Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 172: The Oralists (1969) [PART 1 OF 2]

It's time to talk about one of Ed Wood's most shocking books.

One of the pivotal literary discoveries of my youth—apart from finding a well-worn paperback copy of Dan Jenkins' Semi-Tough (1972) in the basement—was stumbling across Nancy Friday's Forbidden Flowers: More Women's Sexual Fantasies (1975) at the local library. I'm not sure how I found this book. I was unfamiliar with Ms. Friday and wouldn't have known to seek out her work. But I saw something titled Forbidden Flowers on the shelf, and it called out to me. Little did I know I was about to have my adolescent mind blown.

This book shocked me.
Nancy Friday (1933-2017) was not a scientist or an academic. She was, rather, a sex-positive feminist who interviewed women about their erotic fantasies and turned her findings into the best-selling book My Secret Garden (1973). The book that I found, Forbidden Flowers, was the sequel. It was, by a wide margin, the most explicit volume I'd ever seen. It left even Semi-Tough in the dust. Here were women sharing their innermost thoughts about taboo topics in terms more graphic than I thought were legally allowable in print. And some of the stories in the book were from women who'd read My Secret Garden and were relieved that they weren't the only ones in the world with certain fantasies.

I thought about Nancy Friday occasionally while making my way through one of Ed Wood's least-known yet most disturbing books: The Oralists, published in 1969 by Tiger as part of its "Case History Series" and credited to the fictional Jean Spenser and Roger West. The publisher's conceit is that Jean and Roger are two sex researchers who are married to each other and write books together; this is their scientific study of oral sex and those who enjoy it. Ed's equally salacious Bloodiest Sex Crimes of History (1967) from Pad Library is also attributed to the nonexistent Spenser and West. In The Oralists, Ed alludes to the existence of another S&W book called Sexual Fantasia. According to reader Guy Devrell, this extremely rare title was also published by Tiger as part of its "Case Histories Series." (Fantasia was  assigned the catalog number PP161, and The Oralists was PP190.)

While the veracity of Nancy Friday's books was sometimes questioned, the author vigorously denied making up the fantasies herself. I believe her; the women's stories strike me as genuine. On the other hand, Ed Wood's The Oralists is pure literary invention. As with much of Eddie's so-called nonfiction, there's not an ounce of genuine research in it. The supposed interviews and testimonials within it are all just Ed talking to himself. Whether they represent the author's own fetishes and kinks, I don't know. I sincerely hope not. I suppose that the publisher credited the book to Spenser & West and presented it as a clinical study of sex in order to give it a sheen of respectability it would otherwise not have.

I've long delayed writing about The Oralists for a variety of reasons. For one thing, this book will not appeal to most Ed Wood fans. If you've come here for mad scientists, plywood gravestones, and flying saucers dangling from strings, you will not find them in this book. This is "down and dirty" Ed, wallowing in extreme topics and incredibly graphic language. In particular, Chapter Two and Chapter Seven will be more than most readers will be able to take. Another problem in reviewing The Oralists is that each chapter is devoted to a different, self-contained story, so it's really more like a short story anthology than a novel. A lot happens in this book, in other words.

There's no way around the first problem, i.e. the subject matter and tone of this book. This is Ed Wood at his grungiest and least ingratiating, and we just have to accept that. As for the second problem, the overabundance of material to talk about, I've decided to divide this review into two parts: four case studies now, four more next week. That way, I can discuss all the major characters in The Oralists without shortchanging any of them.


A "wild" banana split.
The Oralists starts relatively gently with the story of Robert "Bob" Abbott, a talkative, scotch-swilling businessman who meets Roger West at a cocktail lounge in order to boast about his wild, four-month fling with a young nymphomaniac whose name he cannot currently recall. At one point, he refers to her simply as "Titty Large Large." The fact that this woman, a brunette, is also at the cocktail lounge that night does not jar Bob's memory. I kept imagining Bob Abbott as looking and talking like Ed Wood's character, the lewd, lustful Mr. Murphy, in Love Feast (1969). Eddie says that Bob possesses "a strange mixture of charm, disillusionment and anger." Sounds like Ed to me.

At first, Roger is not eager to hear the dubious testimony of this drunken, aging lothario, but Bob's story eventually wins the sex researcher over. You see, Bob digs dirty talk, and this brunette could talk dirtier than any woman Bob had ever met. He also appreciates that she was selfish in bed, more concerned with pleasing herself than her partner. That, too, is a turn-on. Say what you will about the morals and politics of The Oralists, but this book truly focuses on female pleasure. The women in this book demand satisfaction and know how to get it. Our brunette friend is so focused on sex that she even does some pre-coitus exercises to get ready.

The most memorable thing about Chapter 1 is that Bob describes, in great detail, how he used a banana as an instrument of pleasure on the brunette before consuming the fruit himself. "It was the craziest banana split I'd ever had," he says. Bob opines that the mysterious brunette "must have douched in strawberry pop." (Compare this to the use of 7-Up in "Taking Off.") He also casually mentions receiving oral sex from gay men and says it's some of the best he'd ever had.

Ed Wood establishes his tone very early in The Oralists. From hearing Bob Abbott's story, we know that this is going to be a raunchy, often profane book with graphic descriptions of body parts and bodily fluids. (At one point, Bob describes staring at the brunette's crotch: "I could see what she ate for breakfast and what I was going to have for midnight supper.") Wood maintains that frank tone throughout the book, so readers had better adjust to it quickly if they're going to make it to the end. I also noticed that Eddie was big on "damn"s and "hell"s in this book. Everything's "a damned good" this or "a hell of a" that. 


An unexciting sex manual.
As I said before, the second chapter of The Oralists is among the most shocking passages I've encountered in any of Ed Wood's books. It's presented as a letter that Spenser and West supposedly received from a 23-year-old woman named Melinda from Laurel Canyon. She says she decided to contact the authors after reading Sexual Fantasia, and the authors tell us that they are presenting the woman's letter in its entirety with her permission. This is perhaps the longest, most involved chapter of the book.

Despite having grown up in a "conventional city"—"conventional" being another of Ed Wood's favorite adjectives—Melinda was extremely sexually precocious and experienced very adult thoughts and feelings as a small child. She says that she nursed so vigorously and greedily that her poor single mother eventually withered and died. After that, Melinda went to live with her mother's sister's family.  The aunt, Marie, was a prim, soft-spoken woman by day but became much more sexually uninhibited at night when she was in bed with her husband, Burt. Melinda had a front-row seat for their lovemaking sessions because she slept in a crib in Bert and Marie's bedroom. Also living in the house was Melinda's cousin, Arthur, who was just a few years older than Melinda.

Even as young as five years old, Melinda developed a strong erotic fixation on Burt and flirted with him and teased him in a variety of wildly inappropriate ways, passionately tongue-kissing him on one occasion. This behavior rightly set off alarm bells, and Burt soon gave Melinda her own room, much to her disappointment. When deprived of her uncle's affections, Melinda practiced kissing her doll, Shirley, but found that "the cold plastic against my tongue tasted terrible." She also became bitterly jealous of Marie and imagined her aunt's breast being bitten off. Trauma to women's breasts is another unsettling Ed Wood motif. See "The Rue Morgue Revisited" and "Breasts of the Chicken" for other examples.

Melinda's twelfth birthday proved to be quite a milestone. Still as obsessed with Burt as ever, she feigned interest in boys her own age, apparently to appease Marie and Burt. Marie, who by now was well aware of Melinda's sexually precocious nature, gave her niece a dull sex manual with the usual unerotic diagrams of the reproductive system. While warning Melinda about boys who are only after one thing, Marie also informed her niece that sex should wait until marriage and is only for the purposes of procreation. Having witnessed her aunt and uncle's wild sex sessions in person, Melinda knew Marie was being hypocritical. ("If sperm is only to be used for making babies, how come she drinks it?" the girl muses.)

This was also when Melinda began a years-long sexual relationship with her cousin, Arthur. She'd been so focused on Burt to this point that she had not even considered Arthur as a potential lover. Ed Wood very much depicts Melinda as the aggressor in this relationship. She all but launched herself at the shy, withdrawn Arthur. As befits the title of the book, the two adolescents began their exploration of each other through oral sex, finally progressing to intercourse when Melinda was 14. Bert and Marie were somewhat aware that Melinda and Arthur were attracted to each other and did what they could to keep the two separated. But the parents couldn't stay at home every night. 

An interesting aside: Arthur was a college student by the time he entered into a relationship with Melinda. Bizarrely, Ed Wood uses the character of Arthur to voice his own objections to all those darned protesting hippies who are ruining college for everyone. You'll find similar views in his novel Purple Thighs (1968) and his screenplay for The Class Reunion (1973). In The Oralists, Melinda and Arthur have this conversation:
Three months to the day after my twelfth birthday I corralled him, alone in his room.

"Hi. . ." I smiled, sort of swinging from the door jam in a most unladylike fashion. "What you doing home so early?"

"Didn’t feel like staying around the campus," he shrugged. "Too damned much protesting going on."

"Your school going through that mess?"

"Yep. . .broke out today."
I can understand why Ed Wood felt this way about college protestors, but why would he think that young people like Arthur and Melinda would be on his side? And what is any of this doing in a book about the pleasures of oral sex?

Ultimately, Arthur moved away and got married, leaving Melinda to shift her attentions back to Burt. As she was on the precipice of graduating from high school, she and Burt finally gave into the tension that had existed between them for years. Again staying true to the title of the book, they engaged in oral sex while Burt was driving Melinda home from a movie. Ed Wood is extremely graphic here, with Melinda even noticing "the swollen vein of [Burt's] urinary tract." 

But Ed also feels justified in doling out some godlike punishment to his sinful characters. After their brief tryst, Burt and Melinda argued heatedly. Burt angrily slapped Melinda and then, distracted, crashed his car. Melinda emerged from the accident relatively unscathed, but Burt was paralyzed from the waist down and was confined to a wheelchair. Even this did not entirely quell Melinda's erotic interest in her uncle. Eventually, however, she moved away from Burt and Marie's home to start a new life on her own. 

Far-fetched as this may seem, the tragic and violent conclusion of the Melinda/Burt/Marie saga reminded me of Edith Wharton's novel Ethan Frome (1911), in which the title character falls in love with Mattie Silver, the vivacious cousin of his sickly wife, Zeena. Knowing they can never be together, Ethan and Mattie enter into a suicide pact and steer their sled directly into a tree. But this painful collision kills neither of them. Ethan develops a permanent limp, while Mattie is paralyzed. Ironically, Zeena ends up serving as Mattie's caregiver. 

Ed Wood must have realized that Chapter Two of The Oralists was extreme even for a pornographic book, so he has Roger West inform us in a postscript that Melinda is currently seeing an analyst and making slow progress. "Her desire to have intercourse still remains only secondary," he reminds us, "but she is at least able to climax now when performing fellatio." Hopefully, she and her analyst are dealing with other issues as well.


Did Bunny inspire Ski in The Oralists?
After the shocking revelations of Chapter Two, the relatively benign Chapter Three will likely come as a relief to most readers. In this chapter, Roger sits down to chat with Skyler H.(or "Ski" for short), a 39-year-old gay man from a wealthy family. His relatives expect him to take over a bank that they own in Iowa someday, and they're also pressuring him to get married and have children. But Ski keeps his sexual orientation a secret from them and has no intention of ever running the bank either. For now, he seems content to live off his generous allowance.

I cannot prove this, but I am fairly certain that the character of Ski is inspired by John "Bunny" Breckinridge, the playboy heir who portrayed the haughty, effete Ruler in Ed Wood's Plan 9 from Outer Space (1957). Ed and Bunny had long since fallen out by 1969, but Eddie must have remembered Bunny's way of acting and talking and transferred those qualities to Ski. And so we get this portrait of an unapologetic, strangely prissy layabout who dabbles in acting, loves crossdressing, prides himself on his femininity, and generally accomplishes as little as possible with his day.

But this is The Oralists, and Ed Wood does not skimp on the oral adventures in this chapter. We learn about Ski's introduction to fellatio via a high school classmate named Bobby. We also hear about a straight male actor, Paul, who allows Ski to go down on him. Most spectacularly, Ski describes his efforts at auto-fellatio or self-sucking. It took him quite a while to perfect this talent, as you can imagine, and he once nearly found himself stuck in a very awkward position.

As I indicated earlier, Ski is an avid crossdresser. As he tells Roger West, one of his occasional amusements is to dress up as a woman and seduce a straight man who believes he's the real thing. In order to maintain the illusion, Ski will perform oral sex on the man and say that he's having his period and therefore cannot have vaginal intercourse. This is a ploy that some male prostitutes have used in Ed Wood's adult fiction. I cannot say why this particular scenario keeps recurring in Ed's writing; something about this very specific situation must have been compelling to him.


An AA patch.
I believe that this is the first chapter of The Oralists in which Roger West's wife, Jean, puts in an appearance, albeit a cameo. Up to this point, the book has exclusively been about people talking to (or writing to) Roger West. In Chapter Four, we learn that Roger and Jean live in Los Angeles, but whenever they're in San Francisco, they visit a couple named Bill and Janice. Granted, most of Chapter Four is a conversation between Roger and Bill—while the unliberated wives are off doing the dishes (!)—but it was nice to have a small acknowledgement that Jean exists and is part of this book.

Before we go any further, I should tell you that the character of Bill is sometimes identified as "Bill W." I do not think it is a coincidence that William Wilson (1895-1971), the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, is widely known as Bill W. and that members of the organization call themselves "friends of Bill." Since most of the characters in The Oralists are heavy drinkers, perhaps even alcoholics themselves, I think this was Ed Wood's idea of a sly inside joke. Eddie may never have read Ethan Frome, but he damned sure knew what Alcoholics Anonymous was.

Anyway, Bill tells Roger about a "kookie broad" named Sally that he knew back in his college days. His fraternity brothers had all had sex with Sally, and she seemed to be ready, willing, and able at all times. One weekend, Roger ditched his regular girlfriend and traveled to a remote cabin with three of his buddies: Tommy, Eddie, and Joe. Their only "entertainment" for the weekend was Sally herself! Ed Wood depicts Sally lying nude on a bearskin rug, one of his few concessions to his fur fetishism in this entire book. Saying he prefers a "clean hole," Bill admits he was less than enthusiastic about having sex with Sally but did so anyway. The experience went better for him than it did for her.

Eventually, Bill figured out why Sally was such a nymphomaniac: she'd never had an orgasm, and she was desperately seeking out a lover who could finally bring her to climax. Bill took this as a challenge and decided to take Sally out on a real date: first to an expensive restaurant, then to a nightclub to see a folksinger. He then took her to a motel, where his initial efforts to make her climax were appreciated but unsuccessful. Since this book is called The Oralists, I think you can probably guess what technique eventually did the trick. Having accomplished his mission, Bill never saw Sally again. Ironically, Bill's wife Jan is "uptight" about oral sex.

What's interesting about Chapter Four of The Oralists is that it presents sex as more of a challenge or a chore than a pleasure. This is basically a sexual Sword in the Stone with Bill W. as King Arthur! Another writer might have had Sally climax because she was finally being treated like a lady. But Ed Wood knows that even chivalry is no match for cunnilingus. 
NEXT WEEK: We wrap up this review with a discussion of the final four chapters of The Oralists. This part of the book includes a passage that's even more shocking in my opinion than Chapter Two. Consider yourself forewarned.