Friday, September 6, 2013

Book Review: Someone Is Bleeding by Richard Matheson

Richard Matheson is best known to the general public for his books that were adapted into movies: I Am Legend, Hell House, and Stir of Echoes, for example. Even those who know his writing a little better still often think of him as mainly a horror, science fiction, and fantasy writer. Matheson, though, was fond of genre-hopping, and tried just about everything. In addition to his most popular books, he also wrote five westerns, fiction based on his WWII experiences, and biopics of both L. Frank Baum and the Marquis de Sade. “I only do things once,” Matheson once said, “and then move on.”


1953 edition of Someone Is Bleeding.
At the beginning of his career, Matheson tried mystery writing before moving on. He admitted that it was largely due to the influence of a group of pulp writers he joined: “If they’d all been science fiction and fantasy writers, I probably would have tried that type of novel first,” he said. His debut novel Someone Is Bleeding was released by Lion Books as a paperback original in 1953, with a cover price of twenty-five cents. (That same edition will set you back at least $75 today.) 

For some reason, the book wasn’t reprinted again in the United States until 2005, when Forge Books included it in the Matheson collection Noir: Three Novels of Suspense, along with Fury on Sunday and Ride the Nightmare. It’s a slick collection, and it has a noteworthy introduction by Matthew R. Bradley, who is something of a Matheson expert. He incorporates a lot of interview material and quotes from the author, and mentions that Matheson himself was excited about the new edition. (He said he re-read the books for the first time in decades.)


Someone Is Bleeding is about a writer, David Newton, who meets an intriguing girl on the beach and falls for her. Peggy is, shall we say, complicated. She doesn’t like to be touched, has nothing nice to say about men, and in fact, despite proclaiming six pages into the book that she’s “madly in love” with Dave, has another boyfriend of sorts. Jim, who is married, is also Peggy’s lawyer, and a rival of Dave’s since college. To further complicate matters, Jim’s brother also has a thing for Peggy. She’s crawling in men, including her lecherous landlord,  but doesn’t much want anything to do with them. When the old pervert turns up with an icepick in his brain, Peggy is a suspect. Is she the murderer, or is someone trying to defend her honor?
Forge Books' 2005 collection.


There’s no denying that Peggy’s pretty weird. Dave notes it from the get-go, describing her eyes as pretty and full of curiosity, but against a deadpan expression. “Did you ever have a child watch you from the seat in front of you in a bus or a trolley car?” Dave says. “That’s what it was like.” She makes a confession early in the book, though, that goes a long way toward explaining both her neediness and her fear of being touched. At the age of eight, she was attacked and raped by a young man: “He dragged me in a closet and tore all my clothes off.” Dave asks how far the boy went. “All the way,” she answers. “I was unconscious.” I would imagine being raped to the point of unconsciousness at the age of eight would leave some serious psychological damage.


Dave is pretty weird himself, or maybe he’s just plain dumb. Part of the problem may be that Matheson’s early writing efforts don’t include a lot of fleshing out. We never really know his motivations, so everything he does is perplexing. In a lot of ways, Dave just sort of bumbles around, letting others push him around, but then randomly becoming indignant. He’s at his most interesting when he meets a starlet at a party, and just for kicks pretends he’s a producer, just to watch her act like a fawning fool. (He claims to have worked on a picture called Vanilla Vomit.) Mostly, though, Dave is so much of a goof, that fairly far along in the book, when he goes home to write, I realized that I had forgotten he was a writer. He doesn’t seem smart enough -- certainly not observant enough.

The relationships in the book are all a little confusing, again because the motivations are muddled. It’s hard to understand why so many men are in love with Peggy, who doesn’t do much besides sulk and stare, and may even be a psychotic killer. It seems to be mostly a posturing contest between the men, though this is guesswork: Matheson tells us so little about what anyone really wants. They want her, probably, because the others do, and each man wants to be the one who wins. The fact that she’s unobtainable and won’t allow men’s hands on her makes the prize all the more valuable. They want to have what can’t be had.


Someone Is Bleeding’s best feature, writing-wise, is a nail-biter of a chase scene that’s downright Hitchcockian. Unfortunately, it’s not long after that scene when the book takes an unsettling turn.


Matheson writes, as Dave:


"Was it possible that, unconsciously, Peggy dressed and behaved in a manner calculated to draw desire out of the men she was with? Ostensibly she feared men and their aggression, Why, then, did the very thing she claimed to fear always happen to her? That boy, her husband Albert, and all the men she had driven half-mad with desire for her."


Then:


"They talk about accident-prone men. Well maybe there are rape-prone women."


And at the book’s climax:


"I could almost understand a man wanting to take Peggy by force. She seemed the sort of woman."


Whaaaaat? Rape-prone? The sort of woman?


Peggy’s childhood rapist is included in the list of men she may have calculatedly tried to draw desire out of (“that boy”). Did she unconsciously want to be raped at eight? The fact that she seems to do the exact opposite of eliciting desire is ignored. In the moments leading up to this very speech, she’s tugging at her sweater in an effort to make it looser -- clearly the actions of a woman uncomfortable with her body, trying to deflect attention.


Via Temple of Schlock.
“Men are pigs!” Peggy proclaims more than once in the book. It’s meant to be extreme. Considering the behavior of the men she knows, including the one who is supposed to be protecting her and claims to love her, it’s hard to disagree.


On a wildly different note: Peggy is attacked in a funhouse at a place called Funland. Given Stephen King’s reverence for Matheson, I imagine it may have inspired the spookhouse murder in Joyland, and could possibly have been the impetus for the idea of the whole book.


Someone Is Bleeding was filmed in 1974 in France as Les Seins de Glace, literally Icy Breasts (the English title) starring Alain Delon. It was actually a post at Temple of Schlock that brought my attention to the film, and to the fact that it was based on an early Richard Matheson novel. The French title is a bit of wordplay. Les Seins de Glace is a homophone of Les Saints de Glace, evoking the “ice saints” of folklore which are associated with frosty weather. 



(The trailer below is in French, but you can get a good idea of the film's look.)



The verdict on Someone Is Bleeding: it’s a first novel, and it shows. On the other hand, it’s a first novel by an author with a heck of a lot of talent, and that shows too. If you can put aside the weak characters, the wobbly plot, and the embarrassing victim blaming, you’ve still got some moments of neat (if terse) writing, a great action scene, flashes of wit, and the one thing that’s impossible to resist: ice picks to the brain.


Written for Friday’s Forgotten Books. Links from other bloggers are collected here. Read my previous forgotten book entries here.



19 comments:

  1. You are such a great addition to our little circle! Thanks!!

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    1. Thanks, Patti, I really appreciate that. Everyone does such good work. I'm pleased to be a part of it.

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  2. I started reading Richard Matheson as a kid. Loved I AM LEGEND and HELLHOUSE! I have that NOIR book and a three volumes of Matheson's collected short stories sitting on my shelves. Your fine review is motivating me to drop everything and read them Right Now!

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  3. Thanks for this review, Kelly. I found the book to be a fast roller-coaster of a pulpish story. (It appeared, abridged, as "The Frigid Flame" in one of the very minor -- I forget which one -- mystery digests of the time.) Reading it as a late teenager, I was knocked out by the ending, which still remains with me. Matheson went on to much better and more mature work, but his early novels have a distinct and wonderful flavor to them.

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    1. I read about 'The Frigid Flame.' I thought it was interesting that the shorter version came out later. Usually it's the case that a short story gets expanded, rather than the other way 'round. It's not very long to begin with.

      The events leading up to the ending are pretty unsettling. That's noir for you.

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  4. Really enjoyed reading your review Kelly and I pretty much concur with you on this - the comments about rape are just dumb beyond belief but I suppose it's meant to communicate just how hopelessly naive and immature dave is (or maybe Matheson just wanted to add some controversy to the book). The French movie isn;t too bad but it does give the ending away about halfway though, which is a bit of a shame

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    1. It's the only excuse I can think of, and Dave is such a doofus, I can almost buy it.

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  5. I second Patti's comment, Kelly! It's very nice to have you aboard the Friday's Forgotten Books train. Cocktails at 6, followed by steak or trout in the dining car. And, of course, murder somewhere on board after midnight. ;-)

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  6. Outstanding review. I've seen many films based on Matheson stories but have yet to read anything by him. Someday I'll have to remedy that. It probably won't be with this book though if I'd run across I guess I'd give it a try. Sounds very film-noirish.

    Lee
    Wrote By Rote

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  7. Though I never read any of his books, I always thought of Matheson as a science fiction writer based on the movies made from the books. Now, I'll have to find his non-science fiction novels hopefully in the library.

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    1. He's a fine writer. You'd do well to read ANY of his books. I don't know how easy it will be to find the mystery titles in a library, but you might.

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  8. Okay, I get that in the 1940's and 1950's a lot of people didn't "get" why women were raped (because they were attacked by a rapist) but I would have a hard time getting past those attitudes in that book, however good the rest of it was.

    Still have Somewhere in Time on my TBR list.

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    1. It was tricky, but the character seems so practically retarded that I'm wondering if I can chalk it up to that?

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  9. I haven't read the book, so I am not sure how it was portrayed (whether we are getting a critique of the protagonist or the author himself was ignorant), but her behaviour doesn't sound unrealistic to me. The trauma of childhood sexual abuse can have profound effects on the victim's socialization. So it's absolutely ridiculous to suggest she was 'asking for it' at the age of eight, but her behaviour as an adult (at least how you described it in the review) does sound like someone who has a broken approach to sexuality and relations with men, due to past trauma. Maybe we can give Matheson the benefit of the doubt and interpret that as his message.

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    1. Yeah, I'd like to give him the benefit of the doubt, but the way the book plays out makes me skeptical. "Rape-prone" is pretty uncomfortable, no matter how you slice it.

      I read a lot of noir, so I'm used to women as victims, and in most cases, it doesn't bother me. (Conversely, I find that noir and crime fiction from the '50s is more likely to have women in control of their sexuality than other fiction from the same time.) Something felt off about this one.

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  10. I recently read Hell House, which is the only Matheson book I've read besides I Am Legend. I liked it well enough, but I decided a drinking game needed to made from it. Get an audio copy, gather some friends, and every time a character "hisses" at something -- be it contact with a cold object, reaction to an injury, etc. -- everyone takes a shot/drinks a beer/whatever. Whoever makes it beyond the midpoint of the novel is the winner. I swear, there was more hissing going on in that book than in the crypt scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark!

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