Here’s something unique: an American born, English-speaking author whose literary output is only partially in English. The late Marc Behm (1925-2007) was a prolific screenwriter who scripted at least two acknowledged classics (CHARADE, HELP!) as well as quite a few not-so-classic films (THE MAD BOMBER, HOSPITAL MASSACRE), and also drafted several novels. Below I’ll be focusing on those novels, specifically the four of them available in English. Among them are a masterpiece (THE EYE OF THE BEHOLDER), a near-masterpiece (AFRAID TO DEATH), a fascinating and unsettling oddity (THE QUEEN OF THE NIGHT)…and THE ICE MAIDEN.
Advancing in chronological order, we’ll start with Marc Behm’s 1977 debut novel THE QUEEN OF THE NIGHT, written when Behm was in his forties. Echoing the infamous 1974 film THE NIGHT PORTER and foreshadowing D.M. Thomas’ THE WHITE HOTEL (1981) and Steve Erickson’s TOURS OF THE BLACK CLOCK (1989), it’s a highly picturesque first person account of a sexually voracious young woman’s exploits in Nazi Germany.
Through this woman’s eyes we meet Adolph Hitler, Joseph Goebbels, Adolph Eichmann, Heinrich Himmler and Hitler’s sex-starved main squeeze Eva Braun. Our heroine witnesses countless acts of rape, mutilation and necrophilia during her odyssey, and even takes part in the “final solution” via a specially equipped bus with a carbon monoxide valve in its roof. Throughout it all this “Queen of the Night” remains a detached and ironic observer, only really coming alive when confronted with apparitions of her dead father.
In what would prove to be a definite foreshadowing of things to come, Marc Behm spares us nothing in this gruesome account. Nor does he ever let his “heroine” off the hook, as she takes part in the horrors just like everyone else–it matters not that her attitude toward the madness is often ambivalent.
THE EYE OF THE BEHOLDER followed in 1980, a private eye thriller/psychological case study/love story that’s absolutely the last word on voyeurism. It begins with a severely disturbed private dick known only as “the Eye” getting contracted by a distraught father to track down his errant son. The latter, it seems, has run off with a mysterious femme fatale. The boy marries the woman and then, on their wedding night, she murders him–all in plain view of the appropriately monikered Eye. His feelings are mixed, to say the least, and he simply follows the woman as she moves on, ensnares another man, and murders him.
Thus begins one of the strangest love stories ever told, as the woman criss-crosses the country and offs wealthy men (and even a few women), shadowed all the while by our none-too-heroic hero. At times he surreptitiously helps to hide the bodies and even finds ways to assist in the murders. As you may have guessed, both protagonists are completely insane, and they’re both headed straight to Hell. As for Behm’s prose, it’s as striking in its way as the narrative, bringing to mind a Jim Thompson potboiler rewritten by William S. Burroughs. Don’t be put off by the two underwhelming film adaptations of this novel (1983’s MORTELLE RANDONEE and 2000’s EYE OF THE BEOLDER), which remains one of the great psycho thrillers of our time.
After such an unqualified triumph it was probably inevitable that Behm’s following novel would be something of a let-down. That was indeed the case with 1983’s THE ICE MAIDEN, an imaginative but rather wobbly and misconceived vampire romp (whose sole English language appearance was in a three-novel omnibus published by Zomba Books). It centers on Cora, Brand and Terry, a trio of centuries-old vamps looking to get rich by pulling off a complex robbery. The planning and execution of the caper are juxtaposed rather clumsily with lengthy flashbacks depicting the characters’ past exploits. These vampires can shape-shift, frequently transforming into bats, wolves and a shapeless invisible mass–a talent that comes in mighty handy during the robbery!
The novel is enjoyable enough overall, and contains some wonderfully perverse surprises (such as Cora in bat form burrowing between a horny woman’s legs), but Behm’s near-psychedelic stream-of-consciousness prose style is better suited to the psychological narratives of his other novels than the (comparatively) naturalistic veneer of THE ICE MAIDEN. Nor is Behm’s depiction of modern-day bloodsuckers especially interesting in light of other vampire themed novels like INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE, VAMPIRE JUNCTION, THEY THIRST, THE DELICATE DEPENDENCY and THE VAMPIRE TAPESTRY, all of which preceded this novel, and all of which far outdid it.
Finally we have 1991’s AFRAID TO DEATH, which represented a welcome return to form.
Joe Egan is a desperate man on the run from a mysterious blonde woman who is in fact the Angel of Death. As a kid Joe encountered the woman three times, and on each occasion people close to him died. Upon the woman’s latest appearance Joe immediately bolts, setting in motion a pattern of flight that will continue through the remainder of his life, with the woman avidly tracking his every move.
The novel has been billed as a “literary Siamese twin” to THE EYE OF THE BEHOLDER, yet the atmosphere of extreme fear that suffuses AFRAID TO DEATH is unique. It’s this fear that drives Joe Egan on his never-ending flight, even though he can’t help but lust after his nemesis; at one point he even outfits a girlfriend as the blonde woman during sex. Living with such a riot of warring emotions it’s inevitable that madness comes to overtake Joe, calling into question what is “real” about his odyssey and what isn’t.
The novel spans untold decades in the life of its protagonist yet still satisfies as a fast moving thriller. Its fascination is in Marc Behm’s unique but quite characteristic mingling of fear, eroticism and madness, all packed into a gripping and unerringly well-told narrative.
Marc Behm published three further novels, including OFF THE WALL (1991), SEEK TO KNOW NO MORE (1993) and CRABS (1994). All, alas, appeared only in French–which makes sense, as Behm resided in France for much of his life. He apparently never made much of an effort to get his final novels published outside of France, and the chances of ever seeing English language versions of those novels is remote. For that matter, I don’t foresee subsequent editions of any of Marc Behm’s novels, even though all of them (even THE ICE MAIDEN) are richly deserving, even demanding, of our attention and admiration.