Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 103: "The Only House" (1972)

Ed Wood recycles the same story a third time in his 1972 novel The Only House.

Ed Wood's The Only House
If you're a fan of Star Wars (1977), you really owe it to yourself someday to listen to the official 1981 radio adaptation produced for NPR. While the film runs just over two hours, the radio series spans 13 half-hour episodes. The pace of the NPR version is obviously more leisurely, but you get to know the characters more intimately, certain plot points are explained in greater detail, and there is ample time for material that the movie simply had to skip for the sake of expediency. While Luke Skywalker's friend Biggs Darklighter is a fairly major character in the radio version, for instance, he's barely a blip in the film. Plus we actually get to hear from Princess Leia's adoptive father, who is only mentioned but not seen in the first movie.

I was reminded of that Star Wars radio drama while reading Ed Wood's neglected 1972 novel The Only House. This was Ed's third iteration of the same basic story. For reasons unknown, certainly not marketplace demand, he kept revisiting this material in different formats. In 1971, it had been both a short story called "Come Inn" and a feature film called Necromania. What could a third version of this material possibly have to offer? Well, it's a lot like that NPR Star Wars series. By reading Wood's novel, you get to spend much more time with the main characters, really learning what makes them tick, plus there are several added episodes that do not occur in the film at all.

Despite its historical interest, The Only House is not one of Ed's better-remembered paperbacks. It was issued by Little Library Press, the same publishing firm that released Ed's other novels To Make a Homo (1971) and Mary-Go-Round (1972). In a previous article for this series, Greg Dziawer described Little Library as an imprint of Bernie Bloom's Pendulum Publishing. An intriguing article in the July 20, 1971 edition of The Atlanta Constitution traces the company back to Atlanta, GA and the notorious criminal Michael Thevis. Apparently, Thevis was ripping off books from other publishers and re-releasing them under the Little Library Press name.

This article from 1971 mentions Little Library Press.

Books about Ed Wood haven't had too much to say about The Only House. Ed Wood's Sleaze Paperbacks (2013) by Michael Daley and Johan Kugelberg skips it entirely, while David C. Hayes' Muddled Mind: The Complete Works of Edward D. Wood, Jr.  (2001) mentions it briefly but does not offer a review or analysis. Rudolph Grey's Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. (1992) actually contains a half-page excerpt from the novel, describing the first appearance of the mysterious, coffin-dwelling necromancer Madam Heles. In the bibliography section, Grey tries to sort out exactly what this book is, giving an accurate-enough summary of the plot and attempting to connect it to Wood's adult movies of the era. To be fair to Grey, those titles were far less accessible in 1992 than they are now. For the record, Ed's novel The Only House does have the same basic plot and characters as his film Necromania, but it is not connected in any noticeable way to the films The Young Marrieds (1972) or The Only House in Town (1970).

Grey's summary subtly points out the biggest difference between the novel and the film and short story that had preceded it. Namely, our main characters Danny and Shirley are actually married in this version. Their union has not been "fully consummated," however, due to their various sexual hangups. And so, as in the other two tellings, they visit the creepy mansion of Madam Heles for some supernatural assistance. (The spelling of the necromancer's name varies from "Madame" to "Madam," but Wood mostly uses the latter in this novel.) In the Necromania movie, the sorceress lives in what appears to be a very nice, upscale neighborhood in the Hollywood hills. In this novel, however, her home—designated 9 Devil Lane—is described as "a musty old mansion" situated "at the end of a cul-de-sac with no other houses... only wild brush, trees, and thickets of an extremely run down area."

Danny and Shirley reveal their pasts in this novel.
What really sets this novel apart from the previous movie and short story is Ed Wood's frequent use of flashbacks. The Only House is so heavy on remembrances that it practically qualifies as Eddie's answer to Proust's In Search of Lost Time. Just like Wood's previous novel Drag Trade (1967), The Only House can be seen as a book-length rumination on how our early experiences with sex affect our adult lives. We learn so much about these characters that isn't even hinted in the Necromania film. Right away, for example, we find out that Shirley grew up in a strict, puritanical household (shades of that other Shirley from Orgy of the Dead) and that she had lost her virginity to a young man named Tommy Kemper. She'd even gotten pregnant from that encounter and given the baby up as soon as it was born. This underlying trauma is at the heart of Shirley's current sexual frigidity.

We also learn about Shirley's predilection for voyeurism. As a teenager, she'd learned a lot about human sexuality by watching "two human creatures she knew as Billy Haney and Sheila Appperson." Billy and Sheila sneak off from a church picnic to hook up, and Shirley watches them with intense interest. Later, Shirley reveals that she learned about lesbianism while spying on two girls named Mona and Sally at the local "Lover's Lane" in her hometown. Ed Wood gives several pages of the novel over to Mona and Sally. It's almost as if he's trying to incorporate an entire short story about these random characters into his novel to pad the book to full length. Incidentally, these flashbacks reveal that Shirley came of age in upstate New York.

Danny's problem, meanwhile, is premature ejaculation. Wood explains that Danny, who is handsome and "built like a bull," climaxes so easily and quickly that he never even has the opportunity to have sex with his young bride. While staying at the abode of Madam Heles, Danny has ample opportunity to practice lovemaking with several beautiful women, including the luscious Tanya, but never demonstrates much staying power until the book's final passages, when (as in all previous iterations) Danny receives personal instruction from Madam Heles herself in her coffin.

Though his past isn't nearly as detailed as that of Shirley, Danny also gets his own flashback in The Only House. In Chapter Six, after he and Shirley fail to make love yet again, Danny remembers the sexual instructions he received as a child from an older boy named Bobby Hepper. Things get confusing, though, as Danny's name somehow changes to "Jimmy" for the duration of this flashback. The Bobby Hepper incident is also written in a pseudo-hayseed dialect and contains a few references to barns, suggesting that Danny grew up in a rural setting. This really feels like an unrelated short story that was shoehorned into the book.

Maria Arnold as Tanya in Necromania.
What was most surprising to me is that The Only House actually sketches in a backstory for Tanya, the alluring young woman who essentially runs Madam Heles' house while the mistress herself dozes in a coffin all day. In Necromania and "Come Inn," Tanya is a complete mystery, a blank slate. Not so in the novel. In this book, we learn about how Tanya lost her virginity at the age of 13 to a drifter named Gypsy Louie, described as "a handsome, olive skinned man with a beautifully trimmed mustache."

We also get to meet Tanya's constantly bickering parents, John and Daisy. They had a slew of children, of whom Tanya, originally known as Ruth, was the oldest. Tanya's parents have a volatile, violent relationship, and I couldn't help but think about the author's own marriage to Kathy Wood. This portion of the book also allows Ed to express his revulsion at the thought of having children, very similar to his 1971 short story, "Taking Off." And, like that story, The Only House includes a recommendation of using the soft drink 7-Up as a post-coital douche. A quote from the novel: "7-Up, you shake it up good and jam it right up the old pussy and it takes care of everything." Sure, Ed. Whatever you say.

The Only House is one of those novels that bears Ed Wood's own, real name on the front cover, and appropriately, it is highly indicative of his style as a writer. All the important Wood-ian tropes are in evidence here, right down to an obsession with death and maggots. Gypsy Louie improbably compares Tanya to a maggot and means it as a compliment. Only in an Ed Wood book! Again, we have the fixation on certain fabrics and textiles: silk, satin, nylon, angora, even marabou. Again, we have repeated descriptions of nighties and negligees, particularly of the see-through or sheer variety. Again, we have a comparison of "butch" and "fluff" lesbians. Again, we have characters experiencing sudden hot and cold sensations in their bodies. At one point, Wood even has Danny say, "I tried, honestly I tried," just like Glen in Glen or Glenda (1953). And let's not forget Eddie's trademark "pink clouds." They're here, too.

After one reading, I'm not sure that I would put The Only House in the top tier of Eddie's novels. If you're exploring his longer literary works, I'd definitely steer you toward Killer in Drag (1963) or Death of a Transvestite (1967) first. Those are much more cohesive and coherent. I continue to believe that the short story form was Ed's true forte as a writer. Very often, The Only House feels like Eddie has taken a short story's worth of plot and expanded it to an entire book by adding numerous other short stories that barely feel integrated into the overall narrative. The best part of this book is that it allows the reader to get to know some of the characters, particularly Shirley and Tanya, much better than the film does. When I rewatch Necromania, I will undoubtedly flash back to this book and the insights it contains about those women.