(Reviewed by Hagen Baye DEC 27, 2007)
Cornell Woolrich is said to be one of the pioneer writers of the noir genre. He is called “the Hitchcock of the written word,” and one will know precisely why after reading Fright, a veritable masterpiece of suspense. But even if the prospective reader is not a fan of the genre, interested in its history and development and those writers who nurtured it, this is a superlative book which, thanks to the reprint by Hard Case Crime, will entertain today’s reader much the same as it must have done back in 1950 when Woolrich wrote it under the name of George Hopley. (Even if Woolrich’s name is not a household name, most are familiar with his work. A short story he wrote, entitled, “It Had to Be Murder,” inspired the renowned 1954 Hitchcock film classic, Rear Window , which starred James Stewart and Grace Kelly.)
Fright is set in 1915, starting in New York City. Prescott Marshall and Marjorie Worth are deeply in love and about to be engaged. Just before they announce their engagement, “Pres” gets drunk and during a moment of drunken indiscretion had a blacked-out liaison with another young woman. On the day after his proposal of marriage is accepted by Marjorie, this young woman appears at his door demanding money. This woman had done her homework and knows all about Prescott and even Marjorie, and it is clear that she intends to blackmail him unless he pays her. This woman persists, keeps appearing at his door with her hand out, so much so that eventually, in the middle of the night, Prescott moves to another part of town and takes up a new residence under an assumed name.
Then, on his very wedding day, about an hour before the appointed time, just when he expects his best man, who should appear at his door but the young blackmailer. Prescott is beside himself about her persistent and determined stalking. He accedes to her demand for a final payment of $250, but when she approaches him to straighten his tie, his seething rage gets the better of him and he chokes her to the point where her body is limp and lifeless. Hurriedly, just as his best man arrives to get him to the church on time, he shoves her body into his closet. He proceeds to his wedding and then to his honeymoon, unable to return to dispose of the body.
Prescott is out-of-his-mind with fright about what to do. He is certain that he will be found out and apprehended for the blackmailing woman’s murder. Notwithstanding the false name associated with his former apartment, he knows he could be easily identified by his face. He knows he must avoid New York City at all costs. Fortuitously, a guest at the hotel befriends him and offers him a job in some (never identified) place, somewhere far away from New York City. Luckily for him, Marjorie is committed to be a compliant wife and agrees to locate there and they head straight there from their honeymoon.
Prescott then leads a life governed by paranoiac suspicion and fright of being found out. He forces his wife into an isolated, lonely and joyless life. He is absolutely obsessed with extreme fearfulness about his dark secret being found out. He interprets any attempt by anyone to contact him, to befriend him, to represent pursuit of him for his evil deed, and he resorts to offensive measures to protect himself.
His bizarre behavior reaps havoc on his married life. When his mother-in-law dies, he avoids accompanying his wife to New York City for the funeral. Then, when his wife announces with great joy that she is pregnant, he devastates her by forcing her to abort the fetus. His unvoiced fear is that any child would prevent them from departing quickly if they ever need to make a hasty get-away. This is the last straw for Marjorie, who had patiently put up with him and his unwillingness to make friends and insistence on isolation. They eventually separate.
Pres’s single evil deed leads this theretofore fine young man to behave in a way that ruins himself, his wife, their marriage, results in the deaths of several and a very tragic finish—the tragedy of which is compounded exponentially by certain facts unknown to Prescott (and the reader until the end). The revelation will absolutely blow the reader away. It is a solid Hitchcock, and even Twilight Zone, -like moment.
Cornell Woolrich is a writer of immense talent. This book of uncommon quality demonstrates his rare writing ability; its story was brilliantly conceived, flawlessly executed and exquisitely written. His vividly descriptive way of writing is something to behold.
This is a great addition to Hard Case Crime’s roster of authors and inventory of books. Anyone who samples a handful of its diverse offerings is sure to come to the conclusion that anything Charles Ardai, Hard Case Crime’s editor, chooses to publish is worthy to read. There is no question whatsoever about Fright in this regard, and Ardai and Hard Case Crime perform a great service by making this extraordinary work available to the reading public once again.
- Amazon readers rating: from 9 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Fright at Hard Case Crime
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Cover Charge (1926)
- Children fo the Ritz (1927)
- Times Square (1929)
- A Young Man's Heart (1930)
- The Time of Her Life (1931)
- Manhattan Love Song (1932)
The Black Series:
- The Bride Wore Black (1940)
- The Black Curtain (1941)
- Black Alibi (1942)
- The Black Angel (1943)
- The Black Path of Fear (1944)
- Rendevous in Black (1948)
- Into the Night (1987) (unfinished manuscript, finished by Lawrence Block)
More Noir Novels:
- Savage Bride (1950)
- Hotel Room (1958)
- Violence (1958)
- Death is My Dancing Partner (1959)
- Beyond the Night (1959)
- The Doom Stone (1960)
- Nightwebs: Stories (1971)
- Blind Date with Death (1985)
- Vampires Honeymoon (1985)
- Darkness at Dawn: Stories
- Night & Fear: Stories (2004)
- Tonight, Somewhere in New York (2005)
As William Irish:
- Phantom Lady (1942)
- Nightmare (I Wouldn't Be In Your Shoes) (1943)
- After Dinner Story (1944)
- Deadline at Dawn (1944)
- Borrowed Crime (1946)
- And So to Death (1947)
- Waltz Into Darkness (1947)
- I Married a Dead Man (1948)
- Six Times Death (1948)
- The Blue Ribbon (1949)
- Six Nights of Mystery (1950)
- Somebody on the Phone (1950)
- Marihuana (1951)
- You'll Never See Me Again (1951)
- Stranger's Serenade (1951)
As George Hopley:
- Blues of a Lifetime: Autobiography
- First You Dream, Then You Die by Francis M. Nevins, Jr.
- Cornell Woolrich from Pulp to Film Noir by Thomas C. Renzi
Some Movies from books*:
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- Fan web page for Cornell Woolrich
- Wikipedia page on Cornell Woolrich
- Time magazine remembers Cornell Woolrich
- Heartbreak Lounge page on Cornell Woolrich
- The Weird Review on Cornell Woolrich books
- Rough Edges review of The Black Angel
- Trashotron review of Tonight, Somewhere in New York
- MetroActive review of Fright
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About the Author:
George Cornell Hopley-Woolrich was born in 1903 and raised in New York City with his mother Claire. He lived for a short time in Mexico with his father. He attended Columbia University but left upon the publication of his first novel. He originally penned novels in the same vein as F. Scott Fitzgerald, but soon turned to pulp and detective fiction sometimes publishing under the pseudonyms of George Hoply and William Irish.
Woolrich lived in Los Angeles and worked as a writer in the film industry in the early 1930s. He moved back to New York and lived in Harlem, in the same building as his mother, for the next 35 years. After his mother died in 1957, he moved in and out of various hotels in NYC. Alcoholism and an amputated leg left him a recluse.
He died in 1968, leaving $850,000 dollars to Columbia University for a scholarship in his mother's name. Royalties from Woolrich's works go into the special scholarship fund.