11 April 2008

Your Grave Is Waiting for You, Mr. Woolrich

“Vampire’s Honeymoon” was a failed Weird Menace story from Cornell Woolrich. But he hit another one out of the park two years earlier with “Graves for the Living,” which appeared in a 1937 issue of Dime Mystery.

I’ve read a slew of Weird Menace pulp stories, and this is the best one. Woolrich was at home with the paranoia and stark fear of this crackpot sub-genre of suspense stories, although he holds back on the chum-buckets of grue. Unlike the convention-breaking “Dark Melody of Madness,” this story follows the rules of the bizarre horror genre by keeping supernatural events out of play. It adheres to the standard Weird Menace outline of a young couple plunging into a nightmare association with a cult and bizarre murders. Hero Bud Ingram has a fixation on premature burial because it happened to his father, but his friendship and romance with beautiful Joan helps combat this fear. Then he stumbles into the Friends of Death, a cult obsessed with living burial. They bury their members in coffins with air holes that run to the surface, then “miraculously” revive them. The cult traps Bud and forces him to join, then targets him for blackmail. After Bud witnesses the Friends of Death murder one of their own members with “the penalty”—live burial with no air passage—he tries to escape their clutches. But the cult has spies everywhere, even on the police force. Joan offers herself to the cult in Bud’s stead, and they bury her alive in a cemetery somewhere in the city. A crazed Bud runs through graveyards at random trying to dig her up. As a noir cop bonus, police officers pour acid on suspected cultist to make him talk.

The outlandish premise is no stranger than most Weird Menace tales, but it’s utterly believable in Woolrich’s hands. Top Weird Menace authors like Arthur J. Burke, Hugh B. Cave, and Norvell Page would have handled the suspense in a more mannered fashioned, but for Woolrich the terror on display is completely real—he felt like its hero almost every day of his life. The mounting paranoia is something the he could handle without breaking a sweat. The scene of Bud leaving the train station with an escort of cultist disguised as cops, debating how to force them to shoot him dead so he can escape the immurement he has feared since childhood, is a brilliant piece of Woolrichian doom.

The grisly premature burial concept feels like a nod to Edgar Allen Poe, but no doubt Woolrich’s own existential dread identified with this horrid living death. The Catholic religious parallels—the promise of resurrection coupled with the threat of “eternal death”; Joan’s sacrifice for Bud’s sins—are hard to miss. The Friends of Death try cheat the grave using their bizarre resurrection ritual, but at the end they must face the worst punishment of all: knowing that somewhere “their graves awaited them.” And from these graves, there is no escape.

“Graves for the Living” was saved from its own premature burial by Woolrich’s biographer, Francis M. Nevins, who gave it the opening slot in his classic collection of from the master of noir, Nightwebs. It later appeared in the 1980s collection Vampire’s Honeymoon, where it makes a shocking contrast to the ordinariness of the title piece. This is indispensable Woolrich, and a good view of the oddest genre to appear in the pulps.

Woolrich would re-visit the premature burial idea in another classic, “The Living Lie Down with the Dead.” Watch for a report on that one.