15 October 2014

Touched in the Head by a Telepathic Virgin

Soft to the Touch
Clark W. Dailey
Toronto: News Stand Library, 1949

Caroline Prentiss entertains her male visitors – and she has many – in revealing robes and diaphanous negligees. She loves to kiss and encourages caresses, but don't you go getting any ideas about taking things further. At twenty-six, Caroline guards her virginity like no one, convinced that it is tied inextricably to her independence.

Understandably, swains swarm, but quickly fall away in frustration. Only two, playboy Harvey Garrett and lawyer Larry Devlin, show any stamina. Both have been pursuing Caroline for years, each pitching woo and proposing marriage. With a girl on the side, I think Harvey has had an easier time of it; poor love-struck Larry has been leading the life of a celibate.

Caroline is content with the status quo. Montreal's foremost celebrity sculptress – no joke – she takes pride in her ability to make a good living without being tied to any one man. When not entertaining, Caroline throws off robe and negligee so as to admire her naked self in a full-length mirror. The reader is twice told that she is the spitting image of Virginia Mayo.

The great Thomas P. Kelley, King of the Canadian Pulps, once bragged that he never revised a work in progress. I don't mean to suggest that Clark W. Dailey – of whom there is no trace – is Kelley, rather that the two men held similar views when it came to composition.

The fourth of this novel's eight chapters begins with something of a revelation. The celebrity sculptress is shown to be struggling financially. The post-war art boom has proved to be more of a sharp crack, and Caroline is forced to sell her work at bargain basement prices. Good guy Larry offers to pay her rent and bills, but Caroline hesitates. She fears the effect the loan – or is it a gift? – might have on their relationship. Ultimately, the sculptress accepts the lawyer's help.

Then something odd happens: Sans explication, the narrator (omniscient) reverses things, revealing that the lawyer has been paying for everything, Caroline's car included, for many months. A couple of chapters later, the reader learns that she has been passing on wads of Larry's dough to support Harvey. In today's parlance we might describe this as a reboot, with Caroline is reimagined as someone who never was a successful sculptor, despite her celebrity.

It's enough to make you want to throw the book against a wall. I didn't because it was already coming apart, and also because the many weird digressions contained entertained. Here, our omniscient narrator goes off on an awkwardly constructed tirade about the New Look:
How many women try to keep themselves slim, and when they look like a sheet of paper set up on end, with but the merest suggestion of what could be an attractive pair of rising beauties, when what curves they have are shrouded by grotesque "New Look"clothing, when they can walk down the street looking exactly like almost every other woman, that is, they wear a smug expression, because they think they are beautiful! Gawdallmighty! – how the fashion designers and their partners in misleading 'how to be smart' muck, the dress manufacturers, must smiles they purchase another yacht to set sail for Africa to get away from the horrible shapes they have been instrumental in creating, and to gaze in rapture and admiration upon woman as she was made to be – white, yellow or black! 
The book is peppered with rants, observations and other asides. The most repeated topic concerns "thought transference". Brace yourself, the narrator has some pretty harsh things to say:

Sadly, Soft to the Touch isn't worth reading for the plot; I'm not spoiling anything by describing the drama that ensues.

Harvey tries to kill his rival with some sort of poison he brought back from the war. Larry makes it to a hospital, where he lies drifting in and out of consciousness. During one lucid moment he asks Caroline to marry him. The sculptress agrees, but only because doctors have told her that he is sure to die. The bedside ceremony is performed, after which Larry loses consciousness for what looks to be the very last time. Caroline is left alone with her dying husband:
She was thinking. "How wonderfully he rallied after I held his hands for a long time. Perhaps..."
   She rose and, as before, took both his hands in her soft, warm ones. Then she drew all her inner forces and mental resources together and concentrated her thoughts on one short phrase, "I shall live." Perhaps if she could drive this straight from her brain into his, it would affect him.
Affect him it does! After a long night of handholding, Larry bounces back. The attending doctor, "wise, kind and clever, and a man very much interested in natural methods of healing," is pleasantly surprised. He sees nothing wrong with Larry wolfing down bacon, eggs and coffee with his new bride: "Hurrah!" exclaimed Larry, "our first breakfast together."

The last we see of Harvey, he's rushing off to the airport to catch a clipper to Bermuda. Larry is quickly discharged and returns to Caroline's Bishop Street apartment. The last pages of the novel are heavy with the promise of sex, but it ends before the act takes place. This reader didn't care; I'd long grown bored of Caroline and her groping admirers. I do miss the haranguing narrator, though, even if he can't be trusted.

Keeping one hand on the wheel, his other reached over and brushed her thigh, then touched the purse which lay in her lap.
Object and Access: An extremely fragile mass market paperback. At 159 pages – twelve of which are blank – Soft to the Touch may just be the shortest News Stand Library title. I'm guessing that the unknown cover artist had never seen a photo of Virginia Mayo. I'm certain he'd never seen a naked woman.

Soft to the Touch is nowhere to be found on Amicus or WorldCat. Only three copies are currently listed for sale online, ranging in price from $10 to $25. Condition is a factor. Get it while you can.


  1. Thanks for the review. I have to rush now, my boat to Africa leaves shortly.