Sunday 23 September 2012

Cornell Woolrich: The Missing Link Between Poe and Highsmith

It's not often that I have a literary revelation, so when I do I like to share it with you.  

I recently picked up a copy of the Cornell Woolrich anthology Nightwebs. It was a volume in the terrific Crime Masterworks (or 'Rime Masterworks' as this rather poorly cropped image has it) series from Orion in 2002.  

Like everyone else I'm familiar with Woolrich chiefly thanks to his story 'It Had to Be Murder' which was adapted by Alfred Hitchcock and screenwriter John Michael Hayes as the classic Rear Window. 

Not surprisingly, there's another anthology of his vivid, vicious crime stories available with that title, which I've also read and would recommend — especially if you can get the version with the lovely Steranko cover shown here.  

But back to Woolrich (who also wrote under a number of pseudonyms, notably William Irish). 

There is an almost diseased, pathological quality to his writing which can convey a powerful sense of dread. He is also brilliant at generating suspense. The fact that his prose, characters, and plotting veer from superb to ludicrous somehow doesn't seem to undermine this at all.

In particular, his view of the world as a malign box of tricks designed to torment the protagonist, and the many grisly ways this can happen, reminded me strongly of both his esteemed predecessor Edgar Alan Poe and his brilliant successor Patricia Highsmith. 

Evidence? Well, off the top of my head I'd suggest the Poe story 'The Imp of the Perverse'. It seems to me that this is pure Woolrich in its bent and tortured psychology.

And as for Patricia Highsmith, try Ripley Under Water. Not the best Ripley book. But the scene where Ripley's persecutor dredges up the body of a man Ripley murdered, and dumps it on his doorstep, could have come straight out of Woolrich.

Is there any evidence of Poe influencing Woolrich, and Woolrich in turn influencing Highsmith? 

Well, I haven't scoured the biographies of Woolrich, but I think we can assume that as one of America's leading crime and suspense writers, he would have been acquainted to some degree with the legendary father of the genre. It isn't too much of a stretch.

On the other hand, I have scoured the biographies of Highsmith — or at least one of them, the excellent Beautiful Shadow by Andrew Wilson — and found no mention of Woolrich. But I would be surprised if Highsmith didn't know his stories. She certainly could have seen some of the movies adapted from them and, since Hitchcock did a version of her own novel Strangers on a Train, Rear Window could hardly have escaped her attention.

There is a tendency for Patricia Highsmith to be claimed as a highbrow artist. But let's not forget that she read (and indeed wrote for) comic books. I can easily see her with her nose in a pulp magazine, reading the latest Woolrich epic, avidly flipping pages.

But if anyone knows for sure... do get in touch.

Back to Woolrich and Nightwebs (odd title, effective and poetic, but where did it come from? Not any of the stories in the book). This is a high calibre collection and a good place to start if you don't know Woolrich. It also features first rate supplementray material, in the shape of an indepth introduction and afterwords for each story by Francis M Nevins.

But Woolrich's power is so often dependent on surprise that I advise you not to read any of this stuff until you read the stories themselves. 

And, as for the stories themselves, there are many which deserve discussion. 

But I'll restrict myself for now to the first one in the book. Graves for the Living (1937) is an EC horror comic of a story. It is jarring, lurid pulp. But the weirdest thing is... it bears an almost eerie resemblance to Arhtur Schnitzler's highly literary Traumnovelle, which was adapted by Stanley Kubrick and Frederic Raphael as Eyes Wide Shut. 

Consider the similarities. Both deal with men who find themselves emeshed with a strange cultish group who hold ritualistic secret meetings and seem omni present and menacing. 

Both involve the groups passing threatening notes to the hero to remind him he is under observation. In both the hero attends a masked gathering of the cult/group where he is threatened with (deadly?) punishment and is only saved thanks to a woman. 

And in both of them, the woman offers herself up for punishment in place of the hero. 

It would have been a pretty good trick for Woolrich to have seen the Kubrick film — he died in 1968, some 21 years before it was released. But he could well have been acquainted with Schnitzler's novella, published in 1926. 

Anyhow, thanks for listening.

Do visit the great Cornell Woolrich Cover Gallery.

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