By Ben Arzate
Charles Platt began his career as a science fiction author, editor, and journalist. In more recent years, he moved to writing non-fiction books about electrical engineering and working in the field of cryonics. What he may be best known for, in some circles, is that he also wrote two extreme, transgressive novels. The lesser known of them, Sweet Evil, published in 1977, was recently re-released by Death’s Head Press. This seems as good a time as any to look at his most infamous work, The Gas, originally published in 1970.
I’m bending the rules of “The Unreprinted” here, as The Gas is available as an ebook in the UK. However, the proprietary nature of ebooks makes it legally unavailable to those outside the country. So, since it’s still unavailable in much of the world, I’m still counting this as an Unreprinted,
The Gas was originally release through Ophelia Press in the US, the erotica imprint of Olympia Press. The edition I have, however, is the Manchester-based Savoy Books edition published in 1980. Like some of Savoy’s other works, several copies were seized by police due to obscenity. The irony of this is that Platt viewed the US, which he had immigrated to shortly before writing The Gas, as a more legally and culturally liberated place and part of his purpose in writing the novel was to exorcise what he viewed as his own prudishness instilled by British culture.
Because of that, it’s no surprise that, while it reads as pornography in many parts, others are clear satires of British culture. The novel opens with the scientist Vincent escaping from a research lab in southern England. An accident has caused a gas to escape and flood the countryside. Upon picking up a young hitchhiker named Cathy, we learn the effect of the gas. It eliminates inhibitions and causes people to give in to their sexual impulses. With the help of Cathy and a priest he picks up on the way, Vincent heads north, hoping to find his family and get as far away from the spreading gas as possible.
In the small villages of southern England, orgies are breaking out in the town squares and worse perversities, such bestiality and pedophilia, are beginning to happen out in the open. As Vincent moves further north to his home city of London, the effects just seem to get worse. People’s violent impulses are also coming out. This reaches its apex in the city of Cambridge, which has become a non-stop frenzy of torture, murder, and rape by the time Vincent reaches it.
One of the more interesting aspects of the book is its dark satirical look at gender relations. At one point, Vincent goes to the University of Cambridge to try to find his wife. Here, he finds the school’s labs have become mad scientist lairs with male students engaging in horrible, painful experiments on women. He comes to the conclusion that these young men are treating the women as such because, deep down, it’s always what they’ve wanted to do them. Vincent is also subjected to psychological torture by one of the scientists which exposes his deepest fear is having his masculinity wounded by being laughed at. Later, Vincent is kidnapped by a group of women who drag him to a church. There, women are performing religious mutilations and murders on men as a way of forcing them to “repent” for their sins against women. The contrast of the scenes isn’t subtle in its symbolism, but far smarter than one would expect from what starts as seeming like a simple pornographic novel.
The satirical bent is obvious in other parts. When the police of London are exposed to the gas, they seem more concerned in engaging in a violent civil war against the police of Cambridge than they are in sex. The desire for power overwhelms their desire to fuck. There are also some hilarious scenes, such as a group of nuns having an orgy while loudly intoning “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!” as if it were a prayer.
I’m normally a very jaded reader, but this book managed to get to me in a few places. A scene of a young boy practicing coprophagia in broad daylight was one such part. One scene involves a pet parakeet, which I won’t describe, that I found so gross and depressing, I had to put the book down for some time. It should go without saying if you’re going to read this book, be prepared.
While certainly smarter than the average dirty book, it still shows its blemishes as one. The pulpy set up is interesting and the story moves at a fast pace, but the plot also relies on some contrivances that are a bit hard to buy. Even though mine is a later edition, it still has a number of typos. The edition I have is apparently better than earlier ones, which some reviews I’ve read say were even worse in this regard. None of this, however, took me out of the book. At least not any more than being blindsided by what happened to the poor bird did.
The Gas is a revolting read, but one that certainly has merit. While not as well-crafted as Bataille’s Story of the Eye or Jean de Berg’s The Image, it’s an erotica book that goes beyond being masturbation material. It takes a sometimes funny and often harsh look at repression in society and the horror that lurks underneath institutions of religion, academia, the state, and gender roles. I hope the re-release of Sweet Evil means we’ll be seeing a wider re-release of The Gas sometime soon.
Ben Arzate lives in Des Moines, IA. His articles, reviews, short stories, and poetry have appeared in various places online and in print. He is a regular contributor to Cultured Vultures and is the author of two poetry books (the sky is black and blue like a battered child and dr. sodom and mrs. gomorrah, feel bad all the time), one book of short stories (The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Saying Goodbye, NihilismRevised), and two novels (The Story of the Y, Cabal Books and Elaine, Atlatl Press). Find him online at dripdropdripdropdripdrop.blogspot.com.