31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 6: “Scream Your Bloody Head Off” by Edward D. Wood, Jr.

May 6, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From Blood Splatters Quickly: The Collected Stories of Edward D. Wood, Jr.

Blood_Splatters_Quickly_Ed_WoodIt is rare to encounter an authentic pulp sensibility. Raymond Chandler employed pulp tropes, but he was also a gifted stylist, as were Dashiell Hammett and Elmore Leonard. James Ellroy is a stylist who has also created a sex-and-violence-infused alternate history of America in the twentieth century. Jim Thompson possessed disturbingly acute insight into deviant psychology. But real pulp – quick and dirty, unrefined, salacious – was frequently confined to cheaply produced magazines of the 1930s and ’40s with titles like Spicy Detective, Dime Mystery Magazine, and Weird Tales. Beginning in the late 1960s, another place to locate this material was in the less reputable (though glossier) skin mags.

It was here that Edward D. Wood, Jr. found gainful employment with Bernie Bloom, publisher of Pendulum Publishing, whose titles included Flesh & Fantasy, Balling, and Young Beavers. Bloom apparently prized Wood for his productivity, at least until the writer’s problem drinking became too much of an issue and he was fired in 1974. (Wood died of an alcohol-related heart attack in 1978.)

If Wood is remembered today, it is likely not so much for his fiction (though he was undeniably prolific, producing both novels and stories), but for his work as a filmmaker. In the 1950s, Wood and a company of actors (including an aging Bela Lugosi and professional wrestler Tor Johnson) made a series of films that are cult classics, essentially for being among the worst movies in motion picture history. Most famous among these are the cross-dressing epic Glen or Glenda and the sci-fi disaster Plan 9 from Outer Space. (According to Bob Blackburn, who provides the introduction to Blood Splatters Quickly, the original title – Grave Robbers from Outer Space – was changed at the behest of the Beverley Hills Baptist Church, which was one of the financial backers on the movie.)

In 2014, OR Books brought out Blood Splatters Quickly, which collects thirty-three of the author’s short stories. What is most immediately surprising about these is their range: yes, there are stories about lesbian cowgirls, misogynistic cannibals, and cross-dressing porn stars, but there is also the Vietnam war story “No Atheists in the Grave,” the mock-elegiac “Epitaph for the Village Drunk,” and the naturalistic “Pray for Rain,” which, if you close one eye and squint, could be channelling Steinbeck.

“Scream Your Bloody Head Off” owes more to EC Comics than East of Eden. The opening story in the collection, it is representative of an author steeped in the tropes and traditions of genre horror and Grand Guignol. Writing on Flavorwire, Jonathon Sturgeon coins the term “horropornonoir” to describe Wood’s default mode; this word seems as good as any to characterize the particular approach the author employs here.

The basic story is straight out of James M. Cain: a woman comes at her cheating husband with a knife, the husband kills her, then has to decide how to dispose of the body. It is in its specifics that “Scream Your Bloody Head Off” deviates, quite substantially, from the work of the earlier author.

Stella, the dead wife, has discovered that her husband, Johnnie, has been having an affair with the couple’s neighbour, Barbara. What most infuriates Stella, however, is not the mere fact of her husband’s infidelity. Stella has also been sleeping with Barbara and can’t stomach the idea that her husband was having sex with the same woman. Her revenge fantasies involve (naturally) a butcher’s knife and emasculation: “She was going to cut him up but good and see that he went to the coffin without that thing between his legs. What he had used on earth so often he was not going to get a chance to use in hell.”

Wood injects a stream of jet-black humour into the post-mortem scenes in the story, as the hapless Johnnie searches for a way to dispose of his wife’s corpse. His initial idea – to dump the body in the lake – is not feasible because it is the dead of winter and the lake is frozen. Similarly, the ground would be too solid for a shovel to crack, so burying the body in the woods is out. The solution he comes up with – which is as implausible as it is outrageous – is to bleed the body dry in the bathtub, cut up the dessicated remains, and feed them into the kitchen garbage disposal.

Of course all of this is sick and perverse – that is the point, and the nature of the medium. And Wood displays absolutely no facility with psychic distance, switching indiscriminately from Johnnie’s perspective to Stella’s when necessary to convey essential background information to the reader.

But there is an undeniable energy to the story, and an evident glee at the prospect of seeing just how far the author can stretch his scenario. The offences perpetrated on a woman’s body are standard genre tropes that have fallen into disrepute in some corners of late – in many cases, for good reason – although the same kind of stuff can be seen pretty much any night of the week on reruns of CSI or Criminal Minds. As for Johnnie’s retribution at the story’s end, it comes in a form that is unexpected and mordantly funny (it involves a neglected piece of Stella’s bloody scalp and a flight of stairs).

“Degeneracy runs rampant!” Wood writes in “I, Warlock.” “Call down the degenerates!” This could be a rallying cry for the author’s entire oeuvre, and for “Scream Your Bloody Head Off” specifically. There is a kind of degeneracy to the story that is absent from the work of other, more respectable genre practitioners. It is true pulp fiction, not the ersatz, art-house stuff that too often gets filtered through a soft-focus lens to render it palatable to a mainstream audience.