15 August 2013

Sex, Violence and Some Very Strong Language

Torch of Violence
Gerald Laing [pseud. Tedd Steele]
Toronto: News Stand Library, 1949

Torch of Violence holds a secure place in literature as the first Canadian novel to feature the word "shit". History is made on the fifty-ninth page:
"You know me, Alf. I'll take so much and that's all. I don't care who it is... I'll take just so much shit and that's all. Am I right or am I wrong? Am I right or am I wrong, Alf?"
You expect some rough stuff in crime fiction, but here the language is particularly coarse and the violence extreme.

The novel opens with the bloody beating of a bar owner by mob boss Goldie Vincetti's boys. "Dirty dago bastards. Dirty bitches," mutters an elderly drunk. A kick to the stomach is quick to come. I'm not saying that the old man deserved it, but his slurred comment was hardly fair in that one of Vincetti's boys is a WASP by the name of Eric Benedict. A year or so earlier, young Eric, who has a bit of a record, was looking at ten years after the cops found drugs in his flat. He was saved by clean-living, married brother Chris, who took the rap and was sentenced to a year in Kingsville (not Kingston) Penitentiary for his trouble. The deal between the brothers was that Eric would go straight, finish high school and then study to be a chemical engineer. Instead, he's become tighter the ever with Vincetti and has added adultery to his list of sins by messing around with another man's wife.

Eric doesn't feel at all bad about the beatings or his brother, but the guilt and self-loathing brought through sleeping with "the bitch" weighs heavily. His retreat to a "beverage room" provides for the most interesting pages in the novel. Eric sits, beer in hand, watching others fight for a change:
     "I'm a Canadian. Jack. I don't give a dog damn whether you're a Scot or a Britisher or a Hungarian or a Chink. I'm a Canadian and that's what it said on my shoulder when I went overseas and this is Canada and if you don't like it           off back to lower Slobbovia where you come from." 
     "Ha, ha. A Canadian? What was your father... an Indian? This place might be called Canada, lad, but you're either an Englishman or a Frenchman or God knows what. The only Canadians here are the Indians, and if you're an Indian, they shouldn't be serving you in a beverage room. It's against the law."  
This may be hell of a sort, with brimstone that smoulders to this day, but it's a whole lot better than Kingsville Penitentiary. Behind its impenetrable walls, Chris shares a cell with a man who is descending into madness. You see, cellmate Trent Richards, just can't deal with the knowledge that Shirley, an old flame, once attended a petting party.

Cover copy pitches Torch of Violence as not just a crime novel, but "an intelligently sympathetic treatment of an important subject." That subject, infidelity, is one that pretty much every character must face. Chris has his own chance to cheat when Trent's replacement, a man named Bill English, tries to lure him into his bunk. After this fails, the new cellmate shares a rumour going around that Helen, Chris's wife, is sleeping with brother Eric. Big mistake. Chris beats English to a pulp, moves his bloodied body to his bunk, and covers it with a blanket.

Meanwhile, across town:
He screamed once as a bullet smashed against bone and then another bullet struck him full in the face and the red liquid made a hideous mask of his features. Only the eyes remained discernible and they were frightfully unhuman, wide open, staring as if at some nameless horror.
I won't reveal the victim's name, the identity of the assailant or the twist that brings this all about – don't want to spoil everything – but I can't resist sharing the novel's abrupt and absurd ending.

Chris has just tucked English into bed when he's brought to the warden under guard of a man named Baker. Readers who have no stomach for violence or poor punctuation will want to skip Chris's internal monologue:
I haven't any faith in God anymore, how could I have, but in case there is something, maybe the devil, I'll ask him for a special request. Let me find you two together, naked in each other's armsthe way you've been doing all this time. Oh, God, I hope I find you together . I'll kill you first Eric with Baker's gun... not easily... in the stomach so you can know how it feels to have an ache in your guts that won't come out and then I'll take care of you Helen. I know exactly what to do with you. I'll rape you first, you dirty bitch. A husband should have his wife when he returns from such a long absence, so I'll rape you while you're listening to my brother cough his blood and entrails all over the bed. And then I'll tear out your hair and slap you in the face with the bloody roots and then I'll put some bullets into you where they should go.
Chris is handed a near-perfect opportunity to escape, but chooses not to because Baker says something about trusting him as much as he does his wife. This makes the imprisoned man reconsider his own lack of trust, thus sparing Helen from horror. More reevaluation takes place when the warden introduces him to Shirley, Trent's old girlfriend. Seems she behaved herself at that petting party and can't quite understand why her old beau won't believe her. Enter smug prison psychiatrist Dr Ferguson, who between bemused chuckles explains that all Trent needs is a trusted person to tell him that Shirley is as chaste and true as she claims. It's Ferguson's opinion that Chris Benedict is just the man for the job:
He welcomed the task before him and knew he would be successful. His thoughts went to his wife Helen and he blessed her name... He had the vision of Helen's face before him. It was sufficient.
Now, I don't pretend to know much about the mysteries of the human mind, but I do question that Trent's psychosis can be so easily cured. Frankly, I'm not convinced that there isn't something more to his issues with Shirley and the petting party.* Doctor knows best, I suppose, but what with his mad (albeit internal) monologue and his dead or dying cellmate, it seems to me that a psychiatrist would detect something amiss in Chris. I don't know, call all it a "torch of violence".

Am I right or am I wrong?

Trivia: A second edition, credited to "David Forrest", was published the very same year for the American market. Sensitive readers will prefer this version:
"You know me, Alf. I'll take so much and that's all. I don't care who it is... I'll take just so much dirt and that's all. Am I right or am I wrong? Am I right or am I wrong, Alf?"
More trivia: The novel contains what just might be the longest sentence of any book covered in this blog:
A night breeze came over the north wall in gay contempt of the guard towers, stirred the dusty sand of the prison yards, climbed the sheer stone side of the prison and thrust little inquiring fingers of fresh air into the rows of barred holes that broke the blankness of the stone, then recoiling at the heavy breath of the imprisoned men, the fingers withdrew as if from the touch of death and the breeze slackened, dropped lower, moved faintly across the prison yard and tried to scale it to the freedom of the night, then fell back and died in little swirls of dust above the flat emptiness of the prison yard.
Object: A poorly produced mass market paperback, this is typical News Stand Library, except that it tends to fall apart more easily than most.

Access: No library carries the Canadian edition, though the University of Calgary has a copy of that intended for export. Given the historical import – by which I mean the use of the word "shit" –  it's the Canadian you'll be wanting. Right now, just three copies are listed online at prices ranging from US$3.99 to US$32.00. Condition is an issue. The American edition is a bit more common, though prices are similar.

*Great name for a band, by the way.


  1. I've finally figured out what's wrong with modern society...we don't have petting parties anymore!!!

    Or do we? And I'm just not being invited?

    Knuckles G.

    1. I don't know Knuckles, I think it's a good thing that they've been relegated to the past. Clearly there is a correlation between petting parties and madness.

      That said, I see that the person who attended the petting party (Shirley) maintained her sanity, while the person who was not invited (Trent) did not.

      Clearly, a matter of further research.

  2. Actually, I thought that very long sentence was not bad at all. It was well-balanced enough to be intelligible. In fact, the structure of the sentence seemed to me to catch the cadence of the wind.

    1. Agreed. And doesn't that image of thrusting little inquiring fingers of fresh air linger.

  3. The long sentence is better written than the internal monologue, for sure. Neat post -- I know nothing about Canadian pulp, but the type of book is right up my alley. I'm going to have to dig through your archives.

    1. As far as Canadian pulp goes, I recommend beginning with David Montrose, Kelly, though for sheer weirdness nothing beats Neil Perrin's The Door Between. More sex and violence, too.

  4. No petting parties but there are the plush fetish people and their rutting parties. Wish I never knew about that, but thanks to a TV episode of CSI I was unwillingly introduced to one of the few 21st century fetishes that both baffles and disgusts me.

    Any plans for Vehicule Press to reprint the Tedd Steele books? I have never found one over here. I feel like I'm misisng out by not reading at least one.

  5. No plans yet for any Steele reissues, John, but he's definitely up for consideration. Of his four novels, I believe only this and Pagan (as The Pagans) were produced for the American market. Torch of Violence is the oddest of an odd lot.

    The only Steele title I've not found is his western Trail of Vengeance, but I'm, um, on the trail.

    "Revenge Made His Six-Guns Blaze"!

    Who can resist!

  6. Wonderful stuff, Brian... Thanks for your kind words about my Ted Steele comic book work blog. I do have a copy of his Trail of Vengeance and now have to sit down and give it a good read. Steele had a short story published as a third place winner in a Toronto Star “Short Story Contest” in the early eaighties and I am still trying to track it down. I’ll forward the link to Tedd’s daughter (she knows him as only using the two final consonants in his name) and I’m sure she’ll be very pleased to read it. I’m just in the process of shopping a book around to Canadian publishers about all these great war time Canadian comic book creators and have a solid section on Steele in it. I hope one of them bites.