmas: “Attorney Creates Courtroom Uproar: Attempts to Try Case Wearing Balenciaga Gown!” He forms once unthinkable relationships with both cynical hippie hitchhiker Nick and genial African-American orderly Sam, whom Alan meets after getting bashed while recklessly cruising a public men’s room: Extra! Extra! “Brass Band Serenades Bedridden Cocksucker: Mercy Hospital Staff Calls Seven Encores!” The he said/he said bickering between Damon and other Damon is both funny and an oddly touching depiction of a man who’s spent his entire professional life crafting arguments trying to talk his way around unnerving personal truths.
Vampire’s Kiss draws together multiple then-provocative threads and wraps them into a story that suggests vampirism is inherently gay-friendly because both were expressions of transgressive sexual desire. And surprisingly, the perfunctory Phenix Publishers/Pleasure Reader preface to Vampire's Kiss is still, a half-century later, strikingly attuned to its nuances: "Is Damon Sanger, prominent young attorney… a vampire? Or is he merely rationalizing his homosexuality?" This already is twice the level of complexity to which the majority of adult books aspired. He’s also not as free from common prejudices as he’d like to think — his sniping inner voice is quick to point out that when Damon claims to have been mugged to cover the fact that he got beaten up while cruising, he describes his assailant as a Negro. Damon may be sleeping with Sam, but his reflex is to protect himself from intense scrutiny by giving the white cops an excuse to round up the usual suspects.
Published the year after 1969’s Stonewall riots, which helped bring the gay-rights movement to mainstream attention, Vampire’s Kiss was — like most gay-adult novels — written under a pseudonym. “Sonny Barker” was one of many pen names used by Jerry Murray, who wrote multiple adult novels for Greenleaf Classics’ Pleasure Reader imprint. His straight-oriented credits — mostly as Ray Majors, Lance Baker or Jill Baker, but also as Sam Diego (he lived in, yes, San Diego, then a hotbed of adult publishing), Lance Boyle, Ralph Basura (Spanish for “garbage”) and Murray Montague — far outnumbered his gay ones: Gay Vampire and, to judge by their covers (which you often can do with adult books), Beautiful Bumpkin and Shafter (also 1970), which feature attractive and undraped male anatomies. Making a living as an adult-pulp writer was largely a matter of volume; writers were paid none-too-generous flat fees and received no royalties. Murray appears to have been able to crank them out; in a 2005 interview with the San Diego Reader he estimated that he’d written about 250 adult books.
One last fillip: I’d owned Gay Vampire for years before I ever realized just how smutty that cover is….
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