Night Has a Thousand Eyes: Pretty horrifying, after all

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Night Has a Thousand Eyes by Cornell Woolrich horror book reviewsNight Has a Thousand Eyes by Cornell Woolrich horror book reviewsNight Has a Thousand Eyes by Cornell Woolrich

On the cover of my Dell paperback edition of Night Has a Thousand Eyes (with a cover price of 25 cents), the author is listed as William Irish, with an asterisk next to the name. At the bottom of the cover, next to the footnote asterisk, is another name: George Hopley. This should not fool any prospective readers, though. Both names were pseudonyms of Cornell Woolrich, the author whom Isaac Asimov called “THE Master of Suspense”; whom his biographer, Francis Nevins, Jr., called “the Edgar Allan Poe of the 20th century” (hey, wait a minute … I thought that H.P. Lovecraft was considered the Edgar Allan Poe of the 20th century!); and who is considered one of the fathers of literary film noir. Many of Woolrich’s novels and stories have been famously filmed, “Rear Window,” “The Bride Wore Black,” “Phantom Lady,” “Deadline at Dawn” and “Mississippi Mermaid” being just a sampling. Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1945) was turned into a 1948 Edward G. Robinson movie that supposedly has little in common with the book. That’s a shame, as the book is a marvelous piece of eerie suspense writing that could have made a smashing film.

In Woolrich’s tale, Detective Tom Shawn saves Jean Reid from a suicide attempt one night, and later hears her tale. She is in despair because the death of her wealthy father has been predicted by a man seemingly gifted with the power of clairvoyance; a man whose predictions have unerringly aided her father in his business many times before. Shawn and a squad of detectives investigate this death prediction, and try to avert the millionaire businessman from meeting his ordained end at the stroke of midnight “at the jaws of a lion.” The reader will never guess how things turn out, or how Harlan Reid eventually winds up.

Woolrich writes with a superabundance of detail, which slows things down a little but also ratchets up the suspense factor. We get more and more nervous as that midnight hour approaches, while Woolrich teases us by describing how the milk looks in one of the character’s coffee, and by giving us the minutiae of a bridge game. Hitchcock himself could not have drawn more suspense out of the book’s brilliantly sustained final third. It is a bravura example of a writer anticipating what his reader wants, and holding it tantalizingly out of reach…

I came to this book after having read of it in Newman & Jones’ overview volume entitled Horror: 100 Best Books. As Night Has a Thousand Eyes progressed, I found myself thinking that the book isn’t all that scary; extremely suspenseful, yes, and in parts a bit eerie, but certainly not a horror book. But upon finishing the novel, the reader will inevitably realize that the characters in Night Has a Thousand Eyes have no free will at all. Everything is preordained, and human beings are trapped in this master plan. The thousand star-eyes of the title look down on us, mercilessly and aloof. No wonder poor Jean Reid can’t bear to look at them. Woolrich’s vision of a relentless, bleak and deterministic universe turns out to be a pretty horrifying thing after all!

Published in 1945. In Woolrich’s iconic tale, Detective Tom Shawn saves a lovely young woman from a suicide attempt one night, and later hears her story. She is in despair because the death of her wealthy father has been predicted by a confidence man seemingly gifted with the power of clairvoyance; a man whose predictions have unerringly aided her father in his business many times before. Shawn and a squad of detectives investigate this dire prediction and try to avert the millionaire businessman from meeting his ordained end at the stroke of midnight. One of Cornell Woolrich’s most influential novels, this classic noir tale of a man struggling with his ability to see the future is arguably the author’s best in its depiction of a doomed vision of predestination.

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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough’s finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a “misspent youth” of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship — although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century — and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror… but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle “ferbs54.” Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club….

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4 comments

  1. Sounds like an excellent mystery!

  2. Stuart Starosta /

    Sounds very cool – I first heard of the author’s name in the intro to Harlan Ellison’s 1975 short story “Tired Old Man.” In the audiobook collection Pretty Maggy Moneyeyes. What an amazing writer and narrator!

    • Sandy Ferber /

      I’m currently reading a collection of Woolrich’s supernatural novellas, and what a terrific collection it is! My review to come….

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