For most people, Ed Wood is known only as a b-grade filmmaker, responsible for such ‘classics’ as Glen or Glenda, Bride of the Monster, and Plan 8 From Outer Space. Interesting on their own, the stories behind these movies are absolutely fascinating – Glen or Glenda was originally supposed to be an adaptation of Christine Jorgensen’s autobiography (she refused to participate), and Plan 9 not only had Wood's chiropractor double for Bela Lugosi (he’s the man hiding behind the cape), but was actually financed by Southern Baptist Convention church members!
What most people don’t realise is that he also wrote over 80 ‘pulp’ novels, most of them featuring transvestism (including his angora sweater fetish) and occult themes. One of the most famous of those, I Want to Die in Drag, is now back in print . . . and, believe it or not, well worth a read.
This is the story of a cross-dressing killer for hire who is on the run from yet another cross-dressing killer for hire. Glen is actually a decent guy (if you ignore his job) who loves being with women as much as he loves being one. As Glenda, he is passable, attractive, and more than willing to play the role expected of him. The Killer, meanwhile, is one sadistic son-of-a-bitch who targets women, rapes them, kills them, and then takes their clothing. He definitely does not make an attractive woman, and his jealousy plays a large part in his decision to take the contract on Glen.
The story is told in a broken, disjointed manner, incorporating Glen’s final prison confession, witness testimony, police reports, and assumptions or speculations on the part of the narrator. It’s a format that works well, and does a lot to set the overall tone. It’s interesting that Glen’s confession shifts gender, depending on whether he’s talking about Glen or Glenda, but never allows The Killer to be anything but masculine.
As you might expect from its pulp nature, and from the time in which it was written, this is a very politically incorrect read. Wood writes about GAYS, DRAGS, and (beat)NICKS – always in caps – and Glen thinks nothing of slugging a woman in the face for laughing at him. The police are racist, sexist, and homophobic, and the teenaged NICKS are rowdy little punks.
I picked this up as a novelty read, but I actually enjoyed it – not just as a curiosity, but as a hard-boiled crime novel . . . starring two men in drag.