The Alphabet of Crime community meme over at the Mysteries in Paradise blog has reached the letter R, and my first nomination this week, also eligible under the guidelines of Bev’s 2011 Mystery Readers Challenge, is …
RIDE THE NIGHTMARE by Richard Matheson
“We’re going to Mexico but I had to stop and see you first, didn’t I, Chrissie boy?” said the man. “I been waiting a long time for this.”
Chances are you know some of Richard Matheson’s work, even if you have never read any of his books. Most of his stories pit everyman protagonists against irrational forces that undermine their sense of who they really are in the scheme of things and isolate them from their community at large, inexorably reducing their freedom of movement – literally and metaphorically. These are the worlds of the businessman hunted by the crazed truck in Spielberg’s classic Duel, the airplane passenger convinced there is a goblin outside his window sabotaging the flight in Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, the lone remnant of society in I Am Legend (aka The Omega Man aka The Last Man on Earth) and perhaps most emblematic of all, the Incredible Shrinking Man.
A more prosaic example of this can be found in Ride the Nightmare, the third of the thrillers Matheson published in the 1950s. A slender, slickly written paperback original that originally sold for 35 cents a copy, it is a breathlessly told tale of youthful rebellion gone sour. Chris Martin is 32, married and the father of a young girl. He runs his own small business, is a new member of the local Chamber of Commerce and he and his wife Helen are managing to save a little money towards buying a bigger place. He is content and seems to be living the Eisenhower-era dream – but this is all turned upside down and inside out within a matter of minutes by an anonymous phone call late one Wednesday evening. Chris has a deep, dark secret …
As a teen he fell in with a bad crowd from the wrong side of the tracks and got involved in a plan to rob a jewellery store. He was supposed to be the getaway driver and wait for his three confederates, but when the store’s alarm was tripped he fled. The other men were arrested and jailed while Chris changed his name, met Helen and started again. Fifteen years later the men, having broken out of jail, are on the run and looking for payback. Chris and Helen become drawn into the plan of his ex-associates as they kidnap their daughter and demand all their savings as ransom.
Ride the Nightmare is a modest work, and not just because of its comparative brevity (my edition, the Matheson Noir omnibus, is a scant 120 pages long). It is not in fact notable for any great insights into the psychology of its small cast of characters, nor for any particular distinction in its prose style either. What it does very well though is to take a simple suspense idea and run with it head on, keeping its focus directed solely on Chris’ experiences as he tries to live down his past and save the lives of his wife and daughter – and also keep his family together.
The time frame is extremely restricted, the entire story set over only some 18 hours or so and one can see that it would have a strong appeal especially for film and television dramatisation with its restricted and inexpensive Californian settings, small cast (half a dozen major characters and a few subsidiary ones) and several notable suspense sequences. The best of these are extremely well built-up as we see Chris anxiously go to the bank to retrieve all his savings only to be interrupted and seemingly thwarted despite the best of intentions of those around him, unaware of his torment. Just as good is a later section in which Chris is given just 45 minutes to somehow find a doctor and convince him to come back to the hideout where the men, one of them seriously wounded, are holding his family hostage – all without alerting the authorities.
“Chris couldn’t take his eyes from the mirror as the figure came closer and closer. He felt his heartbeat like a piston at his chest wall. The figure on motorcycle was dressed in black, he stayed in the same lane, coming closer”
As mentioned earlier, this is the kind of material that would work extremely well on the screen and in fact it has been filmed not once but twice. The first time was on TV as a segment of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour with the luminous Gena Rowlands as Helen and Hugh O’Brien as a more conventionally heroic version of Chris. The book was adapted again almost 10 years later as Cold Sweat, which relocated the setting to the French Riviera and which cast Charles Bronson in the main role. Once a mainstay of late night TV, this version is now a little hard to come by in a decent version though YouTube seems to be littered with clips from inferior sources. Despite a cast including Liv Ullman as Helen and James Mason as the main villain, it perhaps predictably (given the pedigree of Bronson and director Terence Young, best known for making the early James Bond films) expands on the action elements in the story which are certainly in the original novel. This leads to several impressively staged car chases though the use of an odd strobing filter to suggest that Bronson’s speeding Opel Commodore is leaving a blur of colour in its wake is an interesting idea that doesn’t quite come off. Matheson’s basic plot and characters are retained, though with Bronson in the lead there is never much doubt as to whether he will succeed by the end, which is certainly not the effect that the book is going for.
If the novel stands up today it is because, aligned with its action and suspense set-pieces, it offers a split trajectory in which our morally compromised protagonist has to save his family from the brigands who wish to destroy them but also to bring them back together now that they know of all the lies he has told about his past. This is a book that has none of the nihilism of Jim Thompson, the cockeyed fatalism of Cornell Woolrich or the gloomy introspection of David Goodis, though there are hints of all these masters of the postwar noir in Matheson’s still fairly dark drama. This is especially true in the section in which Chris and Helen have to dispose of a body in their car, though having them stopped by a policeman for speeding much have been a cliché even when it was first published. On the other hand, Helen’s decision to come along so that Chris can bury the body, and bring their daughter with them, emphasises the intriguing familial aspect of the story – Chris is not a tough guy or a loner but in fact craves the respect of his peers and the love of his family. He is an essentially honest if quite vulnerable person, in some ways so recognisably ‘normal’ as to be a little dull. However, this does make his heroism in the climactic conflagration even more impressive. And when was the last time you read a crime novel in which the hero comes to the rescue with his mother-in-law riding shotgun?
This is far from Matheson at his mature best but now that it is more generally available as part of the Noir: Three Novels of Suspense omnibus reprinted in paperback by Forge in 2005, it is a welcome opportunity to take a look at this genuine piece of 1950s pulp fiction.