29 March 2010

Toronto's Tortured Sexual Souls

The Door Between
Neil H. Perrin [pseud. Danny Halperin]
Toronto: News Stand Library, 1950

Sheila Grahame sings and plays piano in a Bloor Street bar. Classically trained, she's a squeaky clean "nice" girl whose idea of a torch song is "On the Sunny Side of the Street". For more than three years, Sheila has been travelling back and forth to Brookhaven Military Hospital, where boyfriend Bruce Darwin is being treated for the "battle shock" he suffered in the Second World War. The drive is tedious and the visits unpleasant, yet she's remained dedicated and faithful, certain that one day Bruce will be regain his health... and that they will marry shortly thereafter. As 1948 draws to a close, visions of matrimony and sugarplums nearly collide when she learns that Bruce is to be released. The good news is delivered by Emlyn John Davies, Colonel, Canadian Army Medical Corps:
"We shall not meet again. Only let me say that these trying years in which I have come to know you, you have given me pride in that friendship and a renewed faith in the Canadian woman, You know, many people said our women proved themselves permit me to put it bluntly tramps, during the war: they were promiscuous, they left their soldier-husbands, they carried on disgracefully. I never believed it true of as many women as they said and, knowing you, Miss Grahame, I know that there must have been hundreds, thousands of fine decent loyal women, the kind no one ever heard about. Yes, you have proved yourself selfless, devoted and sincere."
The colonel may have been impressed by the number – hundreds! thousands! – but in a country that then had a female population of over seven million, it sure doesn't seem that many. So, given the preponderance of promiscuous tramps, the reader might expect that it will only be a matter of time before poor Bruce becomes entangled. Who will it be? The pretty little waitress at the local diner? Clara, the flirtatious boozy floozy? Exotic Vera with her sexy Viennese accent and "outrageously high heels"? Bruce seems immune to all, in part due of his fear of other people – he's a "frightened rabbit" who sneaks in and out of his rooming house hutch – but also because of his morning trysts with Sheila on the couch in her Sherbourne Street apartment.

Colonel Davies would be so disappointed.

Still Sheila remains a "nice" girl, as evidenced by her unspoken "no marriage, no bed" rule. Bruce knows that she's nothing like those "oversexed sluts", the "promiscuous lower-class girls he had known carnally in school out Winnipeg way". As for the women he'd slept with during the war – in England, France and Belgium – they were nothing but "berouged machines geared to satiate the temporary pangs of male desire".

The pleasant, if mundane routine of sex, toast and coffee is shaken when Felicia Clark moves into Bruce's rooming house, taking the room next to his – a room connected to his own by a locked door. She is a wicked woman, a violent femme fatale. How does Bruce know? Well, he's never seen her, but he can hear Felicia and her lover Eric through the open transom above "the door between":
It was like living alone on a desert island and finding a fantastic book of photographs of nude women; the conversation he had heard induced in Bruce a kind of masturbatory traumerei, a hazy eroticism that made him long to possess Felicia as this unknown, this Eric, must have possessed her.
The experience leaves Bruce "rigid all over, his body stiff with the ache of longing". He soon tires of cheerful Sheila and her "radiant, clean, healthy, decent" looks, wanting a costumed woman, an exotic woman, a woman like Felicia with her "lewd unheeding ruthless" desires. After an unsatisfying tumble on the couch, Bruce begins a retreat from Sheila and the rest of the world. He spends much of 1949 holed up in his room, eavesdropping on Felicia and her new lover Mike; all the while recording his thoughts in a journal:
7th Sept., 1949: Listened again today. They were making love. Mike is rather good at it, I gather. Felicia was wonderful. What a grand performance!
Controller Innes gropes Irene McInnes (no relation), Miss Toronto 1949

Dark, disturbing and violent, this is a far cry from staid, post-war "Toronto the Good" – it's perhaps for this reason that Perrin adds a curious quirk. Bruce goes for walks through Queen's Park, listens to CKEY, eats at a diner on the corner of College and Spadina, and yet this city on the shores of Lake Ontario is referred to as Yorkton (and once as New Yorkton, though I'm betting this was the publisher's error).

Oh, one last thing – the street on which Bruce lives? Willcocks.

Object: Sloppy and cheap, The Door Between is a typical News Stand Library book. For those unfamiliar with the publisher, I present these botched lines:

On the plus side, Halperin's
nom de plume is spelt correctly on the cover, spine and title page, making The Door Between nearly unique amongst the author's four NSL titles. Fly-by-Night has more.

Access: Held only by the University of Toronto's Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, though it's not nearly as uncommon as that fact might imply. Depending on condition, used copies of the first and only printing range in price between C$7 and C$35.

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