By Philip Jose Farmer (Ramble House; 1970)
I’ve been chastised by editors on more than one occasion for unfairly “tantalizing” readers with reviews of difficult-to-locate books. Well here I go again: the present novel is an extremely scarce one, part of the pornographic cycle penned by the famous sci-fi author Philip Jose Farmer in the late sixties-early seventies period, which includes better-known works like IMAGE OF THE BEAST, BLOWN and A FEAST UNKNOWN. LOVE SONG, despite its scarcity, is easily the best of the bunch, a defiantly unique, psychologically astute and, naturally, very dirty concoction. It initially saw publication via a cheapo porno book outfit, followed by a 500-copy print run in the eighties by Dennis MacMillan. More recently it showed up in an even more limited 200-copy trade paperback edition courtesy of the public domain outfit Ramble House. (Some copies, FYI, may still be available at www.ramblehouse.com)
Ramble House founder Fender Tucker, in his introduction to the RH edition of LOVE SONG, characterizes it as belonging to the “Hi-Class Lit-Porn” subgenre, which consists of frankly pornographic tomes like J.G. Ballard’s CRASH, Samuel Delany’s TIDES OF LUST and the Philip Jose Farmer books listed above, all being high-minded smut written by respected authors, each “taking a break from his high-falutin’ literature to write about honest, low-down sex.”
LOVE SONG certainly has more than its share of the latter element, being the unashamedly carnal account of a young divorcee who encounters two alluring women, a mother and daughter, aboard a cruise ship. He strikes up a quick rapport with both and, after a few hours, decides he’s in love with Barbara, the younger of the two. This leads to an unsatisfying sexual encounter, which inspires the guy to conclude that Barbara is controlled by her luscious but (apparently) puritanical mother. He promptly heads back to LA when the cruise is over. The guy is still smitten, however, and so makes a point of looking up the ladies’ San Francisco home.
Once the protagonist reaches the residence in question, a dark, forbidding estate, the narrative really kicks into overdrive. Much of the remainder of the book consists of the protagonist’s minutely described sexual encounters with mother and daughter, during which it becomes apparent that both harbor some decidedly unsavory secrets, and that the place is haunted by the spirit of their sadistic patriarch.
What gives LOVE SONG its kick is not the supernatural business, but the author’s decidedly unorthodox approach to literary carnality. Farmer was 51 at the time he wrote this book, and couches the dirty bits in curiously old-fashioned terms like “Phallus”, “Gland” and “Shaft”, but along the way manages something even more unprecedented: using sex not merely as masturbatory fodder but psychology, bolstered by the ever-probing interior monologue of the first-person protagonist. (From the opening paragraph: “Their flesh, you might say, acted as a filter for their spirit…flesh is a filter, and reality is strained through it to suit the mind”.) I’ve sampled sexually explicit prose by everyone from the Marquis De Sade to Philip Roth to Stephen King, and can say with certainty that the carnal descriptions of LOVE SONG are unique in the way they function as action, character development and human interaction, often all at once.
The ending, for its part, can be taken in any number of ways. A horrific secret is disclosed in the final pages that may or may not throw the preceding events of the narrative into question, much in the manner of the twist endings so popular in recent Hollywood genre fare. Then again, in thinking back over the book’s final third, I wonder if that assumption is even correct. There simply aren’t too many dirty books, “Hi-Class” or otherwise, that have inspired as much thought as this one–you might say it stimulates both heads!