Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 124: Drowning in a sea of Ed Wood

Ed Wood wrote way too much.

When I started this project in 2013, my humble goal was to review the 25 or so Ed Wood movies I had on DVD at the time. Basically, I was looking for an excuse to watch everything in the Big Box of Wood collection from S'more Entertainment, since I'd gotten that set as a gift several months previously but hadn't watched most of it. 

Honestly, I didn't plan on reviewing Eddie's books. This was to be a movie-focused series. Besides, the books weren't even readily available, apart from four titles (Killer in Drag, Death of a Transvestite, Devil Girls, and the posthumously-published Hollywood Rat Race) that had been reprinted in the '90s. I reviewed those outliers and then went back to discussing Ed's movies. Still, though, those other Wood books were always there, beckoning to me.

Thinking back, I probably learned of Ed Wood's writing career from Ted Newsom's documentary Look Back in Angora (1994), where it's briefly mentioned by narrator Gary Owens. Around that same time, Rudolph Grey's book Nightmare of Ecstasy (1992), which includes a Wood bibliography alongside his filmography, gave me a true sense of just how much Eddie had written in the '60s and '70s -- novels, short stories, nonfiction, etc. Grey helpfully listed dozens of titles and even provided tempting synopses and excerpts.

Fast forward to 2021. Because of this series, I've been the grateful recipient of many of Ed Wood's books. Not the pricey vintage paperbacks, you understand, but some of the (circa 2009) reprints from Ramble House that were quickly withdrawn from the marketplace. Recently, I've been making my way through a lot of them (about 30 as of today), one right after the other. I am figuratively drowning in a sea of Ed Wood. I haven't approached this in any kind of systematic or sensible way, and I for damned sure have not been taking notes. 

Because of this ramshackle approach, Ed Wood's books have blurred together in my mind. For instance, Eddie wrote at least three carnival-based novels: Mary Go Round, Side Show Siren, and Carnival Piece. You will probably not be shocked to learn that these three books (all enthusiastically recommended, by the way) contain numerous shared plot elements. There's always a traveling carnival that's stopped outside some hick town for days on end because of rain. There's usually a local girl who wants to escape her humdrum life so she joins up with the show. She'll take up with a macho guy who holds some position of authority within the carnival. A murder occurs. Then more murders, each more gruesome than the last. Some fat-bellied local sheriff starts poking around, asking questions and threatening everyone. Meanwhile, the sideshow freaks and other carnival performers exchange gossip and accusations while occasionally being bumped off.  It all builds to a splashy, violent climax in which the killer dies.

Then, there are Ed's many so-called nonfiction books, which are mainly pseudo-educational tomes about sex, violence, sexual violence, and violent sex. Largely forgoing any real research, Eddie would string together a bunch of fabricated vignettes and try to pass them off as "case histories." Drag Trade is like that. So are The Gay Underworld; The Oralists; Sex, Shrouds and Caskets; Suburbia Confidential; and probably many more titles in the Wood bibliography. These volumes really read more like short story compilations, only themed around a particular topic like necrophilia, cross-dressing, or religion.

In compiling these "case history"-style books, Eddie frequently plagiarized himself. The cartoon character Mr. Peabody once proudly declared, "I never chew my cabbage twice." Ed, on the other hand, would gladly chew his cabbage three, four, or five times if he had to. Tasked with churning out reams of text at a daunting pace, Eddie would revisit the same topics again and again, and he'd shamelessly recycle plots until they were threadbare. 

There's one particular tale that Ed repackages at least three times (probably more), each time passed off as being true. I'll try not to spoil it too much. In short, it concerns a struggling young doctor who inherits his uncle's mortuary business. The new undertaker maximizes profits in various unscrupulous, illegal ways, chiefly by recycling the dead bodies he receives. The flesh goes to dog food companies, the blood to fertilizer manufacturers, and the bones to hospitals. It strikes me only now that this story is a perfect metaphor for Ed Wood's creative process.

Another oft-repeated tale in Wood's books is that of Elizabeth Báthory (1560-1614), the Hungarian noblewoman who allegedly bathed in the blood of girls in order to keep herself looking young and beautiful. Wood presents her as a sort of real-life Dracula and recycles her ghoulish legend in several volumes. Eddie is likewise fascinated with the saga of religion-crazed serial killer Albert Fish (1870-1936), who committed any number of atrocities but is most notorious for preying upon children. He, too, is a kind of Dracula figure. I get the feeling that Eddie might've brought up Elizabeth Báthory or Albert Fish in casual conversation with very little or no coaxing.

Diving headfirst into Eddie's literary canon has not really changed  my opinion of him, but it has enhanced my understanding of the man. I'm constantly amazed by how Ed could steer any subject or any genre toward his three great muses: death, booze, and (especially) women's clothing. It really didn't matter what kind of book he was writing; eventually, his characters would be obsessing over cemeteries, gin, or angora sweaters. Probably all three. I'm sure this caused confusion and consternation among his readers. ("I just wanted a nice novel about graverobbing! What's all this nonsense about pullover sweaters?")

To those who would likewise dare to plumb the depths of Ed Wood's literary work, I would say to proceed with caution. He tends to write about the same topics in the same ways over and over again. It becomes numbing after 15 or 20 books. Occasionally, you'll get an oddball like Purple Thighs or Hell Chicks to liven things up. Both of those deal with subcultures -- hippies and bikers, respectively -- that Ed Wood knew almost nothing about. Among Ed's more entertainingly bizarre books: The Sexecutives, The Only House, Orgy of the Dead, Security Risk, and the Watts novels, plus the aforementioned carnival trilogy. If you can track those down, they're well worth your time.

But, really, Wood's readers should be prepared to wallow in the mire of sexual depravity. If you still think of Ed Wood as the fresh-faced, somewhat naïve dreamer from Tim Burton's 1994 biopic, you may find your illusions shattered by such truly sordid and nasty books as The Oralists, Raped in the Grass, Bloodiest Sex Crimes of History, The Nazi Field Whores, and the grim Prison Passion. The pseudo-scientific The Oralists (credited to Spenser & West, obvious stand-ins for Masters & Johnson), in particular, contains material that many readers will find distasteful, perhaps even traumatizing. 

Unless you are a true Wood completist, my recommendation remains the same: start with the two excellent short story compilations, Blood Splatters Quickly and Angora Fever. Those anthologies give you a good idea of who Eddie was as an author. All of his pet topics, motifs, themes, and obsessions are there, but they're presented in more manageable doses. And if you find you don't like a particular story, another one is coming along in just a few pages.

The full-length books are recommended only for the sickos. The addicts. The hopheads in need of a fix. You know who you are. If that's you, have at 'em.