“Jane Brown’s Body” and “Undertow”

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I just read the newest entry from Ryan Harvey, one of the ace bloggers over at Black Gate. It concerns Cornell Woolrich’s 1938 novella, “Jane Brown’s Body.” From the sound of it, it’s a fine little science-fictional horror tale. The plot can be briefly summarized: a scientist revives the newly-dead body of a beautiful young woman. Later, a young gangster abducts the woman from the scientist who he believes has “enslaved” her. Action and horror ensue.

Now, as someone who has read his share of Karl Edward Wagner’s works, but very little of Woolrich’s, I have to say that the plot outlined by Ryan Harvey seems to possess some likeness to that of KEW’s “Undertow.” That tale is a short story in the “Kane” series written by Wagner in 1977, about forty years after “Jane Brown’s Body.” For those who fear spoilers, my advice would be to stop reading about now.

In “Undertow,” Kane is still casting his shadow over the primal wizard-city of Carsultyal. The only company within his sorcerous keep is a beautiful young woman. Very early on, the reader finds that she wants to leave Kane. At one point, she talks a young barbarian warrior into running away with her. Kane kills him and brings her back. Eventually, she finds a roguish smuggler-pirate with brains and guts to help her. They manage to incapacitate Kane, who warns the two of them that they’ve won nothing. Out at sea, the skipper wakes up with a corpse in his bed.

Wagner’s encyclopedic knowledge of the pulps is well-known. Considering Woolrich’s dark outlook and forays into various kinds of horror, I find it hard to believe that Wagner had not read “Jane Brown’s Body,” especially since it was made into an episode of Journey Into the Unknown in 1968. However, do not think I’m insinuating that “Undertow” is some sort of “rip-off” of Woolrich’s tale. Though I haven’t read it, from Ryan’s synopsis it would seem there are significant differences. Plus, I don’t know the ending of the Woolrich story.

Wagner transformed the “mad scientist” of “Jane Brown’s Body” into Kane. Since the publication of Wagner’s novel, Bloodstone, readers had known that Kane was neck-deep into thaumaturgy, but “Undertow” made this integral part of Kane’s personality most explicit.

In the Woolrich tale, the scientist seems to have looked upon his experiment in revivication as a sort of pet or half-wit niece. In the case of Kane and his paramour, the relationship is much more complex. It would seem she was attracted to Kane at first, but later sought to leave him. He compelled her to stay, but she managed to break his control enough to hang herself. Kane found her and brought her back from the dead. With no memory of her suicide, she persists in trying to leave Kane. When she asks him why he keeps her despite her loathing, Kane replies that he loves her. Despite her unnatural state, she is Kane’s one link to humanity. Also, if Kane’s protestations of love are true, as they seem to be, then he surely feels a twinge of guilt in bringing about her death.

In “Jane Brown’s Body,” the hard-boiled gangster stumbles upon the mad scientist’s remote lab by sheer happenstance. Wagner chose to make Kane’s paramour an active agent in bringing her would-be rescuers into conflict with her erstwhile lover. Essentially, Kane is the “mob boss” and his woman is the femme fatale who needs a strong man to escape her keeper. “Jane Brown’s Body” is “Frankenstein meets noir,” but Wagner’s “Undertow” is essentially a noir tale told in a fantasy setting where the mob boss loses his moll, but the lovers come to a bad end.

I guess I need to go read some more Cornell Woolrich.

*Art by Drew, as well as John Mayer.