Like 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 way. 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 turns 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 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.