Seconds (1963) David Ely
Signet Books, third printing
Mass Market Paperback, 159 pages
Like the film of the same name that was adapted from it, David Ely’s short novel Seconds wastes no time in unsettling its readers:
It was noon. Time to go. He stood up behind his desk, thinking that this would probably be the last time he would stand there, the last time he would cross his office to pick up his hat, and the last time he would open that door with the frosted pane which bore his name and title.
From the opening paragraph, middle-aged bank executive Arthur Hamilton is already determined to make a change in his life. Although he knows little about the company behind this proposal, he knows he’s going to take the plunge, to change his identity and disappear from his wife and daughter, his job, and everyone he knows. Everyone except, perhaps, his friend Charley, who contacted Hamilton about this opportunity. This is the same Charley that Hamilton thought was dead and buried.
If you’ve seen the 1966 John Frankenheimer film, you know happens next. Hamilton does get a second chance, escaping the boredom and tedium of his normal life, but it comes at a high price. Hamilton emerges post-surgery with the face of his new alias Antiochus “Tony” Wilson (Rock Hudson in the film). Hamilton always wanted to be a painter, so, poof! Now he’s a painter with a complete portfolio of completed works. He even has a choice of young, beautiful models who’ll come to his beachfront home to pose - or perform other services - for him.
But Tony is having a tough time adjusting. Perhaps, as his new butler John (supplied by the company) suggests, he should host a neighborhood gathering to get to know some people. But maybe this isn’t such a good idea, since the liquor seems to loosen Tony’s tongue, especially with too many details about his past as Hamilton.
I would encourage those who have seen the film to pick up the novel for several reasons. First, the novel is written without any overt signs that it takes place in the 1960s. The descriptions are written in such a way as to suggest no particular time or era, making the novel just as relevant today as it was in 1963. (The film does a good job of this as well, but we seeing clothes and hair styles that are unavoidable.) Second, the novel is terrifying in a different way from the film. Obviously visual representations (combined with a frightening Jerry Goldsmith score) have a different impact than verbal descriptions, but Ely’s style is subdued, allowing the reader to imagine many variations in how he/she visualizes the story.
Some of the scenes in the book either did not make it to the screen or were handled differently. In the novel, Hamilton (as Wilson) visits not only his wife (who’s hosting a dinner party), but also his adult daughter. Both of these scenes serve similar purposes but are different enough for us to see a greater scope of Hamilton’s family relationships and his own character. Although the novel does not include the baccanale scene, it does feature an early encounter with Wilson and a young nude model:
Wilson made a few desperate strokes with his charcoal, trying to summon up memories of his art class at prep school where the pupils had sketched each other, taking turns on the stool, attired in track uniforms. But it was no good. He drew an arm which resembled a pump handle, and his memories, too, failed him, for his consciousness was wholly dominated by the prospect of young flesh before him.
This moment from the novel, like several others, is conveyed differently in the film, but both are powerful. Perhaps the most jarring difference is in how the novel and the film end. Without giving away spoilers, the end result is the same, but Ely’s novel concludes in a more quiet manner, yet comes across as just as terrifying, perhaps even more so.
Neither the novel nor the film have lost any of their power in 50+ years. In fact, Ely’s nightmarish story is possibly even more terrifying in 2020 than it was in 1963 (as if we need anything more terrifying in 2020). I highly recommend it. Seconds is available in a newer (2013) edition as well as an eBook format.
This review is part of the 2020 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge. You can (and should!) sign up here and be a part of the challenge, telling others about the classic film books you're reading, and getting suggestions for your own reading. Enjoy!