Friday, October 31, 2014

Ed Wood's BLOOD SPLATTERS QUICKLY: 'Hellfire' (1972)

Satan looms over a young maiden in this illustration for Ed Wood's "Hellfire."

NOTE: This article is part of my ongoing coverage of Blood Splatters Quickly: The Collected Stories of Edward D. Wood, Jr.

Marine graves at the Battle of Tarawa
The story: "Hellfire," originally published in Horror Sex Tales, Vol. 1, No. 1 from Gallery Press in January 1972.

Synopsis: On a remote island in the Pacific Ocean with an active, phallic volcano called Zakaaka, the Devil rules over the souls of the damned, who have willingly pledged themselves to him. There, he keeps a harem of adoring, devoted women who attempt to satiate his never-ending lust. He consorts with and impregnates one of his mistresses, who begs him for more sex.

Taking on human form, he becomes a character called Lived and stalks the streets of an unnamed city, searching for prostitutes, hustlers, and degenerates. His first encounter is with a young African-American prostitute named Paulette, whom he lures into an alley and turns into his eternal sexual slave. He then strikes up a conversation with a blond homosexual man, who calls on four male friends when he feels threatened by Lived. These men are no match for the Devil, who quickly defeats them and turns them into his subjects. He reveals that the word "lived" is "devil" backwards and declares he is always on the lookout for new souls to claim.

Wood trademarks: An island in the Pacific (setting for Ed's own WWII experiences); active volcano (cf. Venus Flytrap); powerful, cape-wearing ruler with a bevy of obedient women (cf. Orgy of the Dead); the phrase "Beware... take care" (cf. Glen or Glenda?); dialogue which places an emphasis on "facts"; sexualized reference to snakes; streetwalkers doomed for eternity (cf. Orgy of the Dead); female character whose name has a masculine root (prostitute Paulette, as opposed to Glen/Glenda or the female gang members in The Violent Years); traumatic impregnation scene (cf. Drop Out Wife); punning name for a sinister character ("Devil" becomes "Lived" just as "Dracula" becomes "Dr. Acula"); use of the Devil as a character (cf. Glen or Glenda?); and an angora sweater (in this case, worn by the Devil's mistress).

Excerpt: "He put more pressure around her waist and led her toward the alley near at hand... and at that point he drew back the scarlet cape and his nudity was exposed... there was the shaft and the things she had seen at the hockshop many times... however there were only two of them... not three... but the ebony eyes told her to take the shaft in both hands, and to put the shaft between her deep purple lips and take it with her tongue and to drive it deep down her throat where she would gag and choke and sputter... but swallow the venom... and on her knees in that alley she would again look up into the eyes and some of the fluid would spill over her chin and down into the cleavage of her open blouse and she would know she had visited with LIVED..."

Reflections: This is a tricky story to review, since its bizarre tone and surreal, shifting structure seem intended to obfuscate rather than enlighten. "Hellfire" is stubbornly weird, even by Ed Wood's standards. It is significant to me that the author chose an island in the Pacific as his setting for hell on earth, since that's where he claimed he saw action as a Marine in World War II.  Ed survived the three-day Battle of Tarawa in November 1943, but over a thousand of his fellow Marines didn't. Ed also claimed to have endured torture at the hands of the Japanese. One of my pet theories about Wood's life is that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder due to these events and that his later alcoholism and abusive behavior towards his wife were rooted in survivor's guilt. PTSD might have also played a role in Eddie's work, including this story.

Our protagonist, the Devil, is a surprisingly complex, hard-to-define character. Like Johnnie in "Scream Your Bloody Head Off," he is a massively-endowed super-stud who fucks without conscience or compassion. But he has weaknesses, too. He longs for the human blood which will never flow through his own veins for instance. And while the aliens of Plan 9 surprised the earthlings by declaring their faith in God, the Devil cringes at the very mention of the word "God." Since he is always scouting for new recruits, so to speak, the Devil cannot relax and never seems comfortable or contented. His is a restless, transitory life.

Party animal Jonathan Edwards
Tonally, "Hellfire" is closest to Ed's script for Orgy of the Dead from 1965. It is not difficult to imagine the Devil as a first cousin of Criswell's character from that film, the Emperor. Just like Criswell, the Devil of "Hellfire" wears a cape and presides over a harem of obedient women who are being punished eternally for their sins. Both characters speak in a rather lofty, formal way, too, and carry themselves with an air of haughty arrogance. Significantly, the Devil's post-coital exchange of dialogue with his mistress bears a striking resemblance to the scenes in Orgy between Criswell and Fawn Silver's never-satisfied, always-pleading Princess of Darkness. To wit:
     "There will be another time," he muttered as he donned his scarlet cape.
     "But I have not finished. I haven't completed all that I can give you. You have left me lacking. I am only human, master."
     "If you were not human... you would not be here!"
Morally, it's tough to say exactly where Ed Wood was coming from with this story. One obvious interpretation is that this a straight-up, Jonathan Edwards-inspired sermon in which homosexuals and prostitutes are doomed for all eternity in a fiery pit. Support for this theory lies in its ominous closing sentence: "Beware... take care... Lived searches everywhere!" But just as in Orgy of the Dead, Ed Wood emphasizes the sexual aspects of eternal damnation rather than the punishment or suffering. Certainly, both the Devil and Criswell are having some fun here. And in both works, it is unclear what happens to men in the afterlife. Only women are required to please the Emperor and the Devil.

For that matter, it's unclear how either of these characters' operations work. At one point in "Hellfire," it's implied that the Devil/Lived keeps his island stocked with fresh souls by impregnating the women he has enslaved. But in the rest of the story, he has to assume human form and prowl the streets for new victims. And what are we to make of the racial aspect of this strange tale? Paulette, the prostitute, is black, an extreme rarity for an Ed Wood character. The Devil reassures her: "There is no color barrier in my sphere." Is it a racial breakthrough that Satan is colorblind? Here, as elsewhere, "Hellfire" yields no easy answers.

Next: "No Atheists in the Grave" (1971)