NIGHTMARE (1941) by Cornell Woolrich

During the 1940s Cornell Woolrich was one of the true masters of the psychological suspense yarn, as adept at creating ingenious and outlandish plots as painting an atmosphere of universal dread and irrationality. This is a case in point with Nightmare, a 25,000-word novella first published in Argosy magazine in March 1941 with the title changed to ‘And So to Death’. Two years later it was re-printed under the author’s original title, though to confuse matters further it has on occasion appeared under the correct title but under the author’s ‘William Irish’ byline. The story is deceptively simple – a man has a frightening dream in which he kills someone. Then the dream apparently starts to come true …

I offer the following as part of my contribution to Bev’s 2012 Vintage Mystery Readers Challenge focusing on stories dealing with amnesia, a theme Woolrich touched on in several books. This Thanksgiving week the Friday’s Forgotten Books meme is being jointly hosted by Patti at Pattinase and Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog.

“Night was coming on, the time of dreams, the enemy”

Vince is 26, single and lives on his own in a cheap apartment. One morning he awakes after a vivid dream in which he was trapped in an octagonal mirrored room with many doors and attacked by a man and a woman. While the two men struggle she hands over something like a knife to her accomplice but Vince gets his hands on it first – and stabs the other man to death. He then props up the attacker in the cupboard behind one of the doors, using a long and peculiar old key while the woman escapes. Things become very weird when Vince gets ready for work and finds the same scratch on his wrist that he sustained during the attack in his dream. Plus he has clear marks round his neck where the man tried to strangle him – and to cap it all, the button that he pulled off the man’s jacket is now in his pocket, together with the long key too, neither of which he can remember having picked up and which he is sure don’t belong to him. Vince is understandably perturbed so he goes to see his sister who is married to Cliff, a cop, who rejects any paranormal ideas and tries to keep things on a very prosaic level. Vince is panicking because since the key and button are real, then perhaps so was the murder … Is his unconscious trying to remind him of something he has blanked out – or is he cracking up? Maybe, just maybe, there is a third, darker and even nastier solution. He tries to find the octagonal room, without success but one Sunday while driving with Cliff he is drawn to a house he has never been to. He instinctively knows where to find the door key and where the lights to the house are – and he finally finds the mirrored room too and the cupboard too. And inside … well, this is where the plot really kicks in and I’d hate spoil it.

“There was nothing the matter out there. It was in here, with me”

Nightmare is one of a number of Woolrich stories that his biographer Francis M. Nevins termed ‘living nightmare’ stories in which a protagonist awakens from a blackout unsure of what is real and what is not, haunted by the feeling they have done something terrible but unable to recall exactly what this is. Others examples of this type of narrative by the author include ‘You’ll Never See Me Again’ (1939), ‘Cocaine’ (aka ‘C-jag’) and ‘I Won’t Take a Minute’ (both from 1940) and ‘If the Shoe Fits’ (1943). Nightmare stands out as one of the best treatments of the theme thanks to a clever plot and Woolrich’s trademark ability to make fear of the irrational a palpable and terrifying reality, as he would in his great novel Night Has A Thousand Eyes, which combines the rational with the supernatural to stunning effect. In the 40s and 50s Woolrich may have been one of the most ‘adapted’ of mystery authors, his work constantly in demand for film, radio and television, which is pretty amazing for someone who never really created a recurring series character and whose novels and stories of suspense are often remarkably dark and bleak. Practically all of his novels from those years were filmed shortly after their initial publication while dozens and dozens were transferred first to radio for such shows as Suspense and then later for TV anthologies like the Alfred Hitchcock Presents series (the famous director had made the classic Rear Window from a story by Woolrich).

“I went down in a sort of spiral, around and around, following my head and neck around as he sought to wrench them out of true wit my spinal column”

Nightmare was adapted twice for the cinema, both times by writer-director Maxwell Shane. The first (with story credit provided on screen to ‘William Irish’) was as Fear in the Night (1947) starring DeForest Kelley and Paul Kelly as the two bothers-in-law; and then as Nightmare (1956) with Kevin McCarthy and Edgard G. Robinson taking over the main roles, with Shane sometimes re-staging the earlier film’s scenes exactly shot for shot (the credit now given to Woolrich). The initial version has fallen into the Public Domain in the US and is easy to find online (the YouTube link is below). They both make for decent movies and are well worth watching though Nightmare currently only seems to be available in Spain on DVD.

This novella takes one of the author’s favourite situations and folds it around a distinctive plot to create a highly memorable work. It isn’t perfect – very occasionally Woolrich does give in to somewhat florid prose (what Julian Symons disdainfully called his ‘high pitched whine’) and the plot, while certainly imaginative, doesn’t bear up to close scrutiny, though this is a charge that can be leveled at most of Woolrich’s work. It is none the less a rich and rewarding piece of Noir and well worth tracking down (it’s been reprinted many, many times), not least for the developing relationship between the two male protagonists which goes through several evolving permutations.

***** ( 3 fedora tips out of 5)

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20 Responses to NIGHTMARE (1941) by Cornell Woolrich

  1. Sergio – I agree that Woolrich did some terrific psychological noir. And it’s interesting to learn that his work was adapted as often as it was; I didn’t know that ‘though I”m not surprised. The rest of your review is, as ever, thoughtful and informative. That said, I am still stuck on your point about the title. I’ve often wondered why so many books get alternate titles. I can understand it easily in some cases, where the original title might not make sense in, say, another language. But sometimes I have to wonder…

    • Thanks very much Margot – in this case the title change may have been due to quite mundane issues like Argosy having had somethign similar in the magazine rather thank thinking it not good anough, though you could argue that it is such a generic title that it had probably just been used too many times. Being on the ‘other’ side of the pond, it is always amusing to think about title changes, which are less frequent but still common with books and movies – I am just about to start reading Gypsy Rose Lee’s mystery The G-String Murders which had its title changed in the UK at the time to The Striptease Murders since the reference would have been lost to 1940s British readers who would have assumed it had somethign to do with a vioiin …

  2. Colin says:

    Very good. I’ve seen both movie adaptations but never read the source material. If I’m in the right mood. I really like Woolrich’s bleakness and pessimism.
    Nice to see you mention You’ll Never See Me Again; I read it not that long ago and thought it was a terrific little story, tense and horrific in equal measure.

    • Thanks Colin – that is another major Woolrich story, also filmed more than once of course – incidentally, forgot to mention that Nightmare was also adapted for Suspense on radio and is easy to access online for free (streaming and download) – for instance:
      Radio Detective Story Hour

      • Colin says:

        BTW, on the subject of the second film adaptation of Nightmare, I have the Spanish DVD which is watchable but nothing special. I see there’s also been a release in Italy – http://www.amazon.it/Giorni-Di-Dubbio-Edward-Robinson/dp/B008EPNF5A/ref=sr_1_1?s=dvd&ie=UTF8&qid=1353661100&sr=1-1 – although I have no idea what the quality is like.

        • Thanks for that, I was in fact just thinking of getting that one. I wish it was from Sinister as I would have a bit more confidence as I know nothing about Golem as a company. Some of the references I have found make it sound like it’s full frame, not a deal breaker in this case, but then other sites say it’s available in widescreen …

          • Colin says:

            Yes, it’s hard to know with some of these companies. The Spanish disc is widescreen, albeit non-anamorphic. You can see a review and screencaps here – http://www.dvdbeaver.com/film3/dvd_reviews54/nightmare.htm

          • Cheers mate. I was really into Woolrich in the 80s but hadn’t read one of his longer works in close to a decade I suspect and enjoyed getting back into him. A very strange author but Phantom Lady and The Bride Wore Black remain extremely powerful. In Nightmare there is a long section in which our protagonist is put through the wringer by his brother-in-law who comes to believe he is covering up a crime and it is really well done in terms of making you feel the sheer injustice fo the situation from the narrator’s point of view even though he is not sure whether he is guilty or not.

  3. John says:

    Not read this one but I’ve seen the DeForest Kely movie version and didn’t like much of it. Here’s a review I wrote a while ago posted on a movie website:

    “A very minor noir worth watching for Woolrich/Irish fans only. Experimental use of “surreal” special effects to convey the protagonist’s confusion between his dream state and his waking state may be of interest to cinephiles obsessed with vintage film techniques. But I fear most contemporary audiences will find this alternately laughable and boring. It also strains considerably on any educated viewer’s suspension of disbelief. I’m always eager to enter a film world and let the character’s bizarre situations run wild, but this movie enters the realm of the preposterous too often. There is a long sequence where the windshield wipers fail on the car during a downpour and the carload of daytrippers pull over to a strange house. Our haunted hero finds a key hidden in a flower pot and they just enter and make themselves at home like so many Goldilocks wannabes. They make a fire, they make tea, they lounge on the sofas. Then a cop just happens to pass by and ask what they’re all doing there. Inane. The whole hypnosis thing is so tired even for a movie made in 1947. Can’t really recommend this unless you are a die hard old crime thriller fan or desperately need to see Star Trek’s Dr. McCoy when he was in his 30s.”

    I like his revenge novels: Waltz into Darkness, The Bride Wore Black, and Rendezvous in Black. That last one is perhaps his most powerful. Fright under the “George Hopley” pseudonym is one of his better books as well. Has a heartbreakingly tragic ending. That title was reprinted by Hard Case Crime and is easily obtainable these days.

    Woolrich in short story form is probably where he does his best work. His stories are truly thrilling, show a wide range of styles and themes, and are sometimes ingenious. “One Drop of Blood” — so clever and yet so simple with it’s O. Henry-like ending — still stays with me decades after I first read it as a teen. His stories unlike his novels are varied and rich and show less retread than his novels which often share plot elements.

    • Thanks for that John – blimey, you really didn’t like that version of the story, did you?! I quite enjoyed it and it has the virtue of being very faithful to the original novella though it expands the main characters by giving him a separate life at work and a girlfriend, which neutralises the slightly homoerotic charge of original. I’ve not read Fright actually (shall have to get the HCC reprint) and to the excellent books you mention would only add Night has a Thousand Eyes and I Married a Dead Man as real favourites. ‘One Drop of Blood’ is a really nifty story that reminded me a lot of Columbo.

  4. TracyK says:

    Thanks for this interesting review. Reminding me that I need to try a Cornell Woolrich novel (or novella). I am not sure he is my cup of tea, but as part of my ongoing “experiencing vintage mysteries” project, I want to experience his writing.

    • I hope you find his work of interest – he was very prolific in the 30s and 40s. He is very good at creating really excruciating scenarios in which protagonists are put through a huge emotional journey. They usually make it to the other side, though not always … Many were adapted for the cinema with great success and I have a special fondness for the Barbara Stanwyck picture No Man of Her Own, adapted from I Married a Dead Man. The movie was recently remade as Mrs Winterbourne.

      • TracyK says:

        I looked up the two movies. The plots certainly make the book (I Married a Dead Man) sound interesting. Sounds like the endings could be depressing.

        • Todd Mason says:

          Woolrich was the king of Bleak…even the Gold Medal crowd couldn’t outdo him that way, strive though they did mightily. And not all Woolrich is as good as other Woolrich (or Irish, etc.)…but gosh he’s great when he’s on, and usually at least good enough.

          As you note, his work was a great favorite of the durable CBS Radio anthology series SUSPENSE, which helped keep his name before larger audiences up through the final years of that series–“You’ll Never See Me Again” with Joseph Cotten being one of the most widely-remembered of SUSPENSE episodes (there was a shortlived tv series version in the early ’50s–with no fewer than six episodes adapting CW!, but the radio version ran till 1962, with it and YOURS TRULY, JOHNNY DOLLAR being the last regularly scheduled weekly radio drama on CBS [GUNSMOKE had wrapped up on radio in 1960] till they picked up again with the weeknightly CBS RADIO MYSTERY THEATER in 1973). And, indeed, the films…I am impressed to see on IMDb that he began his engagement with them writing intertitles for silents such as the adaptation of SEVEN FOOTPRINTS TO SATAN…

          I was very happy to pick up nearly all of the Ballantine reissue series in the 1980s, in uniform paperbacks. Like Hammett, Woolrich placed early work with THE SMART SET magazine before making a bigger splash with its little stablemate BLACK MASK…

          • Thanks for all that lovely info Todd – yes, the 80s edition with the Nevins intro were particularly good (I’ve got 6 or 7 of these). There was, apparently, a writer at First national (that later merged with Warners, by the name of ‘William Irish’ who was not Woolrich, which has caused some confusion suince it is likely they met when Children of the Ritz was filmed – can;t remember now what Nevins says about this in the biography ‘First You dream, Then You Die’, which has a scarily long film, TV and Radio filmography …

        • No Man of her Own has the right kind of ending shall we say – well, at least I thought they were satisfying! His books are not downbeat in the way Goodis and Jim Thompson usually are shall we say? Anyway, to the extent that these are often stories are people who are trapped in seemingly impossible situations, Woolrich often springs a surprise ending.

  5. Fascinating, Sergio! I’m acquainted with Woolrich as a writer though I’m yet to read any of his fiction. I didn’t know that most of his stories and novels were adapted to film including REAR WINDOW which speaks volumes about his calibre as an engaging writer of mystery and suspense, particularly the “dark and bleak” variety that I quite enjoy reading. I noticed that the titles of short stories and novellas which first appeared, or were serialised, in magazines were reprinted in book form with new titles. I’m going to look up some of Woolrich’s work, online if I can’t find hard copies.

    • Thanks for the comments Prashant. Most, if not all, of Woolrich’s work is still in copyright so there is little that is legitimately available online I’m afraid though a lot of his stories can be found on anthologies of Noir and Hardboiled fiction though he also dabbled in weird/supernatural tales too, though I am less familiar with those. Mot of his best work is pre 1950 – it got fairly maudlin and peculiar after that in my view – Francis M. Nevins called him the “Poe of the 20th century” …

  6. Pingback: NIGHT WALKER (1954) by Donald Hamilton | Tipping My Fedora

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