Inevitably, his vision verged toward the fantastic; he published a scattering of stories - most included in this volume - which appeared to conform to that genre at least to the degree that the fuller part of his vision could be seen as "mysteries." For Woolrich it all was fantastic; the clock in the tower, hand in the glove, out of control vehicle, errant gunshot which destroyed; whether destructive coincidence was masked in the "naturalistic" or the "incredible" was all pretty much the same to him. RENDEZVOUS IN BLACK, THE BRIDE WORE BLACK, NIGHTMARE are all great swollen dreams, turgid constructions of the night, obsession and grotesque outcome; to turn from these to the "fantastic" was not to turn at all. The work, as is usually the case with a major writer was perfectly formed, perfectly consistent, the vision leached into every area and pulled the book together. "Jane Brown's Body" is a suspense story. THE BRIDE WORE BLACK is science fiction. PHANTOM LADY is a gothic. RENDEZVOUS IN BLACK was a bildungsroman. It does not matter.
He began as a minor imitator of Fitzgerald, wrote a novel in the late twenties which won a prize, became dissatisfied with his work, stopped writing for a period of years. When he came back it was to BLACK MASK and the other detective magazines with a curious and terrible fiction which had never been seen before in the genre markets; Hart Crane and certainly Hemingway were writing of people on the edge of their emotions and their possibility but the genre mystery markets were filled with characters whose pain was circumstantial, whose resolution was through action; Woolrich's gallery was of those so damaged that their lives could only be seen as vast anticlimax to central and terrible events which had occurred long before the incidents of the story. Hammett and his great disciple, Chandler, had verged toward this more than a little, there is no minimizing the depth of their contribution to the mystery and to literature but Hammett and Chandler were still working within the devices of their category: detectives confronted problems and solved (or more commonly failed to solve) them, evil was generalized but had at least specific manifestations: Woolrich went far out on the edge. His characters killed, were killed, witnessed murder, attempted to solve it but the events were peripheral to the central circumstances. What I am trying to say, perhaps, is that Hammett and Chandler wrote of death but the novels and short stories of Woolrich *were* death. In all of its delicacy and grace, its fragile beauty as well as its finality.Most of his plots made no objective sense. Woolrich was writing at the cutting edge of his time. Twenty years later his vision would attract a Truffaut whose own influences had been the philosophy of Sartre, the French nouvelle vague, the central conception that nothing really mattered. At all. But the suffering. Ah, that mattered; that mattered quite a bit.
It was a sort of car that seemed to have a faculty for motion with an absolute lack of any accompanying sound whatsoever.This was probably illusory; it must have been, internal combustion engines being what they are, tires being what they are, brakes and gears being what they are, even raspy street-surfacing being what it is. Yet the illusion outside the hotel entrance was a complete one. Just as there are silencers that, when affixed to automatic hand-weapons, deaden their reports, so it was as if this whole massive car body were encased in something of that sort. For, first, there was nothing out there, nothing in sight there. Then, as though the street-bed were water and this bulky black shape were a grotesque gondola, it came floating up out of the darkness from nowhere. And then suddenly, still with no sound whatsoever, there it was at a halt, in position.It was like a ghost-car in every attribute but the visual one. In its trancelike approach and halt, in its lightlessness, in its enshrouded interior, which made it impossible to determine (at least without lowering one's head directly outside the windows and peering in at nose-tip range) if it were even occupied at all, and if so by whom and by how many.You could visualize it scuttling fleetly along some overshadowed country lane at dead of night, lightless, inscrutable, unidentifiable, to halt perhaps beside some inky grove of trees, linger there awhile undetected, then glide on again, its unaccountable errand accomplished without witness, without aftermath. A goblin-car that in an earlier age would have fed folklore and rural legend. Or, in the city, you could visualize it sliding stealthily along some warehouse-blacked back alley, curving and squirming in its terrible silence, then, as it neared the mouth and would have emerged, creeping to a stop and lying there in wait, unguessed in the gloom. Lying here in wait for long hours, like some huge metal-cased predatory animal, waiting to pounce on its prey.Sudden, sharp yellow spurts of fangs, and then to whirl and slink back into anonymity the way it came, leaving the carcass of its prey huddled there and dead.Who was there to know? Who was there to tell? ("The Number's Up")
Gosh, it's easy!' he marveled, open-mouthed. 'I never knew before how easy it is to kill anyone! Twenty years to grow 'em, and all it takes is one little push!'He was suddenly drunk with some new kind of power, undiscovered until this minute. The power of life and death over his fellowmen! Everyone had it, everyone strong enough to raise a violent arm, but they were afraid to use it. Well, he wasn't! And here he'd been going around for weeks living from hand to mouth, without any money, without enough food, when everything he wanted lay within his reach all the while! He had been green all right, and no mistake about it!Death had become familiar. At seven it had been the most mysterious thing in the world to him, by midnight it was already an old story. ("Dusk To Dawn")
Lew had never seen a dead man before. He just stood there, and looked and looked. Then he went a step closer, and looked some more. 'So that's what it's like!' he murmured inaudibly. Finally Lew reached out slowly and touched him on the face, and cringed as he met the clammy feel of it, pulled his hand back and whipped it down, as though to get something off it.The flesh was still warm and Lew knew suddenly he had no time alibi.He threw something over that face and that got rid of the awful feeling of being watched by something from the other world. After that Lew wasn't afraid to go near him; he just looked like a bundle of old clothes. The dead man was on his side, and Lew fiddled with the knife-hilt, trying to get it out. It was caught fast, so he let it alone after grabbing it with his fingers from a couple of different directions.Next he went through his pockets, thinking he'd be helping to identify him.The man was Luther Kemp, forty-two, and he lived on 79th Street. But none of that was really true any more, Lew thought, mystified; he'd left it all behind. His clothes and his home and his name and his body and the show he'd paid to see were here. But where the hell had he gone to, anyway? Again that weird feeling came over Lew momentarily, but he brushed it aside. It was just that one of the commonest things in life - death - was still strange to him. But after strangeness comes familiarity, after familiarity, contempt. ("Dusk To Dawn")
The cemetery watchman left the room and returned with a tray holding three small skulls and a large one. I could feel the short hairs on the back of my neck standing up of their own accord. None of them were real though; they were wood or celluloid imitations. They all had flaps that opened at the top; one was a jug and the other three steins.The man behind the desk named the toast. 'To our Friend!' I thought he meant myself at first; he meant that shadowy enemy of all mankind, the Grim Reaper.'We are called The Friends of Death,' he explained to me when the grisly containers had been emptied. 'To outline our creed and purpose briefly, it is this: That death is life, and life is death. We have mastered death, and no member of the Friends of Death need ever fear it. They 'die,' it is true, but after death they are buried in special graves in our private cemetery - graves having air vents, such as you discovered. Also, our graves are equipped with electric signals, so that after the bodies of our buried members begin to respond to the secret treatment our scientists have given them before internment, we are warned. Then we come and release them - and they live again. Moreover, they are released, freed of their thralldom; from then on death is an old familiar friend instead of an enemy. They no longer fear it. Do you not see what a wonderful boon this would be in your case, Brother Bud; you who have suffered so from that fear?' ("Graves For The Living")
And then, with a shock like high-voltage coursing through me, the phone beside me started pealing thinly.I just stood there and stared at it, blood draining from my face. A call to a tollbooth? It must, it must be a wrong number, somebody wanted the Information Booth or-! It must have been audible outside, with all I had the slide partly closed. One of the redcaps passing by turned, looked over, then started coming across toward where I was. To get rid of him I picked up the receiver, put it to my ear.'You'd better come out now, time's up,' a flat, deadly voice said. 'They're calling your train, but you're not getting on that one - or any other.''Wh-where are talking from?''The next booth to yours,' the voice jeered. 'You forgot the glass inserts only reach halfway down.'The connection broke and a man's looming figure was shadowing the glass in front of my eyes, before I could even get the receiver back on the hook. I dropped it full-length, tensed my right arm to pound it through his face as soon as I shoved the glass aside. He had a revolver-bore for a top vest-button, trained on me. Two more had shown up behind him, from which direction I hadn't noticed. It was very dark in the booth now, their collective silhouettes shut out all the daylight. The station and all its friendly bustle was blotted out, had receded into the far background, a thousand miles away for all the help it could give me. I slapped the glass wearily aside, came slowly out.One of them flashed a badge - maybe Crow had loaned him his for the occasion. 'You're being arrested for putting slugs in that phone. It won't do any good to raise your voice and shriek for help, try to tell people different. But suit yourself.'I knew that as well as he; heads turned to stare after us by the dozens as they started with me in their midst through the station's main-level. But not one in all that crowd would have dared interfere with what they mistook for a legitimate arrest in the line of duty. The one with the badge kept it conspicuously tilted in his upturned palm, at sight of which the frozen onlookers slowly parted, made way for us through their midst. I was being led to my doom in full view of scores of people. ("Graves For The Living")
He handed me something done up in paper. 'Your mask,' he said. 'Don't put it on until we get past the city-limits.' It was a frightening-looking thing when I did so. It was not a mask but a hood for the entire head, canvas and cardboard, chalk-white to simulate a skull, with deep black hollows for the eyes and grinning teeth for the mouth. The private highway, as we neared the house, was lined on both sides with parked cars. I counted fifteen of them as we bashed by; and there must have been as many more ahead, in the other direction. We drew up and he and I got out. I glanced in cautiously over my shoulder at the driver as we went by, to see if I could see his face, but he too had donned one of the death-masks.'Never do that,' the Messenger warned me in a low voice. 'Never try to penetrate any other member's disguise.' The house was as silent and lifeless as the last time - on the outside. Within it was a horrid, crawling charnel-house alive with skull-headed figures, their bodies encased in business-suits, tuxedos, and evening dresses. The lights were all dyed a ghastly green or ghostly blue, by means of colored tissue-paper sheathed around them. A group of masked musicians kept playing the Funeral March over and over, with brief pauses in between. A coffin stood in the center of the main living-room. I was drenched with sweat under my own mask and sick almost to death, even this early in the game.At last the Book-keeper, unmasked, appeared in their midst.Behind him came the Messenger. The dead-head guests all applauded enthusiastically and gathered around them in a ring.Those in other rooms came in. The musicians stopped the Death Match. The Book-keeper bowed, smiled graciously. 'Good evening, fellow corpses,' was his chill greeting. 'We are gathered together to witness the induction of our newest member.' There was an electric tension. 'Brother Bud!' His voice rang out like a clarion in the silence. 'Step forward.' ("Graves For Living")
He just lingers long enough to see his plane put to bed properly, then grabs a cab at the airport-gate. "The Settlement" and forgetting that he's not inland any more, that Shanghai's snappier than Chicago, "Chop-chop." "Sure, Mike," grins the slant-eyed driver. "Hop in." A change has come over the city since he went away, he can feel that the minute they hit the outskirts, clear the congested native sections, and cross the bridge into the Settlement. Shanghai is already tuning-up for its oncoming doom, without knowing it. A city dancing on the brink of the grave. There's an electric tension in the air, the place never seemed so gay, so hectic, as tonight; the roads opening off the Bund a welter of blinking, flashing neon lights, in ideographs and Latin letters alike, as far as the eye can see. Traffic hopelessly snarled at every crossing, cops piping on their whistles, packed sidewalks, the blare of saxophones coming from taxi-dance mills, and overhead the feverish oriental stars competing with inter-crossed searchlight beams from some warships or other on the Whang-poo. Just about the right town and the right night to have fifteen thousand bucks in, all at one time. ("Jane Brown's Body")
Just inside the doorway he puts down the bags, motions her to stand by them a minute. He saunters out ahead, carefully casual. Peers up one way, down the other. Nothing. The street's dead to the world.Then suddenly, from nowhere, ping! Something flicks off the wall just behind him, flops at his feet like a dead bug. He doesn't bend down to look closer, he can tell what kind of a bug it is all right. He's seen that kind of bug before, plenty of times. No flash, no report, to show which direction it came from. Silencer, of course.He hasn't moved. Fsssh! and a bee or wasp in a hurry strokes by his cheek, tingles, draws a drop of slow blood. Another pokk! from the wall, another bug rolling over. The insect-world seems very streamlined, very self-destructive, tonight. ("Jane Brown's Body")
She turned and walked down the musty, dimly-lighted corridor, along a strip of carpeting that still clung together only out of sheer stubbornness of skeletal weave. Doors, dark, oblivious, inscrutable, sidling by; enough to give you the creeps just to look at them. All hope gone from them, and from those who passed in and out through them. Just one more row of stopped-up orifices in this giant honeycomb that was the city. Human beings shouldn't have to enter such doors, shouldn't have to stay behind them. No moon ever entered there, no stars, no anything at all. They were worse than the grave, for in the grave is absence of consciousness. And God, she reflected, ordered the grave, for all of us; but God didn't order such burrows in a third-class New York City hotel.
The car drives through, stops while the man closes and fastens the prickly gate behind it. The bell shuts off; the stillness is deafening by contrast. The car goes on until the outline of a house suddenly uptilts the searching headlight-beams, log-built, sprawling, resembling a hunting-lodge. But there's no friendliness to it. There is something ominous and forbidding about its look, so dark, so forgotten, so secretive-looking. The kind of a house that has a maw to swallow with - a one-way house, that you feel will never disgorge any living thing that enters it. Leprous in the moonlight festering on its roof. And the two round sworls of light played by the heads of the car against its side, intersecting, form a pear-shaped oval that resembles a gleaming skull. ("Jane Brown's Body")