Dark Melodies of Madness: The Supernatural Novellas of Cornell Woolrich by Cornell Woolrich
Because New York City-born author Cornell Woolrich so excelled at tales of suspense, crime, murder and noirish mayhem, there might be some who find it hard to believe that he could also excel in the arena of horror. But those who have read Woolrich’s truly frightening novel of 1945, Night Has a Thousand Eyes, which combines the occult, clairvoyance, death and predestination into one tasty chiller, already know how capable he could be in that field. And if any further proof were ever needed to bolster the argument, we now have a beautiful new collection from the fine folks at Centipede Press — Dark Melody of Madness: The Supernatural Novellas of Cornell Woolrich — that should forever settle the issue.
Consisting of four longish tales spread over the course of almost 300 pages, the anthology finds the man whom Isaac Asimov once called “The master of suspense” in very fine form, delivering up remarkably exciting stories with an uncharacteristically macabre edge. To this reader’s great delight, all four stories here are just fantastic; Bill Pronzini’s introduction to the book is both entertaining and informative; and the interspersed artwork by Matt Mahurin only makes this volume more of a must-have collectible. Simply put, this is one helluva collection!
Dark Melodies of Madness kicks off with a bang with the aptly titled “Graves for the Living,” which first appeared in the June ’37 issue of the pulp magazine Dime Mystery, which was published from 1932 – ’50; a nice long run, in the competitive world of the pulps. In this tale, the reader encounters a young man named Bud Ingram, who, due to a childhood trauma, has ever since harbored a morbid fear of premature burial. Bud’s fixation causes him to haunt cemeteries and even attend the funerals of strangers, at one of which he meets his future fiancée, Joan Blaine.
But Bud’s life is given a rather huge jolt one evening when he investigates a private cemetery in the countryside, and discovers the truth about the secret society called The Friends of Death. Bud is coerced to join this sinister group, whose members are buried alive in coffins with air tubes reaching to the surface, as a means of dispelling their fear of the grave. But when Bud tries to leave the dark society, an actual premature burial is deemed the only appropriate punishment, forcing both Ingram and Joan to flee from the seemingly ubiquitous group members. Woolrich’s story grows in ghoulishness and horrible incident, while the suspense quotient is ratcheted up to an almost unbearable level. The novella is a bona fide nerve-jangling experience — my friend Allen, a Woolrich aficionado, says that it is “twisted, like a fever dream,” and I would agree with him absolutely — and is a bravura piece of work to get this collection going.
Up next is the volume’s title piece itself, “Dark Melody of Madness,” from the July ’35 Dime Mystery. (The collection’s four tales are not presented in chronological order.) Here, we meet a successful bandleader named Eddie Bloch, who, like Ingram, has also been inducted into a secret society against his wishes. Eddie, who is currently based in New Orleans, had snuck into a voodoo ceremony in a decrepit section of the French Quarter late one night, and had become enamored with one of the pieces of music he’d heard there. After being discovered by the celebrants, the officiating “papaloi,” one Papa Benjamin, had forced Bloch into secrecy. But Eddie had gone ahead and incorporated that compelling rhythm into his nightclub act, and before long, had begun to waste away physically, as a voodoo curse had been placed upon him…
And if, perchance, this story line strikes you as familiar, it might be because it was later adapted as the 3/21/61 episode of Boris Karloff’s Thriller TV program, and retitled “Papa Benjamin.” (As Pronzini mentions in his intro, this was just one of a remarkable 97 feature films and television episodes drawn from the pages of Woolrich’s novels and stories!) But good as the small-screen adaptation is, starring John Ireland as the voodoo-cursed bandleader, Woolrich’s original is even better, combining genuine New Orleans atmosphere, his trademark tough-guy patter (when one cop is asked if he’s packing a gun, he replies “Catch cold without it”!), a remarkably authentic-seeming voodoo ritual, and a surprisingly slam-bang finish. “Judas, Joseph, and Mary … what a story!” exclaims the police commissioner after Eddie has finished telling his tale, and very few readers are likely to disagree.
Up next is perhaps the most genuinely supernatural story of the quartet, “I’m Dangerous Tonight,” from the very first issue of the short-lived pulp All-American Fiction, which debuted in November ’37 and folded after only eight issues. (I might add here that the publication dates that Pronzini gives us in his introduction are correct; the dates given on the book’s last page are something of a jumbled mess.) Here, a horned figure who is strongly reminiscent of the Devil himself appears before the Parisian dress designer Eve Maldonado, and presents her with his red and black, silken cape. Maldonado is soon compelled to use the cape’s material to fashion a dress, on the label of which is printed the titular words “I’m Dangerous Tonight.”
The mere touch of this dress, however, causes feelings of violence and hatred, leading to endless mayhem as it changes hands. Thus, we see the model who first wears it betray her American gangster boyfriend, Belden, just for spite. In a story that is admittedly a bit too dependent on double coincidence, the American G-man Frank Fisher, who brings Belden back to America by transatlantic steamer, is laid low by another innocent who has come into possession of the dress: mousy Iowan housewife Sarah Travis. During the ocean crossing, Sarah not only entertains homicidal thoughts regarding her husband, but also maliciously plots with the gangster to thwart our hero Fisher.
But that’s not all. The story picks up back in the U.S., with the direly wounded and disgraced Fisher continuing his pursuit of the narcotics-peddling Belden, and now aided by nightclub singer Joan Blaine (yes, another Joan Blaine!), who, remarkably, has just acquired a slinky, new, red and black dress for her latest number… Anyway, coincidences aside, what an astounding story this is, combining crime and the supernatural into a truly mind-blowing mélange. The story features still more of Woolrich’s priceless dialogue (Fisher tells his hospital nurse “You can keep the slugs you took out of me … I’m generous that way”!), any number of suspenseful set pieces, and yet another socko windup. And the story is also emotionally affecting at times, never more so than when our murderesses remove the Devil’s garment and realize what unalterable havoc they’ve caused, leading to suicide and madness…
To round out this wonderful collection, we have the longest novella of the bunch, “Jane Brown’s Body,” which first appeared in the March/April ’38 issue of All-American Fiction; the fifth of those eight issues. Here, a Frankenstein-like, mad-doctor story is updated to modern times, with tragic results for those concerned. In this tale, the corpse of a young woman is brought back to life by Dr. Anton Denholt, at his secluded mountain cabin in the Kentucky wilderness. The woman is kept alive by monthly chemical injections, and although her memories have been wiped clean, she is taught by the doctor how to walk and speak again.
Flash forward a few years, and we find mercenary pilot Penny O’Shaughnessy crash-landing very close to Denholt’s hidden lair. The doctor grudgingly tends to the flyer’s injuries, and Penny and the ingénue — dubbed Nova by the doctor — rapidly, almost comically, fall head-over-heels in love. O’Shaughnessy, suspicious of the cabin setup, kidnaps Nova and brings her, for the first time in her memory, into the outside world, while Denholt promises that the pilot’s actions will bring down a horrible death on the young lady. The story swiftly moves to Chicago, where shady characters attempt to murder Nova, and on to Shanghai, where Nova starts to decompose rapidly … all leading back to a double showdown at that Kentucky cabin.
The story is another astonishing winner, fast paced and unpredictable, but I am forced to deduct a ½ star from what would have been a perfect grade for the following reason: We never find out how Denholt got involved to begin with, and how he came upon Nova’s corpse to revive it in the first place … although we do learn, by inference, just how Nova happened to die at such an early age. But Nova’s wasting away toward the story’s end is truly dreadful to behold — much worse than Eddie Bloch’s had been — and the story ends on a deliciously downbeat note that few readers will anticipate, bringing to a close a remarkable quartet of masterful thrillers.
I might add here that although the Centipede Press hardcover volume of this collection is currently selling for a rather steepish $557 (!) on Amazon, the softcover edition, at $15, is a very nice deal indeed for such a wonderfully entertaining group of stories. To read Dark Melodies of Madness is to lament that its author did not dabble more often in the realms of the eerie and the supernatural. More than highly recommended!