Early Gay Literature Rediscovered

Published: May 28, 2014

Valancourt Books is an independent small press specializing in the rediscovery of rare, neglected, and out-of-print fiction. James Jenkins and Ryan Cagle (who’ve incidentally been together for 10-plus years and were married in Iowa in 2009), began the press to bring back the many great books that remain out-of-print and inaccessible. Specializing in gay titles, gothic and horror novels, as well as literary fiction, they founded Valancourt Books in 2005 to restore many of these works to a new generations of readers. It’s an impressive and fascinating list. I got so lost in it, and had so much fun looking around at all the great books I’ve never even heard of, I just had to interview these guys.

Trebor Healey: I’m always amazed when a new press emerges. Knowing how difficult it is to get a start and to make a go of it, it always reminds me that the passion for literature is as strong as ever, and book lovers will always find a way to share their enthusiasms and the treasures they find in the enormous world library of books. Tell us your story.

JJ: My whole life, I’ve been someone who loves to read, but my reading tastes have always been a bit off the beaten path, and I continually found myself frustrated by the fact that so many great books that I wanted to read were out of print and unavailable. As an undergraduate, I became really interested in the Gothic fiction of the late 18th and early 19th centuries and eagerly devoured the few books that were in print: The Castle of Otranto, The Monk, Ann Radcliffe’s books, and a few others. But there were hundreds and hundreds of other titles that sounded really enticing, yet weren’t available anywhere, either to buy online or get at a library. The specific impetus for starting the press came when I was doing research on the Gothic novelist Francis Lathom (1774-1832), who was rumored to be gay, and discovered that the only place in North America where you could find his books was on microfiche in Lincoln, Nebraska. It just seemed ridiculous in the 21st century — with the modern technology we have now for making books available — that books of such interest to readers and scholars should be out of print. So in early 2005, we began reprinting some of these old Gothic novels, and over time, we expanded into neglected Victorian-era popular fiction, including old Penny Dreadfuls and sensation novels, as well as a lot of the decadent and fin de siècle literature of the 1890s. More recently, in late 2012, we discovered — to our surprise — that there was a ton of great literature from the 20th century, sometimes even as recent as the 1970s or 1980s, that was out of print and almost impossible to find in libraries or secondhand copies, so we’ve begun republishing a lot of neglected modern works, most of them either of gay interest or horror/supernatural (though, of course, the two often overlap!)

TH: I’ve worked as a volunteer at ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives, and what I loved about working there was the thrill of discovering some amazing old gay novels — books like John Horne Burns’s early gay classic, The Gallery, from 1947, and Luis Zapata’s Adonis Garcia. I also worked with Winston Leyland and Gay Sunshine Press for a few years in San Francisco before he shut it down and I was impressed with all the obscure early queer lit he’d published and kept in print: Charles Warren Stoddard’s Cruising the South Seas, Adolfo Caminha’s Bom Crioulo, Oscar Wilde’s Teleny, the Gay Roots series, etc. Now I can add Valancourt Books to that list of resources for hard-to-find gems of gay lit. Your reprints of Walter Baxter’s Look Down in Mercy and Martyn Goff’s The Plaster Fabric are great examples of gay men at war, and I also find myself drawn to Francis King’s work, such as The Dividing Stream. I definitely think you guys are onto something — this is the next wave of what’s been happening in publishing, and one of the positive things about the internet and books. How do you go about rediscovering the books you end up reprinting?

JJ: The ONE Archives sound wonderful — I’d love to check out their collection sometime! Many of the gay classics we’ve been reissuing are ones that were last published in the 1980s by the UK’s Gay Men’s Press in their Gay Modern Classics series. We’ve reprinted most of that series now — great titles like Kenneth Martin’sAubade, about a teenager’s first love (written when Martin was only 16!) Gillian Freeman’s The Leather Boys, the first novel to focus on love between young working-class men, (everything before that time had featured gay men who were wealthy aristocrats, emperors, etc.), and Michael Nelson’s A Room in Chelsea Square, a wonderfully camp classic about bitchy queens in 1950s London that elicits some really strong reactions from today’s readers — people either think the novel is hilarious fun, or else they view the main character, Patrick, as a reprehensible predator. I think it’s great that a gay novel from 1958 can still inspire such interest and passionate responses.

As for where we’ve discovered some of these other great books, sometimes it’s just serendipity. The excellent Francis King, who you mentioned, I first "met" when I was corresponding with him about something he’d written on Forrest Reid, one of whose books we were republishing. Not having read any of Francis’ novels and not knowing much about them, I afterwards picked up one of them, An Air That Kills (1948), and was really blown away by it. We’re now publishing six of his, and also five by his mentor, the perennially underrated C.H.B. Kitchin, to whose books Francis introduced me.

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