REVIEW: Some of Your Blood (1961) by Theodore Sturgeon

Theodore Sturgeon is an author whose work is starting to fade from view. Once a big wheel down at the SFF factory, his name may continue to ring out but that name has become unmoored from any particular works of fiction.

This is partly a product of the way in which media franchises dominate the cultural landscape and partly a product of the fact that Sturgeon was a writer operating at a time when normal people still paid attention to short fiction. If you want to get into Sturgeon here in the 21st Century, you can choose between PDFs of a small selection of not-particularly famous short novels and a seven volume anthology set aimed at collectors and academics. To be honest, I’ve been reading science fiction since I was a teenager and the only reason I hit upon this novel is that it was being made available for free on Audible. So Yay Jeff Bezos and Boo SFF publishing as this is one of the most enjoyably psychological horror novels I have read in a long time.

The book opens with the somewhat awkward note addressed to the reader warning them about the fictional nature of the story they are about to read. At first, I took this to be a similar plot to that deployed in films like Wolf Creek and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre where the creators will claim the story is based on ‘real events’ in an effort to make them more shocking. However, a more fruitful way of reading the introduction would be to see it as an attempt to de-stabilise the reader’s relationship with the text and so encourage them to ask themselves questions not only about the honesty of the narrator, but also the narrator’s identity.

Having introduced the possibility of an unreliable narrator, Sturgeon further muddies the waters by framing and re-framing the story first as a psychological case-file and then as the biography of an American soldier who was sent home from World War II after hitting his commanding officer. Sturgeon gallops through these framing devices so quickly and so smoothly that you barely notice the ontological slight-of-hand and certainly don’t think to stop and wonder why hitting a superior officer would land a soldier in a States-side psychiatric institution rather than a military prison.

Things start to stabilise once the narrative settles into a biographical account of the soldier’s life. Born into abject rural poverty with a violently drunken father and a physically infirm mother, the child lives a life of absolute neglect that leaves him barely able to talk. Utterly isolated and utterly without friends, the boy spends his days hunting small game and becomes remarkably adept at stuff like setting traps and sitting motionless until a rabbit or a possum wanders into reach. As time passes, the mother’s health declines along with the father’s descent into alcoholism. Once an emotionally-unavailable bread-winner, the father is now little more than an itinerant labourer who takes all of his anger and frustration out on the mother until the child steps up and confronts him with a hunting knife. Cowed by his large teenaged son, the father begins to fade into the background leaving the child to feed the family through thievery until first the death of the mother and then a burglary gone wrong result in his being sent off to borstal.

One of the soldier’s psychologists will later marvel at how the soldier’s inner life is free from the kind of psychological torsion that comes from shame, doubt, or hypocrisy. The soldier’s neglectful upbringing has left him under-socialised and under-educated but almost blissfully free of complexes. The boy’s decision to confront the father is painted in the same de-saturated palette; boy arrives home to find his father beating his crippled mother and suddenly a knife is sailing through the air and the father responds by calmly bandaging up his wounds and never stepping out of line ever again.

Reading this, I was immediately put in mind of the first of Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber novels where the protagonist Corwin wakes up in a hospital with no memory and calmly deduces that he is being held against his will by a corrupt doctor before moving on to investigating what turns out to be a weird inter-dimensional conspiracy. People commenting on mid-20th Century science-fiction will often toss around terms like ‘Competent Man’ to describe the fact that stories from that era would revolve around characters with absurdly vast skillsets. Some people even go so far as to view ‘Competent Man’ stories as a form of power fantasy not unlike that portrayed in superhero comics. While I do not doubt that there is pleasure to be had in stories about supremely-competent people doing stuff, I think that the real fantasy at work in ‘Competent Man’ stories is not a mastery of STEM-related disciplines but rather an ability to confront the new, the weird, and the awesome with a degree of calmness and professionalism that most humans could only achieve with the aid of horse tranquilisers. Imagine confronting the kind of shit that turns up in the average episode of Star Trek… now imagine confronting the kind of stuff that turns up in the average episode of Star Trek without losing the entirety of your shit. To me, the idea that you could watch your drunken father brutalise your crippled mother for years and years before finally deciding to knife the fucker without experiencing so much as an accelerated pulse-rate simply does not ring true. That is not how humans are made.

Back in 2012, Adam Kotsko wrote a book entitled Why We Love Sociopaths that explained the popularity of characters like Dexter Morgan and Hannibal Lecter as a desire to move beyond the emotional complexities of adulthood in order to become creatures that are more focused, ruthless, self-confident and so are better adapted to life under late-stage capitalism. The biographical sections of Some of Your Blood evoke similar fantasies of emotional simplicity and while Kotsko was writing about the people of the early 2010s, I find it very easy to believe that this fantasy might have proved popular with the generation that fought World War II. What is Dexter Morgan but a noughties version of the strong silent Gary Coopers so envied by Tony Soprano?

What makes Some of Your Blood interesting is not the style and effectiveness with which the fantasy is evoked but rather the fact that Sturgeon, a man born in 1919, was able to articulate said fantasy whilst also recognising its psychological impossibility. Indeed, the entire plot of the novel hinges on the fact that while a psychiatrist reads the soldier’s biography and sees a wholesome life marred only by poverty, a psychologist reads the biography and sees someone who is pointedly refusing to share his emotional world. This places the novel in a rather interesting place as Some of Your Blood is a psychological novel about a character that refuses to share his psychology. This is where all of that stuff about fiction and artifice start to make thematic sense as fantasies are falsehoods we wish were true.

The sense of psychological unreality is further indulged in the section dealing with the boy’s later adolescence as we are told that he adapted incredibly well to life in reform school and wound up excelling in STEM-related subjects before eventually deciding to live with some relatives. There he meets and falls in love with an older woman who gets pregnant forcing the child to leave home and join the army. I use the term ‘gets pregnant’ quite deliberately as the descriptions of the boy’s later-adolescence are as devoid of negative emotions as the descriptions of his childhood. While the biography may imply that the soldier is the baby’s father, the soldier accepts no blame and presents it as something that just happened to the woman he happened to love. Though you’d expect the woman’s pregnancy to be traumatic or at least upsetting to the soldier, the description presents it as a kind of malfunction in the world stemming from the irrationality or stupidity of other people.

Sturgeon doesn’t give us any specific reasons for doubting the content of the biography, but he does scatter the narrative with clues and inconsistencies. Aside from the opening back-and-forth over the story’s fictional nature, there are a few comments suggesting that the story might have been written in such a way as to present an idealised version of the soldier’s life; an idealised version designed to give an over-worked psychologist a reason to stamp a form and send its author form. And that’s without mentioning the story’s lack of interiority.

One of the reasons that the biography rings false is that, aside from the absolute absence of emotional torsion, the soldier presents himself as someone who seems not to experience strong emotions at all. Instead of using the human language of emotions, the soldier speaks in these oddly mechanistic terms about a heat that builds in his stomach until he needs to let it out. Sturgeon lampshades the absurdity of these abstracted psycho-linguistics in a set of remarks in which the soldier compares this rising need to the urge to take a shit. There’s a lot of talk about stuff working its way out in one way or another and we are invited to assume that the soldier is talking about sex but the language is free not only from emotion but also from considerations such as pleasure. Under this vision of human nature, we spend our days like perfectly rational little robots until some biological need starts to drag us off target at which point we either deal with the need or have the need deal with us. While this vision of human nature is not completely without foundation, its hard and fast line between rational and irrational really is nothing more than a mid-20th Century fantasy. You don’t experience emotional needs in the same way as you experience the need to take a piss and so the psychologist picks up on the fact that the soldier never speaks about the true nature of his needs.

It is at this point that the tone of the novel transitions from a psychological character study to something more recognisably horrific as the real need behind all of the weird hydraulic abstraction turns out to be the need to consume blood, first animal and then human. The novel ends with the psychologist breaking down the soldier’s barriers and getting him to fill in some of the psychological details absent from his biography but the final act is composed largely of a back and forth between different mental health professionals trying to fact-check the details of the soldier’s story. While some of the truths revealed in the closing section were obvious from reading between the lines, most of them serve to paint an image of profound sadness. Of misery, alienation and defeat explaining why the soldier would choose to warp his life with fantasy. The descriptions of the soldier’s girlfriend are particularly poignant but I feel that the novel would have worked a lot better without all of the truths being spelled out. Without that ending, Some of Your Blood would have been a powerful psychological novel that showed quite how much characterisation you can do with an intelligent use of negative space. The soldier’s story is compelling and beautifully drawn and the gaps in the narrative invite us to speculate resulting in an image far more powerful and evocative than the one that Sturgeon felt obligated to provide. The deflationary effect is so strong that I can’t help but wonder whether the closing section might not have been added at the request of an editor. Some of Your Blood is not a perfect novel by any means but it deserved better than the perfunctory ending it received.

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