Review by Doug Gibson
I am a huge Ed Wood fan going on way past 40 years now; ever since the only Wood canon I knew was "Glen Or Glenda" to "Plan 9 From Outer Space," ... and that lost "Night of the Ghouls"/"Revenge of the Dead." (which was soon found).
But Ed was far more of a writer than a director. His "mainstream" directing career kind of ended with the (wink) semi-adult film, "The Sinister Urge." Then it was a long stint of virtually all adult cinema, soft and hard, for Ed the director.
But he never stopped writing. Dozens of novels and books, hundreds of short stories, lots of "educational" sex books, flotsam and jetsam such as text titles for silent adult shorts, scripts for (usually) soft and hard adult fare. You are noticing a trend here, right?
Wood was a severe alcoholic, who eventually died prematurely from his addiction. The last few years of his life, he was unable to keep a steady job. I recently saw a photo of Ed during those years (early to mid 1970s) in a biography of the late filmmaker Stephen Apostolf, who may have been the last boss to cut Ed a paycheck. Ed's at a party and he looks very drunk and very unhealthy. He looks like someone long used to being looked down upon and ignored. It breaks my heart. I actually had tears looking that photo. The reason? I admire Ed Wood's vivid imagination and prolific writing. I still consider him a pulp Elmore Leonard, writing only a first draft with no real editor.
I get it. You think I'm nuts. But the first major woman in his life, Dolores Fuller, accurately described him as an "American original." And his now-deceased widow, Kathy, never left the old drunk. Bob Blackburn, who lives in Los Angeles, befriended Kathy Wood in the last era of her life. They developed trust and Blackburn has spent an incredible amount of time finding Ed's shorts stories and non-fiction writings, most published in sleazy, over-priced adult books and magazines, the kind that sprung up after the courts OK'd that stuff.
Bob has helped compile and get published two massive, indispensible collections of Ed's short stories, "Blood Splatters Quickly," from ORBooks, and "Angora Fever: The Collected Stories of Ed Wood." You can get get the latter from BearManor Media. Some of Ed's novels are still floating around in reprints, which came out mostly in the '90s when Tim Burton's "Ed Wood," that lovely overidealized paean to Ed's early years, was released.
OK, I am finally getting to this review. "When the Topic is Sex, by Ed. Wood Jr." was recently released, also by BearManor Media. (Amazon link here). The "essays" inside are the adult magazine filler material that occupied a few pages in the magazines published by Bernie Bloom's Pendulum Publisher's business. Ed worked there in the '70s until alcoholism made him expendable. He was valued there for his versatility and speed in crafting coherent works (usually) that showed his lifelong wordsmith talents. If you want to read a fascinating account of a youngster at Pendulum working with a talented has-been on the way down (Ed) read Leo Eaton's account here. I think I read it first in another BearManor book on Ed's lost scripts. Pendulum was a sweatshop for wordsmiths. It was a starting point for young writers like Eaton, but a literal end of the road for Ed.
Publisher/writer/poet Bill Shute provides an introduction to "When the Topic is Sex." He notes that Wood was a known and trusted quality in the industry. He could take a subject, prurient or not, and fit in the details. There are more than 80, I imagine, "non-fiction" musings on a wide variety of starter topics (I'll let the reader peruse them). Themes include the evolution of sexual mores in film, contemporary society, education, prostitution, wife swapping, pornography, the various different genres of the sex worker industry, S&M, sweaters, social diseases, sexual dictionaries, fur fetishes. Topics include the possibility of a "sex tax" to balance budgets, the lure of Greenwich Village ... I could go on endlessly listing the topics Ed muses about. Much of it is offensive and misogynistic. It's time capsule mores.
The stories are often sexually graphic but not so much erotic. There's one about a housewife turned leader of a sexual coven of witches. Ed includes himself in the story, but it's of course made up. A lot of the stories involve interviews with students, prostitutes, secretaries, etc. I think Ed was being tongue-in-cheek with these "on-th-street" accounts because as blogger Joe Blevins has already pointed out, these subjects talk like Ed Wood writes! One fun aspect of the essays is the irony of a bloated, alcoholic man around 50 writing "authoritatively" about the sexual hijinks of college students and "still-Mad Menish" office and nightclub/bars environments. Ed likely had a firm grasp on the sexual fantasies of Pendelum's clientile. I imagine his tongue was in his cheek a lot when he was crafting these pieces.
I'm not going to say much about the essays. Frankly, they can be a slog if taken in large doses. Don't read too many in one setting. One or two a day is enough. You can then appreciate Ed's unique writing style. As Shute notes in his introduction, Ed's style always shows up in his art. In these essays his prose takes the form of a pleasant, slightly know-it-all educator letting us know about these "trends in sex." Or if it's a more spicy topic, or perhaps Ed was intoxicated when he wrote the story, the narrator shifts in personality to a more " hmm, take a good hard look at this sexual deviancy ..." I sometimes imagine this Ed Wood would have made a brisk living selling spicy post cards on the streets of Paris 120 years ago.
One essay I enjoyed in "When the Topic is Sex" is "Sex is Not a Hazard." It's very graphic at times but it also has a sweet undertone to it. Its Ed telling us that sexual compability is an important component of a sexual relationship and couples should explore, and not run away from, what makes both partners happy. I also enjoy the"news of the weird" type compilations of truly bizarre happenings. Since I see these types of columns even today in alternative weeklies, I don't think Ed was telling tall tales in these pieces. The "Mondo" exploitative documentary film from the 60s and 70s was still around when Ed wrote these. I wonder if he saw those films.
Frankly, I worry talking about these essays might spur Big Brother social media tech discipline on me. ... Despite the made up interviews, Ed does his research when it's needed. I Googled a lot of his sources on topics, and they checked out. Example: when he writes about a sex tax, he cites an obscure New Orleans educator from long ago. Turns out the fellow existed.
Pendulum had archives for research, and an unpublished sex study by a guy named Dr. TK Peters. (He really existed.) But I can still imagine, Ed, in his windowless Pendulum cubicle, thumbing through the Readers Guide to Periodical Literature booklets, taking notes, looking for sources. Heck, I did that a lot of that in the pre-Internet days.
I want to add that the aforementioned blogger Joe Blevins runs the absolutely essential Ed Wood Wednesdays Dead2Rights blog. It's here. Joe provides in-depth recaps of every essay in this book. He also, to the best of his knowledge, tells readers when published and in what publication. Over the course of almost two months, I read every essay in "When the Topic is Sex." The recaps Joe provides really helps in digesting them. (The recaps are also available at Bob Blackburn's Ed Wood Jr. Facebook page.)
To sum up, the book is a history lesson. Besides providing another peek into Ed's life, and his surroundings -- the desperate years -- it's a history lesson into the genre and culture of the working world Ed and others experienced 50 years ago.