Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Ladies Of The Valley (aka Dirty Movies)

Ladies of the Valley, by Herbert Kastle
May, 1980 Dell Books
(Published in the UK as Dirty Movies, 1979)

This is one of the best novels I've ever read. Today Herbert Kastle is mostly remembered for his mid-'60s sci-fi novel The Reassembled Man, a book which sported a Frank Frazetta cover. But like many other genre authors in the later 1960s, Kastle jumped over to mainstream fiction in the wake of Harold Robbins's vast success. And Kastle succeeded; his 1969 novel The Moviemaker was a bestseller. From then on, Kastle never looked back, releasing a steady stream of mainstream novels up to his death in 1987. As usual with this shitty modern world, Kastle's material is largely forgotten, which is a dire shame. It boggles my mind that something as truly great as Ladies of the Valley could be so forgotten.

In the Dell paperback edition shown here, the book is spun as a typical sexy Hollywood novel, but there's a lot more afoot. There is none of the glitz and glamor of a "typical" Hollywood novel. In fact, one could argue that Ladies of the Valley is more along the lines of Nathanael West's Day of the Locust. For this is a novel that plumbs the sordid depths of Hollywood -- every character is sick or perverted or depraved, some awful events transpire, the filmmaking business is revealed to be a soul-killing den of corruption, and pretty much everyone suffers in some horrible fashion. And this is a novel that pulls no punches. It's as graphic can be in the many, many sex and violence scenes, and since some twisted stuff occurs (rendered all the more shocking as its relayed in such casual fashion), the average reader might not have the stomach for it.

The core of the novel is about the making of the first major-budgeted, major studio-released XXX film, but rather than dealing much with the film itself the narrative is more focused on the sleazy doings of the various parties involved, as well as the "jinx" which soon casts a pall over the production. Don Baylis is at the center of it all, though he wishes otherwise: Baylis, in his fifties and recovering from a recent heart attack, is the author of the novel (Galt's Island) upon which this film will be based. It's not hard to see Baylis as Kastle's stand-in. Baylis is the author of several mainstream novels which have sold reasonably well but most of which are now out of print; he has come to Hollywood like many other authors to make true on the many offers of film deals for his various books. The latest deal, for Galt's Island, appears to be the most real; a trio of producers offer him significant money and percentage points for a film they are certain will reap mountains of profit, as they have decided to actually show the hardcore sex scenes which take place in the novel, a Hollywood first.

Baylis though isn't sure he wants his name associated with this, but the promise of at least a million dollars sways him. He has other problems besides; his heart is in bad shape, and he's not sure how long he can survive. Plus he has problems romantic; over the years he has evolved a relationship with the stunning actress Cecily Warren, a brunette bombshell who too loves Don (despite sleeping around in exchange for cash with a few men), and who, most problematically, is up for the leading female role in Galt's Island -- a role which will entail her having onscreen and very real sex with the leading man.

Cecily has gotten this leading role from Fred Gower, one of the three producers. (She's slept with him to get it, of course...all of the actresses prostitute themselves throughout the novel.) Gower is a true slimebag; he routinely calls over actresses to his Beverley Hills mansion and, using "magic" (his phrase for doping them with Qualudes), has sex with them in a special room in which he can secretly film the events. These films are shot by Bub, Fred's black "houseboy" and only true friend; together the two men smoke dope and get drunk and together share Fred's various conquests; Fred has a taste for young boys, too, and is always on the lookout for fresh meat. (I told you there were some slimeballs in this novel!)

As for Cecily, she does love Don, but her heart is set on becoming a famous actress and she's already 31, so she feels time is running out. Plus she has a 12 year-old son, Johnny, who is as troubled as the other characters here. Johnny is the result of Cecily's half-assed single-parenting, a kid raised on TV reruns who can barely read and who obsesses over sex. He also has strange feelings for his mother, feelings of confusion -- understandable really because Cecily is described by one character as a cross between Marilyn Monroe and Linda Lovelace, and pretty much every guy she meets falls hard for her.

There are other characters...a screenwriter who happens to be a serial killer and who targets Cecily as a future kill; the leading man, a Charlton Heston-type famous in the '50s for his Biblical pictures but now so desperate for a return to glory that he will have sex on camera; Cecily's sanitarium-imprisoned sister Teresa who wants to escape to punish her sister for "stealing" her chance at fame; a former Mafia don who uses his women to satisfy his old gangster friends and sends them to cathouses when he's through with them; a nubile actress up for the other hardcore part in Galt's Island who also likes Don Baylis and so attempts to blackmail Cecily so as to get her out of the picture.

You see, pretty much every character here is despicable in some fashion. But the magic Kastle works with them is such that you like every single one of them, no matter what horrifying thing they do. I've read tons of books which supposedly got to the core of characterization, that were praised for creating three-dimensional fictional beings, but not a one of them has matched Ladies of the Valley.

In the midst of the sleaze and sin, Kastle drops some genuinely emotional moments. There's a lot of heartbreak here, and I'm a man with a heart of stone. Cecily and her son Johnny's relationship is one such moment, the true love they have for one another, and Cecily's knowledge that she's doing the boy wrong with her bad parenting. Or the love affair between Don and Cecily, which goes through the wringer (in ways too many and too insane to mention). But most touching is the subplot in which Bub, Fred Gower's houseboy, finds salvation in a wayward child whom Bub has inadvertently caused to be fatherless; the scenes with Bub and this kid, Jason, are some of the most moving I've read. "Sentimentalism" is one of the hidden strengths of trash fiction, and when used correctly it can be quite effective, as here.

But the sensational, exploitative stuff reigns supreme. I can't tell you how many times I laughed aloud during Ladies of the Valley, as already-insane scenes would just get more and more insane. It's like Kastle wanted to see if he could keep topping himself, and in each case he succeeded. The way he brings together various characters and subplots is masterful and a true joy to experience. Yet despite the over-the-top element everything is grounded in cold reality. And though this is a novel of twisted people doing cruel things, there is a golden light on the horizon; like a true Old Testament scribe, Kastle punishes the evil and rewards the just.

When I first discovered Ladies of the Valley, I was struck by its similarity to another trash fiction classic, James Robert Baker's 1988 magnum opus Boy Wonder. And, having now actually read the novel, I can say that these two books go hand-in-hand. I'm certain Baker was familiar with Kastle's novel. There are just too many similarities: cursed films, serial killers involved with the productions, a twisted desire to keep going further and further over the top. Cecily even nicknames her son Johnny "Boy Wonder!" Also, both authors are pros at tying together various plot strands. It's a toss-up which book is better. Both novels are parodies of Hollywood novels, but Boy Wonder is an intentional, obvious parody -- you can see Baker winking at you throughout. Kastle however maintains a dead-eye glare. And so, even though his novel doesn't reach the ludicrous heights of Baker's, it's actually more affecting.

Kastle was an American author, but it appears he was more famous in the UK. There Ladies of the Valley was published under the more-appropriate title Dirty Movies, featuring a snazzy wraparound cover:


Karla B said...

Sounds great! I've acquired a taste for trash fiction, helped along by The Movie Set by June Flaum Singer. That one had people aspiring to be like the old Hollywood greats, but with seamy trainwreck lives. Awesome stuff.

Joe Kenney said...

Karla, thanks for your comment. The book definitely is great and I look forward to reading more of Kastle's novels. Also, thanks for the tip on The Movie Set! I was looking up info on it and discovered your blog -- I love it! I've never actually read a romance novel, unless you want to count "The Pagan Princess" by Laura Buchanan (aka Florence King), which was "in the tradition of" Rosemary Rogers's "Sweet Savage Love." But there seems to be some overlap between romance and the '70s/'80s trash fiction...I know Rosemary Rogers herself penned two definite trash fiction novels: The Crowd Pleasers and The Insiders, both of which I hope to read sometime.

Jack Badelaire said...

Joe, great review. If you have read American Psycho how would you compare its depiction of NYC / Capitalist Corporate Megalomania with LotV's depiction of the Hollywood scene? Because as soon as I started reading this review, especially the "everyone in this book is a slimeball" aspect you mentioned, that's the first book that popped into my head as a comparison.

Joe Kenney said...

Jack, good question! I read American Psycho a year or two after it came out, when I was still in high school, so my memory of it is a little sketchy. About all I recall is the part with the ratt. But if my memory serves, American Psycho has more in common with "Boy Wonder" in that it's OTT to the point of lunacy. ("Boy Wonder" after all is the only novel I can think of which features self-decapitation via chainsaw.)

Ladies of the Valley is more deadpan. Also, the slimeballs ARE slimeballs, but Kastle has a gift for so getting into their heads that their actions don't seem so disgusting...that is, until you think about it!

Lucas said...

Oh, man, I love Herbert Kastle. If you ever get a chance, read Cross Country. It is intense and nasty throughout. The movie's got nothing on it. It's not possible, as it is merely an R-rated movie. I don't know why Kastle wasn't a bigger deal.

Will Errickson said...

My God, that Dell paperback... now *that's* a cover.

John Nail said...

Consider me another Herbert Kastle convert. I finished Ladies of the Valley over the weekend and can't wait to read more of his books. (I kind of banked on becoming a fan after reading your reviews of his books and bought copies of Cross-Country, Millionaires and, just last week, The Movie Maker.) I agree that he has a gift for making the reader empathize with his characters -- up to a point. Sometimes the switch is sudden. You'll be on a character's side and--whoops! He's an unapologetic racist. (I don't think I was ever on pervy producer Fred Gower's side, though.) Other characters were harder to dismiss, no matter how terrible they were. It was telling that it was easier to sympathize with the serial killing screenwriter than any of the movie producers.

I agree with your comparison with Day of the Locust. Like Jack, I also thought of Bret Easton Ellis (didn't read American Psycho, but I did read Less Than Zero, which also has an "everyone's a slimeball" vibe). Except Ellis' writing leaves me cold. Kastle's characters, terrible though they may be, had souls. Wretched, dark, rotting souls.

Though I wish I discovered Kastle sooner I'm glad I know about him now. Thanks!

Joe Kenney said...

John, these are my favorite kinds of comments -- it makes me very happy when someone enjoys a novel as much as I did. Thanks! Your comment is also timely because I've been meaning to read another Kastle book. I'm leaning toward one of his '60s Gold Medal novels, either Hot Prowl or Countdown To Murder.

What's interesting is that every Kastle book I've read features basically unlikable characters. Harlan Ellison was friends with Kastle and in "The Harlan Ellison Hornbook" he devotes an entire chapter to him. Apparently Kastle himself was a conflicted person, with impulses he couldn't control or understand, and even though he achieved his lifelong dream of being a famous and wealthy writer, he never really liked himself. He also became fanatically obsessed with a young woman, breaking up a decades-long marraige for her, something he wrote an entire novel about, "Ellie." Ellison noted that Kastle usually identified with the more screwed up characters in his novels. At one point Google Books had this entire chapter of the Hornbook available for viewing online, but they've since locked it down.

Another interesting thing about "Ladies From The Valley" -- I wonder if Kastle was writing some of that stuff from things he'd seen in Hollywood. The stuff with Fred Gower drugging and filming women eerily mimics real-life Hollywood producer Roy Radin, who would apparently do the same thing; it all came out with "Welcome Back Kotter" actress Melonie Haller, who claimed she'd been drugged and filmed by Radin. (You can read about that here and about Roy Radin here.)

What's crazy is how it all parallels what Kastle wrote -- and it's even crazier because the Radin stuff was occurring at the same time "Ladies of the Valley" was being written and published. It makes me wonder if Kastle was aware of Radin, etc, or if this was just another example of art imitating life. Even crazier is how Radin suffered such a gruesome end, same as Fred Gower.

Anyway, thanks again for the comment!

Brad Stevens said...

Just finished reading this astonishingly nihilistic novel in its UK edition, under the title DIRTY MOVIES. But it ends very abruptly, as if a page had been accidentally removed. The final sentence is "I shot him in cold blood. Now that some time has passed, I've had thoughts..." Does the US edition end this way?