The Many Faces of John Dexter #3: The Abortionists by Harry Whittington (Nightstand #1790, 1966)
One of the “missing 38” of Harry Whittingon’s ouvere, as he produced a book a month for William Hamling and Earl Kemp between 1964-1967, 38 in all (only 36 have been “found,” however). The books were published under the John Dexter and J.X. Williams house names, and then as Curt Colman, an exclusive pen name for Whittington.
For a while in 1966, Nightstand was issuing books without cover art and with a strange eye-straining design as seen above. Lynn Munroe speculates that a court case may have been going on, like when Hamling briefly spelled the house names differently (John Baxter, Andrew Schole, Dan Eliot, Alan Marsh). Most likely this is the case, but we might also consider the topic of this novel, which was a political and social suicide bomb in the mid-60s, with heated curltural and legal debate and religious debate on abortion, murder, a woman’s right to choose, women dying in back room abortions, health care, and so on.
Apparently this novel is expanded from a story Whittington published in a romance pulp. It may have also been an unfinished or unsold nurse novel he had (he wrote a number of them under a female pen name), since the obligatory sex scenes seem to be “dropped in” — the first is a masturbation scene, the next a double rape.
This is a combination southern gothic and nurse tale. Munroe tells the synopsis better than I on his website:
Virginal nurse Mary Hood fights off all the advances from the lecherous doctors at home and takes a job offered by her Uncle in the Deep South. She travels to Mayesville, a town run for years by the Mayes and Conline families, called there by her handsome Uncle, Dr. Mayes Conline. His hospital is located on the grounds of his decaying Southern mansion, complete with insane relatives locked in upstairs rooms and strange goings on throughout the dark nights. On page 100, there is a shocking surprise: Dr. Conline is performing abortions late at night at his hospital. That is, it was designed to be a shock, but the editors put a new title on Whittington’s manuscript, one that gives everything away.
Mary has fallen in love with the brooding and mysterious Dr. Mayes Conline, and the plot twists and thickens from there. Whittington’s challenge was to describe sexual activity without using any naughty words. I think he fares well here when he refers to Mary “taking her pleasure from the obelisk of his strength .”
Dr. Mayes Conline is also her uncle — not by blood, the second hubby of her Aunt Rose, a man 10 years younger, and a seemingly successful good ol’ southern physician. From the start, Mary is attracted to him, and Conline is drawn to her, and he says, “I must keep in mind that you are my niece.”
A gothic is not a gothic without some incest brewing in the backwoods, after all. But 19 year old Mary, a nurse, has left the big city in favor of the woods because she loathes the world that orbits sex, a world where men see her as nothing but vagina to conquer. In one flashback scene, on graduation day for the nurses, a drnk intern, Cal, rapes her. She had looked up to Cal, even favored romance and marriage, but he forces himself on her — when she runs off, clothes torn, legs and boobs sticking out, and tells one of the doctors what happened to her, the doctor is turned on by it all and rapes her too. Two rapes back and back — the invitation to be a nurse at her uncle’s southern bacwoods hospital sounds like a good way to get away from the evils of the world.
Hardly…soon she finds out why her uncle works late hours and sleeps till noon. At night, he performs illegal abortions, where he makes more money than taking care of the elderly and sickly. Women who have complications and die from the procedure are tossed into a river or left in the woods (back then, some abortionists would have dead patients cremated, to get rid of the evidence).
The novel moves into the moral and medically ethical questioning of abortion, a quagmire for Mary since she has the hots for her uncle. Whe her aunt dies, the path is clear for romance, but can she love a man who is a murderer of children?
There is also the evil head nurse who gets in the way and hates Mary’s coming into the picture and stomping on her territory — where can all this lead but the fires of hell, physically? No gothic can have a happy ending, like your usual nurse novel…
Not the best Whittington in my opinion, but not the worst (I prefer crime noir and hardboiled Whittington).
I feel like getting on a nurse novel kick here — next up: Nurse Carolyn by Loren Beauchamp (Midwood, 1960) and Man’s Nurse by Orrie Hitt (Chariot, 1963).