The Beast Within
Inside of every red-blooded American man is a caged beast aching to break free. That was the general premise of the men’s publishing industry from the 1950s through the early 1970s. To appease this beast, the industry produced adventure magazines with names like Real Men and Stag and Fury and Rage. These were known as the “Sweats” among publishers – pulp monthlies with cover art featuring heroic men desperately struggling to save scantily-clad women from perils such as Nazis, deranged gorillas, and even, on occasion, the very real threat of alien rapists. The covers promised lurid tales with titles like The Nympho Huntress of Buckaroo Reef, The Big Blond and the Black Beast Ripper, and Slave to 100 Brides. The decency laws of the time didn’t allow these stories to go as far as their titles promised, but judging by these magazines’ decades of success, men fell for the titillating bait again and again.
And how could they not? After all, their lives were so boring, safe, and bereft of any of the challenges a fellow requires to feel complete. Post-war suburbia, with its manicured lawns, obligatory kids, and family sedan parked in the driveway, had relegated the male sex to a banal existence. The very men who had fought to save the world from fascist domination were now reduced to drones trapped in nine-to-five jobs that deprived them of a more appropriate outlet for their bubbling testosterone. Was this what a man was built for? Hell no! The Sweats offered these poor stiffs a chance to escape for a while into the fantasies that haunted their secret souls.
But alas! By the 1970s, these magazines had run their course. Their demise came about for a number of reasons – a complicated mix of circumstances ranging from the rising influence of the women’s movement, the disillusion with the Viet Nam War, the peace-loving mindset of the hippie youth dominating American culture, and the growing old of the generation that had so fueled a demand for the Sweats in the first place. The few men’s magazines that survived – most notably Playboy and Hustler – were taking advantage of recent changes in the moral codes and were no longer featuring adventure stories as their primary attraction, but glossy photos of naked women that left nothing to the imagination. Ironically, that imagination had been a vital ingredient in those earlier magazines’ success. Men had used it to fill in the blanks when stories, made quaint by the old restrictions in mainstream publishing, had failed to explicitly describe what was so artfully suggested by the cover art and adventure tales of the old-school pulps.
Decades have passed. A new generation of men has evolved, one strapped to computer screens with little or no adventure outside of PlayStation battles with digital foes that can be zapped into oblivion with no more physical effort than a skilled twitch of the thumb. We’re a little soft, a little too comfortable, but it’s pretty nice to go into battle without ever having to get up off the couch. And yet, one can’t help but wonder whatever happened to that caged beast of the old days? Has he finally been neutered and tamed, never to rise again? Did he become mellow with the enlightenment and sensitivity of the New Age? Has he just given up on ever breaking free?
No! He’s just been resting up for his big moment of renewed he-man adventure. At least that’s the general idea underlying my latest novel, Escape from Oblivia. It features Will Kirby, a man increasingly overwhelmed by his imagination and aching to break out of the banality of his everyday life. I’m calling it “One man’s midlife crisis gone primal.” It's a "be careful what you wish for" scenario, a male fantasy spinning out of control.
These days, women’s romance novels outsell all other genres by a large margin. Apparently, women are harboring some sort of beast of their own. But don’t let that fool you. Although the world has changed considerably, and the American male is a nearly unrecognizable species from the one inhabiting the middle of the last century, that caged beast is still in there. He’s a little pudgy and out of shape, but he’s still aching to break free.