Vin Packer’s first novel, the controversial hit Spring Fire (1952), is famous for being among the first paperback originals to explore issues of homosexuality in contemporary America (in this instance, on a college campus). For her second novel, Dark Intruder (also 1952), Packer chose an even more taboo topic: incest. But as in the case of Spring Fire, Packer isn’t really interested in exploiting the subject for sleaze appeal or shock value. Instead of judging her characters as freaks of nature or perverts, Packer sympathizes with them as social outcasts: people who either can’t or won’t conform to moral standards. Packer’s gift to readers is a great sensitivity for difference, a sociological and psychological insight into human behavior, and an understanding that what is typically labeled as “abnormal” might be more normal—and common—than many would care to admit.
Dark Intruder was published by Gold Medal in 1952. Set in the town of Hillsboro, VA, the novel centers on Jett Black, the 18-year-old daughter of wealthy horse breeder Blake Black. Since her mother died during childbirth, Jett has been the only female in her father’s life. As the father-daughter-lover boundaries get thorny, however, an accident leaves Blake crippled. Enter Luke Hetherington, a temporary manager to keep the ranch going until Blake can get back on his feet. At first, Jett is resentful of Luke’s authority on the ranch, but soon she finds herself increasingly attracted to him. As Blake’s chance of a full recovery becomes less and less likely, he becomes more possessive of all things around him, not only the ranch, but also his daughter. But Jett is no longer the compliant daughter she once was, and no matter what decision she makes, no one will walk away clean from this mess.
One of the things that Packer does well in Dark Intruder is to counter the “backwoods tramp” archetype. In a different setting, Jett could be like one of the young college girls in Spring Fire: naïve, confused, and full of feelings and urges she can’t control. Like the sorority girls in that first novel, Jett doesn’t sit well with the standard life-path that has been set out before her. Strong-willed and independent, she doesn’t want to go off to college—which would most likely culminate with her getting married and becoming a housewife. Instead, she models herself on her father, and wants to hold a position of social and economic power. In this sense, she reminds me of Barbara Stanwyck’s character in The Furies (based on the novel by Niven Bisch), another story of a father-daughter ranching dynasty with incestuous undertones. Ultimately, Packer doesn’t see Jett as just another myopic conception of a girl with “daddy issues”—her troubles go deeper than even she realizes. She’s a young girl who doesn’t fit in her with times or surroundings, and she acts out in the only way that seems natural to her.
Even though Dark Intruder ends with the restoration of conventional morality, just like with Spring Fire, Packer still manages to work in a lot of social criticism. Also like in Spring Fire, Packer’s representations of orthodox heterosexuality are subversive and disturbing. Jett’s first sexual encounter with Luke is particularly shocking in its violence. Packer describes Jett feeling as though “a knife of terror cut through her” when Luke touched her. The whole scene feels more like rape than love—an ironic, and complex, counterpoint to the relationship between Jett and her father. But even that bond wasn’t without its violence—their first kiss ends with him pushing her to the ground. Packer doesn’t endorse incest, but nor does she comply with standard hetero-normative partnerships, either. Her common concern with both relationships is the brutality that Jett must suffer at the hands of both men. Vin Packer was able to smartly subvert the titillating theme of the book and make some smart and progressive comments on contemporary gender politics.
While Dark Intruder might share some of the same themes of Spring Fire, it didn’t have quite the same emotional pull for me. There was something so recognizable—and surprisingly modern—about the characters in Spring Fire. Those adolescents seemed so much more relatable and realistic than anyone in the Dobie Gillis series. The confusions and crises faced by those characters were things that we all went through in our own way and in our own time. That sort of connection didn’t happen to me with Dark Intruder. Packer is such a skilled writer that I could sympathize with Jett, but only from a distance. Luke is, by necessity and design, little more than a store-window hunk—a hyper-masculine fantasy that Packer doesn’t in the least believe in. He’s there to fulfill a plot-function, not as an object of our sympathy. Blake, on the other hand, we understand a little more, but I don’t think we’re supposed to care about him, either. In his own way, he is just as misleading, confining, and corrupting an influence on Jett as anyone—or anything—else in the book.
Fifty-nine years later, Dark Intruder is still an interesting and worthwhile read. Its subversive politics and criticism of conventional gender norms make it stand out from other novels of the time, and singles out Vin Packer as one of the most perceptive and socially progressive writers of the Gold Medal lineup.
Cover art by Amos Sewell