Monthly Archives: September 2012

The Cocktail Waitress by James M. Cain

The only other Cain novel I have read is Mildred Pierce; an excellent novel but an enormous surprise for someone who had seen the movie. The two pieces of art have very little in common. Maybe 25% of the novel made it into the movie. I won’t spoil anything for anyone, but if you have seen the movie, read the book and then compare and contrast. However, I have seen The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity; I need to read those books. Lord only knows what Hollywood did with those books; although Raymond Chandler wrote the screen play for Double Indemnity and Billy Wilder directed it.

When I saw that “the lost final novel” by Cain had been published, I ordered it immediately and read it in a single sitting. As the editor, Charles Ardai, quoted The Saturday Review of Literature, “No one has ever stopped reading in the middle of one of Jim Cain’s books.”

The book isn’t a masterpiece, like his other books. It was written when he was 83, two years before his death. Ardai explains how the book was edited: it was drawn together by Ardai from multiple manuscripts and notes found in places thousands of miles apart. Ardai had to choose from conflicting but similar scenes, decide how events unfolded chronologically, and even choose from a variety of contradicting dialogue, names, and passages.

This undoubtedly accounts for distracting episodes, loose ends, and confusing cultural references that made me wonder, exactly, is this supposed to be taking place. For instance, Joan, the novel’s femme fatale, tells us that she has bought a color TV for her rent house so that her tenants’ child can watch Howdy Doody. Howdy Doody went off the air in 1960 (although it was also a pioneer in early color production, since it was broadcast by NBC which was owned by RCA). However, Joan and Earl leave for their honeymoon from Kennedy Airport and that airport was known as Idlewild Airport until 1963.

Details, details. The important thing about the book is that Cain gives us his own brand of explorations of greed, passion and murder. As he did in Mildred Pierce, he explores the line between desire and lust, responsibility and sacrifice. It is definitely worth the read.

In the New York Times Book Review, Michael Connelly writes “the self-­knowledge Joan possesses is perfect and some of the best stuff Cain ever put down on paper.” He cites this passage:

 “So I went up, took off my things, lay down and closed my eyes. Then at last I knew the truth: My beautiful dream, that I’d worked and schemed and plotted for, and then at last had made come true, in one ghastly, dreadful moment, had exploded in my face. . . .

“And then at last I began to realize how terrible a thing it was, the dream that you make come true.”

Connelly concludes, “No author was better at that sort of grim realization of the price of one’s desires than James M. Cain.”

Spoiler Alert:  Our younger readers may not have the knowledge necessary to understand the gut-twisting ending.  The afterword points this out. Those of us who were here in the 60s remember vividly the subject of Thalidomide. It was prescribed for morning sickness and a sleep-aid. Joan is given the drug in London to help her sleep. We learn that Joan is pregnant and is looking forward to her child’s birth. She knows the girl (she’s sure it is a girl) will be a beauty. We know better. Plus, Thalidomide was used by her lover to kill her husband. When the police learn that she had access to Thalidomide ….


1 Comment

Filed under Literary Genres, Mystery

Three Supernatural Classics by Algernon Blackwood

Algernon Henry Blackwood (1869-1951) was an English short story writer and novelist, one of the most prolific writers of ghost stories in the history of the genre. Though Blackwood wrote a number of horror stories, his most typical work seeks less to frighten than to induce a sense of awe. His two best known stories are probably “The Willows” and “The Wendigo”.

 H. P. Lovecraft considered “The Willows” (1907) to be the finest supernatural tale in English literature. In his treatise Supernatural Horror in Literature, Lovecraft wrote “Here art and restraint in narrative reach their very highest development, and an impression of lasting poignancy is produced without a single strained passage or a single false note.” “The Willows” is an example of early modern horror. Said by some, including H. P. Lovecraft, to be one of Blackwood’s best stories, and thus one of the best ghost stories in English. The precise nature of the mysterious entities in “The Willows” is unclear, and they appear at times malevolent and treacherous, and at times simply mystical, almost divine. These forces are also often contrasted with the fantastic natural beauty of the locale. In sum the story suggests that the landscape is an intersection, a point of contact with a “fourth dimension” — “on the frontier of another world, an alien world, a world tenanted by willows only and the souls of willows.”

 The Wendigo (1910) is set in the Canadian wilderness. A hunting party separates to track moose, and one member is abducted by the Wendigo. Robert Aickman, a supernatural fiction writer associated with August Derleth and H. P. Lovecraft, regarded this as “one of the (possibly) six great masterpieces in the field”.

 The wendigo is a creature appearing in the legends of the Algonquian people. It is thought of as a malevolent cannibalistic spirit that could possess humans or a monster that humans could physically transform into. Those who indulged in cannibalism were at particular risk, and the legend appears to have emphasized this practice to be a taboo.

 The Wendigo is a story of the unknown, not only the stories and rumors of something in the wilderness, but the apprehension in going into unexplored territory and living off the land and by one’s wits. This is a classic monster tale that asks the question, “Who or what is the monster here?” “The Wendigo” gives us a look at the unknown and brings with it both fear and wonder, which many times both go hand in hand.

 Like my personal favorite, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, classic horror stories build the suspense by simply not showing the monster and by contrasting the fantastic with the mundane. The Wendigo has character development, a vast setting, and an unsettling chill of something watching you at every turn.

 Blackwood’s novella is a masterful buildup of mood and atmosphere that provides a glimpse into prehistoric ages, when superstitions, gigantic and merciless, oppressed the hearts of men, when the forces of nature were still untamed, the old Powers that may haunted a still primeval universe.

 Interestingly, off topic, Theodore Roosevelt published  a brief tale titled “The Wendigo,” It appeared in The Wilderness Hunter, his ninth book, published in 1893, just eight years before he became president. It relates a “goblin story,” supposedly told to the narrator by a “grizzled, weather-beaten old mountain hunter, named Bauman.”

 The concept of wilderness as the shadow of civilization is certainly old as American literature, when the Europeans encountered  seemingly endless woods and unknown animals, spirits, and peoples, but forests have their own particular significance within Blackwood’s fiction, not least because Blackwood’s concept of a tree entailed an alarming degree of consciousness, or presumably unworldly wisdom. “The Willows” and “The Man Whom the Trees Loved” (1912) portray men at the mercy of trees.

 “The Man Whom the Trees Loved” is not in this collection. It is the eco-horror story to end all eco-horror stories. Again, the supernaturalism is indirect, but also because it’s a thoughtful meditation on changing notions of spirituality at the turn of the 20th century, on the threshold of the Victorian era’s final collapse in the trenches of World War I. It contrasts conventional Christianity against animistic mysticism, and provides an examination of fin-de-siècle spiritual ennui that in some ways is reminiscent of the work of Arthur Machen. Very highly recommended. It can be found in

– at Project Gutenberg
– at BlackMask/Munsey’s (multiple formats)
– at HorrorMasters (PDF, not printable)

 “The Listener” is a more traditional ghost story . It feels like a chilling fireside story whispered at midnight, but told in exceptional prose and told with a keen intensity that Blackwood injected into the best of his pure horror tales.

The story is told in the form of the diary of a nameless writer who rents a room in an old house in London. He reports strange nightly activities in his house, the sense of someone unseen listening outside his door, whispering strange phrases in his ear while he sleeps, bizarre thoughts recorded into his diary, a maid who refuses to talk about what once happened in the upstairs rooms, the vanishing figure on the staircase with indescribable features, and the slowly increasing sensation of some horrible illness creeping over him. The diary entries show a deterioration and paranoia about everything in the house. On the other hand, the author tells us he has a history of mental illness in his family, and he suffer from sleepwalking. Is the narrator reliable? We learn that a man occupied the upper floor had committed suicide; he was a leper and had lost his extremities. The question of the narrator’s perception constantly haunts it, making the inconclusive and abrupt ending appropriate.

These are three excellent examples of Algernon Blackwood’s works. I look forward to reading many more. For all things Algernon, this is a very thorough website:

Leave a comment

Filed under Horror

Night Has a Thousand Eyes by Cornell Woolrich

Many are more familiar with the term “film noir.” There is another genre that shares the same qualities. “Noir fiction” evokes unrelenting gloom; the work of all the major authors in the field can be characterized by a fatalistic attitude. This type of fiction has a lean, direct writing style and the gritty realism. Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James Cain, Dorothy B. Hughes, Jim Thompson, and, contemporarily, Elmore Leonard. Cornell Woolrich belongs in this distinguished list. “Cornell Woolrich’s novels define the essence of noir nihilism.” ~ Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times Book Review

 Night Has a Thousand Eyes was published in 1945, under one of Woolrich’s noms de plume, George Hopley. One of Cornell Woolrich’s most famous novels, this classic noir tale is arguably the author’s best in its depiction of a doomed vision of fate and free will. A man, his daughter, and a detective cope with the predictions of a old, wizened mystic with second-sight. Events occur that could be coincidence but the old man had foreseen them and knows things that seem impossible for anyone to know. The outcome could have been the result of predestination or free will; the reader can decide.

 I became impatient at times with the writing; Woolrich’s prose can be quite overextended and contains too many literary effects. For example, stating that someone is drinking a cup of coffee is too direct; three to four sentences describing the way milk sits in this cup of coffee is obligatory. At some point, however, I decided that it was Woolrich’s method of creating tension. Seen this way, it was effective.

 However, it is generally agreed even by Woolrich’s most admiring fans that well-plotted novels were not among his strengths. Nor was he much of a stylist; he often overwrites like a man who gets a penny a word and is determined to squeeze every cent he can out of his story.  It is for this reason that critics say that his work lacks the conciseness and fast pace usually associated with noir fiction, his subject matter evokes those same feelings of despair and cynicism.

Woolrich had a troubled life; being gay during this time certainly wasn’t acceptable and undoubtedly contributed to his problematic life. After his three month marriage was annulled, he lived with his mother. When his mother died in 1957, Woolrich deteriorated. An alcoholic, he ignored a minor foot infection until it became gangrenous and they had to amputate his leg above the knee. A recluse, when he died  in 1968, he weighed only 89 pounds.

The fatalism and self-loathing that haunted Woolrich’s life surfaced in his writing, in the murky, shadowed recesses of crime fiction. A number of movies have been made from his writings. Probably the most famous is Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), originally published as “It Had to Be Murder” in Dime Detective Magazine (Feb. ’42). Others include: Val Lewton’s The Leopard Man (1943, from Black Alibi), Phantom Lady (’43), Deadline at Dawn (’46), The Window (’49, from “The Boy Cried Murder”), Francois Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black (’68) and Mississippi Mermaid (’69, from Waltz into Darkness), Mrs. Winterbourne (’96, from I Married a Dead Man), and Original Sin (2001, Waltz into Darkness again).

A movie was made from Night Has a Thousand Eye; however, apparently, the only thing retained was the title. The movie has little in common with the novel.

Leave a comment

Filed under Mystery