Wednesday, November 21, 2007

By Cornell Woolrich

Cornell Woolrich was the poet-laureate of noir. His career as a pulp writer spanned the ‘30s and ‘40s. His output was large and distinguished by many successful screen adaptations. Yet, Woolrich is little known outside of crime novel aficionados. Perhaps it is because of the intense darkness he found beneath the sunlit world.

Nightwebs brings together both the dark and the light with a dozen tales groups under the headings of “The Claws of the Night”, “Death and the City”, and “The Butchers and the Trapped”. They are a nightmare ride through the doomed roller coaster of Woolrich’s imagination. They are also representative of the classic themes of Woolrich’s work: guilt, loss, suspicion, cruelty, and a kind of cosmic fear of a world filled with a malignant will to crush one’s soul.

“Grave for the Living” is about an abominable cult that practices burial alive, which is pretty mild compared to torturing someone with sulfuric acid as the police do in this ghastly tale. “The Corpse Next Door” is a Depression-era nightmare of life in a decaying tenement and the decay bred by a guilty conscience. “You’ll Never See Me Again” is about the loss of a loved one, but Woolrich’s characters are apt to physically lose a loved one. Retrieving them is compounded by the difficulty of demonstrating they are really missing.

“Dusk to Dawn” is another Depression story, but instead of dwelling on the horrors of guilt this tale describes the thrill of shedding one’s decency for savagery. “The Screaming Laugh” is an off kilter “whodunnit” where Woolrich’s verve for the absurd is matched by his relentless pacing. “Dead on her Feet” visits that most characteristic of ‘30s entertainments, the dance marathon. It also features one of Woolrich’s most sadistic detectives.

Woolrich wrote noir tales that mixed depravity with love, bleak doom with hope, and sadism with tenderness. His tales can have a wild improbability or a realism rendered with painful clarity. What they all have is an ability to compel a reader’s attention.

-Dave Hardy


Charles Gramlich said...

I've been looking for some Woolrich books on my book mooch group but no luck so far. Guess I'm going to have to go searching online. This one sounds very interesting. I'd love to see his short stories.

Dave Hardy said...

Woolrich wrote a lot of short stories, far too few of which are in print.

Some collections I've read are Rear Window and Other Stories, The Fantastic Stories of Cornell Woolrich (truly good stuff), and angels of Darkness (all women protagonists). Nevins biography has endless pages of plot summaries. Way more than actual biography I think.