Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Corny Wool

Cornell Woolrich was a deeply unhappy man. A self-hating homosexual and alcoholic, his numerous books and short stories are not so much noir as an endless, bottomless impenetrably inky black.

Ostensibly a crime writer, Woolrich lacks the prose style of Chandler or Hammett, but his world doesn’t exist for snappy dialogue and clever wisecracks. It’s a world of murder and fear, a place where nightmares creep under your door to grab you by the throat and squeeze. In Woolrich’s fiction events spiral out of control with unstoppable centrifugal force, a case of wrong place, wrong time, wrong world, wrong life. It’s terrifying, but hugely compelling.

Woolrich’s darkness provided more film noir plots than any other author – in 1948 alone, for instance, there were four big screen adaptations of his stories. The most famous is probably ‘Rear Window’ (1954), although personal favourites are Truffaut’s late sixties adaptations, sinister love story ‘Mississippi Mermaid’ and brilliant revenge thriller ‘The Bride Wore Black'.


His mother (and constant companion) died in 1957, leaving him totally alone, so he set about slowly destroying himself with a daily diet of liquor, coruscating prose and neglect. His later work is psychologically fascinating, but increasingly difficult to read. Most pitiful is his virulent and violent homophobia, common enough in 20th century literature, but not usually from homosexual writers. Woolrich’s self loathing reached its apogee in 1968 when he refused to see a doctor about a blister on his heel until it become gangrenous. Amputation couldn’t save him, so he died; a victim of self-disgust and a too tight shoe.

Recommended works: his short stories are an excellent starting point, as his novels (often written under the pseudonym of 'William Irish') are harder to track down, although ‘The Bride Wore Black’ and an omnibus of ‘I Married A Dead Man’ and ‘Waltz Into Darkness' have been republished in recent years.

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