Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 5: "Killer in Drag" (1963)

Ed Wood's debut novel as it appeared in 1965 and 1998.

"He did a lot of hall and office work and was the fastest typist in the Marines."
-Kathy Wood, talking about her late husband, Ed (1992) 
"I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [pornography]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it."
-Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart (1964)
Justice Stewart knew it when he saw it.
As it happens, there are four Wednesdays in the month of August this year. And, as near as I can tell, there are four books written by Edward D. Wood, Jr. that are still widely and easily available to the public today. I could not resist that symmetry, so I have decided to devote this entire month to Ed's literary career, which stretched from 1963 to 1978 and was nearly as prolific as his movie career.

I'm not exactly sure where I first learned about Wood's literary moonlighting. It was either Rudolph Grey's book, Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. (1992) or Ted Newsom's documentary Ed Wood: Look Back in Angora (1994). The latter, through narration by Laugh-In's Gary Owens, proclaimed that Ed signed his own name to the paperback novels he wrote "with perverse pride." The pride, one supposes, was "perverse" because the corner of the publishing world he occupied was a disreputable one. Ed wrote cheap novels for the "adults-only" market: seedy tales of sex and violence and more sex.

Today, with thousands of pornographic stories available freely on the internet, it is difficult to imagine the phenomenon of "dirty books" being sold in "dirty book stores" in sketchy neighborhoods, with sexually-frustrated men plunking down $0.95 for text-only erotica.

But the world was much more repressed in 1963. You had to go sneaking around a little to find this stuff. Jacobelis v. Ohio, the landmark Supreme Court obscenity case that added the phrase "I know it when I see it" to the American lexicon and inspired Tom Lehrer's pro-porn anthem "Smut," was still a year away. As society became more permissive and sexually-explicit material became more accessible over the ensuing decades, adult bookstores and adult theaters gradually faded from the American landscape -- never disappearing entirely, mind you, but increasingly marginalized.

Both were dealt a crushing blow by the home video revolution of the 1980s, which allowed for the viewing of X-rated films in the privacy of one's own home. Once you've screened Debbie Does Dallas (1978) in your living room, you might not be as tempted by a smutty novel anymore.

In recent years, of course, erotic literature has attained mainstream acceptance -- this time with women as the primary audience. E.L. James' so-called "mommy porn" epic Fifty Shades of Grey (2011) is available in shopping malls across the country. I wonder what Ed Wood would think of that. Knowing what I know of his career, it would probably have him running to his trusty typewriter to crank out his own deranged, distorted version of James' book.

Various editions of Ed's first novel

Back in 1963, there was still (a little) money to be made from the sexual hang-ups of the American male reading population, and Ed Wood wanted his share of it. He was pushing 40 by then, and his movie directing career was basically over. He was a semi-functional alcoholic who was barely scraping by on his income as a writer and needed all the work he could get.

One of his scripts, Shotgun Wedding, did make it to movie screens that same year -- though with another, more reliable director (Boris Petroff) at the helm. This would become a pattern for Ed throughout the 1960s.

Professionally speaking, Ed's chief assets were his ceaseless creativity, his incredible typing speed, his lack of inhibition, his rather prodigious sexual knowledge, and his ability to churn out a lot of pages in a short amount of time. These traits made him a natural for the adult book market, and he entered the field with a violent and adventurous novel only he could have produced. While the book does contain a good deal of sexual material, relatively tame by today's standards but probably shocking in 1963, it is important to point out that Killer in Drag is not exclusively or even principally a work of erotica. Instead, it falls within the category of crime fiction.

However, just as in his film work, Ed Wood refused to be constrained by any genre. This is an extremely personal and idiosyncratic book which is more about exploring the desires, fears, fetishes, and anxieties of its author than about conforming to any preconceived notions of the mass-market reading audience.


Ed (Johnny Depp) at the typewriter in Ed Wood (1994). Note the liquor bottle on the desk.

Alternate titles: Black Lace Drag; Blacklace Drag; La drag asesina (translated into Spanish); The Twilight Land (credited to "Sheri Blue"); Homosexual Generation (credited to "Ken Worthy")

Availability: Ed's first novel has been republished several times in the 1990s and 2000s and is easily available at very reasonable prices on Amazon under one of two titles, Killer in Drag (Four Walls Eight Windows, 1998; reprinted 1999) or Black Lace Drag (Creation Oneiros, 2012). If you wish to read the book in Spanish, La drag asesina (Punto de Lectura, 2002) is available as well.

William Desmond Taylor
The backstory: In 1922, silent film director William Desmond Taylor, a major figure in the early movie industry, was murdered by an assailant whose identity remains unknown to this day. Though Taylor's death was never solved, the investigation of his murder exposed a dark and seamy side of  Hollywood and thus became a major public fixation. Prominent directors, studio executives, and actors, including Mabel Normand, were suspects in the case. The wholesome reputation of actress Mary Miles Minter was ruined when her passionate love letters to Taylor were published in newspapers.

Among the case's shocking revelations was the fact that Taylor apparently employed a black transvestite as his butler. The Taylor scandal resounded for decades in popular culture. The character of Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard (1950) was named after the slain director, and Gore Vidal wrote a fictionalized account of the story in a novel simply titled Hollywood in 1990.

The Taylor murder also provided the inspiration for the crime which is the major catalyst for the plot of Ed Wood's Killer in Drag. In Ed's version of the infamous tale, a young transvestite named Glen hopes to have a sex change operation funded by his sugar daddy, a wealthy "real Grandma type homosexual" named Dalten Van Carter,* who employs a servant described as "Wilma, a Negro boy flawlessly dressed in a short skirted maid's outfit." Near the beginning of Wood's novel, Van Carter is murdered in bed by his former gay lover, and Glen is falsely blamed and has to go on the run.

The rest of the plot, though, came from Ed Wood's fervid imagination. In a sense, the book could be considered a very dark sequel or spin-off of Wood's debut feature, Glen or Glenda? (1953). As mentioned earlier, the main character is Glen Marker, "a delicately formed youth," who leads a double life as a transvestite assassin named Glenda who gets "her" assignments from a crime organization only referred to as the Syndicate. Since we later learn that Glen has an ex-girlfriend named Barbara, it is faintly possible that the character from the earlier movie broke his famously-troubled engagement and turned to a life of crime after the end credits. Who knows?

It is also possible that Glenda's experiences as a professional assassin were influenced by Ed's own experiences killing Japanese soldiers and surviving torture in WWII, traumatic events which haunted him for the rest of his days. The fact that the novel's plot takes an unexpected detour into the world of a traveling carnival is almost certainly a result of Ed having toured with such as show before his move to Hollywood. Ed was the "half-man, half-woman" in the sideshow, and there is character with that same profession in this book named "Shirlee," an alternate spelling of Wood's own drag name, "Shirley." Ed's fetishistic obsession -- there can be no other word -- with women's clothing and physical features (hair, fingernails, breasts) is absolutely central to the story and informs nearly every scene in it. Because of this, Killer in Drag can best be described as an odd crossbreed of Glen or Glenda? with a pulp crime novel.
*Since I knew nothing of the Taylor case in advance, this character reminded me of John "Bunny" Breckinridge, who played the alien ruler in Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) and was part of Ed's entourage. For all I know, Wood modeled the character's speech and mannerisms after Bunny. Just a theory.

Pulp fiction god Jim Thompson at work
The reading experience: Mind-boggling and far beyond my original expectations. When I was a kid, my mother would sometimes take me to second-hand shops to buy used books and records. I was there mainly to search for paperbacks containing reprints from Mad magazine (Monu-Mentally Mad, The Cuckoo Mad, Stamp Out Mad, etc., etc.), but occasionally I'd catch a glimpse of the "adult" books stashed away at the back of the store. To be honest, I was sort of afraid of them. Maybe I was right to be. I don't know what my 11 or 12-year-old mind would have made of something like Killer in Drag. A few decades later, though, I was completely prepared, having immersed myself not only in Ed's movies but in the world of crime fiction. I went on a real pulp novel kick a couple of years ago, reading and enjoying all the usual suspects, like Chandler, Hammett, and Cain.

But the one who quickly became my favorite was Jim Thompson (Pop. 1280, The Grifters, The Getaway, much more), whose critical reputation isn't nearly so sterling as those other fellows I just mentioned. After reading a dozen or so Thompson novels, which was everything my library had, going back to Chandler or Hammett was like switching from rye whiskey to diet root beer. Thompson's plots were wilder, his endings bleaker, his characters weirder, his sex kinkier, and his violence bloodier. In a weird way, reading Ed Wood's Killer in Drag gave me the same kind of feeling I got from reading Thompson. Both were very troubled alcoholics, so maybe that accounts for it. I'm not saying that Ed Wood had anything like Jim Thompson's talent, but they shared a certain to-hell-with-it brand of fearlessness and were experts at capturing the sleazy, hopeless underbelly of American life.

Like many of my favorite novels, Killer in Drag confounded me at every turn. I never knew where the damned thing was going. At first, it seems to be a simple Jekyll-and-Hyde type story about a man leading a violent double life, only with a transvestite twist. But then, Ed Wood begins to fixate on Glenda's perfect feminine beauty and how she turns heads everywhere she goes, causing every man who sees her to fall in love (or lust) instantly. I suddenly comprehended those seemingly gratuitous scenes from Glen or Glenda? in which random heterosexual men on the street stare lustfully at the film's transvestite and transsexual characters, totally convinced they are natural women. Then there's that famous bit of narration from the movie in which kindly Dr. Alton explains that Glen "dares to enter the street" in women's clothing "only if he truly appears female," which for him involves wearing falsies. Falsies are a much more important motif than I'd ever anticipated in Ed Wood's writing. He was a falsie connoisseur! When Ed was in drag, he aimed to be the absolute pinnacle of femininity. At least that's the impression I got from this book.

Wood remains clothes-conscious throughout the novel, carefully describing the outfits of the main and supporting characters even when the plot does not warrant doing so. At one point, when Glen Marker definitely has more pressing things to worry about, he actually goes shopping for a nightgown so that he can sleep peacefully while wearing it. And it's possible that, like Arrested Development's Tobias Funke, Glen/Glenda is a "never-nude," who insists on at least wearing some form of feminine undergarment at all times.

And, oh lord, I haven't even gotten to the carnival stuff yet. Glen goes on the lam, and instead of laying low or hiding out, he buys a freakin' carnival! And I mean, he buys the whole damned show -- the tents, the rides, the attractions, everything! The carnival gambit goes spectacularly wrong for Glen in a way which I never could have anticipated. Before this mini-apocalypse, though, he memorably meets "Shirlee," the show's alcoholic half-man/half-woman and a truly odd and off-putting character for whom even Glen feels pity. It would take a blue-ribbon panel from the Kinsey Institute, meanwhile, to fully comprehend Glen/Glenda's sexual relationship with a redheaded prostitute ominously named Rose Graves.

And then there are Mac and Ernie, two corrupt police officers who are very much unlike the dull but honest Joe Friday-type cops who usually populate Ed Wood's films. Mac and Ernie are incredibly depraved characters who figure very prominently into the novel's hectic, action-packed climax.

My temptation in writing this review is to give away further plot details or quote especially egregious passages out of context. But I am going to refrain from doing so in the hopes that you, dear reader, will seek out Killer in Drag or Black Lace Drag yourself. It is a quick and fulfilling read, easy and cheap to procure. If you want to understand the mind of Edward D. Wood, Jr., it is an essential work.

I will warn you, however, that if you purchase the otherwise-fine edition from Four Walls Eight Windows, do not read the plot summary on the back cover, as it gives away a key detail from the book's final chapter, a plot point which genuinely surprised me and which sets up the book's sequel.

Next week: Four years later, during his most productive period as a novelist, Ed Wood wrote a direct sequel to Killer in Drag, bringing the sordid saga of Glen Marker to a violent conclusion. Make plans to be here next week for my review of Death of a Transvestite (1967).