22 March 2010

The Weird of Cornell Woolrich: “Speak to Me of Death”

Most pulp writers of the 1930s were itching to break into the hardcover book market. Since reprints of pulp stories in book form were rare at the time, these writers did not expect that their work for the newsstands would survive past an issue’s sell-date. They felt comfortable re-working and expanding on them to create novels. Raymond Chandler famously called his process of novelizing his already published work as “cannibalizing.” He welded together different short stories, often keeping large sections of text intact with only slight alterations. Other authors took ideas that they liked, or else felt they could do more justice to in the novel format, and enlarged them into books without text carry-over. Robert E. Howard used “The Scarlet Citadel” as a guide for The Hour of the Dragon. And Cornell Woolrich turned many of his short stories into novels. “Face Work” became The Black Angel. “Call Me Patrice” became I Married a Dead Man. “The Street of Jungle Death” became Black Alibi. And “Speak to Me of Death” became Woolrich’s most depressing novel (which is really saying something), Night Has a Thousand Eyes.

In most of these cases, Woolrich made major changes from the short version to the longer one. “Face Work” is a minor piece and only remains as an incident within The Black Angel. “Street of Jungle Death” is a pretty wretched piece of junk, and yet Woolrich took this silly “big cat on the loose in Hollywood!” and fashioned it into a grim classic—one of his best novels—set in the web-ways of a South American city.

But in the case of “Speak to Me of Death” and its growth into Night Has a Thousand Eyes, Woolrich changed little of the story. He instead deepened this examination of fate, psychic powers, and police work so it lasted over three hundred pages. The short story is a classic, and so is the novel—it’s merely a matter of the length of the author maintains the effect. If Night Has a Thousand Eyes is the superior work, “Speak to Me of Death” might be better for your nerves because it ends much sooner.

I would need a few days of your time to discuss the existential brilliance of Night Has a Thousand Eyes, so instead I’ll focus on the short story (actually, it’s closer to novelette length in the pulp magazine lexicon). “Speak to Me of Death” is Woolrich’s most interesting voyage into the supernatural, where the occurrence of the otherworldly is almost invisible, a shadowy presence that you start to hope cannot be real. Because, if it were, it would completely undermine your beliefs in the rational operation of the universe.

Does this sound a bit like H. P. Lovecraft? There’s a similarity here, but Woolrich’s story is set among the noir world, and instead of Great Old Ones and antiquarians, he has a lonely psychic, cruel cops, and a strange prediction about getting killed by a giant cat in the middle of an urban mansion.

The tale begins when wealthy and beautiful Ann Bridges, niece and ward of tycoon John Bridges, walks into a police station to beg for help. She receives attention immediately (“She was that kind of a girl”) instead of getting laughed out of the station when she tells Lt. McManus that her uncle is in the grip of a strange power and is convinced that in two days, at the stroke of midnight on the 15th, he’ll suffer death at the jaws of a lion.
“Call it a prophecy, call it a prediction, call it fate—call it what you will. I fought it hard enough, God knows. But the evidence of my own eyes, my own ears, my own senses, is too much for me. And the time’s too short now. I’m afraid to take a chance. I haven’t got the nerve to bluff it out, to sit pat. You don’t gamble with a human life. Today’s the 13th, isn’t it? It’s too close to the 14th; there isn’t time-margin enough left now to be skeptical, to keep it to myself any longer. Day by day I’ve watched him cross off the fate on his desk-calendar, drawing nearer to death. There are only two leaves left now….”
Ann proceeds to tell her story, one that occupies a hundred pages in the novel, but only takes up a few here. She and her uncle discovered the psychic powers of a man named Jeremiah Tompkins through their maid, Elaine, who delivered Tompkins’s eerily accurate prediction of a plane crash—a plane that Mr. Bridges was almost on. They also hear of Tompkins’s letter-perfect prediction of a failure of one of Bridges’s west coast business ventures. This was enough to intrigue Ann and her uncle to go see the psychic for themselves.

Jeremiah Tompkins turned out to be an unimpressive, sad little man, an unemployed bookkeeper. He refuses to take money for his abilities, which are a curse to him. When Bridges tries to offer him money, Tompkins Jeremish retorts: “I don’t like being insulted…. It’s like being paid for—for showing a gruesome scar or some deformity. I don’t do that for money, and I won’t take money for it…. Please go. I don’t like being made a holy show of.”

This portrayal of a psychic as a person haunted by their ability to see the future has always struck me as what a real psychic would be like. Not some TV talk-show huckster, but somebody who looks at life as infected with the inevitable, and therefore utterly futile. Human endeavor means nothing. This would be enough to drive anyone mad. Woolrich brings that feeling from Tompkins over to Ann and her uncle, and consequently to the reader.

After the two of them witnessed more of Tompkins’s unerring predictions and psychic knowledge, Bridges tried to elicit Tompkins to help him in his business. Tompkins still refused all money offers, even when he dropped tips that saved Bridges $200,000. John Bridges continued to secretly procure predictions from the reluctant psychic.

Then the Beam Dropped. Tompkins informed John Bridges that a certain upcoming business decision won’t make any difference—because Mr. Bridges will die on midnight between the 14th and 15th of that month. And he can do nothing about it.
“You can’t stop it from happening, can’t evade it. Though you fly to the far ends of the world, though you hide yourself in the depths of the earth, though you gather a thousand men about you to shield you, it will still find you out. It’s there—written down for you—Death by the jaws of a lion.”
This prediction, with no more elaboration, has driven John Bridges into deepest despair and toward the edge of madness. Ann begs for help from Lt. McManus and the police force.

Amazingly, they give it. Even though no crime has been committed, a special force gets put on “the case” to see if some strange, real-world fraud against Ann’s uncle is in the making. This is Woolrich’s biggest leap in logic; you have to go with it or give up at this point. Armor yourself up, because it will only get feverishly weirder from this juncture on.

The cops fan out in three groups. Handsome Tom Shane goes with Ann to the Bridges mansion to protect her uncle from whatever may try to kill him that night, and also to try to keep the businessman from driving himself into rock-bottom insanity as he watches clocks tick their way toward midnight. Another set of cops try to track a possibly conspiracy involving the maid Elaine, Tompkins, and a mysterious paymaster. The last cop on the assignment is sent to check out zoos and circuses to see if they have an escaped lion. (Seriously.)

The story moves at a breathless pace. The cops reporting on their findings are transmitted in telephone transcripts, a good device to trim the action. Meanwhile, Woolrich pours on the dread of the death in the scenes with the almost mentally incapacitated John Bridges.

As the police work races against the clock, the cops actually appear on the verge of uncovering a wild conspiracy against Bridges—an unlikely one, but a mundane one. However, strange coincidences continue to crop up, things that make it seem that perhaps this psychic prediction might indeed be the real “the stars are against us” deal.

The suspense holds up to the very end, and I’m certainly not going to spoil the conclusion for you. Suffice it to say, Woolrich makes sure the reader is constantly guessing, and he doesn’t disappoint at the curtain. This is the kind of ending that you can’t guess until it happens, and then realize it was the only way it could end.

“Speak to Me of Death” is a wonderful telescoping of one of Cornell Woolrich’s major themes: death’s inevitability and its power to obliterate human happiness. It isn’t as potent here as in his similarly themed (and non-supernatural) short masterpiece “Three O’Clock,” or in the draining expansion into Night Has a Thousand Eyes, but it’s a stunning performance in so brief a space.

“Speak to Me of Death” was first published in Argosy, the oldest of the pulp magazines and one of the most prestigious, in the 27 February 1937 issue. It was not reprinted until The Fantastic Stories of Cornell Woolrich in 1981, and then in the trade paperback Rear Window from iBooks in 2001.