Friday, August 22, 2014

Forgotten Books: CRY AT DUSK by Lester Dent (1952)

When Bill Crider reviewed this book back in 2009, he was amazed how weird and perverse it was. I believed him, of course, because Bill knows what he’s talking about (you can peruse or re-peruse every one of Bill’s immortal words HERE). What amazed me was that such things could be said about a novel by Lester Dent.

I’ve read and enjoyed most of Dent’s Doc Savage novels, most of the books published under his own name and quite a few of the pulp stories that have resurfaced over the past few years. Because I’ve been reading him since I was ten years old, I figured I had a good handle on Dent's style, his themes and his characters. My mistake.

At first blush, Cry at Dusk seemed to have been penned by an alien. Dent’s familiar voice was missing, as was his smart-aleck view of people and society. I kept reading anyway. That’s when the stuff Bill called “weird” crawled in, slithering and sliming over the landscape of the book, and I started asking What the hell was Dent thinking?

Our hero here is college kid Johnny Marks, who, along with his horny Uncle Walter, has been on the run for a couple of years, changing names and towns to avoid their past. Uncle Walter is running from a bloodthirsty thug (for reasons unknown), while Johnny is running from an evil slob named Hermie Bouncett and a curvy babe named Jennifer. Hermie is hot for Johnny, Johnny is hot for Jennifer, and Jennifer is (seemingly) hot for Hermie. Hermie is also a masochist, who loves provoking Johnny into beating him up, which makes him even hotter. Johnny isn’t sure what he likes, and it’s making him crazy. Meanwhile there’s a lot of talk about sex between animals (not with, thankfully) and such fetishes as a guy liking the smell of his own socks. Yeah, it's that weird.

Why Dent chose to write such stuff is beyond me. I’d be tempted to think me might have been doing a parody of other Gold Medal books, seeing how far he could push the envelope, but there’s no indication he was having fun with this. The only character who has any fun is Hermie Bouncett, and that's when he’s getting beat up.

Eventually, three recognizable Dent elements do rise to the surface. 

First, his love of the sea. Johnny Marks has an unaccountable love of the sea and boats, as do several other characters, allowing Dent to play around with his own (strictly non-perverse) passion. 

Second, the minor villain Hermie Bouncett. Just about every Doc Savage adventure features a two-dimensional minor villain (sometimes a minion of the major villain) with a funny name, wacky appearance or peculiar mannerisms. Hermie qualifies in all three categories. And he’s completely over-the-top, as a college student with such a powerful criminal enterprise that he puts the fear of god into cops from New York to Nassau. 

And third, when you scrape off all the weird stuff, the underlying plot is a very Dent-like adventure story. You just have to read almost the whole dang book before you find it. 

On page 148 (out of 180) Dent actually explains what the hell the novel is about. Here’s Johnny talking to Jennifer:

“You see, there have only been three great influences in my life.  One was psychological, one was spiritual, and one was physical. The psychological one was evil, Hermie Bouncett. The physical one was a living hell of desire, you. The spiritual one saved me from the first, sometimes from the second, and always it saved me from myself, and it was the sea.”

Along the way, I encountered a few Dent-like lines: 

My toes wanted to snap like mousetraps. 

The waiter brought me a drink, a tall fruity thing in a black glass. I looked inside and the liquid was yellow as lizard blood should be, and when I tasted it a big cat got into my stomach and began to purr.

He didn’t look like there were any bones left in him.

Her hands moved like birds with their throats cut. 

Finally, with all the talk about sex – and there’s one hell of a lot of it – only one real sex act takes place. It lasts only a few sentences, and is remarkably tame. This is it:

Time lost its tenseness and there was a climbing ecstasy in us that would not be denied. I looked down at her, her eyes wide, her lips parted a little with an expression as if she were catching her first breath of life, and the lines of her throat did not tighten in defense, and we reveled equally in the intimate sense of a glorious togetherness. She placed her hands against my face. Her fingers tightened and bit into my cheeks, soft hungry little angels with fangs of desire. She pulled her face close to mine and kissed me and all the breath stopped in us for a while and there would not be anything greater for us ever. 

Contrary to that blurb on the cover, no one was ever stretched on a rack, and there were no aliens, in love or otherwise. And did anyone ever “cry at dusk”? Not so I noticed. Ain't that false advertising?

TODAYS' FFB Links are at In Reference to Murder
NEXT WEEK you'll find them here on the Almanack


mybillcrider said...

I still wonder about this one. Was Dent trying to write a breakthrough mainstream literary adventure novel? Or what? It's a weird book.

George said...

I have a copy of CRY AT DUSK. You and Bill are really tempting me to dig it out and read it RIGHT NOW!

BVLawson said...

Interesting choice, Evan - but I really love the "penned by an alien" comment. :-)

FYI, I'm collecting the links for Patti today. Here's the permalink:

Stephen Mertz said...

Terrific write-up, Evan. To me, Lester Dent is one of the most fascinating pulp authors. He was one of the absolute best. I mean, if you can write those great Doc romps and then turn around and write hardboiled detective fiction good enough for inclusion in collections with Hammett and Chandler, brother, that’s range. He was no hack. He was a conscious craftsman, always trying to improve as a writer. I’ve always admired him for that. This novel was written during that period when Les Dent had settled down on his Missouri farm; had himself other sources of income. This and the decline of the pulp magazines, along with his lack of success as a “slick” writer and hardcover novelist, combined to put him in a place where he felt free to write any damn thing he wanted and he’d sell it if he could. This is not a bad place for a writer to be, and the result in Dent’s case is interesting experiments, some that work and some that don’t, like Cry at Dusk and Honey in His Mouth.

Rick Robinson said...

Too weird for me, Thanks. I'll stick to the GOOD Dent stuff.