08 February 2010

The Weird of Cornell Woolrich: “Dark Melody of Madness”

Continuing from last week’s look at the weird tales of pulp suspense maestro Cornell Woolrich through his novella “Jane Brown’s Body,” today I’ll walk around another bleak urban corner of the midnight-hued world of my favorite pulp author.

“Dark Melody of Madness,” first published in the June 1935 issue of Dime Mystery and often reprinted under the less-chilling title of “Papa Benjamin,” is one the superb pulp horror stories, and one of Woolrich’s earliest classics, written during the first year of his career as professional magazine writer. In its use of race as an undercurrent, it has connections to some of the great horror works of Robert E. Howard, in particular “Pigeons from Hell,” which also uses the device of voodoo of the West Indies. Anyone interested in the American Weird should read it. Fortunately, it’s been reprinted in many anthologies.

Dime Mystery was one of the “Weird Menace” pulps, a strange subgenre of crime fiction that flourished in the mid-1930s before public outcry against its gruesomeness closed it down. Editor Harry Steeger at Popular Publications led the way in this attempt to create a literary equivalent of the Grand Guignol theater in Paris. The term “Weird Menace” is a later critical invention, like film noir; at the time, these magazine were known as “horror pulps,” although the horror they delivered was a specific kind, not the sort suited to Weird Tales, Strange Stories, or Unknown. The Weird Menace pulps emphasized torture and gore, and required that any supposedly supernatural occurrences have a rational explanation at the end. This was meant to make the stories seem realistic, but the opposite usually happened: the authors struggled to come up with plausible excuses for the utterly insane happenings in their stories. Weird Menace tales often feature young couples trapped in a web of murder and torment, and are packed from one edge of the paper to other with disgusting and strange murder methods, bloodthirsty cults, sadism, and oddities that border on the surreal.

Weird Menace is a popular genre with pulp fans today because of its feverish lunacy that sometimes verges on splatterpunk camp. Most of the stories aren’t particularly good, but the assault of the bloody and the bewildering is intoxicating. “Dark Melody of Madness” is one of the few masterpieces of Weird Menace; Woolrich was at home in this grim setting and in the groove of its paranoia. He wasn’t imitating paranoia or fear, either. In his tormented mind, the reclusive author felt the terror the people in these stories felt. He was writing from his own beliefs, and you can feel this truth on the page.

“Dark Melody of Madness” appears to follow most of the Weird Menace rules . . . except that the supernatural seems always present, and the “explanations” exist simply for Woolrich to deceive the readers twice, leaving them looking into an inscrutable void at the fall of the curtain in his own Grand Guignol theater.

The story opens on a “living dead” man, similar to the opening of “Jane Brown’s Body.” Famous bandleader Eddie Bloch shambles into a police station in New Orleans. Here’s a celebrity who usually draws stares, but . . .
. . . it’s his face, more than who he is or how he’s dressed, that would draw stares anywhere. It’s the face of a dead man—the face of a dead man on a living body. The shadowy shape of the skull seems to peer through the transparent skin; you can make out its bone-structure as though an X-ray were playing it up. The eyes are stunned, shocked, haunted gleams, set in a vast hollow that bisects the face like a mask. No amount of drink or dissipation could do this to anyone, only long illness and the foreknowledge of death. You see faces like that looking up at you from hospital cots when all hope has been abandoned—when the grave is already waiting.
“. . . the foreknowledge of death,” one of Woolrich’s most persistent and terrifying themes. He will show us (again in vivid present tense) in squirmy detail how Eddie Bloch has come to this state of funereal despair.

Eddie Bloch tells the New Orleans police that he has just shot a man to death. A black man. Immediately, Woolrich creates a powerful portrait of racism in the South and the 1930s, and it’s a conscious portrait, as he points out: “This is the Southland, remember.” The police are instantly looking for any way to exonerate Eddie Bloch for killing a black man, and they make numerous assumptions: the dead man must have talked out of turn to Mr. Bloch, “got wise”; he was blackmailing poor Mr. Bloch; he was a drug dealer who hooked the unfortunate Mr. Bloch on the needle. Furthermore, the cops can’t understand why a rich white man like Eddie Bloch would feel so bad about killing some black guy.

Before going further, I need to explain Woolrich’s use of race in his other works. Pulp literature is often frankly racist, and all modern pulp fans are aware of this. Woolrich wrote black stereotypes in many of his stories, usually just peripheral characters speaking in the standard slang white writers of the time used for black characters. Yet Woolrich portrayed a number of major black characters in his stories who had no stereotypical aspects to them at all. Most astonishing of all is “One Night in Barcelona,” a story of a black jazz musician living in Spain after escaping from a mob in the southern U.S. that tried to lynch him for something he didn’t do. “Dark Melody of Madness” uses the “Dark Continent” stereotype, giving white readers what they expect about Africa, but it also comments on racial boundaries in a way that makes me think Woolrich, based on some of his other work, felt that whites were the transgressors. Like “Pigeons from Hell,” it’s a discomforting view on race tensions in 1930s North America, a “colonial horror” where the dominant culture faces revenge from the subordinate one through supernatural means. The basic idea of a white musician stealing his style from a black musician and finding fame with it is something that anyone who knows the history of jazz can understand. Woolrich was too smart an author, too jazz-savvy, not to know what he was doing when he crafted the story of musical appropriation.

Back to the story.

Eddie Bloch tells the police that the man he shot, “Papa Benjamin,” was slowly killing him. Eddie is down to almost 102 pound, his ribs and vertebrae stick through his skin, his watch hangs loosely on his wrist. Stephen King readers will now shout, “Hey, Thinner!” And they’re on the right track. King is an admitted Woolrich reader as well.

To convince the police, Eddie leads them into the twisty part of the city, the former slave quarters, and the dead body of Papa Benjamin. He still doesn’t know that he’s safe, and begs the police commissioner to let him tell the whole story from the start.

The frame shifts back in time, when Eddie Bloch’s and his wife Judy Jarvis’s band is failing nightly at a New Orleans club, and the owner gives them one more week to pick up the business or end up on the street. Eddie notices a chicken claw on the stage, and when his suspicions turn toward his biracial percussionist Johnny Staats, he follows the man into the old quarters and Congo Square. Eddie stumbles into a full voodoo ceremony, and when caught, faces death unless he agrees to ceremonially join the group. Eddie has no trouble agreeing, since he already has a commercially rapacious idea: stealing the great rhythm he heard during the ritual as part of his band’s act. “And he might even get more dope out of the initiation ceremonies if he pretends to go through with it. A song or dance for Judy to do with maybe a green spot focused on her.”

The ritual is grisly, but Eddie Bloch is snide and cocky all through it. The next day, he fires Staats. The exchange that follows is the most telling moment about race and the core of what “colonial horror” is about:
Staats only murmurs: “So you’re crossing them? I wouldn’t be in your shoes for all the fame and money in the world, guy!”

“If you mean that bad dream last night,” says Eddie, “I haven’t told anybody and I don’t intend to. Why, I’d be laughed at. I’m only remembering what I can use of it. I’m a white man, see? The jungle is just trees to me; the Congo, just a river; the night-time, just a time for ‘lectric lights.” He whips out a couple of C’s. “Hand ‘em these for me, will ya, and tell ‘em I’ve paid my dues from now until doomsday and I don’t want any receipt. And if they try putting rough-on-rats in my orange juice, they’ll find themselves stomping in a chain gang!”

The C’s falls where Eddie spat. “You’re one of us. You think you’re pink? Blood tells. You wouldn’t have gone there—you couldn’t have stood that induction—if you were. Look at your fingernails sometimes, look in a mirror at the whites of your eyes. Goodbye, dead man.”
Although Woolrich will bring readers to feel sympathy for Eddie Bloch as he wastes away, facing an unstoppable and inescapable death sentence, at the moment the author fully wants us to despise his cockiness and his culture theft.

That night, Eddie premieres his new number, “Voodoo Chant,” with a dance from his wife, and it makes a sensation in the nightclub. He’s soon traveling the world with his hit number. He’s also starting to waste away a day at a time, and no doctor, no psychiatrist, can explain it.

“Dark Melody of Madness,” as it approaches it climax, seems to play along with the Weird Menace rules that all this will have some rational explanation. The brutal cop action against the voodoo followers (in Woolrich’s universe, the police are usually callous thugs and near-psychopaths) seems to promise the normal wrap-up. But at the end . . . “Stand close to me, boys—real close to me, I’m afraid on the dark.”

The backdrop of the swing music explosion of the mid-1930s, which had just set off with the popularity of Benny Goodman, is superbly executed. Woolrich liked to use popular music as a backdrop and a spice to his words; he found aching loneliness in popular melodies where other authors would find joy. He was a jazz buff from his teens, once claimed that he had thought about becoming a dancer (but then Woolrich made up a lot of stories about himself), and his earliest novels were “Jazz Age Youth” stories in the vein of F. Scott Fitzgerald. His later work shows a man familiar with the cheap dime-a-dance halls and after-hours jam joints of New York. “Dark Melody of Madness,” along with the bizarre but intriguing “The Case of the Killer-Diller” (where a swing arrangement of Ravel’s “Bolero” causes a man to commit murder—I’m not making this up), is Woolrich’s most extensive look into the popular jazz scene of his day. Woolrich shows some remarkable knowledge of the scene that only somebody else who is part of the modern swing scene (i.e. me) would understand. For example, Woolrich mentions “the shim-sham,” an energetic tap routine created by dancer Leonard Reed, which made a major comeback in the late ‘90s and is still danced—in a simpler Lindy Hop version—at all swing functions. I learned the dance from Mr. Reed himself, a few years before his death. Incredible man, all kinds of astonishing stories about the New York jazz scene of the 1930s and working with Duke Ellington and Count Basie. But I seriously, seriously digress.

Woolrich was not at the height of his creative powers as a suspense writer in 1935, and “Dark Melody of Madness” doesn’t have as much gripping suspense and whipcrack action as what the author would be turning out in two years. But what matters here is the plot and the layers to it that make it one of the most richly rewarding and re-visitable horror stories in the history of the pulps. Jazz, voodoo, existential dread, gun-happy cops, dismemberment, racial tension . . . it’s the wicked brew of an emerging master.