Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 81: 'Angora Fever: The Collected Short Stories of Edward D. Wood, Jr.' (2019)

Essential reading for Ed Wood fans.

NOTE: This article concludes my coverage of Angora Fever: The Collected Short Stories of Edward D. Wood, Jr. (BearManor Bare, 2019).

Ed Wood as he looked in the early 1970s.
The November 10, 1990 episode of Saturday Night Live contains a sketch called "Game Challengers" in which a Native American man (played by host Jimmy Smits) has to compete on a game show to win back his own people's ancient artifacts. These items, by all rights, should have been his for the asking, yet he's forced to answer trivia questions about The Brady Bunch to reclaim them, one at a time.

If you can understand the cosmic injustice at the heart of that sketch, you can sympathize with what Bob Blackburn went through to compile Angora Fever: The Collected Short Stories of Edward D. Wood, Jr. (2019). Bob befriended Ed's widow, Kathy, late in her life and became co-heir of the Wood estate when she died in 2006. In recent years, he has labored to bring some of Eddie's neglected short stories from the 1970s back into print. This has meant scouring auction sites like Ebay for pricey and rare back issues of adult magazines that are nearly half a century old by now.

In 2014, Bob collected 33 of Ed Wood's Nixon-era stories into an indispensable volume called Blood Splatters Quickly. For fans, it was nothing short of a revelation. Though he's mostly remembered today as a filmmaker, Ed chiefly supported himself as a writer for the last 15 years of his life. He was stunningly, mind-bogglingly prolific in the early 1970s, so there's a substantial body of work to study here. While his motives for writing these stories were mercenary rather than purely artistic, Eddie nevertheless managed to infuse these sex-and-violence-drenched tales with his own passions and eccentricities. In fact, this is some of his wildest and most personal work ever. Freed from the technical limitations of low-budget movies, Ed really let his mind run wild.

The new book cover.
And now, five years after Blood Splatters Quickly, we have a second volume of Ed Wood short stories—one nearly twice as long as the first. (That tracks, as this was originally supposed to be divided into two volumes, one dirty and the other not quite as dirty.) Bob Blackburn has given this collection the very appropriate title Angora Fever. What a cornucopia this book is! What a menagerie! Those fans who are mainly familiar with Ed through his movies will find echoes of Glen or Glenda and Plan 9 from Outer Space in nearly every story, if not every page. Those who crave more information on Solaranite, for instance, are invited to check out "Invasion of the Sleeping Flesh" from 1972. Those more interested in cross-dressing, meanwhile, are directed to 1973's "A Piece of Class."  (How about those titles, by the way? Could Ed pick 'em or what?)

You also catch numerous glimpses of Eddie's own life in these stories. Ed Wood was a notorious alcoholic for decades, and the pages of Angora Fever are practically soaked in booze. His characters down martinis and Scotches as if they were water, and they're forever going to bars and cocktail lounges, largely to numb the pain of existence. Eddie also knew well what it was like to be broke in L.A., and many of his characters (a motley assortment of bums, hookers, and psychopaths) are in the same boat, living in vermin-infested hovels and warming canned foods over hotplates. After reading about Ed's later years in Nightmare of Ecstasy, these passages seem very true to life. Eddie was in hell, and he wanted to show his readers around the place.

Some authors create worlds readers wish they could visit themselves. Who among J.K. Rowling's fans has not dreamed of touring Hogwarts? Generations of readers have yearned to see Carroll's Wonderland, Baum's Oz, and Tolkien's Middle Earth for themselves. But no sane person would want to live in the world Ed Wood creates in his fiction, not even for a weekend. His stories take place in a harsh, comfortless realm of back alleys, basement apartments, and fleabag motels where you have a better-than-average chance of being tortured, sexually assaulted, or even totally dismembered—possibly all in one night if you're really unlucky. In the spectrum of pulp writers, Ed Wood was even grosser and grungier than Jim Thompson, and he makes guys like Raymond Chandler and Jim Cain seem positively genteel in comparison.

A typical story in this collection.
The 60 stories in Angora Fever reintroduced me to Ed Wood's highly idiosyncratic writing style. Eddie was not a careful, cautious, or contemplative author. No, he just typed like a maniac and let his crazed imagination guide his fingers. Naturally, then, all of Eddie's fears and fetishes are on vivid display in this book. He was truly fixated beyond all reason on death and its trappings, from silk-lined caskets to the maggots that feast on corpses. (Did you know maggots had a particular smell? Ed sure did.) Death was never far from Ed Wood's mind. He had a dread horror of growing old, too, which leads me to believe that his own demise at age 54 was not necessarily the tragedy we think it was.

Anyone who has seen Glen or Glenda knows that Ed was obsessed with women's clothing and anything feminine. That carries through Angora Fever as well. Pink seems to have been his favorite color. He can't get over sweaters or miniskirts. He loves feathers, fur, fluff, fuzz, angora, marabou, nylon, silk, and satin. And, naturally, he spends many passages describing women's bodies. He is particularly focused on breasts, though his characters seem divided on what to do with breasts. Some want to suck on them, while others want to cut them off.

One quirk of Eddie's that I hadn't truly noticed before this was his habit of describing people's body temperatures. The character Bob (William Bates) in Orgy of the Dead describes feeling a "cold chill all over" after surviving a car accident near a cemetery. Ed Wood's characters get these strange chilly sensations a lot in these stories in Angora Fever, but they're just as liable to experience sudden hot flashes. Sometimes, they'll go from feeling very hot to very cold in an instant. I'm not sure why Eddie was always writing about these temperature fluctuations, but they're a major motif in his work. Maybe he was having similar feelings in reality.

I'll close out my coverage of Angora Fever by spotlighting five stories that truly stood out to me as a reader.

5. "Once Upon a Gargoyle" - Just a very odd, darkly funny little episode with a gruesome climax. I've seen lots of sitcom episodes and sketches about suicidal people on window ledges, but I've never seen anything quite like this.

4. "The Rue Morgue Revisited" - A near-total break from Ed Wood's usual authorial style as he streamlines and customizes a classic detective tale by Edgar Allan Poe. This is almost like fan-fiction, and it shows another side to Ed Wood's writing career.

3. "Time, Space and the Ship" - I can't tell if this science-fiction story is incredibly progressive or incredibly regressive. Either way, Ed Wood has written a story about butch lesbians conquering outer space, and I'm just glad this exists. You think I'm kidding with that summary? Read for yourself!

2. "Captain Fellatio Hornblower" - One of the more memorable characters to spring from the typewriter of Edward D. Wood, Jr. is Ralph H. Hornblower, a clever and crafty lawyer with a very particular clientele. This could have been a TV series!

1. "Trade Secrets" - Like O. Henry, Ed Wood loved to have twist endings in his short stories, and I can't think of any more effective than this one. The unusual setting helps, too, as we are far removed from the gutter. There are many stories in Angora Fever I wish had been adapted for the screen, and this tops the list.

Honorable mentions: "Mice on a Cold Cellar Floor," "The Exterminator," "Witches of Amau Ra," "Dial-A-Vision," "Spokes of the Wheel," "Invasion of the Sleeping Flesh," "Exotic Loves of the Vampire," and the completely revolting "The Greeks Had a Word for It."