01 April 2008

Not All Woolrich Is Great: “Vampire’s Honeymoon”

Doing an overview of Cornell Woolrich’s short stories means that I can’t focus attention purely on his many classics. Like any hard-working pulp author of the day, Woolrich sometimes had to pound the brass to get a paycheck when he wasn’t feeling particularly inspired. Other times he may have had the inspiration, but just couldn’t follow through on the execution. The stories sold anyway because Woolrich’s name meant increased sales when it appeared on the cover of Dime Detective or Black Mask. Most of his second- and third-tier stories vanished into the pulp graveyard and fans such as myself haven’t had them embarrass us further.

But a few Woolrich stinkers keep popping up. The most persistent one is 1939’s “Vampire’s Honeymoon.” It even headlined a Carroll & Graf collection from the late ‘80s, which bizarrely had a version of the poster from the Hammer 1958 Dracula as the cover (seen to the left). On general principles I can’t complain about any Woolrich getting back into print, but the thought that new readers might pick up a story like this as their introduction to Woolrich gives me shivers far worse than I’ve ever gotten from the best vampire horror tale (which would be Matheson’s I Am Legend, if you care to know). If “Vampire’s Honeymoon” was the first Woolrich story you ever read, I wouldn’t blame you if you never wanted to touch the guy’s writing again. I would beg you to give him another chance, but I would understand your reluctance.

“Vampire’s Honeymoon” gets attention because it belongs to the small group of Woolrich works that have supernatural and fantasy themes: “Dark Melody of Madness,” “Jane Brown’s Body,” “Speak to Me of Death,” “Kiss of the Cobra,” “Guns, Gentlemen,” “I’m Dangerous Tonight,” “The Moon of Montezuma,” and Night Has a Thousand Eyes (an expansion of “Speak to Me of Death”). It’s also the flat-out worst of the lot, although “Guns, Gentlemen” and “The Moon of Montezuma” are not going to get into anybody’s long-term memory except mine. That it features a vampire is the only reason it gets reprinted, but Woolrich’s treatment of the blood-sucker theme is so clichéd that reading to the end is almost a perfunctory exercise. After a few pages you know exactly where this is going. Man meets a mysterious woman in black at a penthouse party. She lures him away from his fiancée. Man starts feeling drained, notices strange marks on his neck. His fiancée never goes out at night, has an aversion to mirrors, etc. etc. Is there a twist coming? Unfortunately not. Woolrich was just typing his way to the $135 that Popular Publications paid him to publish “Vampire’s Honeymoon” in Horror Stories.

For a pulp aficionado, “Vampire’s Honeymoon” does have one point of interest: it was published in a “Weird Menace” pulp. Weird Menace is a peculiar genre from the pulp days that focused on gruesome, bloody terror tales involving sadism and torture, usually inflicted on young couples. Bizarre murder methods and deformed lunatics often populate these hysterical stories, and you can bet that eventually a cackling half-blind dwarf wielding a pair a red-hot pliers will threaten the milky-white naked flesh of the hero’s fainting blonde girlfriend. Weird Menace was the torture-porn of the day until blue-nose groups drove it off the newsstands. The standard Weird Menace story has supernatural overtones, but all fantasy elements get explained away in the conclusion. Woolrich ditches that idea entirely in “Vampire’s Honeymoon,” and there is not much torture or brutality either. It’s atypical of the genre, and even though it’s a poor story for Woolrich, it’s more fine-tuned than most Weird Menace stories, which read as if they were written in three hours of gin-soaked frenzy. (Actually, that’s one of their strengths.) Woolrich’s freakish “Graves for the Living” is a far better embodiment of Weird Menace, and it’s also a great piece of work. It’s certainly the best I’ve read in this nut-case sub-genre, and I’ve read more than is probably healthy.