Most pulp writers of the 1930s were itching to break into the hardcover book market. Since reprints of pulp stories in book form were rare at the time, these writers did not expect that their work for the newsstands would survive past an issue’s sell-date. They felt comfortable re-working and expanding on them to create novels. Raymond Chandler famously called his process of novelizing his already published work as “cannibalizing.” He welded together different short stories, often keeping large sections of text intact with only slight alterations. Other authors took ideas that they liked, or else felt they could do more justice to in the novel format, and enlarged them into books without text carry-over. Robert E. Howard used “The Scarlet Citadel” as a guide for The Hour of the Dragon. And Cornell Woolrich turned many of his short stories into novels. “Face Work” became The Black Angel. “Call Me Patrice” became I Married a Dead Man. “The Street of Jungle Death” became Black Alibi. And “Speak to Me of Death” became Woolrich’s most depressing novel (which is really saying something), Night Has a Thousand Eyes.
In most of these cases, Woolrich made major changes from the short version to the longer one. “Face Work” is a minor piece and only remains as an incident within The Black Angel. “Street of Jungle Death” is a pretty wretched piece of junk, and yet Woolrich took this silly “big cat on the loose in Hollywood!” and fashioned it into a grim classic — one of his best novels — set in the web-ways of a South American city.
But in the case of “Speak to Me of Death” and its growth into Night Has a Thousand Eyes, Woolrich changed little of the story. He instead deepened this examination of fate, psychic powers, and police work so it lasted over three hundred pages. The short story is a classic, and so is the novel — it’s merely a matter of the length of the author maintains the effect. If Night Has a Thousand Eyes is the superior work, “Speak to Me of Death” might be better for your nerves because it ends much sooner.
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It might surprise regular readers of this website that Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard are not my favorite pulp writers. They rank among the authors who have influenced and inspired me the most—and they provide endless material to discuss and analyze. But my favorite pulper, perhaps my favorite writer of all time, is Cornell Woolrich.
I haven’t written anything about Woolrich on Black Gate before because his genre doesn’t intersect with the dominant focus of the magazine, except maybe in the broad way that Black Gate readers are usually interested in the pulps in general. Woolrich wrote suspense and mystery stories, and the majority of his work appeared in crime magazines like Dime Detective, Detective Fiction Weekly, and the legendary Black Mask. His specialty was the “emotional thriller,” harrowing trips into fear and paranoia with suspense set pieces that no author has equaled. Often called by admirers and critics “the literary Hitchcock” and “the twentieth-century Edgar Allan Poe,” Woolrich could wring more palpitating dread out of everyday life than any writer I’ve encountered. His style is defining of noir, the existential crime tale. Eventually, Hitchcock and Woolrich did merge, when Hitchcock turned Woolrich’s short story “Rear Window” (originally published as “It Had to Be Murder”) into a film that you might have heard of.
But there is one part of Woolrich’s oeuvre that falls into the compass of Black Gate: he made occasional forays into stories of the fantastic. He was actually ideally suited for the horror story, but the market for such tales was not as strong as the crime fiction market (just ask anybody to whom Weird Tales owed money). Woolrich had a personally dismal view of existence—universe and fate are essentially hostile to humanity, and the inevitability of death made life pointless—that could transfer perfectly to the supernatural, where those malign forces of the universe manifest in the unnatural occurrences. The idea that the world doesn’t care for you is one also found in H. P. Lovecraft, although visualized in a different way. If the two men had ever met, there would have been a strange, strange discussion. (Woolrich, however, could rarely be budged from his hotel room in Manhattan. H. P. Lovecraft was a partying socialite in comparison.)
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