Cornell Woolrich's Mysterious Tales of Sorrow & Horror
commentary by Jessica Amanda Salmonson
Called "our poet of the shadows," Cornell Woolrich coined the catchy slogan, "First we dream, then we die" by which I, too, guide my life. His champion Professor Francis M. Nevins, Jr., who would have us regard Woolrich as the equal of Poe, is perhaps overstating a bit, but only a bit. He took pulpy themes & a pulpy style & transcended what should have been the limitations -- creating fables of disillusion & despair out of the lowest imaginable plot ideas & stock characters.
He was a miserable, lonesome, unhappy man. The pain in his tales may be stylish & bizarre, but the heart of it is sincere. He was the sort of guy if you cornered him at some literary gathering & said, "That story was great, I love everything you've done, but that one was even better, wow" he would get up & hobble away mumbling with paranoia, pain, apparently truly creeped out. Yet his dive hotel door was always open; the scum of the earth were welcome to walk in & he loved them. He was of them.
Beyond the Night (1959) is six supernatural tales, some previously uncollected, with "The Number's Up" original to this collection. Best is the doomfully romantic vampire tale "My Lips Destroy," but all are grand. Nightwebs (Harper, 1971; Gollancz, 1973) appends a good bibliography, including of his exceptional radio plays, as well as television & film adaptations of his novels & stories, & an excellent introduction by Nevins. "Life is Weird Sometimes" was previously unpublished, many others not previously collected.
Angels of Darkness (Mysterious Press, 1979) has an appreciative introduction by Harlan Ellison. Violence (Dodd Mead, 1958) includes previously uncollected stories. The gloomily titled The Dark Side of Love (Walker, 1964) gathers tales from his last period & was his last book published in his lifetime. Ten Faces of Cornell Woolrich (Simon & Schuster, 1965) was selected & introduced by Ellery Queen from previous collections.
A real ringer among his collections is Hotel Room (Random House, 1958). Often despairing (of course), mainly neither criminist nor supernatural, they are all set in a hotel over time, from when it was fashionable & elegant, to shortly before its demolition. It was inspired by the hotels he & his mother lived in over the years, & dedicated to the memory of his recently deceased mum. One I've not seen but seemingly of similar stripe is Children of the Ritz (Boni & Liveright, 1927) which I think contains tales of hotel life with perhaps some earlier autobiographical touches from brighter days.
Some of his stories appeared almost randomly under the Irish & Woolrich names, & there is no distinction as to type of tales, except he seemed to prefer Irish more often for short stories. Even the nonsupernatural mysteries are macabre & beautiful & strange, so it's silly to look only for the overtly weird ones. Look for such "William Irish" collections as these: The Blue Ribbon (Lippincott, 1949; Hutachinson, 1950) which is the same as Dilemma of the Dead Lady (Graphic Book, 1950) which however drops two stories. The Dancing Detective (Lippincott, 1946; Hutchinson, 1948; & Popular Library did the paperback) includes such moody pathetic tragedies as "Silent as the Grave." Dead Man Blues (Lippincott, 1948; Hutchinson, 1950) had a Mercury pb reissue with one less story. Somebody on the Phone (Lippincott, 1950; in the UK as The Night I Died) was reissued sans two stories as Deadly Night Call (Graphic Book, 1951).
I Wouldn't Be In Your Shoes (Lippincott, 1943; Hutchinson, 1946) as by William Irish, was also issued as And So To Death (Jonathan, 1944) & Nightmare (Reader's Choice Library, 1950, a title that confusingly appears on two distinct collections), though the reissues, including a Mercury paperback with the original title intact, all have fewer stories than the hardcover edition. The title story ("Shoes") is a macabre mystery for which no completely rational explanation is possible. After Dinner Story (Lippincott, 1944; Hutchinson, 1946) appeared in paperback as Six Times Death (Popular Library, 1948). Although this last has nothing supernatural, it does have some of his best gruesome tales, the least macabre being "Rear Window" which Hitchcock made famous. The same can be said of If I Should Die Before I Wake (Avon, 1945), & other William Irish collections not mentioned, as even without elements of the impossible, Woolrich wrote tales of macabre horror.
Since his death the "Irish" name was largely retired by publishers who reprint these startling horror-mysteries under Woolrich's own name. The Fantastic Stories Of Cornell Woolrich (Southern Illinois University Press, 1981) is all fantasies, with another Nevins introduction & memorable Afterwords by Barry Malzberg who gives a tragic portrait of this great writer. Greatly overlapping Beyond the Night this includes: "Kiss of the Cobra" (if you like old movies, this one will have you thinking of Maria Montez -- & you'll never mess around with a Hindu snake-worshipper no matter how gorgeous she is); "Dark Melody of Madness" (a voodoo yarn also known as "Papa Benjamin" & "Music From the Dark") about a curse in dismal haunts of New Orleans; "Somebody's Clothes, Somebody's Life" (a.k.a. "Somebody Else's Life" a tale of darkly twisted Destinies); "The Moon of Montezuma" (suspenseful ghostly horror in Mexico; the the old tv show Thriller did a decent version of it); "I'm Dangerous Tonight" (devil story); plus the occult "Speak to Me of Death," "Guns, Gentlemen" (a.k.a. "The Lamp of Memory" & "Twice-Trod Path") & science fictionish "Jane Brown's Body." Overall, a great book, although his non-fantasies are also so good that Woorich's is the rare case of it being too bad if you only have the fantasies.
Some of his longer works are also weird & most are gloomy enough to pass for weird. One of his greatest & I think last novellas was Death Is My Dancing Partner (Pyramid, 1959). It's about a dancer, Mari, from the temple of the Death-goddess Kali, who is wanted by a big-band leader for his song troupe. The only problem is Kali claims a human sacrifice for each of Mari's performances. I Married a Dead Man (Lippincott, 1948; Hutchinson, 1950) is a macabre mystery, not entirely rationalized, suggestively supernatural. Night Has A Thousand Eyes was published as by George Hopley in hardcover ( Farrar & Rinehart, 1945) but as Dell paperback as by William Irish (1953). It's the tale of a weird recluse with uncanny powers & foreknowledge of extraordinary death. The Doom Stone as by William Irish (Avon, 1960) is genre fantasy.
Some of his books are very rare & even the vintage paperbacks can run to $200. One nervy & notoriously pricey bookseller listed one of his dustwrappered first edition story collections for $1,250, at the time given in the Bloody Dagger price guide as worth $75 -- so one has to be a little careful, given that other of his key titles really can be valued just that highly (his 1942 acknowledged classic Phantom Lady for example). All his books are quite rightly in demand, so some booksellers will charge at least a finger & an ear. But if you'll settle for a beater-copy, there are so many of his titles floating around, you should be able to find several good items if you make it a habit to keep looking, & the novels at least have many later paperback editions to get you started cheaply.
copyright © 2000 by Jessica Amanda Salmonson, all rights reserved
Woolrich & similar authors are frequently to be found in
Vintage Detective Catalog
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