Sunday, June 15, 2014

Gwen, in Green by Hugh Zachary (1974): Every Time I Eat Vegetables It Makes Me Think of You

Is erotic eco-horror a thing? I'm trying to think...

One of my favorite paperback covers since I first came across it on one website or another, George Ziel's sensual, provocative, darkly luscious art here strikes a potential reader immediately. Who can penetrate the mystery of this woman's skyward gaze, full of awe and perhaps understanding, in thrall to some mysterious force, naked and exposed to the swamp flora crawling up her flesh as if claiming her for its own purposes? Fortunately, author Hugh Zachary is up to the task of solving this mystery; and Gwen, in Green (Fawcett Gold Medal, July 1974) is a quiet and bewitching little work that provides a bit of sexy '70s fun and fright. Ziel's cover perfectly captures the tone and texture of Zachary's tale - and you know what a special treat it is when cover art and content align in harmony.

Zachary in late Sixties
Some spoilers ahead. The back cover gives the basics. Our lovely Gwen has been married to electrical engineer George Ferrier for seven years when the story begins. After coming into family money, he's just bought a plot undeveloped land on an island on the Cape Fear River; nearby a nuclear power plant is being built (George's research shows the danger of radioactivity is, apparently, nil). So in come the developers, earth movers, bulldozers, and crewmen to clear away the swamp and brush and undergrowth and build the Ferriers' new home. Here they indulge in a full and healthy sex life (a large part of the novel which Zachary delights in) but Gwen, whose childhood was one of misfortune and neglect, still feels twinges of shame and guilt: her widowed mother was a loose woman who wasn't careful about keeping the bedroom door closed. A complex grew, encouraged by the teasing by Gwen's schoolmates, and so as an adult Gwen considers herself a prude, a nut - in the parlance of the day, frigid.

But gentle and patient he-man paramour George has coaxed Gwen into experiencing much sexual pleasure (no way this modern man's wife is gonna be frigid! All she needs is a real man's touch seems to be his motto):  

She lay in total darkness, limply submitting to his touch, his obscene kiss, his fast, labored breathing. And her clitoris swelled. A tendril of something went shooting down, down, centered there. She jerked her eyes open, shocked. A stiffening in her legs, an almost imperceptible lifting of her loins... She found that certain body movements are instinctive.

And so it goes. Husband and wife now engage in playful banter (which of course includes some rape references that will bemuse today's reader) and a newfound happiness. Gwen begins painting trees and caring for lush African violets, and becomes enamored of the Venus fly-trap plants she finds at a nearby lake and begins feeding raw hamburger. But creeping into this domestic bliss are her nightmares: the mass roared down on her, huge teeth snapping at her. The mouth closed, clashing metal teeth, and she screamed once before she felt the tender flesh being punctured and rendered. Her upper body fell, being ripped from her legs and stomach and hips...
These dreams continue till one afternoon while George is at work, Gwen seduces a meter reader. Yep, you read right; the classic porn scenario. It's rather an out-of-body experience for Gwen, and she's shocked and mortified by the physical act she's shared with a stranger.  

She held her arms out, smiling. No question of morality. No right. No wrong.  It was the way things were. Fertile, ripe, passive, she accepted him, eased his fevered haste, and bathed him in the sweet juices of her body.

1976 Coronet UK w/ art by Jim Burns
(I blacked out spoiler tagline) 

This is some serious '70s softcore! Sadly a suicide attempt is next. George and their doctor set her up with elderly psychiatrist Dr. Irving King - a Freudian by training, who had developed some rather independent ideas in thirty-five years of practice in an area of the country where psychiatry was not fully understood - and the required questioning begins, and we can begin to fathom Gwen's disordered mind. "Have you ever killed anything, Gwen?" "No. Oh, insects. Plants." "Plants?" "Isn't that silly?" And off we go! Gwen is slowly but surely identifying, in her mind, with the flora all about her on their spot of land, the Venus fly-traps, the African violets, the giant trees, the slimy green things beneath the water - all of which are being torn asunder by the developers and even her husband. Gwen feels mad, invaded, but by what? The painful dreams continue... and so do the illicit trysts. Only sex can ease the horrific sensation of dismemberment. Happy George has no idea that his wanton, sexy, endlessly hungry woman is truly not herself any longer.

And so sex and death commence to commingle. The men who drive the bulldozers come one by one to Gwen (sometimes not even one by one). They don't return to drive the bulldozers. Dr. King suspects, researches, finds, confronts. We get a crazy, nutty explanation for Gwen's "possession" that could be real or could be her own sexual, perhaps even maternal, guilt turning round on her and eating her up. Zachary hints one way, then the other, then the tale ends as the sharp reader will have predicted. It couldn't go any other way, and do I love doomy downward spirals. She continued to chop, breathing in sobbing agony. The strap to her bikini top had broken. The small scrap of material hung from her neck, flapping with her movements. Water and perspiration and blood beaded her lower legs.

Zachary wrote under pseudonym Zach Hughes. Dig Tide 1975!

I found Gwen to be a mild and relaxing read; nothing earth-shattering, but confidently written and just odd enough (and oh-so-'70s enough) to keep me reading happily. I liked the cozy, isolated forested locale; Zachary puts in lots of detail about how rewarding working your own land is. Characters have specific natures and interior thoughts that ring true. The plentiful sex scenes were done well, Zachary knowing when to be graphic and when to leave us to fill in the blanks. Even Gwen's dalliances with teen boys were more hilariously dated than ickily offensive (again, the anything-goes vibe of the '70s !). The sexism that pops up in the book raises a chuckle and can be forgiven; after their first meeting, Dr. King says to Gwen, "You are much too pretty to be eaten by nightmare things," or when she tells George her bizarre dreams and he chides her, "You are one spooky broad." And yes, good death scenes that have bite, reminding me some of Michael McDowell: a nice leisurely story carrying you along then boom, a short sharp shock of violence.

Gwen, in Green, is a satisfying work of smart, fun, pulp horror that could only have been written in the early 1970s. Which is one of my highest compliments! Find a copy, admire its magnificent cover, and read while sipping a gin & tonic under the summer sun near a crystal-clear lake beneath towering, creeping greenery. Shouldn't take you more than an afternoon or two to read it, but you just might feel differently about that vegetation when you're done.

Postscript: Some background on what surely inspired the novel. In 1973 the nonfiction book The Secret Life of Plants was first published. A bestselling and highly popular book of its day, it even became a film documentary (with a soundtrack by Stevie Wonder!). However it was speculative pseudoscience, appealing to hippies and to folks amenable to proto-New Age ideals filtering into the mainstream, swept along in the same current as astrology, crystal healing powers, and the lost continent of Mu. Secret Life's bubble-headed thesis was that plants have sentience and emotion, even telepathic powers, all girded by laughable "scientific" "experiments" like attaching polygraph electrodes to plant leaves. I know, I know! Whether he meant to satirize the theory or not, Zachary uses it as the launching pad for Gwen. In horror fiction, that sort of nonsense is a plus. Had I not worked in a used bookstore in the late 1980s and saw old copies of Secret Life, I wouldn't have been aware of it as the novel's impetus. It won't really affect your enjoyment of Gwen, but I myself dig the dated context.


Lincoln said...

Another one to track down!

Authorfan said...

Indeed, what a gorgeous cover (GWEN).

Tim Mayer said...

Plot sounds similar to this movie from 1974:

A.J. Tirrell said...

I've lived in the Cape Fear River Basin in NC, and weirdly, venus flytraps can often be found growing wild near lakes- and there is a nuclear power plant, as well. I wonder if he ever lived around Cape Fear. Wikipedia notes he went to UNC-Chapel Hill, which is nearby.

Will Errickson said...

The opening chapters backstory takes place in Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill, and I believe Zachary did go to UNC.

Johnny Ostentatious said...

Finished reading the Coronet version the other night. I give it 2.5 stars out of 5. Half-decent prose, but the sex felt like it was shoehorned into the plot. Plus, it read like a first draft that Zachary wrote without an outline.