Roughly twenty years ago, the British publisher Orion released a series of reprints under the banner of Crime Masterworks which had something of a transformative effect on the books Younger Me started to look out for. Included in that selection was the short story collection Nightwebs (1971) by Cornell Woolrich.
Younger Jim, however, was still learning his trade, and Nightwebs struck him as…simply not good. Two decades later, I’m afraid I cannot remember a single instance or example of what Younger Jim failed to enjoy about the collection, but I came away from the book with the impression that Cornell Woolrich was an author to be avoided. In essence, this wasn’t a problem — I had started reading Agatha Christie, was about to discover Jim Thompson and John Dickson Carr, and reams of Golden Age detective fiction was just around the corner — and two decades of reading passed very happily without me feeling troubled in the least that Woolrich had failed to make the cut…it is not, after all, as if there was a dearth of alternatives.
And then, aided by recent reprints and some lucky finds, I have returned to Woolrich, motivated by a combination of curiosity and the belated realisation that he’d had something of a hand (well, a finger or two, perhaps) in the films of Alfred Hitchcock which had delighted me so in the late 1990s, and found the man’s writing simply sublime. The Bride Wore Black (1940), Phantom Lady (1942), and Waltz into Darkness (1947) are all five-star novels, and the short stories in Darkness at Dawn [ss] (1988) and others veritably ripple with both brilliant menace and immaculate construction. And so it’s back to Nightwebs in the hope of laying the ghost of the impressions it left on me, or perhaps simply trying to capture some memory of where the negative conception of Woolrich’s work it stirred in me came from.
In fairness to Two-Decades-Ago Me, the first section of this — four tales gathered under the heading The Claws of Night because, I suppose, they take art at least partially in the dark — isn’t the best way to break bread with Woolrich’s particular style of nightmare. In principle the themes are there — ordinary wo/man driven to the point of lunacy by events too large to comprehend and too nightmarish to imagine — but these domestic suspense stories don’t exactly capture Woolrich anywhere close to even second-best form. The nebulous conspiracy and secretive organisation of ‘Graves for the Living’ (1937), left unexplained until the final paragraph, doesn’t have about it the quotidian horror that makes the best of his suspense really hit home, and the “straitjacket of icy horror that was crushing the shape out of” Bud Ingram is too specific, too broad, too far-reaching to feel like something the man on the street will ever encounter.
Woolrich was a writer at his most comfortable in making your skin crawl with how damn possible it feels that you could be the one caught up in events — you can see why he and Hitchcock aligned so well — and ‘The Red Tide’ (1940) and ‘The Corpse Next Door’ (1937) at least strike closer to home…quite literally in their settings and husband-wife dynamics. In both cases financial hardship looms large, and in both cases steps are taken to secure some small (in the latter, tiny) piece of security, only for it to veer wildly off course and the threat to broaden into more desperate terms. ‘Corpse…’ is arguably the more successful, charting the spiralling state of mind of a killer all the way to its final line sting, since surely ‘Red Tide’ wasn’t surprising anyone and yet plays out like there’s an element of uncertainty and mystery about its vanishing wealthy guest and the man of the house suddenly finding himself in possession of a much-needed $2,500.
Some passages work brilliantly — in the first, Bud Ingram’s explanation for disinterring graves, or a night-time drive in ‘Red Tide’ that escalates to horror in the blink of an eye — but a poison unexplained by science or an occluded piece of clewing that allows for a happy ending don’t have about them the artistry of construction that would show up in his stronger works. There are lovely images herein, like the “grimy tenement room, suggestive of crime and violence”, a man knocked out “[going down] like a paper cut-out and lay[ing] just as flat as one”, the distillation of the effect of murder on a guilty mind (“…shelves under his eyes you could have stacked books on…”), but somehow the parts never quite come together to make a whole.
Most egregious of the lot is ‘You’ll Never See Me Again’ (1939) in which an argument in a new marriage sees the wife storm out and apparently vanish into thin air. Believe it or not, the writing here is so flat as to be almost unbearable, divested of any urgency — 70 pages is far too long for how little actually happens — and reading far closer to an unsuccessful Woolrichian pastiche that has failed to grasp what makes the man’s horror so wonderful. He’s again at his best in moments of almost inconsequential observation, like the storekeeper who “seemed to be one of those people who wore glasses for the express purpose of staring over instead of through them”, and there’s a fittingly Edgar Allan Poe-esque conceit at the heart of this, but it’s not the compelling mastery he’s displayed elsewhere.
So far, then, Past Me might have had a point.
Those four stories, representing a third of the tales collected herein, take up half the pages, and so things speed up a little from this point on. The second section — Death and the City — is arguably concerned with the notion of identity, and whether, when lost in the morass of humanity that a large city represents, it is easier to lose yourself and become something you might have never suspected or to cling firm to ineradicable principles in the light of the city’s indifference. The killer in ‘Murder at the Automat’ (1937) is clearly already lost — enjoying “the feeling of power over their fellow human beings” that marks out a mind wiling to kill and kill again in order to achieve basic ends — whereas Detective Stephen ‘Step’ Lively of ‘Death in the Air’ (1936) is a man content to be himself and cling to that identity despite the clear insistence of the people around him that he change.
The oddly gentle and homely ‘Mamie ‘n’ Me’ (1938) finds our milkman protagonist fundamentally unaltered by the events he finds himself party to, solving a crime that has the city in uproar and, when the thanks of a grateful police department are offered to him, pointing out that he still has a milk round to complete and expecting simply to go about his life as before. There’s something reassuring about these last two stories, with the essential belief that decent people exist and retain that decency in the face of whatever unpleasantness or difficulties the nebulous, increasingly Noir-soaked city throws at them. You might go into Woolrich expecting the man’s writing to be that of a nihilist, but the frequent — though by no means guaranteed — positive conclusions to his tales might argue against that. ‘Automat’ and ‘Red Tide’ exist at the end of a spectrum that betides woe for the people involved, but we’re allowed positivity more often than not…even if that’s only because those sorts of stories sold better.
Between the two we have Lew Stahl of ‘Dusk to Dawn’ (1937) who breaks the law for the first time in his life, then the second soon thereafter, and quickly finds himself caught in one of Woolrich’s escalating nightmares…except he finds himself enjoying it.
Death had become familiar. At seven it had been the most mysterious thing in the world to him, by midnight it was already an old story.
And yet, still Lew vacillates, and as he learns more of the night of terror he seeks to bring down upon the city, his realisation that he might not have become something he thought he wanted to be is greeted with a sort of relief, the desperate release of tension and a final-line fervent prayer that he hasn’t gone too far, that he can still find and recognise himself despite what he’s (almost…) been through.
Amidst all this, Woolrich will break your heart with a lightbulb, etch in details with a staggering clarity given the sheer amount of detail you’re not given, and begin to demonstrate the high praise the cover pours on him that perhaps struggled to find its footing in the first four stories. The overly mannered, deliberate pacing of ‘Death in the Air’ undoubtedly strained the patience of Young Jim, but I love the way his character comes to life through the deliberate narrative structure Woolrich pursues — it is, for want of a less loaded word, really rather brave. The event-packed ‘Automat’ and ‘Dusk’ more than make up for it, too, and if you’re not charmed by ‘Mamie’ — the story or the eponymous horse — then there’s probably no helping you.
Third and final section The Butchers and the Trapped is composed of more traditional detective stories, in which a crime is committed and a usually jaded cop always seemingly on the edge of violence — and sometimes not merely on the edge of it — cynically goes about finding the culprit(s). But these stories are also about the effect of crime on the criminal — not just the “blind, unreasoning fear of the law, that claustrophobia, that the young, the poorly educated, are always more susceptible to than others”, but how the commission of a murder, or, in the case of ‘Dead on Her Feet’ (1935) proximity to it, can push the mind beyond its expected endurance. For all his excellent exploration of overwhelming helplessness with many of his protagonists, Woolrich has a way of making you understand the effects even when much of that pressure is applied off the page.
For all the savagery of his detectives, a common theme throughout this collection, Woolrich’s policemen are fundamentally decent, honest, and intelligent men: Al Traynor putting together the psychological and physical clues, and enduring one of the tensest set-pieces in this collection, in ‘The Screaming Laugh’ (1938) on his way to making sense of a dead body of a known curmudgeon whose face is fixed in a rictus of pure merriment; the circumstantial case of ‘One and a Half Murders’ (1936) comes apart under the retrieval by the detective of physical evidence overlooked by the coroner; the borderline impossible stabbing at a dance marathon of ‘Dead on Her Feet’ equally comes down to an astute observation (or a staggering oversight, depending on how you view it) even if the motive there seems a little off to my way of thinking.
And when the malefactors are confronted, the aspect of horror that comes with murder explodes beautifully: one man driven out of his mind and wracked with maniacal laughter in the final line, one killer unable to think of the noises made by their victim without revulsion welling up inside of them, another driven to suicide. And, saving the best ’til last, Kendall Freshman gets to experience how murder is both the damnation and salvation of band-leader Maxwell ‘Maxi’ Jones in ‘One Night in Barcelona’ (1947) — the horror awaiting Jones far greater than almost anything else in this collection, the echoes of which resonate wonderfully through that story’s taut understatment.
And yet, for all this dolorous consideration of the follies of the human condition, Woolrich invests a lightness that doesn’t seem possible in the abyss, even craking an actual joke when confronted with closing down that aforementioned dance marathon:
“[G]o over there and tell Joe Pasternack I’ll give him until tomorrow morning to fold up his contest and send his entries home. And tell him for me he can shove all his big and little silver loving-cups—”
For the first time his audience looked interested, even expectant, as they waited to hear what it was Mr. P. could do with his loving-cups, hoping for the best.
“—back in their packing-cases,” concluded the chief chastely, if somewhat disappointingly.
And so, what of Nightwebs? The standard here is variable, almost getting stronger as it goes, and I can understand how Twenty Years Ago Jim might have read these, then seen the praise poured on Woolrich on the covers (‘Possibly the finest mystery writer of the twentieth century’ – The Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection) and found the contents wanting. Even now, as someone pretty sure he’s ready to be called a fan of Woolrich’s writing, I’d recommend the Darkness at Dawn collection over this, and I can believe that, if encountering this for the first time two decades later, I would again have reservations about pursuing him further. So, well, if nothing else I have layed one ghost — the verdict of Immature Jim (well, Less-Mature Jim) is entirely understandable, and I’ve made peace with what I’d recently been assuming was his poor judgement. If only all reconciling the past was this easy, eh?
You want a top five? Here are the top five:
- ‘One Night in Barcelona’ (1947)
- ‘Murder at the Automat’ (1937)
- ‘Dusk to Dawn’ (1937)
- ‘The Corpse Next Door’ (1937)
- ‘One and a Half Murders’ (1935)
More Woolrich soon, I have no doubt. When the gloom is this beautiful, you don’t exactly want to not look at it, y’know?
Cornell Woolrich on The Invisible Event
Short story collections: