Cornell and the Snake Woman

I'm currently perusing Darkness at Dawn: Early Suspense Classics by Cornell Woolrich, a fourteen story representation of the The Father of Noir's pulp magazine beginnings in the realm of suspense fiction. I found oddly fascinating the entry that I most recently read, "Kiss of the Cobra," a yarn in which a woman, exotic to the extreme in that she resembles and behaves like – goodness, it seems she even smells like – a snake, systematically goes about killing, in a highly unusual manner, the relatives she has only just acquired through marriage.

Narrating in the present tense, the protagonist, Charlie, an L. A. County detective on sick-leave, tells of his, his wife's and his kid brother's homicidally disastrous meeting with the reptilian bride of his father-in-law. As this unmistakably Woolrichian tale slithered before my eyes, I thought of a phrase my mother frequently used to describe those not exactly overflowing with the milk of human kindness – "all the warmth of a hooded cobra."

This passage in "Kiss of the Cobra" quite amused me:

"Charlie, I think you'd better notify the state asylum," she whispers. "I think his death has made her lose her mind. She must really think she's a snake."

This is putting it so mild that I have a hard time not laughing right in her face. That creature lurking back there in the house doesn't only think she's a snake; for all practical purposes, she is one. I don't mean in the slang sense, either. She is sub-human, some sort of monstrosity or freak that India has bred just once in all its thousands of years of history.

Now, there are two possibilities as I see it. She is what she is, either of her own free will—maybe a member of some ghastly snake-worshipping cult—or without being able to control herself. Maybe her mother had some unspeakable experience with a snake before she was born. In either case she's more than a menace to society, she's a menace to the race itself.

"[S]ome unspeakable experience with a snake" – I love it. And "a menace to the race itself." Ah ... Mr. Woolrich, ever the outsider, sometimes chooses to cast himself, perhaps for a refreshing change, as the observer of the outsider. Clearly, some rather interesting fancies, distortions of reality, flitted through this extraordinarily reclusive man's mind – his biographer, Francis M. Nevins Jr., believed that Cornell had an obsession, intriguing in its psychological implications, with orally administered death – and yet he was able to depict facets of the real world, i.e. New York in the '30's and '40's, with startlingly stark genuineness. Surely, he didn't pick up all his insights from his brief and professionally uneventful stint in Hollywood, the land, after all, of surreality. I must imagine that he simply kept his ears wide open as he hunched, perched on a barstool at the local watering hole, over his procession of drinks.

Don't ask me why the snake woman kills (Cornell's description of the method of murdering is to be relished); I'm not sure that even the "Kiss of the Cobra" author knew. I enjoyed, though, second-hand, the effects of her poison.