CORNELL WOOLRICH – Savage Bride. Gold Medal #138, paperback original; reprinted at least three times.

   So I was watching Black Moon, reviewed here a few years ago, a crackerjack little film taking place in the tropics and the priestess of a local voodoo cult, and it got me to thinking: Had I seen something like this before? No … but I’d read it; I was a Cornell Woolrich fan long before Mike Nevins made it respectable, and back in High School, when I haunted seedy used book stores in crummy neighborhoods, I picked up a copy of Savage Bride which, if I remembered correctly, had the same plot or something very much like it.

   I dug out my copy of the book, intending to skim through it and confirm my suspicions, but the Woolrich prose grabbed me right at the start, and I found myself reading (or re-reading after 40 years) this thing all the way through. And I was right: there are some changes, but this is basically the premise of Black Moon formatted for a two-bit -paperback.

   Larry Jones, naïve young hero, opens the story by eloping with Mitty, a young woman raised in seclusion by two scientists, her upbringing like some soda! experiment. The honeymooning couple miss their boat and get stuck on s Central American island where Mitty seems drawn Irresistibly towards the jungle … and the primitive tribes with their drums, those incessant drums pounding-in-my-head-night-and-day-Oh-why-won’t-they-stop?

   Yes, it’s Black Moon all right, complete with the wife turning into a creature of evil, the good folks on a plantation besieged and taken captive by natives, and the perky young love interest for our hero after his wife proves socially embarrassing.

   But there’s more here. Surprisingly more. Savage Bride is a novel with layers, only the first of which is Woolrich’s prose, colorful as a movie poster and just as effective. Woolrich evokes the feel of a scene by emphasizing its look: he describes conversations in silhouette, cigarette smoke drifting aimlessly as the pointless talk. He conveys the suspense of a car chase with the surrounding night-scape, and there’s a very neat bit late in the book with Larry darting from shadow to shadow in a moonlit night, which Woolrich likens to a chess piece maneuvering from black-square-to-white-to-black to avoid capture. Good stuff, that.

   There’s also some subtle foreshadowing which escaped me back in my teens: early on, Mitty describes her upbringing by the scientists: “He’d hand me something to drink and he’d say ‘Water.’ Then when ! wanted it again rd say ‘water’ and he’d bring it to me . . ..” And this is reprised later in the book to chilling effect. Mitty goes on to describe learning about love by reading Romeo and Juliet, and this is also echoed, very movingly, as the tale concludes. Sharp stuff for a two-bit paper-back.

   More layers? Well, like I said before, Mitty, the ostensible heroine of the book, quickly loses our sympathy and becomes the villain of the piece toward the end (“She doesn’t know what mercy is.”) but Woolrich very casually demonstrates that her cruelty is no worse than that of the heartless men who spirited her away as a child in the name of Science, and maybe not as bad as the slow, deliberate meanness of the corrupt officials of “civilization.”

   And come to that, all of these are just expressions of the malignant universe that was Woolrich’s world.