Girl Afraid

In CUNY's pulp-fiction reprints and Daphne Gottlieb's poetry, the last one alive is a feminist

What goes around, comes around—and around and around, as an inexhaustible supply of slasher-movie retreads and pulp-fiction resurrections attests. A case can be made for the virtues of nostalgia and backhanded archiving, but is there anything left unexamined in these already vigorously chewed and digested genres, much less enlightening or entertaining?

Video director Marcus Nispel's slicked-up, aimless multiplex remake of Tobe Hooper's 1974 angst-fest, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,suggests not, as does a slew of context-free, ahistorical pulp-era picture books. Thankfully, slam poet Daphne Gottlieb's topsy-turvy de-con of the splatter-flick ethos, Final Girl, and a series of resurrected literary potboilers fiercely reassessed by the editors at Feminist Press eschew the pat generalizations and simplistic conclusions favored by recent genre revisionists. Instead, these keen cultural critics set their sights on retrieving feminist-inflected pulp—both the print and celluloid kinds—from the dustbin of herstory.

In her third collection of written poems, Gottlieb pegs familiar feminist themes of sexual subjugation and the predatory voraciousness of the "male gaze" on an inspired B-movie framework. Jumping off from film theorist Carol J. Clover's categorization of the slasher genre's "final girl"—"the survivor," as Clover wrote, who is "chased, cornered, wounded" yet "finds the strength either to stay the killer . . . or to kill him herself"—Gottlieb posits an ambivalent frenzy that infects all human intimacy (including the bond between moviegoers and movies—"We do things in the dark/and we will never talk/about how/it scares us") and whose violence defines sexual identity even while negating it:

In Clover: Final Girl poet Gottlieb, plus ninjas
photo: Rebecca Meyer
In Clover: Final Girl poet Gottlieb, plus ninjas

Details

Final Girl
By Daphne Gottlieb
Soft Skull Press, 120 pp., $12
Buy this book

In a Lonely Place
By Dorothy B. Hughes
Feminist Press, 250 pp., $14.95
Buy this book

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i only remember my own
skin when i am touched.
. . . find the edges of my body
through your eyes or under
your hands, against your skin.
it feels like death
every time you
stop.

Gottlieb wields terse verbal and structural juxtapositions (in "Final Girl II: The Frame" and "Pornography," among others), as each poem complements and/or doubles back on its predecessors. In the process, she evokes such disparate characters as colonial American exile Anne Hutchinson and celluloid über-stalkers like Freddy Krueger to underscore the threat and quotidian erasure inherent in female representation. For all that, Final Girl is less an Andrea Dworkin-style dirge than a heart-wrenching reckoning with carnality; Gottlieb finds humor ("If little girls are made of sugar & spice, why do they taste like tuna?") and pathos in the predicament of her final girls, and even concludes with one's bittersweet, ambivalent invocation of posthumous (big-screen?) redemption:

here's my prayer:
that what happens to girls like me
who die dirty, giving it up
with a shudder like pleasure—
pray that when we're killed as martyrs
we get loved like saints.


Some of this battered resolve informs the first volume of Feminist Press's new "Femmes Fatales: Women Write Pulp" series, Dorothy B. Hughes's In a Lonely Place. Best remembered as the basis for Nicholas Ray's diluted 1950 film, Hughes's 1947 novel is a darker, more forbidding piece of work—and, as Lisa Maria Hogeland continually points out in her afterword, a more feminist one.

In print, Dix Steele, a war hero sponging off of a suspiciously absent friend in post-war L.A., is a far cry from the tortured, hair-trigger rake played by Humphrey Bogart in Ray's film. He is, bluntly, a homicidal sexual predator with an overdeveloped ego:

That's what all the dolts around town would be parroting:he's insane of course he's insane of course. It took imagination to think of a man, sane as you or I, who killed. He hid against his highball glass the smile forming on his lips.

Unfortunately for Dix, he encounters two women—Sylvia, a wartime buddy's skeptical wife, and Laurel, a tough beauty who lives in a neighboring bungalow—who refuse to play final girl to Dix's Leatherface. It is this element that Hogeland rightly focuses on in her essay, yet In a Lonely Place is just as jarring for its killer's perspective (foreshadowing the overworked slasher-film trope of behind-the-mask p.o.v. shots) and its casual assertion that not all veterans of the Big One returned home as paragons of upright American virtue.

Would that two other "Femmes Fatales" entries, Valerie Taylor's The Girls in 3-Band Faith Baldwin's Skyscraper, were as layered and provocative. Bland romantic programmers full of naive career girls, two-timing corporate execs, and tame lesbianism, they're energized only by insightful afterwords by Lisa Walker and Laura Hapke, respectively, who tease out what little intellectual interest there is to be had in these turgid, justifiably forgotten efforts.

Such are the travails of pulp scholarship, though, where contextualization and legitimization—not scintillating prose—are the name of the game. The feminist perspective does give these works an undeniable extra dimension, although it's tempting to suggest that virtually any approach would have done the same. Perhaps it's best to compare them to Souvenir Press's recent reprints of Peter O'Donnell's mid-'60s Modesty Blaise novels, which the author adapted from his popular British comic strip featuring a pulchritudinous, James Bond-esque female spy. Devoid of clarifying commentary, these violent, casually sexist tales serve as prime examples of the gender "captivity narratives" Daphne Gottlieb and Feminist Press aim to expose.

 
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