I took some time off over Memorial Day weekend, urgently needed relaxation. I saw friends, watched movies, took some walks, and sat in the pleasant spring shade and read…
The book was wild and grim…
…but the day was sunny and warm.
BEHOLD THIS WOMAN was noir specialist David Goodis’ melodramatic saga in richly entertaining purple prose about Clara Ervin, a malignant, monstrous narcissist of a woman, who dominates her husbands with all the techniques at her disposal: lush redheaded beauty, entrancing eyes, a mindfucking manner of taking control of conversations, an erotic style of cigarette smoking, and most dangerous of all, a penchant for doing whatever it takes—from cuckoldry to murder—to get where she feels she deserves to be in prestige, money, and luxury.
But what makes BEHOLD THIS WOMAN even more extraordinary, and it’s something I haven’t seen written about before (although I may have missed it since so much has been written about Goodis since the rediscovery of his work here in America in the 80s with the Black Lizard reprints): this is also a fetish novel, and the fetish is face-slapping.
Now, I had first read this novel around 1996, when I got my copy at a paperback collector’s show. Oddly, though, in the intervening years I just seemed to remember that Clara had just slapped around her defeated husband, backhanding him too. But when I re-read the novel Memorial Day weekend, I discovered anew that Clara not only slapped her husband, but also her lover and her stepdaughter, and repeatedly, in long richly detailed scenes that (as a writer of fetish fiction myself, of course) I recognized as designed to be erotic, definitely for the author and for all other connoisseurs of face slapping action. The result of all the slapping is to so discombobulate her victims that they are then ripe for “Stockholm syndrome” style capitulation to her control, wherein they turn from fear to zombie-like submission to her will—and even a sick kind of adoration or love (in the case of the stepdaughter). Although in the case of her husband, the face-slapping does wake him up to the true nature of this woman by whom he was once so entranced. The scene of their first date, wherein she entices him both with her eyes and cigarette smoking, is a classic of subtle seduction by a dominant female over a susceptible male.
In the intervening years since I first read the novel I also became far more knowledgeable about the femdom and fetish comic art of Eric Stanton, particularly where women are fighting other women or abusing men—and BEHOLD THIS WOMAN has the equivalent in scenes so vividly described it’s almost as if they’re drawn, not written, because you can see them so clearly. Clara Ervin would not be out of place in a Stanton story of female domination. There is a physical confrontation between Clara and her stepdaughter that could have been drawn by Stanton.
This vintage drawing by Stanton, which was posted online at Twitter by the German writer/photographer/model Pitt Prickel here, perfectly captures the kind of face-slapping with which the book is filled:
This is the kind of feminine fury captured in Goodis’ prose. I wonder if Goodis knew of Stanton’s 1950s and 1960s artwork, which came long after the 1947 publication of Behold This Woman. It’s possible.
This bizarre and entertaining novel—which is also very alarming and disturbing in its relentless portrayal of how narcissistic personalities manipulate and conquer more reasonable types of people—came out in 1947, the same year as BORN TO KILL, a film noir starring Claire Trevor as another psychopathic female. Goodis was working out in Hollywood as a screenwriter at the time, and as I read the book it occurred to me that Claire Trevor would have been perfect casting as Clara Ervin. And Phillip Terry, who played her handsome, even-tempered fiance in BORN TO KILL, could have been excellent casting as Clara Ervin’s besotted and befuddled lover Leonard in a film version. But it was never made. Here is the poster for BORN TO KILL; Claire Trevor really looks like the embodiment of Goodis’ femme noir, although since Clara as described is a bit on the plumper side, Trevor would have had to pack on a few more pounds to be letter perfect physically.
BEHOLD THIS WOMAN is currently out of print, and that’s a crime in itself. This saga belongs in an affordable reprint edition or ebook so more people can see what it takes to stop a narcissist like Clara Ervin: a comeuppance so grotesque it borders on something out of Hieronymous Bosch! Which isn’t a spoiler because damn you know it’s coming and hell you know Clara deserves it!
Here are two other editions of BEHOLD THIS WOMAN. First, the 1949 Bantam paperback cover:
The man looks suitably awed and astonished but Clara looks too svelte and posed here.
And this is the original dust jacket of the 1947 hardcover. This perfectly captures Clara’s red hair and charismatic and overpowering personality, but she still a bit too trim! The book definitely describes her as curvy and plush in her contours and flesh.
Clara Ervin: master manipulator of men and women, and one of David Goodis’s most memorable creations.
If you’d like to read more about David Goodis and the strange backstory of how he came to write BEHOLD THIS WOMAN after an unhappy marriage to a woman who, apparently, intensely teased and dominated him, you can find the story in the legendary 1984 French biography Goodis: A Life in Black and White by Philippe Garnier, which is now available in a recent English translation here.
And visit a webpage here , which I just found, that gives excerpts of BEHOLD THIS WOMAN that give a good flavor of Clara Erwin’s dominating power.
And if you want to learn more about Eric Stanton, check out Richard Pérez Seves’ incredible new book Eric Stanton and the History of the Bizarre Underground here.