Of all the authors whose forte was turning our spines to columns of ice, the supreme master of the art, the Hitchcock of the written word, was Cornell Woolrich. His centenary will be celebrated on December 5, 2003, at the Mercantile Library in New York City. Whatever honors he receives on that occasion will have been richly deserved, but if he were alive and well he wouldn’t enjoy a moment of the event and probably wouldn’t show up for it. His full name was Cornell George Hopley-Woolrich. His mother, born Claire Attalie Tarler, was the daughter of George Tarler, a Russian Jewish émigré who had made his fortune in the import trade with Mexico and Central America. His father, Genaro Hopley-Woolrich, was of Canadian and Mexican descent, an adventurous macho who was both attractive and susceptible to women. Genaro’s half-nephew Carlos Burlingham, who as a teenager in the early 1940s lived with him for a year, describes him as “a very good-looking man with deep blue eyes…. But you would never see him to smile. He always had a very narrow smile.” Around 1901 or 1902, while in the United States working on the construction of New York City’s nascent subway system, Genaro met Claire Tarler and soon married her. Their only child was born on December 4, 1903. In 1907 they left New York with three-year-old Cornell to resettle in Mexico, but the marriage did not long survive the move. Claire returned to the Tarler household on West 113th Street near Morningside Park, and the child stayed with Genaro below the border. His schooling was punctuated by holidays whenever another revolutionary leader captured the town where they lived, and as a hobby he collected the spent rifle cartridges that littered the streets beneath his windows.
When he was eight, Grandfather Tarler took him to Mexico City’s Palace of Fine Arts to see a traveling French company perform Puccini’s then-new opera Madama Butterfly, an experience that gave the boy a sudden sharp insight into color and drama and his first sense of tragedy. Three years later, on a night when he looked up at the low-hanging stars from the valley of Anahuac, he understood that someday, like Cio-Cio-San, he too would have to die. From that moment he was haunted by a sense of doom. “I had that trapped feeling,” he wrote, “like some sort of a poor insect that you’ve put inside a downturned glass, and it tries to climb up the sides, and it can’t, and it can’t, and it can’t.”
During his adolescence he returned to New York City and lived with his grandfather and aunt and mother in George Tarler’s house on West 113th Street. In 1921 he enrolled in Columbia College, a short walk from his home, choosing journalism as his major but dreaming of a more romantic occupation, like being an author or a professional dancer. In his junior year, while immobilized with either an infected foot or a bad case of jaundice (his own accounts of the incident are at odds), he began the first draft of a novel. When it sold, a few months later, he quit Columbia to pursue the dream of bright lights.
The main influence on Woolrich’s early work was F. Scott Fitzgerald, the literary idol of the twenties, and his first novel, Cover Charge (1926), chronicles the lives and loves of the Jazz Age’s gilded youth, child-people flitting from thrill to thrill, conversing in a mannered slang which reads today like a foreign language. But several motifs from his earlier and later life and his later suspense fiction can be detected in this rather amateurish debut. The fascination with dance halls and movie palaces. The use of popular song lyrics to convey mood. Touches of vibrantly colorful description. A long interlude in Mexico City complete with performance of Madama Butterfly. Romance between Alan Walker, the ballroom-dancer protagonist, and two women each old enough to be his mother. An extravaganza of coincidence to keep the story moving. And a despairing climax with Alan alone in a cheap hotel room, his legs all but useless after an auto smashup, abandoned by the women he loved, contemplating suicide: “I hate this world. Everything comes into it so clean and goes out so dirty.”
Woolrich’s second novel was Children of the Ritz (1927), a frothy concoction about a spoiled heiress who impulsively marries her chauffeur. The book won a first prize of $10,000 in a contest cosponsored by College Humor magazine, which serialized it, and First National Pictures, which filmed the story in 1929. Woolrich was invited to Hollywood to help with the adaptation and stayed on as a staff writer, although he never received screen credit for whatever contributions he made. One of First National’s dialogue and title writers at this time was named William Irish.
With novels, movie chores, and an occasional article or story for magazines like College Humor, College Life, McClure’s, and Smart Set, Woolrich must have been a busy young man indeed. By the time of his gritty and cynical third book, Times Square (1929), he had begun to develop the headlong storytelling drive and the concern with the torments and the maniacal power of love which were to mark his later suspense fiction. The first half of his semiautobiographical novel A Young Man’s Heart (1930) is set in Mexico around 1910, and the viewpoint is that of a young boy during and after the collapse of his parents’ marriage.
In December 1930, while still working in Hollywood, Woolrich hastily married twenty-year-old Gloria Blackton, a daughter of pioneer movie producer J. Stuart Blackton, who had founded Vitagraph Studios in 1897. The marriage was never consummated. A graphic diary that Gloria eventually found and read but later returned to Woolrich (who destroyed it) indicates that he had been homosexual for some time prior to the marriage, which he had entered as a sort of sick joke, or perhaps for cover. In the middle of the night he would put on a sailor outfit he kept in a locked suitcase and prowl the waterfront for partners. The marriage soon ended, and Woolrich fled to New York and his mother. “I was born to be solitary,” he said in his autobiography, “and I liked it that way.” But the pages of his novels and stories are haunted by the shadow of his desperate need for a relationship with a woman who never was and never could have been.
After the breakup of his marriage, Woolrich and his mother traveled extensively in Europe. His sixth novel, Manhattan Love Song (1932), is the best of his youthful books and the only one that, if published a few decades later, would have been called a crime novel. It begins with a quintessential Woolrich moment.
First she was just a figure moving toward me in the distance, among a great many others doing the same thing. A second later she was a girl. Then she became a pretty girl, exquisitely dressed. Next a responsive girl, whose eyes said “Are you lonely?”, whose shadow of a smile said, “Then speak.” And by that time we had reached and were almost passing one another. Our glances seemed to strike a spark between us in mid-air.
Wade, the narrator, soon becomes a helpless slave to his passion for the enigmatic Bernice. Under her spell he abandons his job, assaults and robs a homosexual actor for money to spend on her, abuses his wife Maxine who still loves him desperately. Bernice in some mysterious way is controlled by unseen powers in the city but responds so passionately to Wade’s abject passion for her that she’s ready to sacrifice everything and risk the powers’ vengeance to start life over again with him. But as usual in Woolrich, love opens the door to horror and those who manage to survive have nothing left but to wait for the merciful release of death.
For the next two years Woolrich sold next to nothing. He had moved out of the house on West 113th Street and into a cheap hotel, determined to make it as a writer without his mother’s help, but was soon deep in debt and reduced to sneaking into movie houses through the fire doors for entertainment. He tried frantically to complete and find a publisher for a novel he’d begun two years earlier, a story of ballroom dancers in 1912 Paris for which he hoped some Hollywood studio would pay him enough to liberate him from the Depression. No one was interested in the book, and finally Woolrich tossed the entire manuscript of I Love You, Paris into the garbage. But at that moment he was on the brink of a new life as a writer, one so different from his earlier literary career that decades later he said it would have been better if all his presuspense fiction “had been written in invisible ink and the reagent had been thrown away.” He was about to become the Poe of the twentieth century and the poet of its shadows.
“There was another patient ahead of me in the waiting room. He was sitting there quietly, humbly, with all the terrible resignation of the very poor.” Woolrich’s first crime story, “Death Sits in the Dentist’s Chair” (Detective Fiction Weekly, 4 August 1934), offers a vivid picture of New York City during the worst of the Depression, a bizarre murder method (cyanide in a temporary filling), and a race against the clock to save the poisoned protagonist—elements which would soon become Woolrich hallmarks.
In his next dozen tales (all of them, plus his debut story, included in 1985’s Darkness at Dawn, which I edited) we find the invasion of nightmare into the viewpoint character’s workaday existence, a Hollywood movie-making background, first-person narration by a woman, casual police brutality, intuition passed off as reasoning, terror in a milieu of jazz musicians, the use of Manhattan landmarks as settings, inexplicable evil powers that prey on man, set pieces of nail-biting suspense, whirlwind physical action, the James M. Cain theme of the guy who gets away with the murder he did commit but is nailed for one he didn’t—in short, the first appearances of countless motifs and beliefs and devices that would recur throughout Woolrich’s later fiction.
Between 1936 and 1939, Woolrich sold at least 105 more stories as well as two book-length magazine serials, and by the end of the decade he had become a fixture in mystery pulps of all levels of quality, from Black Mask and Detective Fiction Weekly to cheapies like Thrilling Mystery and Black Book Detective, and had also appeared in Whit Burnett’s prestigious general fiction magazine Story. His stories of this period—historical adventures, Runyonesque comedies, gems of Grand Guignol, even an occasional tale of pure detection—range in quality from magnificent to abysmal, but very few lack the unique Woolrich mood, tone, and preoccupations. A look at twelve of his finest stories from these years gives us a vivid picture of his development.
One of the most characteristic types of Woolrich story is the oscillation thriller. Two central characters share a close relationship—lovers, husband and wife, father and son, roommates. A crime is committed; slowly mounting evidence compels or comes within an inch of compelling one of the two to believe that the other is guilty, and the suspense builds as the viewpoint character oscillates between doubt and trust and doubt again. In “The Night Reveals” (Story, April 1936) Woolrich makes us undergo this dark night of the soul with insurance investigator Harry Jordan as he learns that his wife, Marie, has been slipping out of their Lexington Avenue apartment in the hours before dawn. He begins following her through the ghostly city streets and soon comes to suspect that something has turned her into a pyromaniac. Is he right? In some oscillation stories, the suspected person is innocent and the damning evidence comes from wild coincidence or a frame-up; but in others the person is indeed guilty, and in still others neither the characters nor the reader ever learn the truth. Since Woolrich has no series characters or ground rules, the suspense is real and our own uncertainty matches that of the people on the page.
Another Woolrich specialty is the heart-in-the-throat noir thriller with a race against time and death. “Johnny on the Spot” (Detective Fiction Weekly, 2 May 1936) is set in the depth of New York’s night. Hunted by the mob because he knows too much and wants out, Johnny Donovan is cornered in an all-night cafeteria and about to be taken away for torture and death when his eighteen-year-old wife, Jean, comes into the hash joint for a furtive rendezvous with him and sees that the hit men have him. For the rest of the story we race with Jean through the darkness on a mad quest to kidnap the top mobster’s wife and swap her for Johnny—or, if it’s too late for that, to kill her too.
Among Woolrich’s fast-action whizbangs, one of the most suspenseful is “You Pays Your Nickel” (Argosy, 22 August 1936). Subway guard Delaney is bored stiff at his job until one morning when his train is taken over by a homicidal maniac and he’s suddenly part of a hair-raising underground duel as the cars carrying the two of them and hundreds of screaming commuters and a bag with $50,000 in stolen money careen out of control through the tunnels. This superb action story, usually reprinted as “Subway,” is so vividly written, you are thrust into the volcano and trapped there until Woolrich has melted you.
In “The Corpse Next Door” (Detective Fiction Weekly, 23 January 1937), Woolrich pushes us into the skin of a man with a guilt-flayed conscience and, as in Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” makes us live his torments. A faceless nonentity scratching out a bare white-collar existence amid the quiet despair of the Depression is driven mad with fury by the invisible thief who’s been stealing his bottle of milk from the stoop of his drab apartment before he and his wife get up in the morning. He sets a trap for the thief, kills the man in a fit of wrath, hides the body inside the closeted Murphy bed in the vacant apartment next door, and slowly but inevitably is driven over the edge.
“Murder at the Automat” (Dime Detective, August 1937) offers not only a vivid picture of 1930s New York but a lovely puzzle resolved with total fairness to the reader. Homicide detective Nelson tackles the case of Leo Avram, an old skinflint who came into the Automat every night for coffee and a bologna sandwich until the night the sandwich behind the coin slot turned out to be laced with cyanide and killed him. Woolrich powerfully evokes the Automat and the seedy night people who call it home. It’s typical in his world that when the police can’t figure out how anyone could have poisoned precisely the sandwich Avram selected, they threaten to frame the prime suspect.
“Goodbye, New York” (Story, October 1937) takes place in Manhattan’s streets, subways, and railroad tunnels and is told in first person from the viewpoint of a young woman whose husband has killed his corrupt ex-boss and stolen just enough to let the couple start life over. This edgy, feverish heartbreaker of a tale follows their frantic attempts to evade the police net closing around them and get out of the city. “Two doomed things, running away. From nothingness, into nothingness…. Turn back we dare not, stand still they wouldn’t let us, and to go forward was destruction at our own hands.” A perfect image of life in the Woolrich world.
In “Dusk to Dawn” (Black Mask, December 1937) we live with yet another hunted and doomed protagonist running headlong through the nightscape. Jobless and penniless Lew Stahl sneaks into a New York movie palace without a ticket as Woolrich often didi in his lean years. Lew tries to lift the wallet of a sleeper in the deserted mezzanine and take out one dollar to buy a meal with, but he discovers the man isn’t asleep but dead, with a knife in his back. A woman several rows behind them in the dark is convinced she saw Lew wield the knife and runs for the police. Stalked and desperate, fleeing through the nightbound city, he steals a gun, then uses it, and his fate is sealed. Woolrich tales like this one apparently had a profound influence on Richard Wright, who is known to have read countless pulp detective magazines during the late thirties and whose classic first novel Native Son (1940) follows the young black fugitive Bigger Thomas, also wrongly accused of a murder, as he flees through a Woolrich-like nightscape made even more perilous for him by his race.
“Dime a Dance” (Black Mask, February 1938) is the first of several Woolrich tales in which a female first-person narrator is staked out as bait to trap a psychotic murderer of women. Taxi dancer Ginger Allen is taken from work one night by homicide cop Nick Ballestier and told that her only friend among the dancers has been strangled and then stabbed repeatedly by a serial killer who dances with his victims’ corpses to the jazz tune “Poor Butterfly” (as in Puccini’s opera). A month later a strange new customer shows up at Joyland and asks Ginger to dance with him. The climax is a suspense classic.
“I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes” (Detective Fiction Weekly, 12 March 1938) combines a powerful picture of scratching for survival with a dark picture of the human condition. We enter the quietly wretched life of Tom Quinn, who works for a miserable salary and every day dreads being laid off. One stifling August night he loses control and throws a pair of his shoes out the open bedroom window at a pair of cats yowling on the back fence. Months later those shoes lead to his arrest, conviction, and death sentence for the murder of an old miser in a shack a few blocks away. The haunted and lonely plainclothesman Bob White meets Quinn’s wife, Ann, and the two of them race the clock to find another murderer. The man they track down, however, insists that he’s innocent too, and it seems impossible that either he or Quinn is guilty. But one of them must be, and by the story’s end both are left in ruin. Life is a trap, malevolent and beyond reason. To anyone unlucky enough to be born, Woolrich says: “I wouldn’t be in your shoes, buddy,” knowing he’s in them too.
“Mystery in Room 913” (Detective Fiction Weekly, 4 June 1938) is an episodic novelette that takes place in a New York hotel. Over a long stretch of the Depression, three different men check into Room 913 and unaccountably jump out the window into the street at night. House detective Striker refuses to accept the deaths as coincidental suicides and becomes obsessed to the point of psychosis with proving they were something else. He finds a Bowery derelict, sets him up in 913 as bait and becomes responsible for the man’s death, then goes jobless for months and changes his appearance until he can check into 913 himself without being recognized and force a confrontation with the specter which is the naked face of death, and of the world’s malevolence.
The protagonist of “Three O’Clock” (Detective Fiction Weekly, 1 October 1938) is Paul Stapp, the nondescript owner of a small clock-and-watch-repair shop, who after an unexplained concussion has become convinced that his wife, Fran, is entertaining a lover in their house while he’s at work. Rather than confront her, he decides to blow up Fran, her lover, the house, and everything in it. Over time he smuggles into his basement the raw materials for a bomb. Then one afternoon, at the hour when Fran is shopping, he comes home, goes down to the basement, and sets the bomb to explode at three o’clock. But this is the same afternoon two moronic daylight burglars have picked to break into Stapp’s house. When he encounters them on his way out they knock him unconscious, bind and gag him in the basement, tie him to a thick pipe, and make their getaway, unaware that they’ve immobilized him within a few feet of a bomb set to explode in ninety minutes. For those minutes Woolrich makes us live in Stapp’s flesh, unable to speak or move or make a sound anyone can hear, his frozen eyes fixed on the clock as its hands plunge toward three. The suspense and anguish are so intense in this quintessential Woolrich story that one can hardly read it without dying a little.
“Men Must Die” (Black Mask, August 1939), better known under its reprint title “Guillotine,” is set in France and broken down into a large number of short scenes. The events of the present, as condemned murderer Robert Lamont is ritually prepared for execution, alternate with chronologically ordered flashbacks so that we see what Lamont did and why he hopes he won’t have to die for it. His lover Babette has contrived to meet the headsman, an old loner whose pride is his status as the only man in France with a license to kill. On the night before M. de Paris is to decapitate Lamont, Babette dines with the executioner, hoping desperately that she’ll be able to slip poison into his meal and thus invoke the national tradition (which Woolrich apparently invented) that when the executioner dies, the next person set to be guillotined receives a pardon. The narration is so objective and detached that we get no hint which of these two—the private murderer or the state murderer—we’re supposed to wish dead. And by the time the flashback scenes have caught up to the present and Lamont is brought closer, step-by-step, to the scaffold while the old man is journeying across predawn Paris with the guillotine blade in his bag and his own death churning inside him, the tension in this grotesque classic has become all but unbearable.
What kind of man spun out these bleak visions? The best physical description comes from Woolrich’s pulp contemporary Steve Fisher (1912–1980), who used him as the model for the brutal and love-tormented homicide detective Cornell in I Wake Up Screaming (1941). “He had red hair and thin white skin and red eyebrows and blue eyes. He looked sick. He looked like a corpse. His clothes didn’t fit him…. He was frail, grey-faced and bitter. He was possessed with a macabre humor. His voice was nasal. You’d think he was crying. He might have had T.B. He looked like he couldn’t stand up in a wind.” Imagine a painfully introverted man, living in hotels with his mother, going out almost never, the torments of his fictional characters mirroring his own. That in a nutshell was Woolrich.
In 1940 he joined the migration of pulp detective writers from lurid-covered magazines to hardcover books. In his first overt crime novel, The Bride Wore Black (1940), he writes in cool unemotional prose of a mysterious woman named Julie who enters the lives of various men and, for reasons never explained until the climax, murders them. Woolrich divides the book into five free-standing episodes, each built around a symbolic three-step dance. First a chapter showing Julie, each time in a new persona, preparing the trap for her current target; then the execution of her plan, each victim ensnared by his own romantic image of the perfect woman; finally some pages dealing with the faceless homicide cop who’s stalking the huntress through the years.
This first in Woolrich’s so-called black series was followed by The Black Curtain (1941), the masterpiece on the overworked subject of amnesia. Frank Townsend recovers from a three years’ loss of memory, becomes obsessed with learning who and what he was during those missing years, and finds love, hate and a murder charge waiting for him behind the curtain.
Black Alibi (1942) is a terror novel about a killer jaguar menacing a South American city while a lone Anglo hunts a human murderer who may be hiding behind the jaguar’s claws. This time Woolrich drops his quintessential themes of loneliness and despair and concentrates on pure suspense, and the result is a thriller with menace breathing on every page.
The Black Angel (1943) deals with a terrified young wife’s race against time to prove that her convicted husband did not murder his girlfriend and that some other man in the dead woman’s life is guilty. Like Julie in Bride, she enters the lives of several such men, of whom one at most is the killer she’s looking for, and in one way or another destroys them all and herself too. Writing in first person from the wife’s viewpoint—a huge risk for an introverted loner who never knew a woman intimately—Woolrich makes us feel her love and anguish, her terror and desperation, her obsessions that grow to madness as she flails at the world like a destroying angel to save her man from Mister Death.
The Black Path of Fear (1944) tells the story of a man who runs away to Havana with an American gangster’s wife, followed by the vengeful husband who kills the woman and frames her lover, leaving him a stranger in a strange land, menaced on all sides and fighting for his life. The earlier chapters, with their evocations of love discovered and love destroyed, their sense of what it must be like to be alone and hunted through a nightmare city of the mind, demonstrate vividly Woolrich’s claim to be called the Hitchcock of the written word.
In Rendezvous in Black (1948), grief-crazed Johnny Marr holds one among a small group of people responsible for his fiancée’s death and devotes his life to entering the lives of each of that group in turn, finding out whom each one most loves and murdering these loved ones so that the person who killed his fiancée will live the grief he lives.1 This is The Bride Wore Black with the sexes reversed and the structure as it should have been: with the explanation of the serial murders at the beginning so that we have some clue how to respond; with a genuine noir cop instead of a cipher in the role of hunter stalking the killer through the years; with a wealth of heart-stopping suspense and anguish instead of cool objective narration; with the forces of chance and fate kept in perfect balance; with a strong climax lacking Bride’s monkey tricks of plot manipulation. Woolrich as usual punches ridiculous holes in the continuity; but on the visceral level where his work stands or falls, this is a masterpiece.
Among his finest shorter crime fiction of the early 1940s are the annihilation stories “All at Once, No Alice” (Argosy, 22 March 1940) and “Finger of Doom” (Detective Fiction Weekly, 22 June 1940), which share one of the most powerful premises in noir literature. A lonely young man has miraculously found the one woman who’s right for him, but just before they are to marry, she vanishes into nothingness. Everyone who had known or seen the woman denies she ever existed, and the police to whom the man frantically appeals for help can’t find the slightest proof she walked the earth. Convinced that she’s a figment of his lunatic imagination, they kick him out with contempt and abandon him to despair—all but one lone-wolf cop who’s willing to believe that the young man just might be telling the truth. The living nightmare stories “C-Jag” (Black Mask, October 1940) and “And So to Death” (Argosy, 1 March 1941), better known under their respective reprint titles “Cocaine” and “Nightmare,” form another matched pair of noir classics. The protagonist comes to after a blackout episode of one sort or another and is haunted by the memory of having done something horrible while out of himself. Back in the waking world, he tries to shrug off the memory as the residue of a bad dream, hangover, drug dose, or whatever. Then he finds on his person an objective fragment from the nightmare, and then another, and before long he’s on the edge of madness. Desperately he appeals to his brother-in-law, who is a cop and, like most Woolrich cops, as ready to hang those in need of aid as to help them. The two men go back together into the shadows, hunting for the answer.
In the early forties the entrepreneurs of dramatic radio discovered that countless Woolrich stories were naturals for audio adaptation and began buying from him the rights to adapt his tales for broadcast on series like Suspense and Molle Mystery Theatre. The thirty-minute version of The Black Curtain (Suspense, 3 December 1943, starring Cary Grant), which may have been scripted by Woolrich himself, ranks among the most powerful radio dramas ever written. “I tried to put it all behind me, to resume my life where it left off over three years ago…. I don’t want to find out anything anymore. I want it all to die away and be still. And it will. All except Ruth. Because somewhere behind that black curtain I was loved, and loved someone! We must have known a love I’ll never know again.”
Woolrich continued to write more novels—too many for publication under a single byline—and soon needed to come up with a pseudonym. The name that he and Story magazine editor Whit Burnett hit upon was William Irish. Had Woolrich known that obscure First National title writer back in the twenties, and had he been carrying the man’s name in the back of his mind ever since? The first novel published under the Irish byline was Phantom Lady (1942). Scott Henderson quarrels with his wife, goes out and picks up a woman in a bar, spends the evening with her, and comes home to find his wife dead and himself accused of her murder. All the evidence is against him, and his only hope is to find the woman who was with him when his wife was killed. But she seems to have vanished into thin air, and everyone in a position to know swears that no such woman ever existed. He is sentenced to die, and as the hours rush toward execution day, the woman who loves him joins with his best friend in a race the clock to find the phantom. The plot is so involuted that final explanations require two dozen closely printed (and none too plausible) pages, but the emotional torment and suspense are unforgettable.
Deadline at Dawn (1944) takes place on a single night in the bleak streets and concrete caves of New York as we follow a desperate young couple who have until sunrise to clear themselves of a murder charge and escape the web of the city. The story line is loose and relaxed, with many characters and incidents in no way connected to the main plot. But the cliffhanger crosscutting between Quinn’s and Bricky’s searches through the night streets keeps tension high, and the two-pronged quest is punctuated by touches of the deepest noir. Woolrich evokes New York after dark and the despair of those who walk its streets with a pathos unmatched in the genre.
Of all his novels, the one most completely dominated by death and fate is Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1945), which was published under the name George Hopley (Woolrich’s middle names). A simpleminded recluse with apparently uncanny powers predicts that millionaire Harlan Reid will die in three weeks, precisely at midnight, at the jaws of a lion, and the tension rises to unbearable pitch as the doomed man’s daughter and a sympathetic cop struggle to avert a destiny which they suspect and soon come to hope was conceived by a human power. Woolrich makes us live the emotional torment of this waking nightmare until we are literally shivering in our seats.
Waltz into Darkness (1947), again published under the name William Irish, is set in New Orleans around 1880 and begins as much of Woolrich’s works begin, with a man being eaten alive by loneliness. “Any love, from anywhere, on any terms. Quick, before it was too late! Only not to be alone any longer.” Enter la femme fatale, the nameless woman who is Louis Durand’s destiny, whom he comes to love with such maniacal intensity that for her he will degrade himself to any extent: He will cheat, kill, and endure torture or even death. Like several Woolrich men before him, Louis is an acolyte worshiping at the altar of love, and the woman is his goddess. Woolrich describes her in overwhelmingly religious and maternal language. She is God the Mother, unknowable and cruel as life. Louis is caught in her as in a whirlpool, and we are trapped in his skin. In the cold light of reason the book is ludicrous, but no one can read Woolrich and be reasonable.
In I Married a Dead Man (1948) a woman with nothing to live for and in flight from her sadistic husband is injured in a train wreck. She wakes up in a hospital bed surrounded by luxuries because, as she eventually realizes, she’s been wrongly identified as another woman, one who’d had everything to live for but died in the train disaster. Helen grasps what seems to be a heaven-sent chance to start over and even falls in love again, but her new life proves to be a gift from the dark god who rules the Woolrich world. At the climax she and we are confronted with two and only two possibilities, neither of which makes the least sense, each of which will destroy innocent lives. “I don’t know what the game was…. I only know we must have played it wrong, somewhere along the way…. We’ve lost. That’s all I know. We’ve lost. And now the game is through.” Woolrich’s last major novel is one of the finest and bleakest of his works.
The success of his novels led to publication of several collections of his shorter works in hardcover and paperback volumes, which are extremely rare today. Woolrich’s stories were staple items in the endless anthologies of short mystery fiction published during the forties. In addition to the dozens of radio plays adapted from his work, fifteen movies were made from Woolrich’s material between 1942 and 1950 alone. And his influence pervaded the culture of the forties so extensively that many film noir classics of that period give the sense of having been adapted from his work even though he had nothing to do with them.
Woolrich published little new work after 1948, apparently because the death of his long-absent father and his mother’s prolonged illnesses paralyzed his ability to write. That he was remembered during the fifties is largely due to Ellery Queen (Frederic Dannay), who reprinted in his magazine a host of Woolrich pulp tales, and to Alfred Hitchcock, whose Rear Window (1954) was based on a Woolrich story. His magazine work proved as adaptable to television as it had to radio a decade earlier, and series like Mirror Theater, Ford Theater, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and Schlitz Playhouse of Stars frequently presented thirty-minute film versions of his material. Even the prestigious Playhouse 90 made use of Woolrich, presenting a ninety-minute adaptation of Rendezvous in Black (CBS, 25 October 1956) starring Franchot Tone, Laraine Day, and Boris Karloff. The finest adaptation of Woolrich in any form is Hitchcock’s sixty-minute version of “Three O’Clock,” starring E. G. Marshall and broadcast on the series Suspicion (NBC, 30 September 1957) as Four O’Clock. It’s pure Hitchcock, pure Woolrich, and perhaps the most totally suspenseful film the master ever directed.
Woolrich’s personal situation remained wretched, and more than once he sank to passing off slightly updated old stories as new work, fooling book and magazine publishers as well as readers. Not long after his mother’s death in 1957 came Hotel Room (1958), a collection of tales set in a single room of a New York City hotel at various times from the building’s years of sumptuous fashionableness to the last days before its demolition. The St. Anselm was an amalgam of the desiccated residential hotels in which mother and son had lived, and the stories set there mark the beginning of Woolrich’s end. Yet once in a while he could still conjure up the old power. “The Penny-a-Worder” (Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, September 1958) is a wry downbeat tale of a pulp mystery writer of the 1930s desperately trying to crank out a complete novelette overnight. And “The Number’s Up” (in Beyond the Night, 1959) is a bitter little account of gangland executioners mistakenly taking an innocent couple out to be shot. Diabetic, alcoholic, wracked by self-contempt and alone, Woolrich dragged out his life. He would come to a party, bringing his own bottle of cheap wine in a paper bag, and stand in a corner for the whole evening. If someone approached and tried to tell him how much he or she admired his work, he would growl, “You don’t mean that” and find another corner. In 1965 he moved into a spartan suite of rooms on the second floor of the Sheraton Russell, at Park Avenue and 37th Street, and continued the slow process of dying by inches. He wrote a little, leaving unfinished much more than he completed; but publishers continued to issue collections of his stories. The last such book published in his lifetime was The Dark Side of Love (1965), which brought together eight of the author’s recent “tales of love and despair,” among them that dark gem “Too Nice a Day to Die.” In it, a desperately lonely woman turns on the gas in her apartment one morning, ready to end her life. The phone rings. By force of habit she picks up the receiver. It’s a wrong number, someone wanting Schultz’s Delicatessen. The absurdity gives her the will to live one day longer. She goes out, walks about the city and, thanks to the long arm of chance or fate, meets in Rockefeller Plaza a man who seems to be as right for her as she seems to be for him. As they’re on their way to her place for dinner, she’s run down while crossing the street and dies. The world according to Woolrich has rarely been rendered in such fitting form.
During 1967 his slow march to the grave quickened into a fast walk. He developed a bad case of gangrene in one leg but put off seeing a doctor for so long that, in January 1968, it had to be amputated above the knee. He returned to the Sheraton Russell with an artificial leg on which he never learned to walk and spent his final months in a wheelchair, alone and immobilized much like the protagonist of his 1926 novel Cover Charge. But the best of his late stories still hold the magic touch that chills the heart, and his last two suspense tales are among his finest. “For the Rest of Her Life” (Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, May 1968) follows a young woman whose husband has turned out to be a sadistic abuser of women. She meets another man, confesses the truth, and together they try to escape. Every move they make throughout this excruciating story is precisely the wrong thing to do, and Woolrich keeps tightening the screws until we’re screaming at them to change their course before it’s too late. But each wrong move has also been foreordained in the womb of destiny, and Linda and Garry are the last of the doomed couples whose shattered remains fill the Woolrich world.
In the late sixties Woolrich had plenty of money, and his critical reputation was secure not only in America but in Europe, where Francois Truffaut had recently filmed both The Bride Wore Black and Waltz into Darkness; but his physical and emotional condition remained hopeless. He died of a stroke on September 25, 1968, leaving unfinished two novels (Into the Night and The Loser), an autobiography (Blues of a Lifetime), a collection of short stories (I Was Waiting for You), and a long list of titles for stories he had never begun, one of which captures his bleak world in a single phrase: First You Dream, Then You Die. He left no survivors, and only a handful of people attended his funeral. His estate was willed in trust to Columbia University for the establishment of a scholarship fund for students of creative writing. The fund is named for Woolrich’s mother.
In Woolrich’s crime fiction there is a gradual development from pulp to noir. The earlier a story, the more likely it stresses pulp elements: one-dimensional macho protagonists, preposterous methods of murder, hordes of cardboard gangsters, dialogue full of whiny insults, blistering fast action. But even in some of his earliest crime stories one finds aspects of noir, and over time the stream works itself pure.
In Woolrich’s mature work, the world is an incomprehensible place where beams happen to fall, and are predestined to fall, and are toppled over by malevolent powers—a world ruled by chance, fate, and God the malign thug. But the everyday life he portrays is just as terrifying and treacherous. The dominant economic reality is the Depression, which for Woolrich usually means a frightened little guy in a rundown apartment with a hungry wife and children, no money, no job, and desperation eating him like a cancer. The dominant political reality is a police force made up of a few decent cops and a horde of sociopaths licensed to torture and kill, whose outrages are casually accepted by all concerned, not least by the victims. The prevailing emotional states are loneliness and fear. Events take place in darkness; menace breathes out of every corner of the night; the bleak cityscape comes alive on the page and in our hearts.
Woolrich had a genius for creating types of story perfectly consonant with his world: the noir cop story, the clock-race story, the waking nightmare, the oscillation thriller, the headlong-through-the-night story, the annihilation story, the last-hours story. These situations, and variations on them, are paradigms of our position in the world as Woolrich sees it. His mastery of suspense, his genius (like that of his spiritual brother Hitchcock) for keeping us on the edge of our seats and gasping with fright, stems not only from the nightmarish situations he conjures up but from his prose, which is compulsively readable, cinematically vivid, high-strung almost to the point of hysteria, forcing us into the skins of the hunted and doomed where we live their agonies and die with them a thousand small deaths. In his finest work, every detail serves this purpose, even the chapter headings. Chapter One of Phantom Lady is entitled “The Hundred and Fiftieth Day Before the Execution”; even before Marcella Henderson is strangled, the countdown to the day of her innocent husband’s electrocution for the murder has begun. In Deadline at Dawn Woolrich replaces the customary chapter titles or numbers with clock faces so that, like Quinn and Bricky, we feel in our bones the coming of the dreaded sunrise.
But suspense presupposes uncertainty. No matter how nightmarish the situation, real suspense is impossible when we know in advance that the protagonist will prevail (as we would if Woolrich had used series characters) or will be destroyed. This is why, despite his congenital pessimism, Woolrich manages any number of times to squeeze out an upbeat resolution. Precisely because we can never know whether a particular novel or story will be light or dark, allegre or noir, his work remains hauntingly suspenseful.
The viewpoint character in each story is usually someone trapped in a living nightmare, but this doesn’t guarantee that we and the protagonist are at one. In fact Woolrich often makes us pull away from the person at the center of the storm, splitting our reaction in two, stripping his protagonist of moral authority, denying us the luxury of unequivocal identification, drawing characters so psychologically warped and sometimes so despicable that a part of us wants to see them suffer. Woolrich also denies us the luxury of total disidentification with all sorts of sociopaths, especially those who wear badges. His noir cop tales are crammed with acts of police sadism, usually committed (or at least endorsed by) the detective protagonist. These monstrosities are explicitly condemned almost never, and the moral outrage we feel has no internal support in the stories except the objective horror of what is shown, so one might almost believe that a part of Woolrich wants us to enjoy the scenes. If so, it’s yet another instance of how his most powerful novels and stories are divided against themselves so as to evoke in us a divided response that mirrors his own self-division.
Even on the subject of love, Woolrich tends to divide our reaction. Often, of course, he identifies unambiguously with whoever is lonely, whoever is in love or needs love or has lost it. From the absence of love in his own life springs much of the poignancy with which Woolrich portrays its power and joys and risks and pains, and much of the piercing sadness with which he describes its corrosion and loss. There’s a haunting moment in Phantom Lady when the morgue attendants are carrying out the body of Scott Henderson’s wife: “Hands riveted to him, holding him there. The outer door closed muffledly. A little sachet came drifting out of the empty bedroom, seeming to whisper: ‘Remember? Remember when I was your love? Remember?’” On the other hand, several Woolrich classics are precisely about protagonists—Julie in The Bride Wore Black, Alberta in The Black Angel, Johnny Marr in Rendezvous in Black—who destroy their own lives and the lives of others in a mad quest to save a loved one from death or avenge one who has already died.
Woolrich does invariably unite himself and us with his people at one moment. In the face of the specter of Anahuac nothing matters anymore: Saint or beast, sane or mad, if any person is on the brink of death Woolrich becomes that person and makes us do likewise. In “Three O’Clock” we sit bound and gagged and paralyzed with the morally warped Stapp while the bomb ticks closer and closer to the moment of destruction, and Woolrich punctuates the unbearable suspense with language and imagery clearly echoing the story of the crucifixion of Jesus, whose agony also ended at three o’clock. During the brief electrocution scene in “Three Kills for One,” the cold steel hood falls over the head of the murderer Gates and he whispers: “‘Helen, I love you.’” No character named Helen ever appears in the story. At the point of death we are forgiven much, and if we love we are forgiven everything.
The intense, feverish, irrational nature of the Woolrich world is mirrored in his literary faults. His plots are full of outlandish contrivances, outrageous coincidences, “surprise” developments that require us to suspend not only our disbelief but our knowledge of elementary real-world facts, chains of so-called reasoning that a two-year-old could pull apart. But in his most powerful work these are not gaffes but functional elements that enable him to integrate contradiction and existential absurdity into his dark fabric. Long before the theater of the absurd, Woolrich discovered that an incomprehensible universe is best reflected in an incomprehensible story. The same holds true for his style, which is often undisciplined, hysterical, sprawling with phrases and clauses crying out to be cut and sentences without subjects or predicates or rhyme or reason and words that simply don’t mean what Woolrich guesses they mean. But many (by no means all) of these features are functional in Woolrich’s doom-shrouded world, just like many (by no means all) of his plot flubs. Without the sentences rushing out of control across the page like his hunted characters across the nightscape, without the manic emotionalism and indifference to grammatical niceties, the form and content of the Woolrich world would be at odds. Between his style and his substance, Woolrich achieved the perfect union that he never came within a mile of in his private life.
“I was only trying to cheat death,” he wrote in a fragment found among his papers. “I was only trying to surmount for a little while the darkness that all my life I surely knew was going to come rolling in on me some day and obliterate me. I was only trying to stay alive a little brief while longer, after I was already gone.” Trapped in a wretched psychological environment and gifted or cursed with an understanding that being trapped is par excellence the human condition, he took his decades of solitude and shaped them into a haunting body of work. He tried to escape the specter of Anahuac, and he couldn’t, and he couldn’t, and he couldn’t. The world he imagined, will.
1. The reason Johnny doesn’t know precisely whom to target is that his girlfriend was killed by a Woolrich version of Dashiell Hammett’s famous falling beam: a whiskey bottle that one of the members of a drunken hunting party dropped out of the window of a private plane flying overhead. A plane with openable windows? My eyebrows rose at that one too. But the late John Ball, author of In the Heat of the Night and a licensed pilot during the forties, checked his collection of technical manuals from the period and assured me that a few models of small charter planes did indeed have them. Woolrich, who was notorious for never doing research, seems here to have made up out of whole cloth a fact that happened to be true.
“Cornell Woolrich: Centennial Reflections,” a program in honor of Woolrich on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of his birth, will be held at The Mercantile Library of New York, 17 East 47th Street, New York, NY, from 2:00 to 5:00 p.m. on Friday, December 5. Admission is free but reservations are required. For reservations, call 212-755-6710.