Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 52: 'Blood Splatters Quickly: The Collected Stories of Edward D. Wood, Jr.' (2014)

Blood Splatters Quickly offers readers new insight into the mind of Edward D. Wood, Jr.

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

The "angora edition" of Ed's book.
O. Henry of the damned. Washington Irving of the down and out. Edgar Allan Poe gone to hell. That was Edward Davis Wood, Jr. as a short story writer, a career he doggedly pursued in the last, debt-ridden decade of his abbreviated and disappointment plagued life. His much-maligned, ultra-low-budget movie career already in the doldrums by the end of the 1950s, Eddie (barely) kept body and soul together as a writer for hire in the 1960s and 1970s, using his verdant imagination and formidable typing skills to churn out a seemingly inexhaustible supply of scripts for anyone willing to give him a few bucks for his troubles. Generally, though not always, the check-writers were men in the pornography business. The smut industry was by then clearing important legal hurdles and closing in on acceptability if not respectability after decades of legal and social suppression.

In the 1960s, putting his own directing dreams and attendant pride temporarily on the shelf, Ed wrote screenplays for such outside-the-mainstream filmmakers as Boris Petroff (Shotgun Wedding), Stephen C. Apostolof (Orgy of the Dead), Jacques Descent (Operation Redlight), Don Davis (Gunrunners), and surfer-boy-turned-smut-kingpin Ed DePriest (One Million AC/DC). These may not have been the kinds of movies Ed Wood truly wanted to make, nor was he even at the helm of them, but such relatively paltry assignments allowed him to stay at least tangentially connected to the movie industry he so loved. He came to Hollywood to make films, after all, and was determined to do so, whatever the circumstances. Something always trumps nothing, does it not?

During that same dismal decade of diminishing returns, Ed Wood also broke into the adult paperback market, starting in 1963 with his wildly eccentric yet also highly personal crime novel Killer in Drag (aka Black Lace Drag). That marvelously unhinged book set the template for the rest of Eddie's writing career: he'd give his editors and readers the sex and violence they demanded, at least usually, but not at the expense of his own particular fears, fetishes, obsessions, and quirks.

Under his own name, as well as a whole rainbow of pseudonyms like "Dick Trent" and "N.V. Jason," Eddie would produce dozens upon dozens of cheap, salacious softcover books, both fiction and non-fiction, for the rest of his life. One such volume, a 1966 tie-in novelization of Orgy of the Dead (published by Greenleaf Classics), was unique in that it incorporated a few of Eddie's previously-unpublished short stories, including "The Night the Banshee Cried" and "The Day the Mummy Returned."

By the late 1960s, Ed Wood was a busy if underpaid staff writer for Bernie Bloom's Pendulum Publishing, contributing truly oddball short stories to the company's many, many pornographic magazines (including Belly Button, Party Time, and Young Beavers). While a few of Ed's full-length novels staggered back into print in the 1990s, during a wave of nostalgia brought on by Tim Burton's 1994 biopic Ed Wood, those short stories went largely unseen and unread for decades.

Excerpt from my notes.
This year, Hollywood resident Bob Blackburn, co-heir of Ed Wood's estate, helped to change all of that by arranging with New York's O/R Books to publish Blood Splatters Quickly: The Collected Stories of Edward D. Wood, Jr., an anthology with thirty-three of Eddie's short stories dating from 1969 to 1975. The vast majority of these were originally published by the late Bernie Bloom in the magazines he produced through his Pendulum, Calga, and Gallery imprints, all of which operated out of the same office on West Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles.

Since October 29 of this year, I have been very thoroughly reviewing the contents of this newly-published volume, story by story, starting with Bob's own affectionate introduction and then covering each individual title, from the Tales of the Crypt-esque curtain raiser "Scream Your Bloody Head Off" to the haunted and haunting "Final Curtain," which was adapted from the script of an unsuccessful TV pilot Ed had written in the 1950s.

Having studied and analyzed this material for over a month, I can truthfully say I have garnered a great deal of new insight into the so-called "muddled mind" of Edward D. Wood, Jr. This isn't a case of "forget everything you thought you knew about Ed Wood." No, the stories here build on themes and ideas already present in his previously-known film scripts and novels, as well as mirroring certain events in his own life, including his experience as a Marine in World War II and his long, slow descent into alcoholism.

Rather, reading Blood Splatters Quickly, is like watching an artist take a very basic line drawing and add a lot of shading and cross-hatching to it so that the picture becomes more vivid and complex. If nothing else, Eddie's stories offer a more direct pipeline between author and audience than any movie ever could. Ed Wood may have thought he was put on this earth to direct movies, just like his idol Orson Welles, but perhaps his true purpose was to write.

On the page, Eddie could really expound upon his pet themes and launch into qausi-poetic, pseudo-philosophical diatribes to a greater extent than he could even in his famously disorganized screenplays. In fact, my desire to keep track of all of these threads was what led me to write about these stories individually rather than collectively. I started taking a yellow legal pad with me on the train to work so I could take notes on each story, carefully marking down each appearance of an angora sweater and every reference to such prime Wood motifs as thunder, lightning, and snakes. I knew that if I just wrote one big "Ed Wood Wednesdays" article about Blood Splatters Quickly, those kinds of details would get lost in the mix. A one-story-at-a-time approach was the only viable option.

So what did I learn about Ed Wood from these forty-year-old magazine articles, whose main purpose at the time of their original publication was to fill up pages between pictures of naked women (or, in the case of Bernie Bloom's gay-themed magazines like Boy Friends and Boy Play, pictures of naked men)? Plenty. Here are some general conclusions I can draw about Ed Wood based on the stories in Blood Splatters Quickly:

The keywords of Blood Splatters.
CONCLUSION #1: Cross dressing was no mere hobby for Ed.

In Ed Wood, Mad Genius, critic Rob Craig accuses Wood biographer Rudolph Grey of sensationalizing Eddie's transvestism in the book Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. In interviews, Ed's widow, the late Kathy Wood, occasionally tried to downplay her husband's penchant for feminine attire. 

In truth, it would be nearly impossible to overstate Ed Wood's nearly all-consuming monomania for women's clothing, particularly bras, panties, nightgowns, and negligees. There is scarcely a story in Blood Splatters Quickly which does not pause to describe the outfits worn either by women or by cross-dressing men, like the tortured antihero of the title tale, who dons his murdered sister's outfits with the desperation of a heroin junkie craving his next fix. 

What also emerges from the pages of Blood Splatters Quickly is Ed's preference for anything soft and feminine, from a heavy emphasis on the color pink (his favorite) to numerous mentions of such sensual materials as angora, marabou, satin, and silk. So pervasive were these thoughts that Eddie even took pains to point out how plush the interiors of the coffins in his stories were.

CONCLUSION #2: Ed was really feeling the impact of his years when he wrote these stories. 

I took the liberty of doing a keyword density analysis of the text of Blood Splatters Quickly to see which terms Eddie used most often in his writing. Words like "hell," "night," "eyes," and "body" all placed high on the list, but the #1 keyword in the book was "time," which popped up on 252 separate occasions. A half-dead Bela Lugosi had waxed poetic about "the endless reaches of time" in Glen or Glenda? back in 1953, and it's interesting and instructive to see how the years had weighed upon Eddie by the time he wrote these stories roughly 20 years later. 

Ed would have been his late forties and early fifties when these articles first appeared, but decades of alcoholism and poverty had taken a heavy toll on both his body and his mind. Many of the best stories in this collection, appropriately, are about middle-aged men like himself: hard drinkers trapped in a purgatory of disappointment and defeat. See: "To Kill a Saturday Night," "Just One Question," "Pray for Rain," etc.

CONCLUSION #3: Alcohol was never far from Ed Wood's mind. 

Critic Rob Craig also accused Rudolph Grey of paying too much morbid attention to Ed Wood's alcoholism throughout Nightmare of Ecstasy. Again, though, I feel that this charge is unwarranted because alcoholism is the central fact of Edward Davis Wood, Jr.'s life and career. How could its importance in Ed's story possibly be exaggerated? Alcohol influenced seemingly everything Eddie did as an artist and as a man. The nostril-stinging stench of rotgut whiskey clings stubbornly to these stories. 

Saloons, bars, liquor stores, and cocktail lounges are among Eddie's favorite settings, and the consumption of alcohol is the favorite activity of his characters, eclipsing even sex and murder. This ranges from mere social drinking ("The Autograph") to more worrisome intoxication ("To Kill a Saturday Night"), plus the age-old tradition of men gathering in some communal location to swap stories and bond over booze ("Craps," "Epitaph for the Village Drunk"). And from his descriptive passages, it's clear that Ed was concerned about the long-term effects alcoholism can have on the body. Not that there's any mention of quitting here, mind you.

CONCLUSION #4: Ed was experiencing a lot of domestic turmoil in the 1970s. 

One thing which is rare to find in Ed Wood's work is the positive depiction of a heterosexual couple, i.e. a man and a woman who not only share a physical attraction but who also enjoy each other's company and get along well together. Even in 1953's optimistic Glen or Glenda?, in which the central couple (Ed Wood and Dolores Fuller) does eventually find domestic bliss after many tribulations, there is the "divorce court" montage and the cautionary tale of poor Johnny (Charles Crafts) whose shrewish wife leaves him after catching him in drag. 

By 1965, Eddie had seemingly lost all hope for domestic accord. His script for Orgy of the Dead has the central hetero couple (William Bates and Pat Barrington) squabbling with each other from the very first scene onward, only achieving an uneasy peace in the last five minutes. In real life, Eddie's own marriage to Kathy Wood was famously tumultuous, and hair-raising anecdotes about their volcanic arguments pepper the back half of Nightmare of Ecstasy

Appropriately, then, Blood Splatters Quickly is filled with stories of domestic discord and domestic abuse, even murder in the case of "Scream Your Bloody Head Off." When wives and live-in girlfriends aren't nagging the men in their lives ("Just One Question"), they're being used as human punching bags, as in the truly upsetting "2 X Double." Living with Eddie could not have been easy.

CONCLUSION #5: Ed was as obsessed with death as he was with booze or angora. 

Of course, murder is a common plot device in horror and crime fiction alike, and Ed Wood assayed both genres as a writer. It's not surprising, then, that his stories are dripping with death. But Eddie's death fetish -- and, believe me, "fetish" is the appropriate word -- goes way beyond what you'd expect from the author of grisly pulp fiction. This is clearly a man who spent far too much time brooding over his own demise and speculating about what happens to us after we expire.

He explores the topic from all angles, from the poetic ("The Night the Banshee Cried") to the practical ("Into My Grave"). Ed knew all too well what happened to bodies buried in the ground, and he devotes many paragraphs to descriptions of rotting, stinking flesh and well-fed maggots. But he was also concerned with loftier issues, like what happens to our souls after we die and how we'll be remembered by those left behind. Stories like "Craps" and "Epitaph for the Village Drunk" read like preemptive auto-obituaries. Beyond this, Eddie was clearly fixated on all the trappings that surround death, fawning over them with the care and attention of a rabid baseball card collector. This lifelong Dracula superfan could positively fawn over gravediggers, cemeteries, tombstones, undertakers, and caskets. 

Sex and death frequently overlap in Ed Wood's short stories.

Necrophilia is another key theme running through Blood Splatters Quickly, with sex and death hopelessly intertwined like knotted-up shoelaces in many of these stories. The protagonist of "In the Stony Lonesome" takes his dates to the graveyard, while the titular bordello of "The Whorehouse Horror" is conveniently cemetery-adjacent. These stories make explicit the necrophilia implicit in films like Plan 9 from Outer Space.

CONCLUSION #6: For a writer of pornography, eroticism was not Ed's specialty. 

I don't know what the man's business practices were, and I assume he paid poor Eddie a pittance, but publisher Bernie Bloom must be commended for the amount of creative freedom he gave Ed Wood. Bloom's magazines were so-called "stroke books," intended as aids to masturbation, yet the stories Eddie turned in to him were often grotesquely anti-erotic. 

Off the top of my head, I can only think of a handful of stories from Blood Splatters Quickly in which the sex is consensual, mutually enjoyable, and free from violence and horror. The two stories which come the closest to being "sexy" are both about the erotic awakening of female characters. There's "Taking Off," in which a bored small-town girl discovers her parents and neighbors having an orgy, and "Sex Star," in which an unsatisfied housewife finds fulfillment as a porno actress. At least these women seem to be having fun. 

Otherwise, Blood Splatters Quickly is a sexual chamber of horrors, from the disease-ridden hookers in "The Whorehouse Horror" to the crude, repulsive, and obese lesbian bar owner in "Calamity Jane Loves Hosenose Kate Loves Cattle Anne." Ed writes frequently about women in the sex trade, including strippers ("Flowers for Flame LeMarr") and prostitutes ("Private Girl"), but his point is usually how harshly women age in these professions and how cruel and insensitive men can be toward them. 

Meanwhile, Ed's most positive depiction of a homosexual tryst occurs in "The Autograph," but it's difficult to imagine readers deriving any real sexual stimulation from that story, since it begins with a lengthy anecdote about flatulence.

Lesbianism in "Calamity Jane."
CONCLUSION #7: Ed's feelings toward homosexuality were tough to figure. 

I would love to tell you that Ed Wood was decades ahead of his time in depicting gay and lesbian characters and that Blood Splatters Quickly is a milestone in LGBT literature. Uh, nope and nope. 

"I, Warlock" depicts some kind of sinister, supernatural gay-recruitment ring with Satan himself in charge. "Superfruit" and "Missionary (Position) Impossible" culminate with silly punchlines based on derogatory slang terms for gay men. The aforementioned lesbian bar owner "Hosenose Kate" is truly repellent and unsanitary. Like his latter-day movies, Ed Wood's short stories are populated by limp-wristed sissies and tough-talking bull-dykes. 

And yet, despite all this, I'm not ready to call Ed Wood a homophobe or gay basher. One consistent theme in his stories is that there are gay men and women who are comfortable with their sexual identities and just want to be afforded the same treatment as anyone else. "Hosenose Kate" feels no shame about her sexual preference, nor does the gay cowboy actor in "The Autograph." And even in "Missionary (Position) Impossible," the story's one gay character at least seems to be happy with his life, while the prudish hetero missionaries are revealed as fools. 

Look, I'm not nominating Ed for any GLAAD awards here. But taking both the tenor of the times (consider the man who was in the White House in the early 1970s) and Ed's own political conservatism into account, the stories in Blood Splatters Quickly are remarkably open-minded and forgiving when it comes to homosexuality. Besides, you know that old excuse, "Some of my best friends are gay?" Well, it manifestly applies to the social circle of Ed Wood. Two words, people: Bunny Breckenridge.

I suppose I cannot end an article of this nature without giving you my picks for the best stories to be found in Blood Splatters Quickly. This is a tough task, as Eddie was extremely varied as a writer, and the stories in this collection run the gamut from wild, outrageous camp to truly well-observed fiction. But after some careful consideration, here are five particular favorites:
5. "Breasts of the Chicken" 
4. "The Gory Details" 
3. "Pray for Rain" 
2. "Scene of the Crime" 
1. "To Kill a Saturday Night"
Honorable mentions: "Blood Splatters Quickly," "Craps," "Never a Stupid Reflection," "Just One Question," "Calamity Jane Loves Hosenose Kate Loves Cattle Anne," "Epitaph for the Village Drunk," and "Scream Your Bloody Head Off."

NEXT: My long-delayed review of the movie The Young Marrieds (1971)