It was the first Cornell Woolrich I’ve read unless you count the Rear Window screenplay, which is of course excellent — but a screenplay is a whole bag of tricks quite different than a novel.
Regardless, I found Woolrich’s Fright incredibly unsettling, disturbing and weird. It’s sort of the written equivalent of Hitchcock — both in a good way and a bad way. I often find Hitchcock films misleadingly slow, so that you’re unaware that he’s completely messing with you until after your brain has been severely tweaked.
In much the same way as I feel when watching a “slow” but brutally brilliant Hitchcock film like Vertigo, in reading Fright, I felt very tense throughout — to the point where I actually gave myself a cramp in my back because I was sitting so awkwardly in the chair, freaking out as I read it.
I am not a cheap date when it comes to thrillers — so that absolutely never happens. Most books I read at emotional arms-length. Fright, on the other hand, got me thoroughly engaged, and I would even go so far as to say I felt a little creeped out. Believe it or not, Fright actually scared me.
I can only assume the bad reviews of Fright that I’ve seen come from the weirdly gothic esthetic of the language. That makes it very different than the typical Hard Case Crime novel, where hard-boiled prose is the order of the day. Woolrich, on the other hand, is thoroughly noir but not at all hard-boiled. It’s much closer to gothic fiction — in the way that the narrator obsesses over details and doom almost tediously, but at times both terrifyingly and even comically.
Because of that crazy overtone, it’s a mite difficult to identify with the narrator, in maybe the same way Lovecraft’s narrators can be alienating to the reader. If you do like Lovecraft, Fright is a roman noir cut from very much the same cloth.
Plus — another thing that rarely happens — the ending of Fright completely caught me off guard.
A highly recommended read for lovers of gothic and noir fiction.