06 September 2010

The Weird of Cornell Woolrich: “Kiss of the Cobra”

No, this isn’t a review of the Ken Russell film The Lair of the White Worm. The poster just fits so well with Cornell Woolrich’s 1935 story “Kiss of the Cobra” that I had to use it. You would almost think Russell was adapting Woolrich, not Bram Stoker.

My three previous installments exploring the fantasy and horror tales of suspense author Cornell Woolrich have all looked at classic works from his typewriter: “Jane Brown’s Body,” “Dark Melody of Madness,” and “Speak to Me of Death.” However, Woolrich was a prolific pulpster, and sometimes he pounded out sub-par work because the hotel room bill had to be paid. Any Woolrich fan can whip out a list of the writer’s suspense stories that simply made him or her cringe—and not positively. I’m as hardcore a Woolrich aficionado as you will likely find, and even I have to admit that some of his lesser stories are dreadful. His exploration of vampires, one of his potentially intriguing sidetrips into the supernatural, “Vampire’s Honeymoon,” is the most clich├ęd story about vampires I’ve ever read. Only the staking of vampire using a broken hockey stick is remotely interesting. I can’t imagine Woolrich spent more than two hours clanking it out and then sending it off. It’s an indication of the power of Cornell Woolrich’s name on the front of pulp magazines of the time that it sold on first try.

But some of Woolrich’s mid-level work deserves attention, and “Kiss of the Cobra” falls solidly into his opus of “weird stories.” It explores the concept of “foreign other” with fantasy displays that hint at black magic, contains richly sensual prose, and has a liminal sense of a were-creature. The suspense and hard-boiled crime aspects are also well executed. Much greater work was to come, but with all its flaws (such as the standard pulp era’s Euro-centric view of India and a protagonist given to generic wise-crack dialogue) the story remains worth visiting for horror and suspense enthusiasts.

Read the rest at Black Gate. . . .