Monday, September 21, 2020

Black Magic

Black Magic, by R.T. Larkin
June, 1974  Dell Books

Now that my friends is a cover. Yet another of those “sleaze comedies with nude photo covers” Dell specialized in during the early ‘70s, Black Magic is courtesy Rochelle “R.T.” Larkin, a prolific author who published under a variety of names. She also wrote a few of the New Adventures Of Cherry Delight books. Under her own name it seems she might be most remembered for the Godmother trilogy, which was about a female Godmother taking on the mob. I’ve got one of those and tried to read it a few years ago but just couldn’t get into it, because it was more of a “comedy” (or at least spoof) than what I was looking for – as you all know, I prefer my pulp straight, no chaser. I mean, it can be as wild and extreme as possible (and preferably so), but if nothing seems serious even to the characters, then I’m not into it.

Luckily though Black Magic has no pretenses toward being a spoof of pulp crime novels. It is what it is: a goofy-natured sleaze novel, same as all the other books in this unofficial Dell line, such as Sexual Strike ForceMaking U-HooMichelle, My Belle, etc. Only unlike those books, this one has a Blaxploitation angle, taking place entirely in Harlem and featuring a “honey-skinned” seventeen year-old named Opal Hopewell (a Pynchonesque name if ever there was one). Larkin as it turns out pulls the same trick that Maxene Fabe did in Death Rock: she thoroughly skewers the left-wing radicals of the day. Of course the irony here, same as with Fabe’s novel, is that much of the moronic leftist mentality that Larkin spoofs has not only become accepted, but championed (or even knelt to, you might say) by the so-called mainstream.

First though a note on the sleaze: there ain’t much of it, sad to say. This is another of those curious “sleaze” novels that skips most of the sex, which as I’ve said before is about as puzzling a conundrum as decaf coffee. But seriously, Opal gets laid a lot – the entire plot of the novel, no exagerration, is her getting her grandmother to whip up spells to conjure up a new man for Opal to screw – however pretty much the entirety of the action happens off-page. Those sex scenes we do get to read are usually relayed in a few sentences, and as vaguely as possible. There’s no anatomical exploitation, description, or anything else the horny reader demands in his sleaze fiction. About the most we get to learn is that Opal has “nice breasts.” There isn’t even much description of the men Opal encounters, so it isn’t just a case of a female author not wanting to exploit her female protagonist. In fact, there is a naïve, almost innocent tone to the novel, which is bizarre when you realize it’s literally all about a seventeen year-old screwing a series of men.

And that’s another note – this book would not be publishable today, that’s for sure. Not only is Opal a minor, but she operates like a street hustler, making her way through one guy after another. As if that weren’t enough, her first “experience” in the book is a rape – and it’s not only inferred that this isn’t Opal’s first time encountering a “raper-man,” but the entire situation is played off as a joke! In this “#metoo” era this part just seemed so insane and in poor taste. I mean, speaking of those leftist radicals, they’d burn this book (along with whatever city they happened to be in, of course)…that is, if they could afford a copy, as Black Magic seems to be a little scarce and pricey these days. But all “kidding” aside, the book really does cross some boundaries that might make for uncomfortable reading for some. Yet again what makes it all the more bonkers is that Opal is just a naïve kid, so there’s this innocent tone to the narrative – which by the way is in third-person, though Larkin is guilty of some egregious perspective-hopping, jumping abruptly into POVs other than Opal’s with little warning.

Well anyway, Opal Hopewell is seventeen and, when we meet her, she’s grown frustrated with her life of squalor in Harlem. There’s a lot of anger in Opal, a lot of lashing out at others; there are many parts where she mouths off at people, yet we’re often told she’s “a nice girl.” Likely this is more subtle skewering courtesy Larkin. Opal’s parents are never mentioned. She lives in a small apartment in a Harlem tenement building with her Grammy, a little old lady whose age is never disclosed; Grammy is widowed (and we’re treated to a few egregious tall tales about her departed husband) and is something of a hoodoo witch. The title of the book is a play on how Grammy will whip up various hoodoo spells to find Opal whatever man has gotten her fancy. As the book progresses Grammy will ensnare a hapless country bumpkin, a James Brown parody, a welfare worker, a street hustler, and finally – and most humorously – a “black activisit for gay liberation.”

But the first guy Grammy brings in with her hoodoo is that “raper-man.” This is probably the most distasteful way Larkin could’ve started the book, but it happens regardless. Opal’s watching famous basketball player Bigfoot Barnum on TV and begs Grammy to do some hoodoo to get him for her. Grammy says she’ll need some of Bigfoot’s sweaty socks, so as to use the sweat for the magic recipe she’ll whip up. Tall men, we’re informed, require special hoodoo spells. This entails a humorous bit where Grammy poses as a cleaning lady and gets into the locker room at Madison Square Garden, taking Bigfoot’s socks. Meanwhile Opal waits outside the forum, in a sexy red dress; the idea is that Bigfoot will be so entranced by the hoodoo spell that he will be drawn to Opal in her red dress. But instead of Bigfoot Barnum, it’s some creep who jumps out of the shadows and throws Opal into a sidestreet and rapes her. When a black-eyed and beaten Opal stumbles back home and informs Grammy that it wasn’t Bigfoot who got her, but a rapist, Grammy says: “Tell me one thing – was he tall?”

Yes, it’s a rape-joke punch line, as Grammy’s point is that her spell did work – Opal did get herself a “tall man,” it just wasn’t Bigfoot Barnum. This isn’t even the only joke at Opal’s expense. When later she complains about rapists and eating nothing but bread crumbs, Grammy’s response is: “You was only raped once, and we haven’t had a crust of bread for days, so what-all are you speechifying for?” Regardless, the incident spurs Opal to do something about their rough life in Harlem, and she storms off to a local meeting of the militant black power group the Black Spiders. Instead of getting radicalized, she falls for the hunky young leader of the local chapter, Shakim Shabazz Sazam (formerly known as Roosevelt Jones). She brings Shakim back to the apartment and proceeds to have sex with him when Grammy goes to bed, and unlike the rest of the men in the book, Shakim will become Opal’s “main man” from here on out. And also it only occurred to me after reading the book, but Shakim is the only guy Opal gets for herself, without Grammy’s hoodoo, so doubtless there’s a message there.

Larkin almost presciently mocks the whole radical movement through Shakim – he’s dedicated to revolution and freeing the downtrodden from poverty, but lets it slip that he himself is well-off, so wealthy that his dad even bought him a car. As if to prove this wealth, the next day he comes back with presents for both Opal and Grammy, including a songbird he gives the latter which Grammy names “Shakim.” There’s more leftist skewering as Shazam tries to radicalize Opal, who is such a tabula rasa that she begins quoting Eldridge Cleaver and the like, though of course the majority of their concepts are above her. (And of course little does she or Shakim realize that Cleaver would eventually become a Republican!) Shakim is so dedicated to the cause that he even often brushes off Opal – “First comes the revolution, and then I’ll fuck you, okay?” – yet at the same time is often clueless what exactly he’s rallying for. There’s also an egregious bit where they go to a party hosted by a Warhol type, where Opal is digusted by the wealthy liberal elite, including more “unpublishable today” stuff where she mocks a tranny.

Shakim takes off, though, leaving Opal heartbroken – he lies that he’s only going to Philadelphia to help the cause, but reveals to Opal at the airport that he’s really going to Algeria. Opal will pine for him the rest of the novel, still referring to him as her man; not that this stops her from getting friendly with a bunch of other guys, thanks to Grammy’s hoodoo magic. First though she decides to get a job. She waltzes into a swank department store and tells them she wants to work there. More presience from Larkin where the white HR guy tells Opal that the company is “eager to hire minorities,” to which an increasingly-surly Opal responds, “Last to hire, first on fire.” The joke here is Opal’s increasing black power radicalization contrasted with the white HR rep’s meekness, but at the same time comments like this seem particularly troubling given recent events.

Opal gets the job, but immediately gets in a fight when another black girl is asked to train her – the girl accuses Opal of being too friendly with her man. Also Grammy’s gotten Opal in trouble; the old lady is fond of carrying around a shopping bag, which she fills via shoplifting that no one ever seems to catch her in the act of. Opal decides to quit, after which it’s back to the main plot: finding her a man to screw. Grammy has her sights set on the young boy next door, George Washington Bridges, who lives with his mother and just moved here from the country. Opal has no interest in him, but this portion of the novel is fun because it turns out George’s mom is also a hoodoo witch; she sends George over to Opal’s with something called “tumble pie,” which Grammy reveals is a magical pie that’s intended to keep Opal away from the boy. This sets off a witch war between the two women, with Grammy of course winning; Opal gets her grips on George and takes his virginity in a major way (though as ever the actual description is minimal to nonexistant). Even up to and including a bit of sodomy, if I’m understanding the dialog correctly.

Announcing she’s worn George out, Opal’s done with the boy forever and sends him home to his mama. Next up she wants James Black, “Soul Brother Second To None,” who of course is a play on James Brown. Opal and Grammy go to one of his shows and perform the usual hoodoo to get his attention. But James turns out to be an arrogant prick, putting down Grammy, and Opal spurns him. Actually Opal spurns a bunch of dudes in the novel, but ends up changing her mind, as she does with James Black when he comes over to their apartment. But he complains “I done five bitches already,” and can’t rise to the occasion. Grammy’s various hoodoo remedies can’t even help him, so nothing happens here.

Not that Opal slows down – next she settles on a redheaded welfare worker named Alexander, who is new on the job. Now radical Opal gets to harras whitey, first mocking him for looking down on Opal and her Grammy, then telling him he should quit his work. Then of course she gets him in bed – and another recurring gimmick in the novel is that these guys all fall in love with Opal right after doing her. This holds true for Alexander, with the bonus that he proposes to her. This part is also humorous as the two, along with Grammy, go to Alexander’s home, which he shares with his 82 year-old mother. She of course passes right out when her son announces that this young black girl is his fiance. Grammy and Opal take the old woman through the wringer, making her pass out frequently; there’s a very funny part where Opal loudly has sex with Alexander, knowing that his mother’s listening: “You light as a feather, but you hard as a rock!”

Eventually the two tire of the game, and Opal breaks it off with Alexander, heading back to Harlem with Grammy. There follows some stuff with Al the Hustler, who shows up to sell his mostly-stolen wares but ends up bedding Opal and briefly becoming her latest flame, before he ends up in jail. Another humorous bit follows, as Opal’s next “conquest” is a handsome black man named Lavender X, who is a member of the Black Activisits for Gay Liberation, or “Bagel,” as they refer to themselves. Again Opal is clueless about homosexuals, just figuring that Lavender’s outrageous wardrobe and pierced ears are the sign of a truly turned-on fashionable dude. More “inappropriate today” stuff ensues, like Opal wondering why Lavender has such a strange lisp, saying for example “tho” instead of “so.” But he is of course truly over the top in a cliched manner totally impossible in today’s world of entertainment, spending more time in the kitchen whipping up food for the two women – including some grass he’s brought along.

Unfortunately the novel ends here, pretty abruptly, with Opal and Grammy stoned from the grass they’ve unwittingly eaten…and Shakim suddenly returns, very upset to discover his “woman” hanging around with a strange man, naked and high. But as soon as he finds out Lavender is with Bagel – “Where the limp wrist makes the clinched fist,” per Shakim – he’s okay with the situation, and he and Opal run up to the roof to look at the view. On this abrupt note Black Magic comes to a close, with Opal looking forward to the coming revolution.

The novel is mostly entertaining, especially for what it is, but it’s nowhere as good as the cover. I mean that cover! It promises so much more, like a novel devoted to Santana’s “Black Magic Woman.” (I know, technically that should be Fleetwood Macs “Black Magic Woman,” but come on – I bet even Peter Green would’ve said he preferred Santana’s version!) Unfortunately the novel itself has nothing to do with the cover…Opal herself practices no black magic and is just the recipient of it. Otherwise, I enjoyed Black Magic more than I thought I would.

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