Friday, April 19, 2019

Ed Wood's ANGORA FEVER: "Once Upon a Gargoyle" (1973)

A gargoyle plays a major role in today's story.

NOTE: This article continues my coverage of Angora Fever: The Collected Short Stories of Edward D. Wood, Jr. (BearManor Bare, 2019).
A stone gargoyle in New York.

The story: "Once Upon a Gargoyle," originally published in Gallery's Fantastic Annual (1973).

Synopsis:  A young secretary in an angora sweater screams when she spots someone who seems poised to jump from the high-rise building across the street. The potential jumper turns out to be a fat, unattractive 14-year-old named Johnny Limbo. A crowd gathers at street level as the young man perches himself on a stone gargoyle. Reporters and rescue workers show up. Some hard-boiled detectives, Parker and Lewis, try to reason with Johnny, as does a priest. Unwilling to negotiate, Johnny defiantly masturbates in public and says he's going to jump because he can't get a girlfriend. When all hope seems lost, the girl in the angora sweater volunteers to have sex with Johnny. But fate has other plans for the portly young man.

Wood trademarks: Secretary at the water cooler (cf. Glen or Glenda); angora sweater (cf. "The Responsibility Game," "Where Did Charlie Get on the Train?"); reporter at the scene of a violent public spectacle (cf. "Scene of the Crime"); tough-talking cops, both uniformed officers and plainclothes detectives (cf. The Sinister Urge, Night of the Ghouls); exploitative nature of the press (cf. Glen or Glenda).

Excerpt: "Johnny Limbo wasn't a very good-looking boy. He was much too overweight. His black wavy hair was sparse giving the sign he would be bald by the time he reached twenty. His arms appeared too long to match the rest of his body, and his legs too short and stubby to give him any great stride. But he did appear healthy in every other aspect… only his mind wouldn’t have been classified as very healthy at that moment."

Reflections: Ah, the man on the ledge, about to jump. A staple of movies, TV shows, cartoons, and comics from time immemorial. This tense situation can turn up in serious stories, as in 2016's Man on a Ledge, but I remember the comical ones best. Shelley Berman had a great bit in his act about a woman hanging from the ledge of a department store. Beleaguered newsman Les Nessman (Richard Sanders) wound up on the ledge of the Osgood R. Flimm Building on WKRP in Cincinnati. The Coen Brothers' The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) starts with terminally confused Tim Robbins about to "jelly up the sidewalk." And then there was the time Beavis and Butt-head somehow managed to talk down a bank officer who'd been busted for embezzlement and was going to end it all by diving from the roof.

It's such an obvious high-stakes, life-or-death scenario that it's no wonder that writers keep coming back to it. And I have to give proper credit to Ed Wood for doing something different with this well-worn trope. "Once Upon a Gargoyle" is not like any man-on-a-ledge story I'd ever read, seen, or heard. The use of the grotesque gargoyle statue itself is a novel touch, as is calling the main character Johnny Limbo -- "limbo" being the nebulous domain that is neither heaven nor hell. And usually the guy on the ledge isn't 14, nor is he bemoaning his lack of a girlfriend. Another shocking aspect of "Once Upon a Gargoyle" is its sexual candor, particularly in its graphic depiction of what Johnny chooses to do to himself in full view of the crowd.

Tonally, I'd describe this story as very, very dark comedy. It's an under-reported aspect of his personality, but Ed Wood could have a devilish sense of humor. Given his unflattering description and uncouth (to say the least) behavior, Johnny Limbo is not a particularly sympathetic character, so I doubt we're supposed to be too concerned about his mental or physical well-being. His misfortune is simply for our amusement. Does that make us no better than the gawkers, the cynical cops, and the vulture-like reporters whom Ed places at the scene?

Next: "Mice on a Cold Cellar Floor" (1972)