Thursday, March 31, 2011

Studies in Cornell Woolrich

Cornell Woolrich
I've been on a Cornell Woolrich bender lately, mainly fueled by many episodes of the radio series SUSPENSE.

Today's average pulp reader or watcher of mystery/noir/horror films might not have heard of Woolrich, it seems a lot of people haven't. According to Harlan Ellison's intro to the Woolrich short story collection ANGELS OF DARKNESS, it seems he was becoming obscure even by the early 1970s.

Certainly he's not as well-known today as Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler. But ironically even though you may not know him or his works intimately, you've probably bumped into an episode of a TV show that uses one of his stories as its basis, or seen a movie adapted from his books. In fact he's probably the most directly-adapted pulp mystery writer out there.

Some examples are (most famously) Alfred Hitchcock's REAR WINDOW and (most recently) Antonio Banderas and Angelina Jolie's ORIGINAL SIN. IMDB lists 93 adaptations in various forms, not including radio plays.

Jimmy Stewart in Hitchcock's REAR WINDOW
We get a very concise and terse overview of his life from the description of the biography written by Francis M. Nevins, FIRST YOU DREAM, THEN YOU DIE:

Cornell Woolrich was called the Poe of the 20th century and the poet of its shadows. He lived a life of such deep despair and terror that he could do nothing with its experiences but put them between the covers of some of the century's finest novels of suspense.

Born the child of a broken marriage in 1903, Woolrich spent his childhood in revolutionary Mexico, coming to New York in his teens. While still a student at Columbia, he sold the first of several mainstream novels, which led critics to compare him with F. Scott Fitzgerald.

During the 1930s and '40s, when he was acclaimed as the preeminent author of American suspense fiction, Woolrich lived with his mother in an apartment-hotel near Harlem. After her death in 1957, Woolrich became a self-imposed prisoner in a series of lonely hotel rooms until his death in 1968. Few attended his funeral, and his million-dollar fortune was left to Columbia University to establish a scholarship fund.

Though he perceived himself as a failure, Woolrich's work was a critical and financial success. His novels, such as 'The Bride Wore black,' 'Phantom Lady' and 'Deadline at Dawn,' inspired the French roman noir and film noir. His novella 'Rear Window' became one of Alfred Hitchcock's most acclaimed films.
 Sounds like someone living out his own stories, which is quite sad but very fascinating.

Adapted as The Leopard Man 1943
Since he is fascinating and his writing so amazing, what I have for you today is a load of information from various sources to pull you further into his work. These links all contain some type of synopsis or overview for many of theWoolrich adaptations.


First up is the Woolrich page at  Here we find a comprehensive cache of Woolrich adapted to radio. Mainly in episodes of Suspense but also in other programs.  Webmeister Christine gives a good overview of each episode and when possible other background or behind the scenes info which is presented along with downloadable MP3s.

Jonathan Rosenbaum

Reviewer for The Chicago Reader, Jonathan has a richly illustrated essay on Woolrich film adaptations originally printed in Film Comment, Sept 1984.

Black Gate

Recently reprinted by Hard Case Crime
Black Gate online magazine has an article on the Weird Fiction bent of some Woolrich tales and focusing on the Frankensteinian tale "Jane Brown's Body".  Writer Ryan Harvey puts succinctly what I also feel about Woolrich's prose:
His specialty was the “emotional thriller,” harrowing trips into fear and paranoia with suspense set pieces that no author has equaled. Often called by admirers and critics “the literary Hitchcock” and “the twentieth-century Edgar Allan Poe,” Woolrich could wring more palpitating dread out of everyday life than any writer I’ve encountered. His style is defining of noir, the existential crime tale.
Noir of the Week

This blog does an in-depth review of a Film Noir every week. Writer Steve-O has submitted a review every week since 2005.  He has a selection of Woolrich to read about. Keep in mind these are not glib summaries, but well researched articles with plenty of background info on the films and writings.

This site has a ton of pics of book covers, movie posters and lists of currently available books and films. Also presented are scans and reprints of Woolrich articles from a plethora of sources such as TWILIGHT ZONE Magazine, Francis Nevins column from Mystery File, and scans of some of Woolrich's actual letters and notes.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Mysteries of London

Sometimes the most innocent turn in your travels lead down darker paths.  

This might sum up the Penny Dreadful The Mysteries of London and also my experience in finding such a story.

I had my curiosity piqued when following a link from a newspaper comic strip archive to John Adcock's Yesterday's Papers. The post displayed covers painted by Robert Prowse Jr for a Spring-Heeled Jack series. I found this to be very interesting. When looking into the print history of this well known boogieman I started reading up on some of the Victorian English Penny Dreadfuls which made Jack a household name.  

The history of Spring-Heeled Jack in print starts in the 1830s with accounts of  his accosting lone travelers. In the early publications readers had to wonder if he was man, beast or demon? Whatever he was, he wasn't a nice guy. But by the 1860s, in the Penny Dreadfuls this started to turn around and Jack was reinterpreted as a hero. 

Spring-Heeled Jack became possibly the very first prototype for Batman;  A rich young man loses his parents to a tragedy at sea. When trying to claim his ancestral home he finds the estate and even his family name stolen from him by his villainous cousin. When fleeing for his life after a murder attempt Jack decides to create a costume and his Springed Heel apparatus in order to start a new life as a vigilante. 

You can read this account here.

As someone so into hero and horror pulps I found a natural affinity for this style of writing.  It has lead to further reading. And in the case of The Mysteries of London, further listening. Though The Mysteries of London can be read online, right now my reading stand is full. 

This is exactly how The Pulp Reader first came into existence; too many books and too little time. I was going to make a digital TTS edition of Mysteries but first thought I'd see if anyone had already made an audiobook of it.  And yes, there is one... in progress

Cori Samuel is an etext / digital book maven. She has proofread and assembled a large amount of material for Project Gutenberg and has also gotten into the audiobook realm at Librivox.  I have to tell you honestly that I'm not always a fan of Librivox. While there is the rare reader who is a delight to listen to, some of which I've mentioned in the past,  mostly I find the quality to be painful.  Cori falls into the first category and is an excellent and riveting storyteller with great delivery and cadence. 

Here's the thing though, Cori has been stuck for a while and has possibly not felt inspired to get past whatever hurdles are preventing her from continuing the reading.  What about you head over to her page and give a listen to the first chapter, then if you like what you hear, drop her a line in the comments section and let her know you would love to see her finish this epic story. I know I would!

In the meantime, you can find a few other Penny Dreadful audiobooks at Librivox and Here is a quick list:
The String of Pearls (the first appearance of Sweeny Todd)
The Old Man in the Corner (Sherlock Holmes-ish)
G. K. Chesterton's Defense of Penny Dreadfuls

Thursday, March 17, 2011

McLevy Season 7

The Ides of March also bring new episodes of McLevy.
Who's McLevy?  Head to the Pulp Reader subsite to learn all about him!

Unfortunately I was caught off guard and we are already mid-way through the four episode season.  But as of right now you can listen to the current episode Prince of Darkness on the BBC Radio 4 iplayer!