Cornell Woolrich, renowned for his spine-chilling writing, will be remembered on December 5, 2003 at the Mercantile Library in New York City. This memorable celebration would be fitting for him, though if he was alive and well, he wouldn’t have attended.
Cornell’s mother, Claire Attalie Tarler, was the daughter of a Russian Jewish emigre who had achieved a large fortune through import trading.
His father, Genaro Hopley-Woolrich, was of Canadian and Mexican descent and was known for his attractiveness. Carlos Burlingham, Genaro’s half-nephew, described him as a handsome man with deep blue eyes, but hardly ever seen smiling.
In 1901 or 1902, Genaro married Claire and had their only child, Cornell, three years later. They moved to Mexico in 1907, although their marriage didn’t last. Claire returned to the Tarler household in New York, while Cornell stayed with Genaro.
He experienced multiple interruptions in his education due to the frequent revolutions occurring in their town. To occupy his free time, he would collect the spent rifle cartridges on the streets outside his window.
When Tarler’s Grandfather took him to Mexico City’s Palace of Fine Arts when he was eight, the boy had a sudden understanding of color, drama, and tragedy from observing the performance of Puccini’s then-new opera Madama Butterfly.
Three years later, as he gazed up at the stars from Anahuac Valley, he was made aware of his own mortality.
This experience left him in a state of feeling trapped, like “some sort of a poor insect that you’ve put inside a downturned glass, and it tries to climb up the sides, and it can’t, and it can’t, and it can’t.”
In his teenage years he relocated to New York City and resided with his mom, grandfather and aunt in the house of George Tarler on West 113th Street.
In 1921, he registered at Columbia College, which was a short distance from his home, majoring in journalism but having a dream of a more romantic job, such as being a writer or a professional dancer.
During his junior year, when he was either suffering from an infected foot or jaundice (his accounts of the incident disagree), he started to write the first draft of a book. When it was eventually sold a few months later, he left Columbia to pursue his dream of fame.
Furthermore, many aspects from Woolrich’s later works and life can be seen in this initial attempt.
For example, the fascination with movie theaters and dance halls, the employment of popular music lyrics to set the mood, the vivid description, the inclusion of a scene in Mexico City with a performance of Madama Butterfly, a love affair between Alan Walker, the main character, and two older women, and a number of coincidences to propel the story.
The story concludes with Alan in a shabby hotel room, disabled after a car crash, abandoned by the women he loved and ready to take his own life, with the words: “I hate this world. Everything comes into it so clean and goes out so dirty.”
In 1927, Woolrich presented Children of the Ritz, a flamboyant story about a wealthy young woman who takes a sudden risk and ties the knot with her driver.
This book was successful enough to gain a $10,000 award in a competition hosted by College Humor magazine, which featured it in serialized form, and First National Pictures, which later made a film adaptation in 1929.
Woolrich was invited to Hollywood to assist with the transition and remained as a writer but never got any on-screen recognition. Interestingly, one of the dialogue and title writers at First National during this period was called William Irish.
Woolrich was a busy young man, writing novels, movie scripts and stories for magazines such as Collegehumor, College Life, McClure’s and Smart Set.
By the time of his third book, Times Square (1929), his writing style had evolved to include a more fast-paced storytelling technique and a focus on the emotional turmoil and intensity of love, which were hallmarks of his suspense fiction.
His semi-autobiographical novel A Young Man’s Heart (1930) tells the story of a young boy and the breakdown of his parents’ marriage, with the first half being set in Mexico circa 1910.
In December 1930, Woolrich tied the knot with twenty-year-old Gloria Blackton, the daughter of movie mogul J. Stuart Blackton, who founded Vitagraph Studios in 1897.
This union was never consummated, as a diary that Gloria eventually found and read, but later gave back to Woolrich (who destroyed it), demonstrated that he had been a homosexual for some period of time before the marriage, which he entered as a joke or for protection.
At night, Woolrich would don a sailor uniform he kept in a locked suitcase and wander the docks searching for partners. He eventually ended the marriage and moved back to New York to be with his mother.
Woolrich later mentioned in his autobiography that he “was born to be solitary” and preferred it that way. However, his novels and stories are filled with the shadows of his desire for a woman who never existed and never could exist.
Following the end of his marital union, Woolrich and his mom roamed all over Europe. His 6th novel, Manhattan Love Song (1932), is the most outstanding of his youthful writings and the only one that, if it were printed later, would be labeled a crime novel. The story launches with a classic Woolrich scene.
At first, I noticed her among a crowd of moving figures, and then I realized it was a girl. She was dressed in a way that made her stand out, and the gaze she gave me asked the question, “Are you lonely?” Her slight smile seemed to say, “If so, then talk to me.”
By this time we were almost passing one another and our eyes met, creating a spark between us.
Wade, the narrator, finds himself under the control of his strong passion for the mysterious Bernice.
He abandons his job, attacks and steals from a gay actor to get money for her, and neglects his wife Maxine who still loves him a lot.
Bernice, in some mysterious way, is dictated by the powers of the city, yet she is so responsive to Wade’s intense adoration of her that she is ready to risk any consequences to start a new life with him.
However, as is often the case in Woolrich’s stories, love leads to horror and those who survive are left with nothing but to wait for a peaceful death.
For two years, Woolrich did not sell much. He had relocated from West 113th Street, moving into an inexpensive hotel, wanting to become a writer and not depending on his mother’s assistance.
Unfortunately, he was soon in debt and had to enter movie theaters through the back door to be entertained.
He was desperate to finish and publish a novel, I Love You, Paris, which he had started two years prior and was hoping to get enough money from a Hollywood studio to be able to lift himself out of the Depression.
Unfortunately, no one wanted the novel and he eventually threw away the whole manuscript. However, this was the beginning of a brand new life as a writer, one that he later said would have been better if all his pre-suspense fiction had been written in “invisible ink” and the reagent to reveal it had been discarded.
He was about to become the Poet of the 20th century and the master of its shadows.
In the waiting room, another person was ahead of me. He was seated in complete silence, humbly, bearing with all the resignation of those in poverty.
Woolrich’s first story of crime, “Death Sits in the Dentist’s Chair” (published in Detective Fiction Weekly on 4 August 1934), portrays a vivid image of New York City in the depths of the Depression, a strange way of killing (cyanide in a temporary filling), and a rush against time to save the poisoned protagonist–all of which soon became Woolrich’s signature.
In 1985’s Darkness at Dawn, which I edited, Woolrich’s next dozen tales (including his debut) featured the invasion of nightmare into reality, a Hollywood film-making context, female first-person narration, casual police violence, intuition presented as logic, dread among jazz musicians, Manhattan landmarks as settings, inexplicable evil forces that prey on mankind, suspenseful scenes, rapid physical action, and the James M.
Cain theme of a person wrongly accused of a murder they didn’t commit but still convicted for one they did–all of which were hints of motifs, beliefs, and techniques that would become prevalent in Woolrich’s later works.
From 1936 to 1939, Woolrich published 105 stories as well as two book-length magazine serials.
He was published in a diverse range of mystery pulps, from high-end magazines like Black Mask and Detective Fiction Weekly to cheaper ones like Thrilling Mystery and Black Book Detective, and even in White Burnett’s literary magazine Story.
His stories of this period, which include historical adventures, comedic pieces, and even detective stories, vary in quality, but often contain his signature mood, tone, and themes. An examination of twelve of his best stories from this period gives a clear picture of his evolution.
A hallmark of Woolrich’s writing is the oscillation thriller, which typically involves two characters with a strong relationship facing a crime and circumstantial evidence that leads one to suspect the other.
An example is “The Night Reveals” (Story, April 1936), where insurance investigator Harry Jordan tails his wife, Marie, in the pre-dawn hours and starts to fear she has become a pyromaniac.
However, the resolution of the story may not always be known. Woolrich offers no set characters or guidelines, so the suspense is genuine and the reader is left with the same uncertainty as the characters in the story.
Woolrich is renowned for their nail-biting thrillers with a ticking clock and the threat of mortality.
“Johnny on the Spot ” (published in Detective Fiction Weekly, May 2nd 1936) transports the reader to the shadowy corners of New York City at night. Johnny Donovan, knowing too much and striving to leave the mob, is trapped inside an all-night cafeteria with no way out.
As Jean, his eighteen-year-old wife, enters the eatery for a clandestine meeting, she recognizes the hired killers and realizes her husband is in danger.
The rest of the story follows Jean, as she desperately endeavors to abduct the head of the mob’s spouse and use her as leverage, or even murder her if it is too late to save Johnny.
Woolrich’s “You Pays Your Nickel” (published in Argosy , 22 August 1936) is among his most thrilling works. Delaney, a subway guard, is usually bored in his job until one morning when a homicidal maniac takes over the train he’s in.
Delaney finds himself in a nerve-wracking confrontation as the train, with hundreds of screaming commuters and a bag of stolen money, races out of control through the tunnels.
This powerful action story, often reprinted as “Subway,” is so intensely written that you will feel completely trapped in the middle of the chaos until Woolrich has finished his story.
In Woolrich’s “The Corpse Next Door” (published in Detective Fiction Weekly in January 1937), the protagonist’s guilt-ridden conscience is explored in a manner similar to Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.”
The story follows an anonymous, impoverished individual living through the despair of the Great Depression, who becomes increasingly outraged when their milk is stolen from their apartment doorway each morning.
The main character employs a trap to catch the thief and, in a fit of rage, kills the man and conceals his corpse in the Murphy bed of the empty apartment next door. This is a tale of an individual slowly being driven to the brink of insanity.
In “Murder at the Automat” (from the August 1937 Dime Detective ), detective Nelson is faced with the puzzle of Leo Avram’s death.
The old penny-pincher had a habit of visiting the Automat every evening for a cup of coffee and a bologna sandwich, until the fateful night when the sandwich behind the coin slot proved to be poisoned with cyanide.
Woolrich vividly captures the Automat and the unsavory nocturnal characters that it attracts. When the police officers are stumped on how the poison was administered, they threaten to frame the main suspect. The reader is given a satisfying resolution by the end of the story.
In “Goodbye, New York” ( Story, October 1937), a young woman recounts her and her husband’s attempts to evade the police, after he killed his corrupt ex-boss and stole enough money to allow them to leave Manhattan.
This exciting, passionate story follows their desperate race to flee the city. The woman’s description of their journey is poignant: “Two doomed things, running away. From nothingness, into nothingness…
Turn back we dare not, stand still they wouldn’t let us, and to go forward was destruction at our own hands.” This captures the essence of life in the world of Woolrich.
In Woolrich’s “Dusk to Dawn” (published in Black Mask in December 1937), we follow the story of Lew Stahl, a jobless and penniless character who sneaks into a New York movie palace without a ticket.
Attempting to take a dollar from a sleeping man to buy a meal, Stahl instead discovers the man has been murdered with a knife in his back. A woman in the dark theater believes she sees him wield the knife and runs for the police.
Stalked and desperate, he steals a gun and his fate is sealed. Richard Wright, known for reading countless pulp detective magazines in the late thirties, was said to be greatly influenced by Woolrich’s tales.
His first novel, Native Son (1940), follows the story of Bigger Thomas, a young black fugitive wrongly accused of murder, as he flees through a Woolrich-like nightscape made even more dangerous by his race.
In Woolrich’s short story “Dime a Dance”, featured in Black Mask (February 1938), a female first-person narrator plays the role of bait to ensnare a crazed murderer of women.
Taxi Dancer Ginger Allen is taken away from her job one night by detective Nick Ballestier, and informed that her only acquaintance among the dancers had been strangled and then stabbed multiple times by a serial killer who “danced” with the dead bodies to the piece “Poor Butterfly” (from Puccini’s opera).
A month later, an unusual customer appears at Joyland and invites Ginger to dance. The conclusion is a classic example of suspense.
In the tale, “I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes” ( Detective Fiction Weekly , 12 March 1938), Woolrich masterfully portrays the struggles of Tom Quinn, a man who works for a meager salary while having to contend with the fear of losing his job.
One sweltering August evening, Quinn hurls a pair of his shoes at a couple of cats yowling on the back fence. This insignificant act of frustration eventually leads to his arrest and a death sentence for the murder of an elderly miser living a few blocks away.
As the story unfolds, Detective Bob White encounters Quinn’s wife, Ann, and the two start a race against time to find the true murderer.
The man they suspect of the crime, however, declares his innocence, leaving the protagonists with no clue as to who is the real culprit. In the end, both Quinn and the man are left in shambles.
Life, Woolrich implies, is a cruel trap which no one can escape. So, to all those born into it, he warns: “I wouldn’t be in your shoes, buddy,” fully aware that he is in the same plight.
Striker, the house detective in a New York hotel, is unable to believe the three mysterious deaths of men who checked into Room 913 were simply suicides. His obsession to prove it was something else leads him to a period of psychosis.
To further his investigation, he sets up a Bowery derelict as bait in Room 913, resulting in the man’s death. Striker then takes a jobless break and alters his appearance, so that he can check into 913 and confront the specter which is a symbol of the world’s malevolence and death.
Paul Stapp, the owner of a small clock-and-watch-repair shop, is the protagonist of “Three O’Clock” ( Detective Fiction Weekly , 1 October 1938).
After enduring an unexplained concussion, he has grown to believe that his wife, Fran, has a lover in their house while he is away at work.
Rather than confronting her, he decides to blow the house up with a bomb he has been surreptitiously gathering the materials for in the basement.
On the day he chooses to set the bomb for three o’clock, two burglars break into his home, rendering him unconscious and binding him to a pipe in the basement.
For the ninety minutes leading up to the detonation, Woolrich captures Stapp’s agonizing paralysis, as he is unable to do anything but watch the clock hands slowly move towards three.
This intense, quintessential Woolrich story is so fraught with suspense and anguish that it is almost unbearable to read.
In “Men Must Die” (also known as “Guillotine”), set in France, the alternating scenes between the present and the past, centered around Robert Lamont, a condemned murderer, and his lover Babette, build up the tension in this classic tale.
Lamont hopes he won’t have to die for his crime, and Babette seeks to meet the headsman – an old loner, the only one in the country with a license to kill – in the hopes that she can slip him poison and invoke the national tradition (invented by Woolrich) that when the executioner dies, the next person to be guillotined receives a pardon.
The objective, detached narration gives us no clues as to who we should wish dead, and as Lamont is brought closer to the scaffold, and the old man journeys across Paris with the guillotine blade, the tension builds to an unbearable level.
One wonders who could have created these dark tales? Steve Fisher, a pulp fiction writer who lived contemporaneously with Woolrich, offers a physical description in his 1941 novel I Wake Up Screaming.
He described Woolrich as having red hair, thin white skin, red eyebrows, blue eyes, and looking ill. He was thin, pale, and bitter, with a nasal voice. His clothes never seemed to fit properly. It’s possible that he had tuberculosis.
He was a painfully introverted man who lived in hotels with his mother and rarely went out, and his characters’ pain reflected his own. This is the essence of Woolrich.
In 1940, pulp detective writers shifted from lurid-covered magazines to hardcover books, and Woolrich was part of this migration.
His first crime novel The Bride Wore Black (1940) follows a woman called Julie, who enters the lives of various men and kills them for unknown reasons until the climax. The novel is divided into five episodes, each built around a three-step process.
The first chapter introduces Julie, in a different identity every time, as she sets the trap for her target in each case. The next part portrays the execution of her plan, with each victim ensnared by their idea of the perfect woman.
Finally, the last few pages are about a nameless homicide cop who is tracking Julie through the years.
The original story in Woolrich’s black series was The Black Curtain (1941). In this work, Frank Townsend regains his memory after a three year absence and is determined to uncover his identity during that period of time. He discovers love, hatred, and a murder accusation on the other side of the curtain.
Black Alibi (1942) is a terror-filled novel about a jaguar causing trouble in a South American city while one individual is attempting to find a human murderer who could be behind the beast’s actions.
Woolrich, known for his themes of loneliness and unhappiness, diverts his attention to just suspense in this book, creating a story with a sense of danger on every page.
In The Black Angel (1943), a terrified young wife is in a frantic rush to prove her husband’s innocence in the murder of his girlfriend. Similar to Julie in Bride, she interacts with several potential culprits, yet ends up causing their destruction and her own.
Woolrich, writing in the first-person perspective of the wife, allows readers to grasp her love, fear, desperation and increasing madness as she endeavors to save her husband from certain death.
In The Black Path of Fear (1944), a man is forced to flee to Havana with the wife of an American gangster. Unfortunately, the vengeful husband kills the woman and falsely accuses the lover of the crime, leaving him alone and hunted in an unfamiliar place.
The opening chapters of the novel vividly portray the emotions of love found and love lost, as well as the stark experience of being alone and pursued in a city filled with fear.
This exemplifies Woolrich’s justification of being titled the “Hitchcock of the written word”.
Johnny Marr in Rendezvous in Black (1948) is driven by grief to avenge his fiancee’s death by targeting those he holds responsible.
He seeks out the people in the group and kills the ones they love most, so that the murderer of his beloved will understand the pain he feels.
This text contains all the features of The Bride Wore Black, but with a more satisfactory structure that begins by explaining the serial murders, and features a real noir cop tracking the killer instead of a mere bystander.
The balance between fate and destiny is also carefully managed, providing plenty of suspense and heart-wrenching anguish. Although Woolrich’s writing has its usual flaws in terms of continuity, it still stands as a masterpiece on an emotional level.
Two of Woolrich’s most compelling stories from the 1940s are “All at Once, No Alice” (published in Argosy , 22 March 1940) and “Finger of Doom” (published in Detective Fiction Weekly , 22 June 1940).
Both tales feature the same premise: a man discovers the woman of his dreams, only for her to suddenly disappear without a trace. Everyone denies that she ever existed, and the police are unable to find any evidence that she was real.
Everyone except one detective, who is willing to believe the protagonist’s story. Furthermore, “C-Jag” (published in Black Mask , October 1940) and “And So to Death” (published in Argosy , 1 March 1941) – known as “Cocaine” and “Nightmare” in their reprints – are noir classics that follow a similar plot.
The protagonist awakens from a blackout to find a tangible remnant of a terrible experience he can’t remember, and turns to a brother-in-law who is a cop for help. But this cop is just as likely to incriminate the protagonist as to help him. Together, they attempt to uncover the truth.
In the 1940s, entrepreneurs of dramatic radio found that many Woolrich stories were suitable for audio adaptations and started acquiring the rights to turn them into radio shows such as Suspense and Molle Mystery Theatre.
The 30-minute version of The Black Curtain (which was possibly scripted by Woolrich himself) performed on Suspense in December 1943, with Cary Grant as the lead, was one of the best radio plays ever composed.
“I have been trying to put everything behind me, to keep living just as I did before all of this happened three years ago…I don’t want to find out anything anymore. I just want it all to go away and be quiet.
Except Ruth. Since there was love and I was loved, behind that black curtain! It was a kind of love I’ll never encounter again.”In order to publish more novels, Woolrich had to come up with a pseudonym: William Irish.
It is unknown whether this was in remembrance of an obscure First National title writer from the twenties or not. Phantom Lady (1942) was the first novel published under the Irish byline.
The story follows Scott Henderson, who quarrels with his wife, meets a woman in a bar, and returns home to find his wife dead and himself accused of murder. He is sentenced to die and his loved one and best friend race against time to find the woman who was with him.
The plot is intricate and the ending not completely realistic, yet the emotional distress and anticipation are unforgettable.
Deadline at Dawn (1944) is set in the grim, urban landscape of New York City for a single night, as a couple desperately try to exonerate themselves from a murder accusation before the sunrise.
The story line is unstructured, featuring various characters and events that are not associated with the main plot.
Despite this, the suspense remains high due to the cross cutting between Quinn’s and Bricky’s searches in the dark streets, and the dual quest is accentuated with the darkest of noir elements.
Woolrich is able to evoke a sense of sorrow and helplessness among the people of New York at night, unparalleled in the genre.
Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1945) – published under the name George Hopley (Woolrich’s middle names) – is the novel of his that is most dominated by death and fate.
A simple-minded recluse with mysterious abilities predicts that millionaire Harlan Reid will die in three weeks, precisely at midnight, by a lion’s jaws.
The daughter of the doomed man and a compassionate policeman attempt to evade this destiny they think was created by a human being, and the tension rises to an unbearable level. Woolrich makes us experience the emotional distress of this surreal nightmare until we feel a chill go down our spines.
William Irish’s Waltz into Darkness (1947), set in New Orleans around 1880, is a story of a man facing the loneliness of life. Louis Durand desperately searches for love “from anywhere, on any terms” and finds it in the form of the la femme fatale, an unnamed woman.
He loves her to the point that he is willing to do anything for her, including cheating, killing and enduring torture or death. Woolrich describes her in religious and maternal language, making her a sort of God the Mother.
Louis is trapped in her and the reader is trapped in his skin. Despite its seriousness, the book can be seen as ludicrous when looked at with reason, but no one can read Woolrich and stay reasonable.
In I Married a Dead Man (1948), a woman with no hope and who is running away from an oppressive marriage is involved in a train wreck.
She awakens in a hospital bed surrounded by opulence, discovering that she has been mistaken for another woman – one with much to live for who perished in the accident. Helen sees this as an opportunity to start anew and even finds love once again.
However, her new life is a blessing from a wicked deity in the Woolrich world. When the story culminates, the protagonist and the reader are faced with two inconceivable options, either of which will destroy innocent beings.
Woolrich’s last major novel is one of his most impressive and melancholic works, with the protagonist musing, “I don’t know what the game was…. I only know we must have played it wrong, somewhere along the way…. We’ve lost. That’s all I know. We’ve lost. And now the game is through.”
The popularity of his novels caused the release of numerous collections of his shorter pieces in both hardcover and paperback editions, which are quite uncommon now.
During the 1940s, Woolrich’s stories were prominently featured in the abundant anthologies of short mystery fiction that were released. Additionally, 15 movies were made from his works between 1942 and 1950.
His impact on the culture of the 1940s was so profound that many film noir films during that time period appear to be based on his stories, despite him having no involvement in them.
After 1948, Woolrich wrote very little, seemingly due to the death of his far-off father and the prolonged illnesses of his mother, which stifled his writing.
In the 1950s, he was only remembered because of Ellery Queen (Frederic Dannay) who reprinted some of his pulp tales in his magazine, and Alfred Hitchcock, who based Rear Window (1954) on a Woolrich story.
His magazine work was used in television series such as Mirror Theater, Ford Theater, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and Schlitz Playhouse of Stars which frequently aired thirty-minute films based on his stories.
Even the esteemed Playhouse 90 used Woolrich’s work, presenting a ninety-minute version of Rendezvous in Black (CBS, 25 October 1956) starring Franchot Tone, Laraine Day, and Boris Karloff.
The most noteworthy adaptation of Woolrich in any form is Hitchcock’s sixty-minute version of “Three O’Clock,” starring E. G. Marshall and broadcast on the series Suspicion (NBC, 30 September 1957) as Four O ‘Clock.
This film is a perfect combination of Hitchcock and Woolrich, and is arguably the most suspenseful film Hitchcock ever directed.
Woolrich’s circumstances were dire, and he often resorted to submitting slightly modified older stories as new ones, duping publishers and readers.
Shortly after his mother’s death in 1957, Hotel Room (1958) was published, a compilation of tales set in a single room of a New York City hotel that had gone from fashionable grandeur to demolition.
It was a combination of the rundown residential hotels that Woolrich and his mother had lived in, and the stories mark the beginning of his decline.
Yet, he could still occasionally produce powerful pieces, such as “The Penny-a-Worder” ( Ellery Queen ‘s Mystery Magazine, September 1958), a humorous tale of a 1930s pulp mystery author who needs to write a novelette quickly, and “The Number’s Up” (in Beyond the Night , 1959), a bitter story of gangland executioners erroneously targeting an innocent couple.
Woolrich was diabetic, an alcoholic, and full of self-loathing, and he frequently attended parties with a bottle of cheap wine in a bag.
If someone tried to tell him how much they appreciated his work, he would grumble, “You don’t mean that” and move away.
In 1965, he moved into a bare suite of rooms at the Sheraton Russell, Park Avenue and 37th Street, and slowly died. He wrote a bit, but left more unfinished than he finished; yet, publishers still put out collections of his stories.
The last one before his death was The Dark Side of Love (1965), which joined eight of his “tales of love and despair,” including the dark classic “Too Nice a Day to Die.”
In it, a sorrowful woman is on the brink of ending her life when the phone rings with a wrong number asking for Schultz’s Delicatessen.
The absurdity gives her the motivation to live one more day, and as she’s crossing the street, she meets a man that appears to be her perfect match. Before they can make it back to her place, she is hit by a car and dies. Woolrich’s vision of the world was rarely explored so aptly.
In 1967, his gradual journey to the end of his life began to speed up. He developed gangrene in his leg, but did not visit a doctor until January of 1968, when his leg had to be amputated above the knee.
He returned to the Sheraton Russell Hotel with a prosthetic leg, which he never learned to walk with, and spent his last few months of life confined to a wheelchair, similar to the protagonist in his 1926 novel Cover Charge.
However, some of his later stories still possess the same power to make people shudder, and his last two suspenseful tales are some of his best. “For the Rest of Her Life” ( Ellery Queen ‘s Mystery Magazine, May 1968) follows a young woman who discovers that her husband is a cruel abuser of women.
She meets another man and reveals the truth to him, and together they make a plan to escape.
Every step they take only leads them further and further into danger, and Woolrich continues to add tension until it feels like we’re telling them to change their route before it’s too late.
Yet, this path of destruction was already predetermined, and Linda and Garry are mere victims of a fate that has occurred countless times in Woolrich’s works.
By the late sixties, Woolrich had achieved both wealth and critical acclaim not only in America, but also in Europe, where Francois Truffaut had made two films based on his work. However, his physical and emotional health had not improved.
He passed away due to a stroke in 1968, leaving behind two unfinished novels ( Into the Night and The Loser ), an autobiography ( Blues of a Lifetime ), a collection of short stories ( I Was Waiting for You ), and a series of titles for stories he had yet to start, one of which summed up his dark outlook: First You Dream, Then You Die.
His funeral was attended by few, and he left no survivors. His estate was bequeathed to Columbia University to create a scholarship fund for creative writing students, named after his mother.
Woolrich’s crime fiction progresses from pulp to noir as the stories progress. In the earlier works, there is a focus on pulp elements like macho protagonists, outlandish murder techniques, gangs of criminal stereotypes, and rapid dialogue full of insults.
But even in the beginning, there are some aspects of noir and as the stories develop, the noir elements become more prominent.
In Woolrich’s work, the world is an impenetrable place and his characters are often left to the whims of fate and a malicious God.
Everyday life is equally daunting and his stories often take place during the Great Depression, depicting a man and his family struggling to make ends meet in a rundown apartment.
There’s a pervasive fear of the police, a force composed of both good and bad, and the stories take place in the darkness of night, with dread exuding from every corner.
Woolrich had a knack for spinning tales that fit his outlook on life. He was able to craft stories involving noir cops, time-sensitive thrillers, waking nightmares, and more.
His excellent use of suspense, similar to his spiritual brother Hitchcock, was due to his skillful writing and vivid imagery. He was able to make the reader feel as if they were part of the story, living and dying alongside the protagonists.
In his best work, all the details, even the chapter headings, were used to achieve this. For example, in Phantom Lady, the chapter headings counted down to the execution of an innocent man. In Deadline at Dawn, the chapter headings were clock faces to emphasize the looming sunrise.
Suspense relies upon being uncertain. Even if the situation is extremely disconcerting, true suspense is not achievable when the outcome is already known (such as when Woolrich used recurring characters).
This explains why, despite his inherent pessimism, Woolrich managed to often engineer a favorable conclusion. As we can never ascertain ahead of time if a particular novel or tale will be cheerful or dark, his writing continues to be profoundly suspenseful.
In Woolrich’s stories, the protagonist is often someone experiencing a living nightmare. However, this does not always mean that the reader is fully aligned with them.
In fact, there are occasions when Woolrich’s writing causes the reader to separate themselves from the person at the center of the story, denying them the chance to completely identify with them.
Furthermore, even his tales featuring police officers are full of acts of sadism that are rarely punished and the absence of moral outrage leaves the reader feeling uncomfortable.
This type of writing reflects Woolrich’s own internal struggles and, as a result, the stories evoke divided responses from the reader that mirror his own conflicted feelings.
When it comes to love, Woolrich often elicits mixed reactions. He typically empathizes with those who lack love, seek it, or have lost it.
His own experiences of life without love contribute to the emotion he brings to his works, wherein he creates a vivid picture of both the positive and negative aspects of love.
An iconic example of this is found in Phantom Lady, where the morgue attendants carry out the body of Scott Henderson’s wife and a whispery little sachet escapes the room, asking: “Remember? Remember when I was your love? Remember?”
But some of Woolrich’s most famous works feature characters–Julie in The Bride Wore Black, Alberta in The Black Angel , Johnny Marr in Rendezvous in Black –who go to extreme lengths to preserve or avenge the one they love, ultimately causing destruction to themselves and others.
With Woolrich, we are united to his characters in moments of despair. In “Three O’Clock,” the tension is heightened to a fever pitch as the bomb ticks closer to the fateful three o’clock–a time evocative of the crucifixion of Jesus.
Similarly, in “Three Kills for One,” Gates is met with a cold steel hood as the electrocution begins, and he utters a final, unheard plea of love for Helen, a character who never appears in the story. In these moments, Woolrich shows us that even in the face of death, love can be a source of absolution.
Woolrich’s literary works reflect the chaotic nature of his world, with plots featuring improbable coincidences and irrational developments.
Nonetheless, in his most powerful works, these elements serve to integrate contradiction and absurdity into his narrative. Similarly, his style is often undisciplined and frenzied, with sentences that lack structure.
However, these features are necessary to accurately reflect the doom-laden world in which his characters inhabit. By combining his content and form, Woolrich created a perfect harmony which he was unable to achieve in his own life.
In a document he had left behind, he wrote, “I was merely seeking to defy mortality. I wanted to, albeit briefly, defeat the shadow of death which I had come to accept as an inevitable part of my life.
I was attempting to linger a bit longer, even after I was already gone.” Having spent many years alone in a dismal state of mind and a keen comprehension of the human condition, he put together a memorable collection of works.
He attempted to flee the ghost of Anahuac, yet he was unsuccessful in doing so. He will, however, leave behind a world which he had created in his imagination.
Johnny is uncertain of who to blame for the death of his girlfriend due to the remarkable nature of her demise. She was killed by a whiskey bottle that was dropped from the window of a private plane.
This caused me to be incredulous, however, the author John Ball, who was a pilot during the forties, verified that certain types of small charter planes did in fact have openable windows. It appears that Woolrich, who is known for not verifying facts, made an accurate assumption without researching it.
The Mercantile Library of New York, located at 17 East 47th Street, will be celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Cornell Woolrich with a special event entitled “Cornell Woolrich:
Centennial Reflections” on Friday, December 5, from 2:00 to 5:00 p.m. Admission is free, but those interested should call 212-755-6710 to make reservations in advance.
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