15 March 2008

Cornell Woolrich’s Short Story Masterpiece: “Three O’Clock”

Cornell Woolrich’s greatest short story is “Three O’Clock,” which was first published in the October 1st, 1938 issue of Detective Fiction Weekly and has been reprinted many times since. To put it bluntly, this story is sheer agony. The level of suspense it maintains could drive a person bonkers. Woolrich packed his own overriding neurosis about death into these thirty pages and makes the reader live with it through feverishly subjective prose that turns the “death wait” into mental torture. Woolrich frequently wrote “races against the clock” tales, but this story and the novel Night Has a Thousand Eyes work this theme into its primordial form: the ticking clock’s quintessence, the horrible feeling of watching life slipping away second by second, with the exact moment of the end staring you straight in the face.

I don’t want to explain the story’s plot—the above should give you all you need to know—because I want people to read it fresh. However, this excerpt of the text gives an idea of how Woolrich delves into a mind facing the prospect of death, and the way he uses everyday minutiae to measure a fading life:
Eleven past two. Forty-nine minutes left. Less than the time it took to sit through the “A”-part of a pictureshow. Less than the time it took to get a haircut, if you had to wait your turn. Less than the time it took to sit through a Sunday meal, or listen to an hour program on the radio, or ride on the bus from here to the beach for a dip. Less than all those things—to live. No, no, he had meant to live for thirty more years, forty! What had become of those years, those months, those weeks? No, not just minutes left, it wasn’t fair!
Try to imagine twenty sustained pages of this.

Woolrich includes some strange religious tones to the work, which add a further layer of complexity. He grew up in a Catholic country, Mexico, and his father was Catholic, so he was familiar with the religion. He professed no religion himself until the end of his life, when he claimed to have converted back to his father’s faith. However, Woolrich lied about himself constantly, so who knows if this is true or just some amusing story he made up. His biographer has suggested that Woolrich associated Catholic ritual and symbolism with his ambiguous feelings about his father, which accounts for their connection to fear and self-hatred in his works. The psychological angle of “Three O’Clock” is a tangled one.

Also, “Three O’Clock” is a fascinating portrait of a psychopath and how an outwardly normal man can be a calculating killer underneath. Before the suspense section gets its stranglehold on the reader, the story is already engrossing because of the way it gets into the head of a person meticulously justifying to himself a horrid act: “...he was that type of man... he didn’t bring his hates or grudges out into the open where they had a chance to heal. He nursed them in the darkness of his mind. That’s a dangerous kind of man.”

When I first read “Three O’Clock” (it must have been 1993), I’ll admit that I wasn’t approaching it completely fresh. I had only just started to read Woolrich but I already thought the guy was brilliant after reading I Married a Dead Man and the short stories “Mind over Murder,” “Death Escapes the Eye,” and “For the Rest of Her Life” in the collection Angels of Darkness. I jumped into “Three O’Clock” as the third story in the collection Rear Window and Other Stories oblivious to what it was about. However, after about five pages, when the central idea becomes obvious, I realized that I knew this story already. I had seen it on an episode of the 1980s revival of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. I recall it was a good episode with a clever concept, so I had a notion what was about to happen. That still didn’t prepare me. The TV episode did in five quick minutes what the story took twenty pages to do, and the suspense is hardly comparable. The TV show had a weaker “stinger,” which the story dispenses of mid-way and instead builds up to a much bleaker cosmic joke on both reader and victim. Alfred Hitchcock himself directed a one hour version of the story for television in the 1960s, but I haven’t seen it. I’ve heard it’s astonishing, and should it ever become available on disc I will snatch it up immediately.