Friday, November 14, 2014

Ed Wood's BLOOD SPLATTERS QUICKLY: 'Epitaph for the Village Drunk' (1973)

Lovely illustration for Ed Wood's short story, "Epitaph for the Village Drunk."

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

Charming contents page for Savage.
The story: "Epitaph for the Village Drunk," also known as "Epitaph for the Town Drunk," originally published in Savage magazine, March/April 1973, from Gallery Press.

Synopsis: On a cold winter night in a small village, a few men -- including Jake Cornfield, Lucas Heindorf, and Pete Whistle -- gather at Barnaby's Bar and reminisce with the owner about the late Rance Tensite, a raging alcoholic who died in a fire. Because the ground nearby is so frozen, he won't be buried until the next thaw. There isn't much left of Rance to bury, though. The men's feelings about Rance are a mixture of pity, disgust, begrudging admiration, and puzzlement. The incident which brought about Rance's death began when, intoxicated as usual, he dove into an icy creek to rescue the son of the Vigrans, a poor local family. The sheriff hauled Rance off to jail that night and put him in a freezing cold cell. To keep warm, the unfortunate man lit his mattress on fire, burning down the wooden, barn-like structure. Now, the village has two upcoming expenses: rebuilding the jailhouse and burying what's left of Rance.

Wood trademarks: Alcohol (beer, hot buttered rum, and straight whiskey are consumed by the men, while cocktails and gin are dismissed as too feminine); the effects of chronic, long-term alcoholism (which Ed was experiencing); the conversation of drunken men (cf. this collection's "To Kill a Saturday Night"); the phrase "You got to face it, we're just getting old" (compare to gravedigger scene from Plan 9, i.e. "Maybe we're gettin' old."); consumption by fire (cf. Orgy of the Dead); typical morbid references to death rituals (undertakers, funerals, burials).

Excerpt: "Guys like Rance Tensite didn't need no liver. Guess they didn't need any of the guts like other people have. All they need is a mouth and a stomach to take the stuff in for a spell, then a pecker to drain it out through."

Reflections: There are times during Blood Splatters Quickly when Ed Wood seems like Skid Row's answer to O. Henry. Certainly, Wood shares O. Henry's penchant for irony-drenched twist endings, and "Epitaph for the Village Drunk" is among the sharpest and most thought-provoking examples, with a man's finest hour leading directly to, and being canceled out by, his ultimate downfall. Of all the bizarre tales anthologized in this collection, none have felt more personal than this one. Ed was only five years away from his own demise when this story appeared, and it's likely that he was looking back on his life, ruminating on the effects that years of hard drinking had taken on his body and feeling considerably older than his 49 years. Ed's days as a battle-decorated Marine were twenty years in the rear view mirror by then, and his days as a director of sci-fi films and crime thrillers were also long gone. "Epitaph" seems like Ed Wood's attempt to write his own obituary in advance. He must've known that his legacy would be complicated, judging by this dialogue from the story as the townsmen discuss Rance's burning of the jailhouse and well-known dislike of the police:
     "Yep," reasoned Barnaby. "Hero one minute and bastard the next."
     "That's what makes the world go around, I guess. Too bad but that's the way it was."
     "He never did like them. They're all going to say he did it on purpose."
     "Yep, hero one minute and bastard the next. How quick our good deeds are forgotten."
     "Nobody really likes a drunk. Even though he might have been a hero for a fleeting moment."
     "He didn't want to be no hero."
     "Sure not. He just couldn't see no kid drown under the ice. Bet he didn't even think. He just threw his boozed hide down that hole and brought him up."
"To Bill Brasky!"
In reality, Ed Wood didn't get his last-moment shot at redemption the way Rance Tensite does in the story. There are very few iced-over creeks in Hollywood for wayward children to fall into. Perhaps this story was, in its own depressing way, a sort of wish-fulfillment fantasy for Eddie. Shambling village drunk Rance gets to prove his bravery, then literally goes down in flames while simultaneously inconveniencing the local authorities. Even though it has no sexual content whatsoever, "Epitaph" wound up in the pages of a pornographic magazine "dedicated to those admirers of the S-M theories." Its author had other goals for it. According to Rudolph Grey's Nightmare of Ecstasy, this story was supposed to be adapted for the screen and would have comprised one-third of an untitled anthology film in 1973. Here is Grey's summary of the screenplay:
In Epitaph for the Village Drunk, town drunk Harry Poole surprises the townspeople by saving the life of a young boy who falls under the ice in a creek. Having no other place to stay, Harry spends the night in jail where old timers bring him a couple bottles. Unable to keep warm, Harry burns his mattress and dies when the jail catches fire.
I suppose we could have a "chicken or the egg" discussion about whether the story was based on the screenplay or vice-versa. Either way, the film version would have told essentially the same story in a slightly more pragmatic way. Notice that the drunk has been given a more commonplace name (the rather drab "Harry Poole" instead of "Rance Tensite"). The screenplay, at least as described by Grey, also ditches one of the more interesting aspects of "Epitaph": its second-hand structure, with the protagonist never actually appearing but merely serving as a topic of conversation for others. Perhaps because it's set in a bar and focuses on the booze-addled conversations therein, this story reminded me somewhat of the "Bill Brasky" sketches from Saturday Night Live, in which a group of red-nosed, bucktoothed businessmen, all sloshed, share wild and impossible anecdotes about "the best damned salesman in the office!"

To Rance Tensite!

Next: "The Autograph" (1974)