Fright – Cornell Woolrich

3 out of 5

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I wasn’t the type who was averse to watching old, pre-color movies simply by dint of their era or limited palette. But yes: I’d say there’s something of an adjustment needed when watching such films, as they are certainly of a different tone and pace than what we might be used to today. That’s not to say that there aren’t those selected viewings that just grab you immediately, regardless of when they were made, but if you start wandering out into the non-notables, the aforementioned “this is how movies / TV were, back in the day” goggles can be helpful.

Books, less so, especially when you’re sticking to a particular genre. The language has certainly changed, which brings its own share of understandings, but I’d maintain that a lot of the core storytelling tenets have remained similar in horror across the years; in drama across the years; etc. When it comes to pulp and crime novels, thanks to the Hard Case Crime imprint, I’ve certainly read my fair share of ‘before my time’ books at this point, and several books besides that were published before Cornell Woolrich’s Fright in 1950. But Fright – which is set in the 1910s – reminds me of those black and white movie experiences: it doesn’t read like fellow books of its genre, and I had to keep adjusting my expectations of pacing and flow as a result. Woolrich’s narrative voice is lovely. His way around descriptions and tip-toeing around character motivations and action is polished and poised, nothing terse or disruptive, and befitting of a sort of fake out calm that belies some of the dastardly stuff that occurs. And to that extent, the novel is quite astounding: when up-and-comer, soon to be married Prescott Marshall gets extorted by a young woman claiming to have been a drunken dalliance of his – and it’s perfect that this dalliance was just a kiss, but it’s enough to set Preston’s world aflame – his series of kneejerk responses escalate astoundingly, but it’s all brought across with this smooth, nothing-to-see-here charm; the tensest moments happen between the lines. And that’s noir enough, for sure: one mistake followed by mistakes to cover up that mistake and etc. But Woolrich’s tone, and perhaps the early century setting, mean that the general tension ratcheting up we experience in this genre is done at a slow pace. Actions happen multiple times, repeating themselves; the machinations Cornell builds in to keep us on the hook – to keep Prescott paranoid – are extended beyond the point of necessity, as the book plays with finding the line of how little it takes for someone to start spinning conspiracy theories fitting to their world view, and then steps over that line such that it’s hard to get too stirred up when things do start happening. The flipside, of course, is that while we’re taking our time on the downbeats, the “up”beats get the same amount of care, and can be page turners. While all of these hills and valleys end up betraying the ending quite ahead of time – leading us to the only possible conclusion – a postscript reminds of how dang mean the book has actually been, which is a desirable trait in this scene.