Playboy Gothic

Posted by on April 12, 2008 in Blog tagged with
I’ve been nurturing a fascination for Playboy Magazine, or, more precisely (as the old joke goes) a fascination for the fiction. Curiously, since the first issue in 1953 through to the late 1960s, Playboy published a great number of Gothic tales, many of them subsequently anthologized in The Playboy Book of Horror and the Supernatural (1967). This naturally prompts a number of questions: why Gothic fiction? Why does an aesthetically middle-brow publication known primarily for its glossy images of corn-fed, semi-clad, girl next door types include tales of horror and distress? There are a number of obvious answers, none particularly satisfying. The first is a simple matter of preference and perhaps shameless self promotion on the part of Playboy’s first fiction editor, Ray Russell, a prolific Gothic novelist and short story writer in his own right. Russell published many of his stories in the magazine under his own name as well as under his suitably roguish pseudonyms, Rex Fabian and Brian Rencelaw, so it is not unreasonable to conclude that his editorial decisions would mesh with his own literary interests.
The second answer is that during the 1950s, the publication avenues for Gothic fiction were shrinking fast. Pulp horror magazines such as Black Mask, Thrilling Wonder Stories, Imagination and Weird Tales which, during the twenties and thirties helped launch the careers of H.P. Lovecraft, Robert Bloch and Ray Bradbury among others, all folded due to poor circulation. Post war culture had seemingly lost its taste for the uncanny, the macabre and the downright weird. America, as Robert Warshow observed in 1948, ‘is committed to a cheerful view of life.’ The function of the modern state, he claimed, is not only to ‘regulate social relations, but also to determine the quality and the possibilities of human life in general. Happiness thus becomes the chief political issue¾in a sense, the only political issue…If an American is unhappy, it implies a certain reprobation of his society, and therefore… it becomes an obligation of citizenship to be cheerful’.[1] A gothic aesthetic no longer fit with a political agenda that used happiness as a propaganda tool in the fight against communism. But Warshow also observed a deep opposition to this pressure to be happy, or more importantly, to be seen to be happy. Artistically, whether through music, film or literature, this opposition was likely to be disguised or attenuated in a ‘continually reasserted strain of hopelessness.’[2] The dark side to post war culture, he argued, is evinced in the rise of film noir, melodrama and crime film, and, we might add, in the resurgence of the Gothic. So, despite the gap created by the death of the pulps, Gothic fiction soon found an alternate and increasingly more sophisticated home in the burgeoning men’s magazines such as Gent, Rogue, Satan,and especially Playboy where writers such as Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont and Ray Russell plied their trade. Playboy especially was known to pay extremely well and with its huge circulation, became one of the most sought after publishers of fiction attracting the likes of James Baldwin, Saul Bellow, Gabriel García Márquez, Joyce Carol Oates and John Updike to name only a few.
But this is not the whole story. For me, the third and more important reason for Playboy’s interest in the Gothic surround issues of masculine identity in the post war period. As a lifestyle magazine, Playboy’s central concerns are leisure, women and consumption. In his ‘Playboy Philosophy’ (1962), Hugh Hefner suggests that everything in the magazine, from its advertisements to advice columns, its fiction to its articles provide instructions on how to be a bachelor, how to reject the ‘bread-winner’ ethic and embrace the playboy within. Playboy, in other words, is an operating manual, its sexual, intellectual and leisure content, while seemingly incongruous, all promote male success and independence. Leaving aside the issues of taste and cultural legitimacy that surround reception of the magazine, some obvious questions remain: what does the Gothic have to teach the young aspiring playboy? Does the Gothic content merely pander to adolescent fantasies much like the magazine’s sexual material? Or does it unmask a crisis at the heart of liberal masculinity? I have much sticky research to do but welcome any thoughts from Playboy aficionados.  

[1] Robert Warshow, The Immediate Experience: Movies, Comics, Theatre and Other Aspects of Popular Culture (New York: Atheneum, 1975), p. 127.
[2] Ibid., p. 129.

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