SOMEONE IS BLEEDING (1953) by Richard Matheson

Matheson-Someone-is-BleedingLike so many writers of his generation, Richard Matheson – who turned 87 last month – was shaped by his experiences in World War Two. Though this produced only one directly autobiographical book, The Beardless Warriors, postwar malaise and unease over the dramatic societal shifts that occurred during the conflict, and the deathly legacy of the atomic age, can be clearly discerned in much of his work. Not only in classic SF tales of mutation and alienation like I Am Legend and The Shrinking Man but more obliquely in the troubling sexual politics of Someone is Bleeding, a coming-of-age story couched in the language of pulp fiction that marked his debut as a novelist. It begins on a beach …

I offer this review as part of Bev’s 2013 Vintage Mystery Challenge in the ‘Amateur Night’ category; the 2013 Book to Movie Challenge at the Doing Dewey blog – for links to other participants’ reviews, click here; and Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her Pattinase blog – you should head to these great sites right away to check out some of the other selections offered this week.

“A long stretch of beach with just her and me”

Like Matheson, narrator David Newton was brought up on the East Coast, served as an Infantryman in the war in Europe and then studied at the University of Missouri before moving to California to become a writer, renting a room near the beach. And one day, while out strolling on the nearby stretch of sand in 1952, he met the once-married woman destined to be his wife. Hopefully the similarities end there because the path to true love for the protagonists in the novel proves highly traumatic with several murders along the Matheson-seins-de-glace-pochenoireway. Peggy Ann Lister is a deeply troubled woman with an agonising past. Raised by a martinet of a father, she was married off at age 17 with no idea what to expect – her husband turned out to be a brute and eventually she had to get away from him, leaving her with a complete distrust of all men. But David is sweet and naive and soon romance blossoms – until he meets her rich and powerful divorce lawyer Jim, who it turns out is an old acquaintance from his University days. He was pushy and devious even then and, although Peggy seems oblivious to this, it is immediately apparent that Jim is infatuated with the girl and will do anything to break off her relationship with Dave. This despite the fact that Jim is already married …

You look,” he said. “Open your eyes. You’re not up to this”

What starts out as a slightly perverse love triangle soon balloons to include Jim’s under-achieving brother Dennis and Audrey, another old college friend who is now the lawyer’s wife. Aware that Jim wants to leave her, she has turned to booze to drown her sorrows. Peggy however just thinks that Jim wants to protect her and so insists that Dave take her to a party at his house. Matheson handles this side of the story very well, with David feeling undermined by Jim’s wealth and position and made even more insecure by Peggy’s inability to see though her lawyer’s motives. At the party, feeling abandoned, Dave briefly Matheson-seins_de_glace-folioturns to Audrey and they comfort each other over a few drinks. She makes a pass that doesn’t really lead anywhere but none the less this is where things turn nasty when Jim’s driver, a Chicago hood by the name of Steiger, beats him up. A few days later, while the couple are out at a fun fair, they are attacked in a darkened room and Peggy is taken after Dave is knocked out. Dave  eventually finds Peggy back in the car in almost catatonic state, her blouse ripped. She was able to fend off her assailant by scratching his face. Dave assumes it must be Steiger but back at her rooming house Peggy’s prying and lascivious landlord Harold has tell-tale scratches on his face, so Dave finds new lodgings for her. Things get really ugly when later that night Harold is found with his throat cut and an ice pick in his head.

“Her pupils were black planets swimming in a milky universe”

Dave is worried that Peggy may be guilty and Jim capitalises on this by preying on his insecurity, claiming that Peggy didn’t divorce her first husband but in fact killed him. Dave is shattered but the two are reconciled when he hears her side of the story and realises that it was clearly self-defence and that her husband had been in the habit of raping his wife. There are also intimations that she was abused by her father as a child, which presumably was all pretty hot stuff sixty years ago and is still very unsettling if to a degree the kind of exploitative content one would expect in this kind of paperback to spice up the storyline. On the other hand, David’s (and perhaps ‘s the author’s) naiveté does come though in some decidedly iffy ways, most notably when considering Peggy’s unfortunate ability to fall in with unsuitable men:

“Was it possible that, unconsciously, Peggy dressed and behaved in a manner calculated to draw desire out of men she was with? … They talk about accident-prone men. Well maybe there are rape-prone women, too.”  – page 116 (chapter six)

Dave then picks up this distasteful idea later on during the bruising climax to the story, when the by now married couple are on the run from Jim, who has eluded the police after admitting to the two murders, including the ice pick stabbing of his own brother, for which he tried to frame Dave. It is their wedding night but Peggy is still desperately scared by the idea of Jim finding them – and still terrified about sex in general, despite her love for Dave. It’s a sign of the times that in this book the couple don’t in fact even attempt to get together physically until they are actually married. In a scene that briefly makes our narrator suddenly and unexpectedly unsympathetic, he finds his long-suppressed sexual urges almost impossible to dampen, musing once again:

“Almost, her fright drove me on harder. I could almost understand a man wanting to take Peggy by force. She seemed that sort of woman” – pages 148-149 (chapter eight)

Matheson’s inability to handle really complex characters is certainly laid to bare here – he is on much safer territory in the long and very exciting chase that takes up the bulk of chapter seven in which Jim takes the gloves off and orders Steig to kill Dave. A long car chase late at night down the PCH and then through Will Rogers Park are very well handled, as is the bizarre climax, which has the kind of operatic grandeur we might find in Cain and Woolrich and that, while working as a conclusion to the fairly well orchestrated plot, does once again feel to be straining the young author’s abilities just a touch.

“I got philosophical. I always do when I’m around people who all have more money than I do”

Matheson-NoirMatheson is now a veteran with dozens of screenplays, novels and short stories to his credit (you can read my reviews of some of his other work here), predominantly in the SF, fantasy and horror fields. As a budding writer however he inevitably tried his hand in many genres. Three of his early suspense novels, published as paperback originals in the 1950s, and including Someone is Bleeding, Fury on Sunday (both 1953) and Ride the Nightmare (1959), were collected in the 1997 anthology entitled appropriately Noir. One of the things I learned from the introduction to this volume by Matheson authority Matthew R. Bradley (who blogs at bradleyonfilm.wordpress) was that in his youth the author was a great fan of John Dickson Carr – he clearly shared his passion for illusion and  stage magic, as anyone who has read Now You see It … (which I previously reviewed here) will know. Is there any evidence of this in Someone is Bleeding? Well perhaps not though the story is sound and the explanations when they come at the end sort of make sense – more to the point, though it may be the author’s first novel it is very recognisable as being his work, plunging its Matheson-like protagonist into a paranoid nightmare in which it seems that everyone is really out to get him. This is a book about power – and in the case of its narrator, it’s mostly about what happens when you lose it. The book was originally published by Lion books with a 25 cent price tag but it’s anything but disposable as its story remains compelling while there is also much satisfaction to be had, at a distance of sixty years, in its depiction of war veterans stumbling to reintegrate themselves into a society where, in their eyes, their traditional family role has been usurped by newly empowered and emboldened women while the authority of the police is disregarded in the face of organised crime. This is the kind of stuff usually discussed in books by Susan Faludi but I would also recommend Masculinity in Fiction and Film (2006) by Brian Baker as a useful look at the subject. Incidentally, Matheson also published a shorter magazine version of the novel in 1955 as ‘The Frigid Flame’.

The novel was filmed in France and released there in 1974, where it appeared under the provocative title already used for the local edition of the book, Les Seins de glace. I’ll be reviewing it next Tuesday – in the meantime, Buona Pasqua.

***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in 2013 Book to Movie Challenge, 2013 Vintage Mystery Challenge, Friday's Forgotten Book, Los Angeles, Richard Matheson, Scene of the crime. Bookmark the permalink.

46 Responses to SOMEONE IS BLEEDING (1953) by Richard Matheson

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    Sergio – What a thoughtful and well-written review. I have to confess that my preference is for books with a little deeper chracterisation – especially for noir novels – than Matheson. But that said, as you make clear, there’s a lot more to this sort of novel than just characters and I’m glad that, for the most part, you liked it. Such a fascinating era for writing noir, too…

    • Thanks very much Margot – it is clearly a young writer’s book but I think a very interesting one, especially given his greater success in other fields. The characterisation is a bit weak, no question, though the long chase climax for instance is very well handled and I say that as someone who rarely enjoys reading extended action scenes (I prefer watching them at the movies usually).

  2. Colin says:

    My experience of Matheson’s writing up to now has been limited, but I am working on it. I’m always up for a some, new to me, pulp writing though. Thanks for this – I’ve just ordered a copy of Matheson’s noir trio that you mentioned.

    • Cheers mate – really hope you enjoy them. The first two are definitely apprentice works but quite characteristic none the less. The intro by Matthew Bradley is also very illuminating so the anthology is well worth having even if he clearly developed as a novelist as the books progress! The movie version is certainly imteresting (the English language DVD rather less so …).

      • Colin says:

        I’m looking forward to it. I actually quite enjoy seeing writers in the their early, unpolished stages so that doesn’t especially bother me.

        • I think you’ll find it syncs up well with some of the early suspense stories in THE BOX short story anthology. I really wish the book’s cover design were a bit more intersting though, given the pulpy contents within!

          • Colin says:

            Cool. I really enjoyed the stories included in The Box so that sounds good.

            As for the cover art/design, it does little to capitalize on the pulp aspect does it? I have one of those Black Lizard noir collections that really does evoke the 50s/pulp world – love those kinds of covers.

          • Always seems a shame not to be able to capitalise of the amazing, if ladmittedly often lurid, art from the era of the postwar paperback original – I dare say it doesn’t always come cheap though! Half the reason for buying the Hard Case Crime books is the cover! For instance …
            HCC VALLEY OF FEAR

          • Colin says:

            Indeed, great cover for a book that I personally find a bit on the turgid side.

            BTW, that Black Lizard cover that I was referring to is this one:

          • Yes, I agree it has always seemed the least of the novels to me – probably why I didn’t mind the tongue-in-cheek styling (AC Doyle indeed!)

  3. Colin says:

    Hmm. Clearly, something didn’t work there.

  4. I tend to prefer Richard Matheson’s SF and fantasy. I AM LEGEND and THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN are classics.

    • Not really going to argue with you on this score George, I think you’re right. Mind you, I have yet to read HELL HOUSE, his hommage to Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and I have yet to sample any of his Westerns.

      • Todd Mason says:

        You think Matheson’s sociobiological musing is clumsy in this novel…wait for the attempts at inducing heavy breathing in HELL HOUSE…Lion Books, for what it’s worth, was not a trafficker in cheap exploitation, but a serious rival to Fawcett Gold Medal for a while…but I believe it was undercapitalized…selling its pbs even more cheaply than GM probably didn’t help there. And I still have to sigh a little at the notion of “pulp” when we’re discussing paperbacks…which derived from pulp traditions but introduced more than a few of their own…

        • And there I was Todd, really looking forward to Hell House!

          • Todd Mason says:

            I don’t love it, but Jerry does…and you do like Over the Top (as with De Palma)…! Though even my friend Jeff Segal, a Matheson stalwart, tends to think of HELL HOUSE as too derivative of THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE and underachieving as a novel…he likes the film of the novel better…I’m not sure I disagree. Matheson much better in such short fiction as “The Distributor”…

          • While I shall dodge the De Palma bait (though really, and trust me on this Todd, he is as witty and subtle a filmmaker as any of the movie brat pack of the 70s once you get past the provocative gore, honest …) I must admit, while I really enjoyed the film version, Legend of Hell House, I was always a bit concerned that I might find the novel too similar to the Jackson (same way that Bid Time Return seems a homage to Jack Finney’s masterful Time and Again) – he may well be best in the short form though I have never read a novel of his that I felt was without merit – and Stir of Echoes made a big impression on me when I read it as a teen).

  5. Richard says:

    Another excellent review, Sergio. Such fine reviews are becoming our expectation, now, you raise your own bar. At some point in my fifties I just lost the desire and interest in reading the hopeless spiral into doom noir novels and shorts, so this one isn’t for me. Maybe I just began to want more satisfying endings.

    • Thanks Richard, you’re much too kind – well, hey, I’m in my mid 40s so I’ve got a few more years to go before deciding all this doom and gloom is for suckers! I must admit, I do feel like I’m letting my nieces down a lot when then want to borrow a video and I realise that classic Film Noir, Hammer and Universal Horror and the British cinema of the 60s just may not be for them at age 8 …

  6. TracyK says:

    This is a great introduction to an author I don’t know much about. I think I am going to have to try some of his books in each genre (now that I am experimenting more).

  7. Jerry House says:

    One of my favorite Mathesons. I got my copy in the late 60s in Old Orchard Beach, Maine — from a spinner rack and for the cover price, no less! I read it that night and loved it. A few years later I was excited when a ran across a copy of the October 1955 JUSTICE featuring “The Frigid Flame”; when I started reading it I knew I had read it before.

    You have a treat ahead of you with HELL HOUSE. I remember Rod Serling on one of the talk shows citing it as one of his favorite books. Matheson’s western novels are also good reads.

    • Thanks for all that good stuff Jerry – I’ve read rather uncomplimentary reviews of ‘The Frigid Flame’ but am absolutely raring to get round to Hell House now – thanks.

  8. John says:

    Icy Breasts There’s a noir title that should’ve been on a paperback original in the USA. Usually the French titles are more poetic. Maybe I translate too literally. Seems an improvement over The Frigid Flame which suggets a romance novel to me or an Edwardian adventure novel.

    Another enticing review, Sergio. One of these days I’ll get around to reading Matheson’s crime novels. I’m surprised I have yet to find one of them in my book hunting travels.

    • Well, it is marginally better in French I suppose but that ‘Icy Breasts’ translation, sheesh, what is the French for execrable? Thanks for the very kind words John.

  9. Yvette says:

    I’ve never read any Matheson either, Sergio. Don’t know if I ever will. I really do think that a lot of this pulp detective stuff was written for male readers, Maybe that’s not politically correct, but it’s the way I feel. I prefer a writer who bridges the divide.

    But again, a terrific post. 🙂

    • Thanks Yvette – certainly, in the case of this book there are ‘iffy’ areas when it comes to to female sexuality – though it strives to tap into anxieties arising from male and female conflict, it is the part of the book that really dates it. Matheson however has rarely ventured into crime fiction in his novels but has written much that is powerful, varied and original. One of his finest is the 1975 Bid Time Return, a charming and romantic time travel fantasy that he adapted into one of my favourite films, Somewhere in Time starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour – I think you might really like that book of his for instance if you can get your hands on a copy.

  10. Skywatcher says:

    You make an interesting comment about the book being about the loss of power. It does seem to have been something that fascinated him as a writer at the time. THE SHRINKING MAN is essentially about a ordinary, contemporary (1950s) guy who finds himself becoming less and less powerful as he shrinks in size. The scene where he finds himself living in a child’s dolls house tended to by his wife is rife with symbolism. He regains strength by ignoring physical size and using his wits and his inventiveness. This is similar to his novella DUEL, where his hero eventually triumphs by being just that bit cleverer than his tormentor.

    • Thanks Skywatcher. Matheson would doubtless repudiate the existence of such consistent thematic underpinnings to his work but that sense of paranoia and isolation, that everything is about to be turned upside down and made to work against you, is certainly at the heart of much of his best work in print and for the screen.

  11. Sergio, thanks so much for the very nice plugs, and as a relative newcomer to your fine site, I also enjoyed catching up on some of the earlier Matheson reviews to which you provided links. Can’t wait to read your review of ICY BREASTS. As the author of RICHARD MATHESON ON SCREEN, I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know there WAS an English-language DVD, but perhaps it appeared after I finished my manuscript and followed such developments a little less obsessively.

    Although THE BEARDLESS WARRIORS and SOMEONE IS BLEEDING are among his most overtly autobiographical books, Matheson peppered his entire body of work with references to his life and career, right down to having the female lead named Ruth (as is his lovely wife) quite often. WHAT DREAMS MAY COME contains countless details of their life together, and his early but long-unpublished novel HUNGER AND THIRST also draws heavily on his wartime experiences.

    HELL HOUSE is not as universally admired as, say, THE SHRINKING MAN (recently announced for a remake with a screenplay by the author and his son and namesake, Richard Christian Matheson) or I AM LEGEND, but I think it’s one of his better books. Of the Westerns, I would particularly recommend the Golden Spur Award-winning JOURNAL OF THE GUN YEARS.

    Interestingly, “The Frigid Flame” was not the only abbreviated magazine version of SOMEONE IS BLEEDING. Another abridgement was published in STAG (May 1956) as “The Untouchable Divorcee”; his second noir novel, FURY ON SUNDAY, was also abridged as “The Frenzied Weekend” in FOR MEN ONLY the following month. Conversely, his third and final noir, RIDE THE NIGHTMARE, was actually expanded from his story “Now Die in It,” first published in MYSTERY TALES (December 1958) and later reprinted in MATHESON UNCOLLECTED: VOLUME TWO.

    • First of all, thanks for the kind words and your other comments too on my previous posts, much appreciated. I didn’t know about “Now Die In it” as all as I don’t have that collection – thanks as always. If you really want to be a completist I can probably help you get a PAL copy of the film in English … The review if Icy Breasts (sigh) will be posted on Tuesday, one of my last for a good couple of weeks other than a short birthday tribute to Bill Pronzini on Friday as I am in the process of moving house and finding a new place to live …

  12. Sergio, I’m in a minority here, being familiar with Richard Matheson only by name and the fact that he is a prolific writer I haven’t read before. The element of fear (of Jim the lawyer in this case) seems to be the key that holds this story together. Is that a Matheson speciality? I’m pretty comfortable reading pulp stuff like this.

    • Hi Prashant, thanks very much for the comments. Matheson’s predominant theme in he 50s was undoubtedly paranpia and Jim is certainly the object of that for the narrator here (rightly and wrongly). Matheson;s work in that decade, including his many scripts for Rod serling’s Twilight Zone series remains fresh and powerful today – Matheson has been very prolific in prose and for the screen: he wrote the Edgar Allan Poe films starring Vincent Price of the 1960s, the Spielberg film Duel in the 70s and the melancholhy time travel romance Somewhere in Time in the 80s for instance. I hope you get to sample jis writing – it’s usually very rewarding.

  13. Thanks very much, Sergio. I haven’t seen the last two films mentioned. I’m pretty sure I have seen Matheson paperbacks out here and I’m going to pick them up no sooner I see them again.

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  15. DoingDewey says:

    This one sounds much too dark and too sexist for me, but I appreciate the thoughtful review 🙂

    • I hope that I wasn’t too tough on it Katie – it is a book of its time and I believe that Matheson wasn’t necessarily supporting or anyway endorsing the outré views expressed in the book – they are patently absurd but do sum up the naïveté of it. There are much bleaker and nastier books out there in the Noir genre published by much less respectable imprints of the 50s – but certainly this is a thriller is striving for something it just isn’t really mature enough to reach shall we say.

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  18. Drew Simels says:

    Thanks for this posting. I checked it out because I wondered if the French language movie copyrighted 1974 would change any of the plot details. Hope people check out the movie.

  19. Pingback: Les Seins de glace (1974) – Tuesday’s Forgotten Film | Tipping My Fedora

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