Monday, February 24, 2014
The Worshipped And The Damned
The Worshipped And The Damned, by William Hegner
February, 1975 Pocket Books
William Hegner, an unjustly obscure trash fiction master, published several novels in the 1970s, many of them paperback originals for Pocket Books. The Worshipped And The Damned is one of his later Pocket releases, after which he moved over to Playboy Books and then dropped off the map. I think I read an obituary for him somewhere online a few years ago, but I can’t find it now, so I’m not sure if he’s still alive or not.
But if this novel is anything to go by, all of Hegner’s work bears looking into. In fact, The Worshipped And The Damned is everything I wanted Jacqueline Susann's novels to be – trashy, intentionally campy, and filled with memorably catty female characters who specialize in put-downs and one-liners. (And that cover photo’s awesome!!) Had this novel been turned into a film, it would justly be regaled today. Split into what amounts to three novellas, Damned tells the sordid tale of a fallen actress who “inherits a fortune” when her alcoholic husband leaves behind a manuscript that Hollywood options for film treatment.
Margo Chase is that fallen actress, last famous in the very early 1960s, but in the several years since having spiralled into a booze-filled lethargy. Living in New Jersey under a lazy pseudonym with her uninhibited daughter, Vicki, Margo spends her days at the local bar, where she drinks from opening to closing. Margo is a great character, so cynical and spiteful that each line of dialog Hegner gives her is priceless in its acidity. Lana Turner circa 1975 in all but name, Margo Chase was once a superstar, but now her old films are mostly watched for their (unintentional) humor value.
Somehow Hegner’s able to get a little heart into the novel, amid all of the cynicism and acidic wit. Margo meets Frank, another boozehound, and after a few nights together they end up getting married, Margo’s sixth wedding. Plus Frank’s dying of cirhossis, and only has a few months to live. Margo urges Frank to pursue his long-suppressed desire to write, so he spends his final months of life at the typewriter. When he dies he leaves behind a mansucript titled “The Mall Walkers,” the story of a pair of lonely drunkard souls who find love in the last days of their lives.
Margo moves right on, calling up old Hollywood contacts and insisting they read the manuscript. Meanwhile her daughter gets knocked up, moves in, and Margo herself hooks up with an unknown actor named Larry who is decades younger than herself. Pretty soon the guy is sleeping with both mother and daughter, and we see that Vicki is just as catty as her mom. The melodrama culminates in a pitch-perfect scene in which Margo storms in on Larry and Vicki as they’re together in bed, holds a gun on them, and delivers a death threat which turns out to be a line from one of her old films. And Larry, scanning his brain for the response he knows from seeing that film so many times in reruns, delivers the return dialog, and Margo collapses!
So destroyed by booze that she can no longer separate fantasy from reality, Margo is sent to a rehabilitation clinic and thus, unfortunately, shuffled out of the narrative. Now the second novella begins, this one documenting yet another enjoyably-bitchy actress: Jessica Rivers, a once-famous and “handsome” actress from decades before more known for her intelligence than her beauty (so maybe Katherine Hepburn?). Like Margo, Jessica also has a precocious (and recently knocked up) daughter, Jill, who turns out to be just as quick-tongued as Vicki. But whereas Margo is a wreck, Jessica has moved on from acting (her last picture 7 years ago) and into the world of business; after the death of her third husband, a multimillionaire, Jessica has taken his place as an executive in the company.
Jessica doesn’t have the quick wit Margo is graced with, but she’s just as calculating and cruel. In fact, she’s even more cruel than Margo, as during the course of her own novella Jessica initiates the takeover of her old film studio, Storm Studios, so that she can fire its famously-outspoken head Lionel Storm; she starts ordering her male secretary, Michael, to have sex with her in the office; she shows no interest in the fact that her daughter Jill has had a child, and when she finds out the father is black she nearly disowns her; she has Michael send Jill and “Rastus” (aka Jill’s awesomely-named black boyfriend, Rod Bastion) to Chicago and further has Michael see to it that the baby is put up for adoption, even if it’s against Jill’s wishes.
As if all that wasn’t enough, Jessica also proves herself a capable trash antiheroine, doling out putdowns with aplomb. The only thing connecting her to the Margo half of the novel is the fact that Margo also worked for Storm Studios back in the day, and Jessica too is friends of sorts with Art Land, the boozing, once-famous director who has declared his desire to film “The Mall Walkers;” he intimates in the Margo section that he has Margo in mind for the lead, and in the Jessica section he intimates that he has Jessica in mind fo the lead. But reading the subtext you can see that Art Land doesn’t have anything in the works and his own star has long since faded.
Like the previous section, though, Jessica’s storyline doesn’t feature any big setpieces or action, relegated mostly to Jessica and Michael screwing in her office, in between some pretty great dialog exchanges. In fact, Hegner rarely focuses on the surroundings or the topical details of the groovy era, instead giving all the attention to either the moods of his characters or their catty dialog. But you barely notice the lack of descriptive details when it’s so darkly comedic; let alone Jessica’s reaction to Rod Bastion, but even later stuff, like another black character, this one a “religious rescuer” who Jessica hires (at Rod’s recommendation) to deprogram Jill after she’s run off to join a religious cult.
The plot developed in the Margo section, that of the “Mall Walkers” filming, is for the most part dropped throughout the Jessica Rivers section, not appearing again until the third and final novella that makes up The Worshipped And The Damned. The protagonist this time is Leigh Brackett, basically Shirley Temple-Black: a child star of the ‘40s who, after retiring from showbiz in her 20s, moved into the political realm. Now she’s running for Congress in New Jersey, but more importantly she’s trying to come to grips with her confused sexuality.
We are informed that Leigh could previously only get off via her own hand, but when she discovers that her 29 year-old daughter (the one child Leigh has had after three broken marriages) Dawn is a lesbian, Leigh is first shocked, but then intrigued. Dawn we learn is in love with her attractive and young nanny, Billie West, having carried on an affair with her for the past 14 years. This is the part that intrigues Leigh, as she herself is attracted to Billie. Things quickly become lurid with Billie, who herself is attracted to Leigh, engaging her in an affair…and then promptly arranging a three-way, with herself, Leigh, and Dawn!
Unfortunately though the majority of Leigh’s story is tepid. Like Margo and Jessica she is gifted with a barbed tongue and holds her own against anyone. But the political storyline doesn’t hold much interest for me, and is mostly composed of the fallout that ensues after Leigh lets slip in a televised interview that she’s familiar with the, uh, sexual nature of other women. Despite some 11th-hour assistance from Scatter Thompson, a political wizard, Leigh still loses the election, and meanwhile she’s kicked out Dawn, who has gone and run off with Billie West, Leigh unable to accept the fact that she’s had sex with both another woman and her own daughter.
The main storyline finally returns thanks, once again, to Lionel Storm, who calls Leigh to tell her he has her in mind for the “Mall Walkers” film. Here we finally learn the plot, that it’s about three former actresses who spend their later years in New Jersey, congregating at a local mall. And of course, the film is to star our three heroines (Margo having recuperated in the year since the opening novella), though Hegner telescopes the actual filming, instead focusing more on the internal squabbling, with Jessica taking over Storm Studios and producing the film, but soon being ousted due to plotting among her fellow execs, who succeed in having Lionel Storm returned to the fold.
In truth, this “climax” of the tale plays out very quickly, and isn’t very satisfying. But then, Hegner’s more focused on the trash, and as mentioned he excels in it. After Jessica and Leigh meet one day before filming, sparks soon begin to fly…and wouldn’t you know it, they’re soon sleeping together! A-and then Lionel Storm, who is overseeing the film and noticing how “close” the two ladies appear to be, insists that Margo Chase move in with them (Jessica and Leigh now living together, to make the filming of the production “easier”)…and after plying her with a few drinks, Jessica and Leigh succeed in involving Margo in a three-way!
The image of Lana Turner, Katherine Hepburn, and Shirley Temple-Black engaged in hot lesbian action thus instilled in his reader’s imagination, Hegner rightly suspects his goals have been achieved and brings the novel to a swift close. In short order we learn that the film is a huge critical and box office success, that none of the women reach any sort of resolution with their temperamental daughters, and that while Leigh and Jessica continue on with their romance Margo feels it’s just not for her, and in the quickest wrap-up in history she gives Lionel Storm a call and tells him to come live with her. The end.
The Worshipped And The Damned runs to 253 pages, and it’s got fairly big print. Hegner’s writing is economical, doling out the sex scenes and catty dialog with aplomb. The guy truly understood what made for great trash, and it’s a shame he’s so forgotten. But I’ve picked up several of his books, and look forward to reading more.
In the meantime, here are a few excerpts to give you a glimmer of Hegner’s trash mastery:
Her body cradled and rocked him in a gentle rhythm, evoking more nostalgia for childhood in both of them than the sensuality they sought to achieve.
“You satisfied?” she asked when the weight of him began burdening her.
“I haven’t come, if that’s what you mean.”
She fought back the temptation to question his virility. “I remember when men came at the sight of me,” she said. -- Pg. 34
“Are you mad enough to make love to me now?”
She opened her legs into a wet yawn.
“Was he there earlier?”
“What difference does it make?”
His penis was now a red bolt jutting from his body.
“Only a bitch would do it in her own mother’s bed,” he said.
“Then I’m a bitch. Fuck me.” -- Pg. 104
“Don’t go down on me,” she warned. “I want the meat this time.” -- Pg. 144
In the privacy of her inner office, she lifted her leg and released a low, whining fart.
There was something deliciously crass and nose-thumbing and antisocial about the act – almost erotic. To extend and complete the latter sensation, she buzzed for Michael to enter its aftermath.
“You’re sadistic,” he said. There was no necessity for elaboration. -- Pg. 154
Moments after that, all three of them were tangled in a writhing croissant on the thick carpeting, their hands and mouths hungrily seeking one another. For Billie West, it was the ultimate achievement – her vulva under gentle assault from the daughter, her own tongue burrowing deeply into the rich valley of the mother. The culmination of her long-nurtured ambition, so closely bordering fantasy it had often seemed beyond the realm of realization, made her entire body tremble as she neared the first of multiple climaxes. Her spasms of orgasm set off a chain reaction in her partners as well. Together, in what seemed almost an algebraic sequence, each in turn attained similar plateaus of ecstasy.
They lay together in a speechless heap for long moments, only their labored breathing audible in the candlelit quiet. It was Leigh who finally broke the silence.
“God,” she said, “if this ever gets out, I’m finished.” -- Pg. 183