Richard Matheson is a name that can stand by its reputation, though for some it may be helpful to point out the works that built it, spreading across science fiction into horror, and beyond: “Born of Man and Woman,” The Shrinking Man, I Am Legend, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” Hell House, Stir of Echoes, Somewhere In Time, What Dreams May Come. I have always been impressed by Matheson and consider him of my favorite writers, no matter which genre he’s writing in—though, I think he’s best at suspense/terror, a true master in that field. Looking into his bibliography, I was surprised to find that his earliest novels were thrillers in the noir vein, now collected in one volume (Noir) by Forge Publishing. Needless to say I picked it up pretty quick.
David Newton is young unpublished author, who recently moved to California to get a fresh start after the War. He doesn’t know anyone around there until he bumps into Peggy Lister on a deserted beach and falls head over shoulders in love with her. She’s a quiet, distant beauty who hates all men—except Dave. So Dave keeps trying to reach out to her, only to find out she’s connected to one of his old college buddies—the snobby Jerry, rich and shady lawyer. Dave makes it his goal to snatch Peggy away from Jerry, which leads Jerry to reveal Peggy’s dark secret: she stabbed her abusive first husband to death with an icepick. And if that doesn’t scare Dave away from Peggy, then Jerry may have to sic his ex-Nazi chauffeur hitman on him.
Of course, Dave isn’t going to fall for Jerry’s lies that easily—or is he? Torn by love and lust, he embarks in a twisty-turny trip to uncover the truth and win Peggy’s love. Dave, Peggy, and Jerry are stuck in a complex love triangle, made more complex by more icepick murders. Dave’s trapped by love and paranoia, never quite sure about Peggy’s true intentions, or if it’s Jerry and his mob connections who are offing the various bad men in Peggy’s life. And to Matheson’s credit, the truth is never clear until the bitter end.
This novel is very psychological, not just in Dave’s internalized fears—and later, abject terror—but also psychosexual from Peggy’s mental state. It’s clear she’s scarred and broken from her past, terrified of most men because of past abuses; Peggy is a scared and emotionally crippled girl in a beautiful woman’s body, and nobody seems to recognize that. (Maybe because of 1950s understanding of psychology.) While Jerry and David are in love with Peggy, she’s also more a tool for them to flex their masculinity—Jerry moreso than Dave, since Dave is the 90-pound weakling from those ancient Charles Atlas ads, while Jerry is the bully that kicks over Dave’s sandcastle and makes off with his girl.
Someone is Bleeding is Matheson’s first published book; it was an expensive collector’s item until it was reprinted in the three-in-one omnibus Noir, which made Matheson’s early work readily accessible. Oftentimes reading someone’s first books can be a chore, seeing glimpses of their future style in among the mediocrity. And while Someone is Bleeding is not perfect, the writing is pure Matheson, between his sparse prose style (which works great in this role) and his characteristic psychological dread. I did find the book long and slow at points, but its pacing balanced out before too long, with time to include several murders, showdowns, and a spectacular chase scene.
My big problem is Dave’s character; he’s too passive most of the time, never standing up for himself and tending to wander listlessly. He also tends to make really stupid decisions; some of these are could be from the naïve folly of youth, but one giant mistake in particular near the end is pretty damning. Dave’s thoughts and actions are pretty realistic choices, hence their occasional irrationality, and there may be a reason for that.
The first chapter of the book is semi-autobiographical, with Matheson using a fictionalized version of Peggy and Dave to recount how he met his real-life wife on a beach. So I have to wonder how much of Dave’s character is semi-autobiographical; both were struggling young authors who moved to California to write the Great American Novel after the War. (The introduction has some anecdotes of Matheson’s early years, including how he wrote an 800-page epic that his publisher hated, the punchline being Henry Kuttner telling the young Matheson that his publisher was an ass.) Thus after reading the introduction, I had a hard time not picturing David Newton as a stand-in for Richard Matheson.
I liked Someone is Bleeding; it’s got it’s good moments and its bad elements, the worst being the occasional tedious section and Dave’s bad choices and wishy-washiness. I think the good parts outweigh the bad, though, and include the winding plot, the awesome chase scene, and his ability to create excellent tension and dread. Recommended for thriller/suspense readers and fans of Matheson, and worth looking into if you love old noir/crime novels.