Friday, December 31, 2021

Ed Wood's When the Topic is Sex (2021): An introduction

When the Topic is Sex (2021). Cover illustration by Evan Quiring.

Well, it's that time again. A new compilation of Ed Wood's extensive magazine work is upon us, the third of its kind in recent years. This time, it's called When the Topic is Sex, and it is now available from BearManor Media in hardcover or paperback editions. Like the two previous Wood compendiums, Blood Splatters Quickly (2014) and Angora Fever (2019), When the Topic is compiled and edited by Bob Blackburn, the Los Angeles resident who befriended Eddie's widow Kathy Wood in her later years and became co-heir of her estate. 

A new book to devour.
It's nothing short of a small miracle that these volumes exist at all. Bob Blackburn curated these books by purchasing vintage adult magazines containing Eddie's work on the secondary market, sometimes at considerable expense. Ed Wood fanatics owe him a debt of gratitude for that. Simply put, Bob tracked these stories down so that we could enjoy them in the 21st century. Otherwise, a vast swath of Ed Wood's literary output might've been lost to time.

I've repeatedly said that fans who want to familiarize themselves with Ed Wood's writing style—and thus with the man himself—should pick up Blood Splatters Quickly or Angora Fever and read his short stories, most of them written in the early 1970s when Wood was a penniless alcoholic. From these sex-and-violence-strewn tales, you'll get a sense of Eddie's quirks as an author: his stilted syntax, his oddball approach to punctuation, his often surreal and meandering plots, and his love of particular words and phrases. Above all, those short stories demonstrate how Eddie could direct nearly any subject toward his three great muses: death, booze, and women's clothing.

It's true that Eddie churned out dozens of novels in the 1960s and '70s, but these are usually very expensive and difficult to find. Besides, many fans may find these books challenging to read because Ed Wood (he of the notorious "muddled mind") had trouble maintaining a coherent plot over the course of a couple hundred pages. His novels tend to get bogged down with flashbacks and digressions. The great thing about the short story form is that it forces Ed to stay at least somewhat focused on the task at hand. He knows he has to bring his plot to some kind of conclusion after a few pages, so he's more apt to get to the point. Having read many of Ed's novels, I can say with confidence that the short stories contain all of the author's idiosyncrasies, just in a more digestible form.

What sets When the Topic is Sex apart from Blood Splatters Quickly and Angora Fever is that those previous compilations focused on Eddie's short stories, i.e. his brief works of fiction, some of them supernatural. The articles anthologized in this new book, however, are examples of Ed Wood's plentiful but overlooked nonfiction. I use the term "nonfiction" with caveats. As Bob Blackburn points out in his explanatory foreword, some of Ed's supposedly "factual" articles were based on real-world research, while others were entirely concocted from the author's alcohol-soaked imagination. 

Bob further maintains that Eddie's nonfiction articles "more than his short fiction really show more of the real person of Ed Wood in them." I don't know if that's necessarily true—it doesn't gibe with my experience as a reader—but I will say that Wood's nonfiction has a tone of its own, distinct from his novels and short stories. He's slightly more stiff and formal when writing this material, but he's also more optimistic and even-handed. Think back to Glen or Glenda (1953) when kindly Dr. Alton (Timothy Farrell) starts narrating in the style of a high school civics film:
Give this man satin undies, a dress, a sweater and a skirt, or even the lounging outfit he has on, and he's the happiest individual in the world. He can work better, think better. He can play better, and he can be more of a credit to his community and his government because he is happy.
That's the Ed Wood who emerges from the nonfiction. You can also see this side of Ed's personality in the unsigned editorials he wrote for Pendulum Publishing's adult magazines. Greg Dziawer recently wrote about how those "idealistic" articles differ in tone from Eddie's seedy, often downbeat fiction.

Author and publisher Bill Shute further sets the stage with an excellent essay called "Edward D. Wood, Jr.: Professional Writer," which serves as the introduction to When the Topic is Sex. In describing the nonfiction articles, Shute writes: "Wood comes off as thoughtful, measured, and wanting to consider and respect differing viewpoints." Shute also asserts that these allegedly fact-based articles allowed Eddie "to basically riff on a theme in a unified way." 

As you might guess from the compilation's title, many of the articles in this book are about sex (and changing sexual mores), but Eddie sounded off about a number of topics, including the film industry and even school busing. Shute warns us that "some of this material is extremely politically incorrect by today's standards." (Bob Blackburn gives a similar warning in his foreword, though the term he uses is "squirm inducing.") Longtime Wood fans should be able to handle it, though—especially those brave souls who have been willing to explore Eddie's pornographic work, both on screen and in print. Once you've seen Eddie strip down to his jockey shorts in Love Feast (1969), very little should shock you.

Bob Blackburn has pieced When the Topic is Sex together from over 80 individual articles, originally published between 1971 and 1973 in various adult magazines. The two previous Wood compilation books provided many hours of entertainment for me, and I am confident that When the Topic is Sex will do the same. I hope you'll join me as I make my way through this volume and share my thoughts on it. Perhaps along the way, I'll come to agree with Bob Blackburn that these nonfiction articles bring us closer to the "real" Ed Wood.