Friday, March 25, 2016
recent read; Dark Melody of Madness
Dark Melody of Madness by Cornell Woolrich
Woolrich is known for his mystery, crime and noir stories. In this collection of four novellas, we see a side not often shown - Woolrich working in the supernatural & horror milieu.
"Graves for the Living" tells an updated (for the 1930s) tale of Poe-esque obsession with premature burial. After his father is buried alive, a boy becomes obsessed with protecting himself from premature burial. As an adult, the man stumbles on a graveyard cult where people are temporarily buried alive to overcome their fear. He is left with a choice of joining the cult or being executed by the cult to protect their secret activities. He chooses membership. Of course, things go wrong when his girlfriend gets involved. Technically, there is nothing supernatural in this story, but the story fits better under a horror banner or a "tale of terror" banner than any other classification.
"Dark Melody of Madness" brings us a step closer to the the supernatural. The main plot element, from a high level, isn't that far removed from "Graves for the Living" - a musician gets caught in a cult and chooses to join rather than die. This time around, however, the cult is a voodoo cult. And the musician steals their ceremonial song. The song becomes his signature hit on the nightclub circuit of New Orleans. The voodoo priest, Papa Benjamin, puts a curse on the man. Or is it all in the protagonist's mind? This story was adapted for the television series THRILLER under the title "Papa Benjamin" and has sometimes been reprinted under that title.
"I'm Dangerous Tonight" is the most plot ambitious of this collection. And it has the most direct supernatural element. One night in Paris, a demonic entity visits a fashion designer and leaves its cape behind. The seamstress uses the cape's material in a new dress. But contact with the demonic material causes evil thoughts of murder and mayhem, some of which are acted upon by hapless wearers of the dress. The plot then follows the dress, and an American detective whose path keeps crossing the dress as he tries to take down an international narcotics smuggler. Murder, mayhem, demons, drug gangsters, trans-Atlantic ship voyage, night clubs. I also thought some of the violent imagery - imagined and acted on - were quite shocking for something from 1937.
This is a case where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Anyone else trying to weave all these plot elements together probably would be left with a jumbled mess. Under Woolrich's pen, it all feels seamless. This was my favorite of these four novellas.
"Jane Brown's Body" was another surprise. This time, Woolrich tackled the "Weird Menace" genre. The tropes are all here - a mad scientist, an isolated lair in the deep woods, and beauty in distress, and our happy-go-lucky, rakish pilot of fortune, (Bad) Penny O'Shaughnessy.
This collection also starts off with a good introduction by crime writer and editor, Bill Pronzini.
I liked these stories a lot. Woolrich definitely puts his own stamp on this territory. He imparts frenetic, frantic desperation of panicked protagonists in a way that sweeps a reader along for the ride.