Sidney Sheldon was one of the most successful English language Novelists of the last fifty years and who wrote eighteen novels about the lives of the “fictional” rich and famous. His novels also have the distinction of being some of the most monumental drek ever. Here I will briefly review one of Sidney’s “Masterpieces” A Stranger in the Mirror.
I read it decades ago and I have since then re-read it a number of times each time enjoying the sheer melodramatic excess and wretchedness of it. In so many ways this novel's terribleness is thoroughly enjoyable. All in the tradition of hack English language novelists.
Sidney Sheldon, (1917-2007), was also a screenwriter and involved in the production and creation of movies and various TV shows like The Patty Duke Show and the truly lame I Dream of Jeannie. He also won an Academy Award for best original screenplay in 1947 for The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer. He also won a Tony Award.1
Sadly his ability to write screen plays did not translate into writing decent novels.
His first published Novel was The Naked Face, 1970, and after one more he published A Stranger in the Mirror in 1976. Subsequently he wrote 15 more novels the last was published in 2004.2
Now Sidney Sheldon was a hack writer in the style of Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann both of whom wrote hackneyed pulp best sellers and became among the most successful writers in the world during the 60’s and 70’s. today Harold Robbin’s is largely forgotten and Jacqueline Susann largely still remembered for writing the novel The Valley of the Dolls that was the basis for one of the worst films ever made The Valley of the Dolls. Both of them “pioneered” a breathless style consisting of seeming to end each sentence with an exclamation point and having only one compound word per sentence. The novels they wrote were packed with sleaze and sex written about in a prurient, voyeuristic manner. The purpose being that the reader can partake via the written word in the sleazy sexualized doings of the protagonists. Also in the novels, with relentless regularity. the “deviants” and other transgressors of conventional morality and conventions would be punished in graphic hideous fashion.3
Both of those above writers hugely influenced the pulp writing of their day and after. The combination of an hysterical writing style with leering, hypocritical and voyeuristic moralising proved to be a big seller and opened whole new avenues of sale opportunities for writers of trash. Today one of the most important successors of this school of bad writing is the novelist Jackie Collins whose writing is of the same low but best-selling variety.4
Sidney Sheldon went on the same gravy train to riches. Realising that good writing would not sell but that crap would. So we get novels like A Stranger in the Mirror.
Now it is fascinating to note that Sidney Sheldon got the title for this opus to the “real” Hollywood from a supposed poem by a supposed poet named Silenius. It is to put it mildly a little incongruous for a bad book to have a title from such a supposed source. Sort of like a bit of caviar on a McDonald's hamburger.5
The plot is straight out of a bad sleaze novel. The plot concerns the life and careers of two people in Hollywood. The male lead is Toby Temple and the female leads is Jill Castle.
Toby Temple is a world famous comedian and actor and Jill Castle is his starlet wife, who is beautiful but lacks talent. The first part of the book is about their careers before they meet and the rest of the novel is about their Hollywood marriage. It is full of sleaze and sex. For it turns out that Toby has real talent and Jill can only get ahead by performing sexual services for people in Hollywood. So Jill is a constant inhabitant of the casting couch which really doesn’t help her get ahead.
Jill eventually meets Toby who had a “typical” Hollywood rags to riches success story as a comedian and film star. No cliché is left unwritten by Mr. Sheldon. And there are lots of curse words and leering, prurient sex.
So Jill finally meets Toby, who weary of getting on her back for everyman who says they will advance her career refuses to sleep with him. This frustrates Toby to such an extent that he eventually marries her, She however is in love with someone else. So the marriage becomes an over the top love / hate thing with purple prose and violin strings galore. And Toby in the meanwhile becomes very successful on TV.
The marriage steers a melodramatic arch of sleaze and drink and eventually Toby suffers a stoke that leaves him largely paralysed. Jill out for her own nurses him back to health. Toby then stages a comeback and all seems right in the world with Jill basking in Toby’s reflected glory.
Alas Toby suffers another stroke and is this time paralysed for good. Toby and Jill grow to hate each other and Jill manages to murder Toby and successfully makes it look like an accident.
A friend of Toby, who feels Jill murdered Toby, arranges for the man Jill really loves to see after their wedding a porn film Jill had done when she was young and desperate. This ruins everything and Jill commits suicide. The End!
That is the over the top, drekish, melodramatic “plot” of this book. It cries out to be made into a bad TV miniseries like some others of Sidney Sheldon’s masterpieces.6 Instead it was made into a really bad, horrible TV movie in 1993. I have never seen it but it is apparently truly and colossally horrible. The movie positively oozes excess and sheer awfulness it seems. In that it all too accurately reflects its terrible source material.7
Now we get into a few examples of what can laughingly be called the “literary stylings” of Sidney Sheldon: For example:
The roomers looked used up, rather than old. There was a common living room with battered and sprung furniture where they all gathered in the evening to exchange gossip. Everyone gave Jill advice, most of it contradictory.
"The way to get into pictures, honey, is you find yourself an AD who likes you." This from a sour-faced lady who had recently been fired from a television series.
"What's an AD?" Jill asked.
"An assistant director." In a tone that pitied Jill's ignorance. "He's the one who hires the supes."
Jill was too embarrassed to ask what the "supes" were.
"If you want my advice, you'll find yourself a horny casting director. An AD can only use you on his picture. A casting director can put you into everything." This from a toothless woman who must have been in her eighties.
"Yeah? Most of them are fags." A balding character actor.
"What's the difference? I mean, if it gets one launched?" An intense, bespectacled young man who burned to be a writer.8
As you can read Sidney was no James Joyce or even Albert Joyce. He was a hack writer of pulp excess. How about this scene in which a predatory Lesbian agent tries to seduce Jill:
The hand was stroking Jill faster, moving toward her groin. Jill lowered the script and looked at Rose Dunning.
The woman's face was flushed and her eyes had a glazed look in them.
"Keep reading," she said huskily.
"I -- I can't," Jill said. "If you --"
The woman's hand began to move faster. "This is to get you in the mood, darling. It's a sexual fight, you see. I want to feel the sex in you."
Her hand was pressing harder now, moving between Jill's legs.
"No! " Jill got to her feet, trembling.
Saliva was dribbling out of the corner of the woman's mouth. "Be good to me and I'll be good to you." Her voice was pleading.
"Come here, baby." She held out her arms and made a grab for her, and Jill ran out of the office.
In the street outside, she vomited. Even when the racking spasms were over and her stomach had quieted down, she felt no better. Her headache had started again.
It was not fair. The headaches didn't belong to her. They belonged to Josephine Czinski.9
Not only do we get prurient lesbianism to turn on the male readers but we get the cliché stereotype of the evil Lesbian seducer. Also we get a huge dollop of hypocritical moralising for the voyeuristic reader to hypocritically pooh pooh.
And how about this example from the word smith that was Sidney Sheldon:
They were artists, they were the Chosen. Hollywood was their Jericho and Joshua would blow his golden trumpet and the mighty gates would fall before them and their enemies would be smitten, and lo, Sam Winters's magic wand would be waved and they would be wearing silken robes and be Movie Stars and adored ever after by their grateful public.
The coffee at Schwab's was heady sacramental wine, and they were the Disciples of the future, huddling together for comfort, warming one another with their dreams, on the very brink of making it.10
And later on still more prurience to titillate the reader:
Fred Kapper looked around the bare room and said, "Shit! They used to have a little couch in here."
He glanced at his watch. "We'll have to make do. Get your clothes off, sweetheart. The dubbing crew will be back in twenty minutes."
Jill stared at him a moment, feeling like a whore, and she loathed him. But she did not let it show. She had tried it her way and had failed. Now she was going to do it their way. She took off her dress and pants.
Kapper did not bother undressing. He merely opened his zipper and took out his tumescent penis. He looked at Jill and grinned, "That's a beautiful ass. Bend over."
Jill looked around for something to lean against. In front of her was the laugh machine, a console on wheels, filled with laugh-track loops controlled by buttons on the outside.
"Come on, bend over."
Jill hesitated a moment, then leaned forward, propping herself up by her hands. Kapper moved in back of her and Jill felt his fingers spreading her cheeks. An instant later she felt the tip of his penis pressing against her anus.
Jill said. "Not there! I-- I can't --"
"Scream for me, baby!" and he plunged his organ inside |her, ripping her with a terrible pain. With each scream, he thrust deeper and harder. She tried frantically to get away, but he was grabbing her hips, shoving himself in and out, 'holding her fast. She was off balance now. As she reached out 'to get leverage, her fingers touched the buttons of the laugh machine, and instantly the room was filled with maniacal laughter. As Jill squirmed in a burning agony, her hands pounded the machine, and a woman tittered and a small crowd guffawed and a girl giggled and a hundred voices cackled and chuckled and roared at some obscene, secret joke. The echoes bounced hysterically around the walls as Jill cried out with pain.
Suddenly she felt a series of quick shudders and a moment later the alien piece of flesh inside her was withdrawn, slowly the laughter in the room died away. Jill stayed Still, her eyes shut, fighting the pain. When finally she was able to straighten up and turn around, Fred Kapper was zipping up his fly.
"You were sensational, sweetheart. That screaming really turns me on."11
Titillation, prurience and hypocritical voyeuristic moralising with really bad writing; what more can I say. Well I can mention that the laugh machine going off is truly over the top dumbness.
Well enough of Jill’s adventures in Hollywood, dealing with predatory Lesbians and wannabe rapists.
Lets us look at what happened when Toby meet Jill:
"Jill ? This is your little old co-star, Toby."
"Hello, Mr. Temple."
"Hey, come on! What's with the 'mister' bit?" There was no response. "Do you like baseball?" Toby asked. "I've got box seats for --"
"No, I don't."
"Neither do I." He laughed. "I was testing you. Listen, how about having dinner with me Saturday night? I stole my chef from Maxim's in Paris. He --"
"I'm sorry. I have a date, Mr. Temple." There was not even a flicker of interest in her voice.
Toby felt himself gripping the receiver more tightly.
"When are you free?"
"I'm a hard-working girl. I don't go out much. But thank you for asking me."
And the line went dead. The bitch had hung up on him -- a fucking bit player had hung up on Toby Temple! .There was not a woman Toby had met who would not give a year of her life to spend one night with him -- and this stupid cunt had turned him down!
He was in a violent rage, and he took it out on everyone around him. Nothing was right. The Script stank, the director was an idiot, the music was terrible and the actors were lousy.12
Or how about this bit of over the top melodrama:
An icy cloak of air covered her like some obscene blanket, caressing her nude body, stroking her breasts, kissing her lips with a frigid, malodorous breath that reeked of the grave. Jill's heart was pounding wildly now, as she fought for air. Her lungs felt seared from the cold. She tried to sit up, and it was as though there was an invisible weight holding her down. She knew this had to be a dream, but at the same time she could hear that hideous rattle from her throat as she fought for breath. She was dying.
But could a person die during a nightmare? Jill could feel the cold tendrils exploring her body, moving in between her legs, inside her now, filling her, and with a heart-stopping suddenness, she realized it was Toby. Somehow, by some means, it was Toby. And the quick rush of terror in Jill gave her the strength to draw her way to the foot of the bed, gasping for breath, mind and body fighting to stay alive.
She reached the floor and struggled to her feet and ran for the door, feeling the cold pursuing her, surrounding her, clutching at her. Her fingers found the door knob and twisted it open. She ran out into the hallway, panting for air, filling her starved lungs with oxygen. The hallway was warm, quiet, still. Jill stood there, swaying, her teeth chattering uncontrollably.13
Whee! – that was bad. I will give the suffering reader just one more example of the bad writing in this novel. It is from the very end.
If was two o'clock in the morning and the decks were deserted when Jill emerged from her cabin. She stared down at the sea, watching the gentle splashing of the waves against the ship as it cut through the water, listening to the voice.
Jill's headache was worse now, a tight vise of agony. But the voice was telling her not to worry, telling her that, everything was going to be fine. Look down, the voice said.
Jill looked down into the water and saw something floating there. It was a face. Toby's face, smiling at her, the drowned blue eyes looking up at her. The icy breeze began to blow, gently pushing her closer to the rail.
"I had to do it, Toby," she whispered. "You see that, don't you?"
The head in the water was nodding, bobbing, inviting her to come and join it. The wind grew colder and Jill's body began trembling. Don't be afraid, the voice told her. The water is deep and warm.... You'll be here with me.... Forever.
She closed her eyes a moment, but when she opened than, .the smiling face was still there, keeping pace with the ship, the mutilated limbs dangling in the water. Come to me, the voice said.
She leaned over to explain to Toby, so that he would leave her in peace, and the icy wind pushed against her, and suddenly she was floating in the soft velvet night air, pirouetting in space.
Toby's face was coming closer, coming to meet her, and she felt the paralysed arms go around her body, holding her. And they were together, forever and ever. Then there was only the soft night wind and the timeless sea.
And the stars above, where it had all been written.14
And so ends this turgid mess of novel. I don’t know why I enjoy it so much. It has virtually no redeeming features and it remains a literary atrocity.
I suppose it is because it is so awful that it exerts a strange attraction for me. Sort of like looking at a horrible accident. You know it is horrible but you just can’t avert your eyes. The sheer badness of the piece exerts a strange fascination. And to be blunt the writing and absurdly melodramatic plot is compulsively funny. After all what can you say about a line like: “Jill stood there, swaying, her teeth chattering uncontrollably.”, except laugh at how dumb the line is.
A Stranger in the Mirror is both the heir to horrid pulp novels of the 60’s and an ancestor of the pulp novels of today. Such novels should be taught in writing courses to show how NOT to write.
Meanwhile I’ve just used this post as an excuse to reread a truly terrible but enjoyable, for all the wrong reasons, novel.
1. Sidney Sheldon, Wikipedia Here.
4. Jackie Collins, Wikipedia Here.
5. I did a search on the Internet and was unable to find either this poet or this work called Ode to Truth. It is possible neither exist and Sidney Sheldon invented it. All I’ve been able to find on the Internet are just quotes of Sidney Sheldon’s fragment. I also note that Silenius was in Greek mythology the drunken tutor and companion to the God Dionysus.
6. For example Master of the Game, Wikipedia Here.
7. A Stranger in the Mirror, IMDb, Here.
8. Sheldon, Sidney, A Stranger in the Mirror, Hodder and Stoughton Ltd, New York, 1976, p. 144.
9. IBID, p. 150.
10. IBID, p. 151.
11. IBID, pp. 179-180.
12. IBID, pp. 192-193.
13. IBID, pp. 257-258.
14. IBID, pp. 284-285.