Friday, July 11, 2014

FFF(emme)F(atale)B: BEYOND THE NIGHT: Six Tales of Horror by Cornell Woolrich (Avon 1959)

Of all the parents of modern horror fiction, the one most a creature of noir (in fact, the one essentially the primary progenitor of noir even as a label, much less as an approach, even if the initial Serie Noir imprint in France wasn't named directly after his "Black" series of novels) was Cornell Woolrich, who lived a noirish life himself even as he helped devise at least two forms of art...such colleagues as Robert Bloch and Patricia Highsmith and John Collier, and Fritz Leiber and Shirley Jackson and Muriel Spark farther away from the crime fiction heritage, didn't have the passion for doom that Woolrich had...perhaps even Lovecraft didn't, though he was one of the few who felt the existential despair as intensely (though Lovecraft was less good with character generally, while tending to make his characters' doom more obviously parallel with cosmic extinction, and while both at their worst could type in all caps and Gothic characters with their fists, Woolrich also was a vastly better prose technician at his best or his merely commonplace).  Two of the stories here were published in the most durable and perhaps the most important US fantasy-fiction magazines of the 1950s and the next couple of decades...both under the editorship of folks at least as much movers and shakers in crime-fiction as fantastic fiction.

Gathering Woolrich's horror fiction has been not quite as neglected as has been, say, discrete collection of Theodore Sturgeon's major efforts in the form, though this volume, a legacy of Donald Wollheim's efforts to establish a distinct line of horror titles at Avon Books while he edited there, was the first of only about three so far.  (Wollheim had already been at Ace Books for some years by the 1959 publication date of this book, but continued there and even more at his DAW Books starting in the early 1970s to help keep a market niche open for horror so labeled, even before the post Levin/Blatty/King boom.) Notable that Woolrich massaged, at least, all the earlier stories in this book before letting at least the shudder pulp story see print again. 

More a pity, probably, that Woolrich hadn't taken another run through the lead-off story here, "The Moon of Montezuma," which finds him in a B. Travenish mood and circumstances, only lecturing the reader to a distracting degree about the True Nature of women, and particularly the women native to what is now Mexico,  while telling of an American woman seeking her absent husband, prospecting down south, and tracking him as far as his new lover, who has just lost the infant child they had the Mexican lover has designs on the infant child the desperate Yankee wife brings with her.  Woolrich is often given credit for his understanding of  women's psyches, but the portrayal here of a woman very much without mercy, and her apparently worn-down, guileless American adversary-without-realizing-it, is casually sexist as well as racist even for the time of publication (and it's indicative of Woolrich's skill as a writer that his brief take inside the skull of the roving man at the periphery of the story, whose inability to keep it in his pants drives at least secondarily most of the action, is in counterpoint a deft and convincing portrait of how such a man is less intentional monster than weak and obsessed inconsiderate fool). Though, as often in Woolrich stories, the woman wronged here has her revenge, even if she has to effect it via supernatural means.  (Despite an error in the acknowledgements page in the book, this is the story published in same issue of Fantastic as founding editor Howard Browne's ghost-job of an ostensible Mickey Spillane story; the next was in an issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction from the period where Anthony Boucher was turning that magazine over to Robert P. Mills.)

A better story, "Somebody's Clothes--Somebody's Life" is still nonetheless a relatively slight if interesting effort, notable for being in modified film script form (one could wonder if it had been salvaged from a rejected, or even refashioned from a produced, teleplay), involving a countess who is a degenerate gambler,  and her effort to break out of that cycle by attempting to heed the advice of a psychic she consults. Unfortunately, to take on a literally new life puts her into another all-too-deadening cycle...not altogether convincingly, but nonetheless the point is made, in a fashion one might expect from Woolrich (who not only gets to employ one of his favored tropes, an upper-class character struggling against her fate by a night-passage into the miseries faced by the lower classes--a major component of the first story as well, albeit without crossing national borders this time around--but also the magical affects of taking on another's wardrobe, as also in Woolrich's rather better novelette "I'm Dangerous Tonight" [once adapted for a telefilm starring the fine Maedchen Amick, but better on the page]).

I shall hope to take the time to comment on the rest of the stories later, but this collection is not quite the introduction to Woolrich's work, horror or otherwise, it could be, but is definitely an interesting selection for the fan to check into...I should quiz Francis Nevins or Barry Malzberg as to whether it's known if Woolrich himself choose these stories for the book, or if the Avon editor at the time made the calls...the scholar of CW will probably enjoy the comparison of the magazine texts of the older stories to their appearance here...

Update: from Barry Malzberg:
It is only a guess but pretty firmly based: Fred Dannay put this together.  Dannay was in effect Cornell's only market and protector in the last years.  There was a novel, I'd have to look it up, published also by Avon in the late fifties, the only novel after his mother's death and again I would guess that Dannay somehow assumed responsibility for getting it placed.

(Francis Nevins suspects that Dannay would be less likely to take a hand in a horror collection...but Dannay wasn't actually Against horror...and was certainly pro-Woolrich.)

For more of today's books, please see Patti Abbott's blog.

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George said...

I'm a big Woolrich fan. Barry Malzberg is a fan, too. He wrote a revealing essay on Woolrich in BREAKFAST IN THE RUINS which I highly recommend.

Todd Mason said...

More than a fan, George...Barry spent some time with the man in his last, rather sad years...

Barry N. Malzberg said...

Took me 30 seconds online to determine that the 1960 Avon novel was "based on" a 1939 Argosy serial. The year before Pyramid had published DEATH IS MY DANCING PARTNER which as I recall (have not looked at FIRST YOU DREAM, THEN YOU DIE in years) Nevins identified as pretty much a stinker and which was for Don Bensen a bottom-of-the-barrel acquisition, more or less a mercy f--- (sorry to be crude but what the heck). That was the only new novel to appear after Claire's death. Have never read or had the urge to read it.