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.
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."
"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.