OK folks, this one might get a little bit tricky. For the record, let me state that Exhibit A, Some of Your Blood by Theodore Sturgeon, is a remarkable book. It describes an investigation into a person’s character, via a case history of a GI under psychiatric assessment after he punched out the lights of a senior officer, and does so in a unique manner. It’s not whodunit or a whydunit or even a howdunit. If anything, it’s a ‘whatdunit’. Chances are that you have never read anything like its truly unforgettable conclusion. Trouble is, that is precisely the one thing I cannot talk about. Although this is a book that only males sense after the final revelation, it would not be fair to spoil it. Instead, I’m going to try to persuade you to read it without revealing its trump card. Are you sitting comfortably? We’ll soon change that …
I offer the following review as part of Friday’s Forgotten Books meme run by Patti Abbott at Pattinase, though as she is temporarily indisposed, this week Todd Mason is guest hosting over at his Sweet Freedom blog.
“His first straight crime novel, plausible and fascinating … Sturgeon makes completely credible a not unprecedented but still astonishing case of extreme criminal psychosis – one of the season’s most absorbing books” – Anthony Boucher
This book has been marketed usually as a crime novel though over the years it has also been classed as horror, though there are no supernatural elements of any kind – some have even gone so far as to say that the ‘climax’ may even be considered pornographic. Such uncertainty may reflect both a sense of discomfort with the subject matter, which was certainly a deliberate aim of the book, and a reflection of the fact that it was initially aimed to those who already knew the author for his SF and fantasy stories. But Theodore Sturgeon was a very varied writer who liked to push the boundaries in several genres as he explored his theme of love, in all its forms, as a positive and transcendent power, which had made his work particularly attractive to young readers and those who felt themselves to be outsiders, marginalised by the mainstream.
“How could such a creature as George exist for any appreciable time in a modern society?”
Sturgeon, who was born Edward Hamilton Waldo, blossomed into one of the greats of 40s and 50s science fiction and fantasy, though his first magazine sale actually harks back to before the Second World War. Mainly a short story writer, his tales of strange love occasionally became book-length, More than Human (1953) remaining the most influential of his half-dozen original novels (he also wrote novelisations and books under pseudonyms). To others though he may be better known as the author of two classic episodes of the original Star Trek series: ‘Shore Leave’ and ‘Amok Time’. In addition he was immortalised in fictional form by Kurt Vonnegut in the shape of his recurring character, ‘Kilgore Trout’. But he also dabbled in crime fiction, ghosting the 1963 Ellery Queen novel The Player on the Other Side. As fine as that book is, and it is one of the best of the Queen novels of the 1960s, Sturgeon’ s most distinctive excursion into the crime genre however remains undoubtedly Some of Your Blood,which was originally issued as a paperback original by Ballantyne.
This book is largely presented as the case history of a man with a psycho-sexual compulsion, and in that sense falls right in with the kind of work being published by Margaret Millar and Robert Bloch around that time. The core of the book is structured using the epistolary format, presenting a variety of documents relating to the case. The bulk of correspondence is between Colonel Albert Williams at the Military Hospital HQ in Portland, Oregon and his friend, Sergeant Philip Outerbridge, the psychiatrist at a military base in California. The subject is a patient referred to only with the pseudonym ‘George Smith’. In its surreptitious opening chapter, Sturgeon addresses the reader with an offer to spy into the private files of the psychiatrist – here are the sussurating words the novel opens with:
“You know the story. You have the key. And it is your privilege. Would you like to know why?”
Through such distancing devices the narrative is thus arranged at several stages removed from the events, though there is also a postmodern flourish in this introductory section in which the author reassures us that this really is a fictional story. By the end of the novel, he will again remind us of this, but then follows this up by asking us to consider why that is important, or why we might find that to be reassuring in fact. In this respect Sturgeon is prefiguring the effect that John Fowles would also strive for with such success in The French Lieutenant’s Woman some half-dozen years later – only this time the mainstream critics were reading too. This potentially coy introduction, and the use of reported actions through private letters, interviews under hypnosis and biography are meant to provide a level of third person objectivity to the depiction of a highly peculiar state of mind, but just how objective is it? Sturgeon is in fact playing a very canny game. A hulking and taciturn GI from a remote village in the hills of Kentucky, ‘George Smith’ is sent back from the war in Korea after striking a major on the nose after a letter he sent to his girlfriend back home was opened and censored. As a result of this violent action, he is now accused of being mentally unstable. Williams sees this as the petty retaliation of a small-minded Major and so asks Outerbridge to assess ‘Smith’ and get him a dishonorable discharge from he army as soon as possible to get the man off their hands. But Outerbridge senses that there is a lot more going on than meets the eye and asks the prisoner to write about his early life. To help him communicate he suggests that they use a fictional frame, adopting a third person approach and a pseudonym. Once again we will be given decisive and dramatic events but presented through a filter.
‘Smith’ gives us a long and detailed portrait of a young boy badly abused by his violent and drunken father. The boy from an early age takes refuge in the forest and learns to love hunting though not killing animals. Hi mother, increasingly crippled by arthritis and the repeated beatings from her husband, stops being able to take care of the boy and after she dies he is sent to reform school after being caught in a petty theft. We feel great pity for Smith as he describes his kinship with nature but his solitude from people. After his two-year sentence is over he ends up staying another year at the school as his father has since died and there is no one to take him in. Eventually his aunt comes to take him back to her farm and it is there that he is briefly at his happiest when he meets a homely local girl, Anna. The two strike up an intense relationship and for two years find time to hide away in a cave in the woods and create their own little world. But the seemingly inevitable happens and she falls pregnant – knowing that her father will disapprove, he enlists in the army. He actually finds structure and solace there even if it is a war zone – but it is only when his letter to Anna is intercepted that things really come to a head. The next part of the narrative explores Outerbridge’s growing sense that there is something ‘missing’ from Smith’s narrative, so he defies his orders and embarks on a long treatment to find out what really happened in the boy’s life – and try and understand the violent imagery that seems to dominate his imaginative life even though on a day-to-day basis he seems the most placid of men. The doctor will eventually uncover a hidden pattern leading to several murders and a psychological hangup new to crime fiction. Sturgeon’s enormous sense of empathy for those usually excluded from ‘polite’ society never leaves him and his portrait of ‘George’ is complex and compelling even as we learn just how hard his childhood life had been and what a toll this has taken on him. A really fascinating tale of psychological suspense, and very adult in its themes and language, whichever genre you are tempted to lump it in with.
Some of Your Blood is currently in print courtesy of Centipede Press (for their homepage, visit: www.centipedepress.com/authors/sturgeon.html). For more about the author (including the image of Sturgeon reproduced above), you can visit the Eric Weeks’ wonderfully detailed resource at: www.physics.emory.edu/~weeks/misc/sturgeon.html, as well as the official Theodore Sturgeon Literary Trust homepage at: www.theodoresturgeontrust.com, which has been responsible for a grand 13-volume collected edition of all the writer’s short work.
Sturgeon fell largely silent in his later years, but he is an author of remarkable power and acumen – and this book, if you can stomach it, should not be missed even, or especially perhaps, if it does not quite seem like your usual beverage of choice.