It’s no secret that I love Cornell Woolrich. There are several entries on this list of his work. Fright is a latecomer to me. Under the pen name of George Hopley, Woolrich wrote a book that I literally could not put down. I was riveted, horrified, wondering if the protagonist would ever get out from under his bad luck and choices. As the book carried me further along, my tension only increased.
Woolrich is known for his heightened dramatics, some dislike his work because of what they consider overwrought plots, characters, situations. But that’s just the reason why his work is so compelling, unique, nerve-wracking. The reader goes on a convoluted and dangerous trip, narrowly escaping falling off cliffs, smacking into mountains, or being caught as a murderer. Woolrich himself was no barrel of laughs, as life seemed to deliver less than promising results, the more bitter he became. He lost a leg to illness, dying with not much recognition.
According to Wikipedia, so take with a grain of ‘who knows if it’s true’, “A check of film titles reveals that more film noir screenplays were adapted from works by Woolrich than any other crime novelist.”
I do believe Wikipedia on this. I’ve seen several adaptations of his best titles, none which live up to the books, but are great in their own way. The most famous has to be ‘Rear Window’, with Jimmy Stewart directed by Alfred Hitchcock, the source being one of Woolrich’s short stories, but the point was contested, all the way to the supreme court. More on films when I reach his other novels on the list.
Set in 1915, an odd year to be sure, life isn’t too bad for Preston Marshall. A job in the financial market, a gorgeous fiance, he’s seemingly on the high road to success. But as in so many of Woolrich’s stories, one slip, one bad judgement, one mistake, and everything spirals out of control. Marshall isn’t a bad man, not by any stretch. He may be a bit self important, sure of himself, maybe even a little cocky, but he has no real malice within him. So when circumstances put him in a bind, the reader feels empathy, worries about his well being, and the outcome of his predicament. Every move he makes seems to work the opposite way in which it was intended. We watch him go further and further from his goal, of pulling himself out of the mess he’s in, and returning to his charmed life.
I know many books claim ‘tension you could cut with a knife’ but this is the first book I’ve encountered that has delivered 100 per cent. My knuckles were white from gripping my paperback copy, hoping the next page would extricate him from hell. Woolrich has that ability, to hold the reader almost breathless with anticipation, trepidation, and yes, fright! He doesn’t let go of this tightrope, not once, not until the very end when the line is jerked from underneath the reader, and Marshall’s fate is decided.
So many of his books make a miraculous happy ending, another problem for the cynics of the world. I happen to love when a character comes out of his ordeal a better happier being, especially with his true love by his or her side. Don’t get the impression his work has any ‘romance’ within them–not in the ripping of corset sense, or hearts and flowers. No, sir-ee. His relationships can begin out of desperation, revenge, or deceit, and end up forming a positive bond, or turning into an episode of “Deadly Attraction” on the ID channel.
I must admit, I don’t know if everyone can take the relentless pace and hopelessness this book engenders. I came away from reading it with a bad taste. A horror of how things can go so magnificently wrong in one person’s life, with no light in the bleakness. A bad taste, and a satisfactory feeling of having just read a gritty heady involving novel that has stayed with me months later, and who may just jar me once in awhile with the memory of its potent plot.