Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 9: "Muddled Mind: The Complete Works of Edward D. Wood, Jr." (2001)

A whimsical illustration by your humble blogger in tribute to Ed Wood's writing career.

"Is there a perfect reader somewhere, a total reader... so that my reading is in a way pointless? Well, I hope not."
-Julian Barnes, Flaubert's Parrot

Flaubert's Parrot
Geoffrey Braithwaite, MD, the protagonist and narrator of Julian Barnes' extraordinary novel Flaubert's Parrot (Jonathan Cape, Ltd., 1984) goes on the trail of his favorite author, the late French novelist Gustave Flaubert, visiting the famed writer's old haunts, talking with other Flaubert fans and consulting various literary and historical experts to gain perspective on his hero's life and work. In particular, the retired doctor hopes to find one bizarre souvenir -- a colorful stuffed parrot -- which Flaubert used as inspiration during the writing of a story called "A Simple Heart." Braithwaite ultimately finds two likely candidates for "the real parrot," each one with an owner who vouches for its authenticity, but he never really does find out which one was genuine and ultimately learns to live with that uncertainty.

At one point in his travels, however, he ponders the fact that many before him have studied Flaubert and may, thus, have made his own inquiries redundant. So why does he continue? "My reading might be pointless in the history of literary criticism," he concludes, "but it's not pointless in terms of pleasure."

Ed Wood, Jr. dressed as Jesus Christ
for a self-designed 3D Christmas card.
In the process of writing the Ed Wood Wednesdays series, I've often felt a bit like the good doctor of Barnes' novel. There are at least a dozen documentaries about the eccentric writer-director and several thoroughly-researched books about the man and his career, in particular Rudolph Grey's Nightmare of Ecstasy, an exhaustive oral history ten years in the making, and Rob Craig's Ed Wood, Mad Genius, a methodical, often-revelatory critical analysis of Ed's films. Anyone interested in the life and work of Edward D. Wood, Jr. should own those two volumes.

I have neither the time nor the resources to truly compete with Grey or Craig. In some ways, it would be impossible. Wood had only been dead a few years when Grey began his research. The trail is much colder now. Eddie's ashes were scattered at sea about 35 years ago. Many, perhaps most, of the interview subjects in Nightmare of Ecstasy have died since its publication. And because Ed's career was not well-documented during his own lifetime, it can be extremely tricky to even identify his work, let alone obtain copies of his films and books for review. In short, bringing it back to the Barnes novel, the amateur Wood-ologist may search and search and yet never find "the real parrot."

But still I continue, perhaps in the hope that by delving into as much of Ed Wood's career as possible (that is to say, possible for me given my work schedule and income), I will emerge with a better understanding of this fascinating, troubled, contradictory man. Vicariously, Eddie and I have spent a lot of time together these past couple of months. Since much of his literary output is currently unavailable to me, however, I have had to rely on the reportings of others to explore the gloomier corners of Ed's career.

Case in point:


David C. Hayes' Muddled Mind: Think of it as Cliffs Notes for budget-minded Ed Wood fans.

Alternate Titles: None.

Availability: An updated 2006 paperback edition of Muddled Mind is available directly from the publisher for $18. A hardcover edition can be found at Amazon, but it is extremely expensive.

David C. Hayes with a rubber chicken.
Backstory: As of 2013, only a handful of Ed Wood's books are widely available and affordable to the average consumer. Any reader with a computer can easily procure used copies of Death of a Transvestite, Killer in Drag, Devil Girls, and Hollywood Rat Race for less than the cost of postage. After that, though, it gets rough. Small-time publishers like Ramble House and Woodpile Reproductions supposedly reprinted several of Wood's books in the mid-2000s, but these editions (if they ever existed) have entirely vanished from the primary and secondary markets. With luck, patience, and a great deal of money, fans might be able to purchase a few vintage Ed Wood paperbacks on sites like Ebay or iOffer.

For most of us, though, these works remain frustratingly out of reach. David C. Hayes' Muddled Mind: The Complete Works of Edward D. Wood, Jr. (Ramble House, 2001; revised 2006) does what it can to correct that sad situation. To my knowledge, this is the only guidebook devoted to Ed Wood's writing career rather than his films. Author-filmmaker Hayes, who also appeared as both Rev. Steele and Lobo in Ed Wood's Devil Girls (1999), gives a fairly thorough overview of Wood's writing career, summarizing and providing excerpts from many of Ed's novels, nonfiction books, magazine articles, and short stories. He tries to give readers a sense of what these books and stories are like and how they fit into the overall arc of Ed's life and career. Along the way, Hayes also critiques these works in a mildly satirical style, razzing Ed somewhat for his logical flaws, his narrative inconsistencies, and above all, his unconventional grammar and syntax.

Likely inspired by Ed Wood's many professional pseudonyms, Hayes occasionally credits certain chapters, including an article on the making of the Devil Girls movie, to a deranged alter ego, "Hayden Davis, Ph.D." These intrusions, mercifully, are brief and rare.

Arranged chronologically, Muddled Mind also includes information on where and how to track down Ed's books (including price estimates) as well as a thorough index of Wood-related films, recordings, and publications.

The reading experience: For those of us who cannot afford to spend hundreds of dollars on obscure paperback novels from the 1960s and 1970s, Muddled Mind: The Complete Works of Edward D. Wood, Jr. is an extremely helpful volume. While I'd someday love to own full-length versions of Hell Chicks, Side-Show Siren, TV Lust, and the many other books synopsized in this career-spanning catalog, at least now I feel that I have a more complete picture of Ed's tremendously productive and eccentric literary life. Hayes' tone is slightly irreverent, but Muddled Mind is clearly intended as a tribute to Ed Wood.

While not as substantial and enlightening as Nightmare of Ecstasy or Ed Wood, Mad Genius, this book is still a handy reference work for the struggling Wood-ologist. By far, the book's greatest selling point is that it actually includes three verified short stories by Edward D. Wood, Jr. himself. (He wrote hundreds more, many of which have yet to be located or identified.) This was an area of Wood's career which was entirely new to me. I would like now to discuss these three stories individually and give you my impressions of each, as well as some background information about them.

"The Night the Banshee Cried" (1966)

"The Night the Banshee Cried" was originally published as part of Ed Wood's Orgy of the Dead.

Originally published: In Orgy of the Dead (Greenleaf Classics, 1966), a short story collection produced as a tie-in with the 1965 film of the same name, written by Ed Wood and directed by Stephen Apostolof (aka A.C. Stephen).

Drew Friedman's portrait of Valda Hansen.
Comments: Most Ed Wood fans know that the infamous "monster nudie" film Orgy of the Dead had a tie-in paperback book. I had always been led to believe that the book was a novelization of the film, but this turns out not to be the case. In fact, while it does contain a textual version of the film's story, the Orgy of the Dead paperback book actually functions as a treasury of Ed Wood's strange "spooky" stories, not all of them erotic in nature. An example of such a non-erotic horror story is "The Night the Banshee Cried," which Ed had written several years earlier.

Actress Valda Hansen, a blonde ingenue who memorably starred in Ed Wood's Night of the Ghouls (1959), told biographer Rudolph Grey that Ed wanted to make "The Night the Banshee Cried" into a film and asked her to make a recording of the monologue he had written for it. The Wood filmography at the end of Nightmare of Ecstasy actually includes a listing for a 22-minute short film adaptation of the story which Ed wrote, produced and directed in 1957. This film has since gone missing, but as late as 1963, Ed still planned to use it, along with the unsold Final Curtain pilot and a third, yet-to-be-filmed tale called "Into My Grave" as components of a feature-length anthology film called Portraits in Terror. None of this ever came to be.

The version of "Banshee" which did reach the public -- and which now graces this book -- seems to be the same monologue that Valda Hansen recorded for Ed back in the '50s. It's a paranoid, rambling soliloquy by a tormented soul who has been mysteriously summoned from her grave and has now returned to her former homestead in order to replace the banshee who has long haunted the premises. The incumbent banshee, naturally, is quite displeased by these events and is not shy about expressing her feelings.

With its emphasis on death and resurrection, "Banshee" is quintessential Wood. In Irish mythology, incidentally, a banshee is a female spirit or fairy whose screams are an omen of an impending death. Ed, of course, takes this myth and makes it thoroughly his own. As far as this story is concerned, being a banshee is a full-time job and retirement is obviously unwelcome. Tonally, this story is highly reminiscent of both Final Curtain and Criswell's speeches from Plan 9 from Outer Space, Orgy of the Dead, and Night of the Ghouls.

"To Kill a Saturday Night" (1971)

Ed Wood's disturbing, tragicomic "To Kill a Saturday Night" deals with sex, booze, and violence.

Originally published: According to Hayes, this story first appeared in the February 1971 issue of Black and White from Pendulum Press. However, Rudolph Grey's book says that this particular edition of Black and White was released in 1972. Not having an original copy of this magazine, I cannot tell you which date is accurate.

John Carradine: an ideal wino.
Comments: A pitch-black story of two hard-drinking farmhands whose Saturday night plans may include murdering prostitutes, "To Kill a Saturday Night" was also (quite inappropriately) reprinted in Tales for a Sexy Night, Vol. 2 (Gallery Press, 1973). Rudolph Grey says "Saturday Night" was based on one of Ed's many unproduced screenplays. In 1973, Ed tried unsuccessfully to film this story, along with two others, as part of yet another never-to-be anthology film. Supposedly, he wanted John Carradine and David Ward for the lead roles of winos Pete and Art.

Bracingly nasty and yet somehow grimly comic as well, "To Kill a Saturday Night" reminded me a bit of Beckett's Waiting for Godot. There's no real plot to speak of, just a circular, semi-coherent dialogue between two highly intoxicated, small town working stiffs who sit on a curb and discuss what they should do to kill the time on Saturday night. Pete, the more vicious of the two, suggests killing and robbing a couple of "whores" named Lulu and Maizie. The slightly-dim Art is skeptical of the plan at first, but Pete makes a convincing -- or at least forceful -- case. These two desperate, hopeless losers seem to inhabit a hellish nightmare world of cheap, bitter-tasting wine and unsanitary, unsightly, and disease-ridden prostitutes.

Ed Wood presents us with a rancid slice of Americana with this memorably sleazy tale. "To Kill a Saturday Night" shows American society at its worst. Pete, in his own sick and misguided way, is kind of a philosopher. Certainly, his views on personal hygiene are unique. (Sweating profusely, he argues is as good as bathing since sweat is water.) I would have loved to have seen John Carradine play this role. "To Kill a Saturday Night" is quite a discovery and justifies the purchase of Muddled Mind all by itself.

"Pearl Hart and the Last Stage" (1973)

Female stagecoach robber Pearl Hart is among the historical figures chronicled in Outlaws of the Old West.

Originally published: As part of the book Outlaws of the Old West (Mankind, 1973), edited by Charles D. Anderson.

Comments: Charles D. Anderson was one of Ed Wood's friends in the publishing business (mostly pornography), and the two had worked together on many disreputable projects. But Anderson also knew of Ed's love of cowboy movies and gave him the opportunity to write a chapter of the 1973 non-fiction book, Outlaws of the Old West. Specifically, Ed's portion of the book is devoted to Pearl Hart, who was both the last stagecoach robber in American history and the first female in this particular line of work.

Much gentler than the previous two stories, "Pearl Hart and the Last Stage" is still very much in keeping with the rest of Ed's career. For instance, Ed tells us that Hart wore men's clothing during the infamous robbery and was originally misidentified as being a boy. This is very similar to the gender-bending female criminals in Wood's script for The Violent Years.

Moreover, "Last Stage" is really a show business story about the pains and pleasures of fleeting fame. Hart modeled herself after the stagecoach robbers she'd read about in magazines, idolizing them just as Ed had idolized movie stars as a child. After she'd been arrested (she and her male accomplice got lost in a storm and thereby bungled their getaway) and convicted, Pearl reveled in the attention she received from the public and the press.

After her release from jail, Pearl Hart toured the country as a star attraction for about a year, until the crowds began to dwindle and she disappeared into obscurity. The chapter is bookended by the image of an aged Pearl in the year 1924, visiting the courthouse where she'd been a well-known prisoner so long ago. Apparently, she was nostalgic for her days of youth and fame. Perhaps Ed, only five years away from his own demise, could identify with that longing.

Next week: In one short week, I'll be jumping back into Ed Wood's filmography with a look at his most famous creation, Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959). Be there or be... well, somewhere else I suppose.