Authors: Max Gilbert
RENDEZVOUS IN BLACK
by Cornell Woolrich
Text copyright 1948 Cornell Woolrich.
Copyright renewed 1975 the Chase Manhattan Bank, NA., executor of the estate of Cornell Woolrich.
Reprinted by permission of the Chase Manhattan Bank, NA. as trustee under the will of Cornell Woolrich.
Introduction copyright 1979 by Francis M. Nevins, Jr.
He was the Poe of the 20th century and the poet of its shadows. For almost 35 years this tormented recluse wrote dozens of haunting suspense stories, the most powerful of their kind ever written-- stories full of fear, guilt and loneliness, breakdown and despair, and a sense that the world is controlled by malignant forces preying on us. And throughout his life he felt those forces eating away at him.
Cornell George Hopley-Woolrich was born in New York City on December 4, 1903 to parents whose marriage collapsed in his youth. Much of his childhood was spent in Mexico with his father, a civil engineer. The experience of seeing Puccini's Madame Butterfly in Mexico City at the age of eight gave him his first insight into color and drama, and his first sense of tragedy. Three years later, he understood that someday he too, like Cio-Cio-San, would have to die, and from that moment on he was haunted by a sense of doom that never left him.
During adolescence he returned to Manhattan and lived with his mother and her socially prominent family, and in 1921 he enrolled in Columbia College with his father paying the tuition from Mexico City. He began writing fiction during an illness in his junior year, and quit school soon afterward to pursue his dream of becoming another F. Scott Fitzgerald. His first novel, Cover Charge (1926), chronicles the lives and loves of the Jazz Age's gilded youth in the manner of his then literary idol. This debut was followed by Children of the Ritz (1927), a frothy concoction about a spoiled heiress' marriage to her chauffeur, which won him a $10,000 prize contest and a contract from First National Pictures for the movie rights. Woolrich was invited to Hollywood to help with the adaptation and stayed on as a staff writer. Besides his movie chores and an occasional story or article for magazines like College Humor and Smart Set , he completed three more novels during these years. In December of 1930, he entered a brief and inexplicable marriage with a producer's daughter--inexplicable because for several years he had been homosexual. He continued his secret life after the marriage, prowling the waterfront at night in search of partners, and after the inevitable breakup Woolrich fled back to Manhattan and his mother. The two of them traveled extensively abroad together during the early 1930s. His only novel of the period, Manhattan Love Song (1932), anticipates the motifs of his later suspense fiction with its tale of a lovestruck young couple cursed by a malignant fate which leaves one dead and the other desolate. But over the next two years he sold almost nothing and was soon deep in dept, reduced to sneaking into movie houses by the fire doors for his entertainment.
In 1934, Woolrich decided to abandon the "literary" world and concentrate on mystery-suspense fiction. He sold three stories to pulp magazines that year, ten more in 1935, and was soon an established professional whose name was a fixture on the covers of Black Mask , Detective Fiction Weekly , Dime Detective , and countless other pulps. For the next quarter century he lived with his mother in a sucession of residential hotels, going out only when it was absolutely essential, trapped in a bizarre love-hate relationship that dominated his external world just as the inner world of his fiction reflects in its tortured patterns the strangler grip in which his mother held him.
The more than 100 stories and novelettes Woolrich sold to the pulps before the end of the '30s are richly varied in type, including quasi-police procedurals, rapid-action whizbangs, and encounters with the occult. But the best and the best known of them are the tales of pure edge-of-the-seat suspense, and even their titles reflect the bleakness and despair of their themes: "I Wouldn't Be in Your Shoes," "Speak to Me of Death," "All at Once, No Alice," "Dusk to Dawn," "Men Must Die," "If I Should Die Before I Wake," "The Living Lie Down with the Dead," "Charlie Won't Be Home Tonight," "You'll Never See Me Again." These and dozens of other Woolrich suspense stories evoke with awesome power the desperation of those who walk the city's darkened streets and the terror that lurks at noonday in commonplace settings. In his hands even such cliched storylines as the race to save the innocent man from the electric chair and the amnesiac searching for his lost self resonate with human anguish. Woolrich's world is a feverish place where the prevailing emotions are loneliness and fear and the prevailing action a race against time and death. His most characteristic detective stories end with the discovery that no rational account of events is possible, and his suspense stories tend to close not with the dissipation of the terror but with its omnipresence.
The typical Woolrich settings are the seedy hotel, the cheap dance hall, the rundown movie house, and the precinct station backroom. The dominant reality in his world, at least during the 30s, is the Depression, and Woolrich has no peer when it comes to putting us inside the life of a frightened little guy in a tiny apartment with no money, no job, a hungry wife and children, and anxiety consuming him like a cancer. If a Woolrich protagonist is in love, the beloved is likely to vanish in such a way that the protagonist not only can't find her but can't convince anyone that she ever existed. Or, in another classic Woolrich situation, the protagonist comes to after a blackout (caused by amnesia, drugs, hypnosis or whatever) and little by little becomes convinced that he committed a murder or other crime while out of himself. The police are rarely sympathetic, for they are the earthly counterparts of the malignant powers that delight in savaging us, and their primary function is to torment the helpless. All we can do about this nightmare world is to create, if we can, a few islands of love and trust to help us forget. But love dies while the lovers go on living, and Woolrich is a master at portraying the corrosion of a relationship between two people. Although he often wrote about the horrors both love and lovelessness can inspire, there are few irredeemably evil characters in his stories, for if one loves or needs love, or is at the brink of destruction, Woolrich identifies with that person no matter what crimes he or she might also have committed. Technically many of his stories are awful, but like the playwrights of the Absurd, Woolrich uses a senseless tale to hold the mirror to a senseless universe. Some of his tales indeed end quite happily (usually thanks to outlandish coincidence), but there are no series characters in his work, and the reader can never know in advance whether a particular story will be light or dark, whether a particular protagonist will end triumphant or dismembered. This is one of the reasons his stories are so hauntingly suspenseful.
So much for the motifs, beliefs, and devices at the core of Woolrich's fiction. In 1940, he joined the migration of pulp mystery writers from lurid-covered magazines to hardcover books, and with his first suspense novel, The Bride Wore Black (1940), he launched his so-called Black Series, which influenced the French roman noir and the development of the bleak Hollywood crime movies of the Forties which the French have labeled film noir . Julie Killeen, whose husband was killed on the church steps moments after their marriage, spends years tracking down and systematically murdering the drunk driver and his four cronies whom she holds responsible for the beloved's death. Eventually she is herself stalked through the years by homicide cop Lew Wanger, and when their paths finally converge both hunters find themselves in the presence of the malignant powers.
The second novel in the cycle was The Black Curtain (1941), the masterpiece on the overworked subject of amnesia. Frank Townsend recovers from a three years' loss of memory, becomes obsessed with the determination to learn who and what he was during those missing years, and finds love, hate and a murder charge waiting for him behind the curtain. Black Alibi (1942) is a terror novel about a killer jaguar menacing a large South American city, while the police hunt for a human murderer who may be hiding behind the jaguar's claws. The Black Angel (1943) deals with a terrified young wife's race against time to prove that her convicted husband did not murder his girl friend and that some other man in the dead woman's life is guilty. The Black Path of Fear (1944) tells of a man who runs away to Havana with an American gangster's wife, followed by her vengeful husband, who kills the woman and frames her lover, leaving him a stranger in a strange land, menaced on all sides and fighting for his life. And the final novel in the series, Rendezvous in Black (1948), which you are about to read, is a creative reworking of the avenging angel motif from The Bride Wore Black but with the sexes reversed: a grief-crazed young man, holding one among a small group of people responsible for his fiancee's death, devotes his life to entering the lives of each of that group in turn, finding out whom each one most loves, and murdering these loved ones so that the person who killed his fiancee will live the grief he lives.
During the early 1940s, Woolrich continued to write stories and novelettes for the pulps, and dozens of his huge backlog of earlier stories were adapted for dramatic radio on series like Suspense and Molle Mystery Theatre . As the novels increased his reputation, publishers issued numerous hardcover and paperback collections of his shorter tales, and many of his books and stories were made into films noirs of the '40s (although the most famous Woolrich-based film, Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window , was made in 1954). As if all this activity were not enough, Woolrich continued to write more novels, too many for publication under a single byline, so that he adopted the pseudonyms of William Irish and (his own two middle names) George Hopley for some of his most suspenseful books.
The Irish byline debuted in Phantom Lady (1942), in which an innocent man is sentenced to die for the murder of his wife, and his two best friends race the clock to find the apparently nonexistent woman who can give the husband an alibi. The second Irish, Deadline at Dawn (1944), is another clock-race story, with a desperate young couple given until sunrise to clear themselves of a murder charge and escape the web of the city. In Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1945), as by Hopley, the suspense rises to unbearable pitch as a simpleminded recluse with uncanny powers predicts a millionaire's imminent death by the jaws of a lion, and the doomed man's daughter and a sympathetic cop struggle to avert a destiny which they suspect and soon come to hope was conceived by a merely human power. Waltz into Darkness (1947), again as by Irish, is set in New Orleans around 1880 and tells of the hopeless love affair between an unbearably lonely man and an impossibly evil woman. And in the last Irish novel of the Forties, I Married a Dead Man (1948), a woman with nothing to live for, fleeing from her sadistic husband, is injured in a train wreck, mistaken for another woman with everything to live for who was killed in the crackup, grasps this heaven-sent chance to start life over with a new identity, falls in love again, and is destroyed by the malignant powers along with the man she loves.
Despite overwhelming financial and critical success, Woolrich's personal situation remained as wretched as ever. His mother's prolonged illnesses seemed to paralyze his ability to write, and after 1948 he published very little: one minor novel under each of his three bylines in 1950--51, and a few short stories. That he was remembered at all during the '50s is largely due to Ellery Queen (Frederic Dannay), who reprinted a quantity of Woolrich's pulp tales in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine . But Woolrich and his mother continued to live in comfortable isolation, for his magazine tales proved to be as adaptable to television as they had been to radio a decade earlier, and series like Ford Theater , Alfred Hitchcock Presents , and Schlitz Playhouse of Stars frequently presented 30-minute filmed versions of his stories, Indeed, even the prestigious Playhouse 90 made use of Woolrich, turning Rendezvous in Black into a featurelength telefilm (broadcast 10/25/56) starring Franchot lone, Laraine Day and Boris Karloff (see still photograph on p. xii).
When his mother died in 1957, Woolrich cracked. Diabetic, alcoholic, wracked by self-contempt and alone, he dragged out the last years of his life. He continued to write but left unfinished much more than he ever completed, and the only new work that saw print in his last years was a handful of final "tales of love and despair." He developed gangrene in his leg and let it go untended for so long that when he finally sought medical help the doctor had no choice but to amputate. After the operation he lived in a wheelchair, unable to learn how to walk on an artificial leg. On September 25, 1968, he died of a stroke, leaving two novels, a collection of short stories, and an autobiography unfinished. He had prepared a long list of titles for stories he'd never even begun, and one of these captures his bleak world view in a single phrase: "First You Dream, Then You Die." He left no survivors, and only a tiny handful of people attended his funeral. His estate of nearly a million dollars was bequeathed in trust to Columbia University, where his literary career had begun, to establish a scholarship fund for students of creative writing. The fund is named for Woolrich's mother.