Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 128: Some thoughts on 'Purple Thighs' (1968) and 'Forced Entry' (1974)

Two of Ed Wood's salacious novels: Purple Thighs and Forced Entry.

In November 2021, I reported to you that I was drowning in a sea of Ed Wood. What I meant by that was, I decided to read a bunch of Ed's novels and nonfiction books back to back over the course of just a few months. Why? Well, Eddie wrote a ton of books in his heyday, and if I'm ever going to understand this strange and complicated man, I have to make it through at least some portion of his vast literary canon. Why not just dive in headfirst and see what happens? 

Now, I don't own any of the rare and pricey paperbacks from the '60s and '70s, but a reader of this blog was kind enough to share with me some of the reprints from the extremely short-lived "Woodpile Press" series from 2009. Mainlining these volumes over the course of a few months was a real education (or Ed-ucation, I suppose), but the books tended to blend together in my mind. So recently, I decided to revisit some of these books and see if they made a stronger impression on me the second time around.

The edition of Wood on Acid that I consulted.
For whatever reason, I settled on a "Woodpile Press" volume entitled Wood on Acid, which contains the text of two full novels: Purple Thighs aka Lost Souls Delivered (1968) and Forced Entry (1974). I vaguely remembered both of these from the first time around, but a lot of the details had faded from my memory. They seemed like perfect candidates for revisiting. What did I think of them this time? Well...

Purple Thighs, Eddie's take on hippies and LSD, is definitely the more interesting and fun of the two novels. I think it helps that Eddie wrote it six years before Forced Entry. He was on the downward spiral by '68, for sure, but things weren't as dire as they were in '74. Ed Wood may not have been at the peak of freshness when he wrote Purple Thighs, but he hadn't completely curdled yet. Speaking of curdling, though, it's remarkable how much America soured between 1967 and 1968. We went from the Summer of Love to the Entire Year of Hate in a very short time. In its own cockeyed way, Ed's novel reflects this sad societal change.

The plot of Purple Thighs revolves around Adam, an honest, hard-working law student who just wants to get an education, darn it. He can't concentrate on his studies, though, because of all these darned dirty hippies loudly protesting against the war. (Seriously, in this book, Ed never passes up an opportunity to remark how filthy and foul-smelling the hippies are.) What's Adam to do? The only logical thing: drop out of school, ditch his nice girlfriend, and go "undercover" among the acid-dropping hippies. It's sort of like Ed Wood's variation on John Howard Griffin's Black Like Me (1961). Call it Hippie Like Me. Oh, by the way, there's a rather gratuitous framing device wherein Adam tells his adventures to a psychiatrist named Dr. Thyme Hammer, who's paying him for his time.

So, anyway, Adam goes to some hippie neighborhood -- I think it's supposed to be Haight-Ashbury, but Ed never really specifies -- and starts to blend in among the locals. Almost immediately, he meets and moves in with a groovy chick named Eve, who introduces him to the wonderful world of LSD-enhanced sex. Right from its bewildering first chapter, Ed's parody of the Book of Genesis, Purple Thighs is full of references to the biblical Adam and Eve. This makes sense because Kathy Wood said that her husband frequently took inspiration from the Good Book. The snake, the garden, the apple, they're all here in this novel, serving some vague allegorical purpose.

Even on acid, Adam is kind of a dullard, the sort of square-jawed, macho hero Eddie seemed to love to put in his stories. Fortunately, Purple Thighs has an outstanding supporting cast of characters, many of whom have truly asinine names straight out of an AIP biker flick. My favorite has to be Rigor Mortis, a local creep who dresses like The Phantom of the Opera and is toted around in a cheap coffin by his henchmen, Crisp, Crap, and Head. (Or was that Snap, Crackle, and Pop?) Rigor likes to be buried alive in a different spot every night, and his thugs begrudgingly comply... until it all inevitably goes wrong. And we mustn't forget Glory Girl, the friendly neighborhood drug pusher who turns out to have an incredible secret. I don't want to spoil the plot too much, but if Purple Thighs had been made into a movie (and it should have been), Ed Wood might've played this part himself.

Anyway, Adam and Eve's neighborhood is being ruined by a bunch of phonies who have moved in just to party, take drugs, have sex, and mooch off others. I couldn't help but think of the song "Who Needs the Peace Corps?" by Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention: "Every town must have a place where phony hippies meet. Psychedelic dungeons popping up on every street." I also thought about R. Crumb's comic, "I Remember the Sixties," in which he talks about the decline and fall of "the Haight." Eventually, Adam, Eve, and some of the more responsible hippies move away to some kind of quasi-utopian commune. I guess it's a happy ending. Ed Wood's contempt for the counterculture seeps through nearly every page of this novel, so it's nice that he shows at least a little leniency towards them in the book's final pages.

By the way, the book's original title, Lost Souls Delivered, is Ed Wood's punning variation on "LSD." He used the same title for an article in 1972. As for the new title, Purple Thighs, I think it's a reference to body painting, a practice that was popular among hippies in the late '60s. There's a brief body painting sequence in the novel in which a young woman's body is bedecked with garish colors.

Forced Entry
 is of another species altogether. It has no obvious connection to Purple Thighs that I can see, except that both were written by Ed Wood and contain lots of lurid sex scenes. Why these novels were paired, I cannot guess. Forced Entry has a lot more in common with Ed's film scripts from the early '70s, specifically Necromania (1971), The Young Marrieds (1972), and Drop Out Wife (1972). All those films center around bickering couples whose relationships are on the brink of collapse due to sex problems. Forced Entry is that kind of story yet again, but in novel form. The premise of this novel is that "sexual incompatibility" is a leading cause of divorce. That's an idea he stated often throughout the articles in When the Topic is Sex as well.

Our protagonist is Betty Summers, a "lovely" 23-year-old, angora-loving blonde whose marriage to her high school sweetheart, Ralph, is on the rocks because the couple has not been successful at making love in months. It turns out that neither Betty nor Ralph knows much about sex, and they've simply run out of things to do in the bedroom. Also, Ralph isn't "forceful" enough to satisfy his wife. They undergo a trial separation, and Betty consults a handsome and lustful divorce attorney named Paul Langor. Paul becomes Betty's sexual tour guide, so to speak, introducing her to practices like oral sex that she had previously been afraid to try. On the side, Paul also introduces Ralph to new sexual experiences, including group sex parties. The lawyer's ultimate goal is to get Ralph and Betty back together.

Once Betty is "loosened up" by Paul, she gets her own apartment and embarks upon a series of sexual adventures with both men and women. Her lovers include a slightly butch lesbian named Margie Lerner, a hot-to-trot mirror salesman named Ben Pulson (a possible pun on "been pulsing"), a sex survey worker named Tom Drysden, her next-door neighbor Molly, and her own boss, Jerry Spaulding. The love partner who gets the most attention, however, is a sensitive, androgynous young man named Lyle Toombes. And, yes, Lyle can be as morbid as his last name implies. Under Betty's tutelage, Lyle starts dressing in drag and becomes a "male lesbian" named Linda. I never totally understood Lyle and Betty's relationship, but Ed Wood seems more emotionally invested in this particular couple than in any of the others.

Forced Entry is typical, by-the-numbers Wood. Many of Ed's trademark words and phrases are here, like "pink clouds" and "sexual heats." There are plenty of references to the characters' groins as well. And if you guessed that Eddie would describe all of Betty's sweaters, skirts, blouses, and nightgowns in excruciating detail, you guessed correctly. Some of the scenarios in this novel are lifted directly from Ed's short stories. Jerry Spaulding, for instance, cannot make love to Betty until he stops thinking of her as a "goddess" and starts thinking of her as a whore. That's exactly the plot of "Never Up - Never In" (1971), whose male protagonist is even named Jerry! And the first meeting of Betty and Margie, which occurs at a cocktail lounge on an extremely foggy night, is taken straight from "Out of the Fog" (1971). The Margie in that story is also a 32-year-old department store manager! What are the odds?

Perhaps the most stereotypically Wood-ian aspect of Forced Entry is the sheer amount of alcohol consumption in it. It's a wonder these characters don't all die from liver disease at the end. Many of the scenes take place at cocktail lounges, but the characters keep guzzling even when they're at home. For this novel, the drinks of choice seem to be either martinis or straight scotch. Early in the novel, Ralph and Betty have a little argument about the latter's drinking, with Ralph calling his estranged wife a "lush." But for the most part, the raging alcoholism of the characters goes unexplored.

When he described Forced Entry in Nightmare of Ecstasy, Wood biographer Rudolph Grey summarized the plot bluntly: "Unsatisfied wife learns to love anal sex." But the novel is only "about" anal sex in the sense that Glen or Glenda (1953) is "about" sex change operations. Remember that part in Ed Wood (1994) when Ed (Johnny Depp) is arguing with George Weiss (Mike Starr) about the Glenda script? George complains that the climactic male-to-female operation scene happens "five pages before it ends" while "the rest is about some schmuck who likes angora sweaters." 

Similarly, the anal sex scene between Ralph and Betty happens only at the very end of the book, literally in the final paragraphs of the last chapter. All through the novel, Betty insists that anal is the one thing she'll never do, so it becomes pretty clear that Ed will end his story with this final taboo being broken. Again, I was reminded of The Young Marrieds. In that film, protagonist Ben (Dick Burns) badmouths homosexuality from the first scene onward, so it's only fitting that the movie ends with him on the verge of committing a homosexual act while his wife Ginny (Alice Friedland) openly engages in lesbianism.

Overall, returning to Wood on Acid was an enlightening experience for me, one I plan on repeating with other "Woodpile Press" editions. After this reread, I'm more confident than ever in calling Purple Thighs one of Ed Wood's best -- or at least most entertaining -- novels. It's certainly one that more fans should experience, especially those who like the trippy late 1960s episodes of Dragnet. Forced Entry is less essential but is still worthwhile as a compendium of Ed's quirks and tropes. Ultimately, both novels are but two tiny pieces of an incredibly vast jigsaw puzzle called Edward D. Wood. Jr.