10 September 2009

Cornell Woolrich’s Last Gasp of Quality: Fright

Fright (1950)
By Cornell Woolrich writing as George Hopley

It’s 1950 and you happen to be suspense author Cornell Woolrich. First of all, sucks to be you. Yes, you’ve just gone through fifteen years of writing success and are a major figure in the mystery scene, on your way to fame as the greatest suspense writer in U.S. history. But you probably haven’t enjoyed a penny of what you’ve made or a moment of your fame because you are the poster child for Depressed Authors Who Never Leave Their Apartments. Also, you’ve just entered the third phase of your career . . . the slow phase, and the time that people will later refer to with dismissive waves: “Oh, his later stuff wasn’t very good.”

Woolrich’s biographer Francis M. Nevins describes the sudden shift in the author’s productivity at the end of his main period, 1935–1948, and the reasons behind it:
Not even Woolrich himself knew it at the time, but his burst of white-heat creativity had come to an end with the completion of the noir novels published in 1948. [Rendezvous in Black and I Married a Dead Man.] . . . Sometime during 1948, somewhere in Mexico, [Woolrich’s father] Genaro Hopley-Woolrich died. To whatever extent his son’s career was a plea for Genaro’s attention and respect and love, its raison d’être was gone now. . . . With his father dead, his mother almost seventy-five years old and in worsening health, and the virtual guarantee of steady money from paperback reprints and movies and radio and (to greater extent each year) television, why should he keep writing novels and stories which deep in his mind he considered garbage? (Cornell Woolrich: First You Dream, Then You Die, 365-366)
But Woolrich did keep writing, sporadically at least. A handful short stories and a couple of novels were published before his death in 1968. Some of the short stories are classics, such as “For the Rest of Her Life” (the first Woolrich story that knocked me through a wall), “New York Blues,” and “Too Nice a Day to Die.” But late Woolrich is essentially Third Season Star Trek: The Original Series: better than its reputation, perhaps, but definitely lesser than what came before.

Until recently, finding any of Woolrich’s late novels was taxing and expensive. Most were paperback originals and only received a single printing. My copies of Strangler’s Serenade and Savage Bride are near to total structural collapse, and I have to read them using a pencil to turn the pages.

But mysteriously in August 2007, Woolrich’s first novel from the winding-down years, Fright, came back in print as part of the Hard Case Crime imprint from Dorchester Publishing. This means that Fright is one of the few Woolrich novels currently in print, a bizarre situation. Imagine if the only Hemingway novel in print was Across the River and into the Trees, and you’ll have an idea of what this means. I own a rare copy of the single British printing of Fright (the cover at the top of this post), and I expected that was the only way I’d ever read it. Now I have nice fresh paperback copy to go along with it.

Actually, Fright isn’t terrible. It’s the best of the batch of the author’s later books. It was originally published under the pseudonym George Hopley (Woolrich’s two middle names), which was used for one 1940s novel, Night Has a Thousand Eyes, also published by Rinehart. I have no idea why Woolrich or the publisher picked that pseudonym instead of the reliable warhorse “William Irish,” the name used for most of his short story collections that were still being published. It’s just another strange knowledge gap about the enigmatic Mr. Woolrich.

Fright is a period piece, occurring in 1915 and 1916. The period setting is unusual, but not unique for the author. Waltz into Darkness is set in the nineteenth century, and the early period novel A Young Man’s Heart is set around the same time as Fright, although mostly in Mexico, where Woolrich spent much of his youth. Woolrich probably picked 1915 as a starting point because societal pressures of the teens made it easier to work up a sexual blackmail plot that might otherwise fall apart. It also provided him with an excuse to stretch out sections of the novel with explanations of the time period. Woolrich handles the period setting well, which surprised me; I imagined this would be one of the tripping points in the book.

Part One introduces the reader to Prescott Marshall. Marshall works as a stockbroker, and he plans to marry Marjorie Worth, who helped him get his position and whose family’s wealth could help him even more. Marshall is even in love with her, which certainly makes the decision to propose to her simpler. He plans to pop the question to her one night at the theater, but wouldn’t you know it, the Lusitania sinks (meaning the specific date is 7 May 1915) and Marjorie’s aunt and uncle sink with it. Scotches that night out. Marjorie stays home with her grieved mother, and a disappointed Marshall gets hammered and completely forgets what he did for the rest of the evening.

Marshall later gets his night at the theater, his proposal, and his answer of “yes” from Marjorie. Then the knock comes at the door, and the woman he forgot about during his Lusitania bender, Leona Harris, arrives to demand her blackmail money.

Woolrich handles the opening clumsily. His heart isn’t in the prose the way it used to be, so his descriptions of Marhsall’s planning, his love for Marjorie, and young people out on the town all sound like Woolrich imitating Woolrich. He’s trying to write an opening similar to Phantom Lady, but where that had the beauty and rhythm of poetry, Fright reads as forced and awkward. The dialogue is particularly tin-eared and repetitive. Some gems still come through, but it’s clear that we’ve entered latter-day Cornell Woolrich.

Leona keeps harassing Marshall, coming back for more money. He tries to deceive her with an abrupt midnight change of residence, but it never occurs to him that she’ll just follow him home from work; she’s already told him she knows where that is. On the morning of Marshall and Marjorie’s wedding, Leona makes another appearance at his apartment—and Marshall cracks and strangles her to death. The murder is one of the novel’s finest passages, and Woolrich executes it with intense eroticism, combined with imagery of partnered dancing. He never put eroticism in his love scenes, but he definitely wrote “sexy” death scenes. The dancing metaphor (and there was a time in his youth when Woolrich thought he wanted to be a dancer) is particularly interesting in the context of a murder:
They were moving, but he couldn’t feel it. Taking little steps, this way, that way, now forward, now back, like a pair of drunken dancers. And as in a conventional dance, his steps—the man’s—led, her steps—the woman’s—followed. Whichever way he stepped, she stepped a moment later.
In social dancing, however, the lead shouldn’t grip the follower’s neck quite so tightly.

Once through the existential murder that lasts almost three pages, Marshall stuffs Leona’s body in the closest, goes through with his wedding, and runs off to Atlantic City for the honeymoon. While on the coast, he receives an out-of-nowhere job offer from a man named Ponds (Fleischman couldn’t make it), one that will take Marshall to “some faraway town” never named. He convinces Marjorie to go with his sudden need for a new job, without returning to New York at all. So ends Part One.

The writing improves immensely with the killing, as if Woolrich felt a jolt that got him back into his customary style. However, does Marshall think he can simply run off to another town, leaving a dead body back in his apartment in New York? I think that the cops might figure that one out as soon as the neighbors start complaining about the smell. Amazingly, Marshall doesn’t even read the newspapers to see if the body was discovered.

We’ve now entered the world of Woolrich Illogic. Suspense trumps any real-world behavior. The author does this occasionally in his classic novels, but it’s out-of-control in Fright. Where the earlier works have such levels of suspense that you gloss over the occasional screw-up or fabrications (such as, “Why do you have to catch this one bus out of town and no other?” in Deadline at Dawn), Fright has a swarm of them, and not enough quality to distract from themr.

Part Two is a long middle section taking place in that faraway town, where Marshall lives in a constant dread of the “discoverers” coming to get him, which leada him to commit murder. The suspense here, with a person panicking over the least hint of discovery, is reminiscent of that in Waltz into Darkness and I Married a Dead Man, but more artificial. Some of the suspense sequences are set-ups for lame punch lines, and most readers will see them coming far off, while others drag on through protracted chapters that also read as if the author were trying to clumsily ape his own style—and there are whole paragraphs full of howlers. The book does manage some evocative passages, such as a portrait of an audience watching a silent movie (Woolrich was an avid movie-goer in the 1920s, and perhaps wrote inter-titles for Hollywood during his brief sojourn there). He also is excellent at dissecting the tiny details of life, such as the specific way a person opens an envelope, to highlight Marshall’s growing paranoia. But Woolrich did similar work far better in the previous two decades.

Marshall’s episodes of panic concerning each stranger who appears in his life are misplaced and nonsensical. He shouldn’t expect shadowy watchers to come poking around for him; the cops should simply walk up to his front door or his workplace and arrest him on suspicion of murdering Leona Harris. The girl’s body was in his apartment (even though he registered under a different name, he had told his best friend where he lived) and he had abruptly moved to a different town. The police wouldn’t have any trouble finding the town either, since Marshall lets his wife write to her family all the time. Why would Marshall think the police would sneak around? They should just step up and arrest him.

More interesting than Marshall’s titular fright is his wife’s slow loss of love for him as his behavior forces them more and more into isolation. Because Marjorie isn’t the main character, her decline isn’t thrust into the forefront and overdone the way that Marshall’s terror is, and her character arc ends up one of the more subtle and emotional aspects of Fright. Marjorie’s long talk with Marshall about all that he took from her during their marriage is the book’s highlight; the author dips back into his old dark magic with this section.

Part Three goes back to New York for the finale, which does manage to reach a pitch of hysteria before the grim curtain falls. However, there’s an ironic twist in a Postscript that is not only predictable, but unbelievable as well. It feels recycled from the ironic close of the The Bride Wore Black, but has no sting. The novel could have easily done without it.

Francis M. Nevins’s opinion of the novel is spot-on: “Fright is certainly the most ambitious novel Woolrich published in his final twenty years, but on every conceivable level it’s too flawed to be taken seriously. Yet the book is far from trash.” It’s a weaker work than any of the author’s main period novels and the early period Manhattan Love Song, but the novels that followed it in Cornell’s depressing twilight, like Death Is My Dancing Partner, are nearly impossible to claw through, even for a Woolrich fanatic like myself. Fright is always readable, even when it’s pretty bad.

Although I’m glad to have Fright in print, it worries me that this might serve as some people’s introduction to the Grim God of Suspense. This will be the easiest of Cornell Woolrich’s novels to find in chain bookstores, and that means it will end up as many people’s first Woolrich novel. Anybody who reads the two and half pages of general praise for Woolrich from luminaries such as Harlan Ellison, Isaac Asimov, Raymond Chandler, and Ray Bradbury on the front papers might feel slighted when the novel that follows doesn’t live up to that praise. Fright will give readers a sense of the author’s important themes, but also far too much of his flaws. A much better starting point is The Black Angel, currently in print.

Finally, the original cover illustration for the Hard Case crime edition by Arthur Suydam is a great piece of work—perfectly imitating the lurid paperback covers of the 1950s—but has nothing to do with the story and doesn’t convey Woolrich’s shadowy world.