The Scarlet Lantern: Developments of Homosexual Writings in Homophobic America
By: Juan Jaramillo-Chico
Pulp fiction writing has been part of American Culture for a long time. In the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, there were numerous publications of cheap novels with homosexual relationships being a central part of the story. Most of these novels, however, had often unhappy endings for the main characters, such as Donnie and Clyde by Sam Dodd, Women’s Barracks by Tereska Torres, and Gay Buddies by Don Holliday, among others. One notable exception to this series of unhappy endings was Carl Corley’s novel The Scarlet Lantern, released in 1966. Published in PEC’s French Line novel series, The Scarlet Lantern changes in ways that depict the social changes that were occurring at the time of its release. This will be seen by examining both the published novel and a manuscript of the book written by Carl Coley, as well as other documents to put these two writings in context, such as the blog post, Gay Romance: Erotic? by Elaine Cox, John Howard’s Men Like that: A Southern Queer History, and David Bergman’s The Cultural Work of Sixties Gay Pulp Fiction among many other articles and books.
In the publishing industry, though it was becoming allowable to have sexual encounters between gay and lesbian characters, it was still not the social norm to allow these characters to achieve the optimistic ending that characterizes modern romance novels, despite the changing social norms. As talked about in Elaine Cox in her research paper entitled “Gay Romance: Erotic?” there were many laws passed during this time period regarding the restrictions of the gay renderings in books and other media. Scholar and historian John Howard writes in his book Men Like That: A Southern Queer History,
“Though several Supreme Court pornography rulings contradicted and clouded one another during the late fifties and sixties, the net effect was an easing of restrictions over time. From the repressive Roth v. United States ruling in 1975 to the liberatory Redrup c. New York decision in 1967, the Court found it ever more difficult to label nude photography or textual renderings of sex acts as ‘utterly without redeeming social value’” (196)
Yet, from the gruesome deaths of its main couple in the book Donnie and Clyde (Dodd) to the somewhat unsatisfying end of its main characters in “The Scarlet Lantern,” (Corley) it was very clear that gay relationships were not to end in a traditional happily ever after. As written by David Bergman in his article The Cultural Work of Sixties Gay Pulp Fiction, “For quite some time, I imagined that all pre-Stonewall novels followed an unbroken formula: boy meets boy, boy dies” (Smith 26). Bergman goes on to later comment that even these endings for the books did not reveal everything about societal thinking at the time. And it is precisely these endings that I find curious. Specifically, how they differ from the actual endings that were written by the original authors.
A Brief History
Gay pulp fiction was not produced in the traditional way that other fiction books were. The normal way of publishing was for an author to write a manuscript, polish it, and once it was accepted by a publishing company, publish and release it. Gay and lesbian pulps were not produced in this way. They were produced in a much more manufactured style: “a 9 to 5 desk-job setting [focusing] on quantity over quality” (Cox). Or, as Michael Bronski puts it, “The gay pulp industry did not encourage originality, texture, or innovation. Writers were usually paid no more than $250 a book, and there were no royalties; this was contract labor” (Bronski 225). Because of this system of writing, editors and publishers could send back the manuscripts to writers when they wanted large changes done but could also change things themselves without the authors’ consent or even knowledge. Bronski goes on to say,
“[The Gay fiction publishing system], however, also had its benefits. Aside from certain set rules and formulas regarding length of manuscript, chapter length, and degree of sexual explicitness, writers were free to do as they wished. Editing was minimal. If an author had a vision, a style, or even a quirky way of expressing himself, the chances were good that it would have a place in the final project. Carl Corley’s talents were suited to such an environment” (Bronski 225).
And though minimal on most of the content, the parts that were edited were done so in arguably drastic ways.
Corley’s “The Scarlet Lantern”: Plot and differences in copies
Carl Corley’s talents were, in fact, “well suited” for the publishing industry. Having published at least 22 gay pulp fiction novels, Corley was a good writer. Corley was an outed gay author and published most of his novels in the sixties and seventies. Copies of his novels can be found on “Carl Corley: Gay Pulp in the Deep South.” One of these novels was The Scarlet Lantern. This novel focuses on Eric Shanon and on his romantic experiences. Eric is a Marine that is being stationed in Japan to guard an American embassy. While in Japan he meets Tara Hanna and Tara Rasha, fraternal (one female and one male, respectively) twins who appear to look very similar to each other. Throughout the story, Eric spends time with Hanna and Rasha, getting to know them, and eventually falling in love with Hanna. After the love is reciprocated, Hanna and Eric have a child together. (Corley, The Scarlet Lantern 149-173)
While this is the main storyline of the book, there are many aspects that should be considered while the story progresses. Being twins and looking strikingly similar (from the perspective of our main character, Eric), the book goes into detail about the fact that Hanna and Rasha often switch places with Rasha often doing the feminine things that Hanna does, and Hanna doing the masculine things that Rasha does. Because of the gender fluidity between the twins, there are many moments throughout the book that hints at the homosexual nature of the relationship that Eric has with Hanna/Rasha. Even though it is, in fact, Hanna that has the child with Eric, it is speculated by Eric in the story that it is Rasha who loves the child as his own and Eric’s and wishes to care for it. And this is where things begin to become somewhat muddled.
In the published version of the book, Hanna dies after giving birth to her and Eric’s child. During this time, Eric is told that he is being reassigned to Korea (the Korean war was beginning to unfold during the time setting of the novel). Heartbroken, Eric does not question this reassignment and wishes to leave to escape the pain and memories he has in Japan. However, after seeing Rasha naked in Hanna’s bed the night before leaving, emotion surges over Eric and he realizes that he loves Rasha leading them to elope. Eric, not understanding his sexual awakening, but being happy that it happened, promises to return to Japan for Rasha and their son Tara Lee.
An original manuscript of the book, written by Corley and held at Duke University’s David M. Rubenstein’s Rare Book & Manuscript library differs in few but significant characteristics. To begin, the manuscript at the library bears the title, “The Atomic Butterfly,” an alternate name for the story. Aside from this initial difference in title, the manuscript and title are near identical until the ending of the book. The ending in the manuscript begins in the same way as that of the book, with Hanna’s death. After her death, the story continues the same until the scene where Eric sees Rasha. In the manuscript instead of seeing him naked physically, Eric begins to see Rasha in what I will refer to as ‘emotionally naked.’ In this scene of the manuscript, the two converse about the death of Hanna. Rasha goes on to say that he does not think that he can live without Eric, to which Eric tells Rasha to grow up and deal with it like a man, after which Eric leaves Rasha and returns to his apartment. This takes place about a month before Eric is scheduled to depart for Korea.
The next morning, Eric is awoken by a friend of the Tara family. The friend tells Eric that Rasha has run away, having taken Eric and Hanna’s baby with him (since the baby was to be cared for by Rasha while Eric was in Korea). Upon hearing this, Eric begins to search for Rasha and the baby, going to all the locations that he had been with the twins. Eventually, he ends up in the same bar where he first met them, and the same bartender suggests that he go see a ‘lady’s show’ (which seems to be like a strip club without stripping). When he sees Jasmin, the star of the show, he recognizes her as Hanna, his dead wife. After going backstage and kissing her, to which she reacts negatively, he attempts to befriend her, and she agrees to the friendship. After a couple of weeks, it is the anniversary of the day Hanna and Eric met which is also a holiday in Japan. Eric and Jasmin go to do the traditional tea drinking for the holiday, and Eric sees a toy fall out Jasmin’s dress. He remembers the toy as one that he had bought for his son and is immediately appalled at the idea that Jasmin is Rasha in disguise. He beings to plot and invites ‘Jasmin’ for a drink. They go back to what ends up being Hanna’s old room. Here they argue and fight until eventually, Eric rips ‘Jasmin’s’ dress off. Seeing the person naked, and recognizing the “beauty” of the body, Eric realizes that Jasmin is Hanna. Confused and angry, Eric questions Hanna about this. Hanna explains, in between tears, that Rasha had developed feelings for Eric. Realizing that he was gay, and not wanting to bring dishonor to his traditional family, being a believer of the traditions himself, Rasha committed suicide. Rasha’s body was found by the family friend and Hanna, both of whom had known that Rasha was gay. In order to try to better preserve the family’s honor, they had dressed up Rasha to look like Hanna covering his face in makeup to make it more convincing that he was Hanna, and Hanna was to pretend to be Rasha (which she did often). That is why when faced with the idea that she would never see Eric again, she couldn’t handle it. For that reason, she ran away to start a new life.
After hearing this, Eric is shocked but overwhelmingly happy that his love is alive. He feels bad that he is the reason that Rasha killed himself but is more excited that Hanna is still alive. The manuscript ends with the two on board of the ship that is going to take Eric to Korea, and them looking at the captain, and he, looking back, to indicate that they [Eric and Hanna] want to go back to Japan. (“Atomic Butterfly” 151-192)
Implications of the Differences
The differences between the book and the manuscript obtained from Corley are great examples of the societal influences that gay pulp fiction authors had to deal with in their books. As John Gartrell writes in his blog,
“Corley did not shy away from gay-bashing and violence in his plots, but frequently indulged in editorializing on behalf of his characters, explaining that discrimination was the root cause of any perceived misery in gay life… Scholars generally assume that readers were savvy enough to simply ignore added moralizing, and thus embrace Carley’s work as empowering.”
Based on this and some of his other published novels, one can see that the ending in the manuscript falls more closely in line with the Corley’s writing style than the ending in the published book. The changing of the title and of the ending show the efforts that were being made in the publishing industry throughout this time to begin to follow the social trends that were occurring in the public. Another reason the change would have occurred would have been the theme of the book from a critique on the discrimination faced by homosexuals to a celebration of the sexual stories that were now being allowed to be published.
Bronski, Michael. Pulp Friction: Uncovering the Golden Age of Gay Male Pulps. St. Martins Griffin, 2003.
Corley, Carl. Atomic Butterfly, Carl V. Corley Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.
Corley, Carl. The Scarlet Lantern. Publishers Export Co., 1966.
Cox, Elaine. “Gay Romance: Erotic?” Unsuitable: Conversations about Women, History & Popular Fiction, Duke, https://sites.duke.edu/unsuitable/gay-romance-erotic/
Dodd, Sam. Donnie and Clyde. Phenix Publishers, 1968.
Gartrell, John, “Dreamers & Dissenters: Carl Corley and Gay Activism before Stonewall.” The Devil’s Tale: Dispatches from the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University Libraries, https://blogs.library.duke.edu/rubenstein/2017/10/06/dreamers-dissenters-carl-corley-gay-activism-stonewall/#comments
Givens, Hannah. “Carl Corley: Gay Pulp in the Deep South.” Carl Corley, University of West Georgia, www.carlcorley.com/.
Howard, John. Men like That: A Southern Queer History. University of Chicago Press, 1999.
Micham, Laura. Personal Interview. 13 Feb. 2019.
Scarlet Lantern, in www.CarlCorley.com. Accessed March-April, 2019, http://www.carlcorley.com/library/
Smith, Patricia Juliana. The Queer Sixties. Routledge, 1999.