Wednesday, November 4, 2015

An Archetypal Terror

William Sloane was a younger contemporary of H.P. Lovecraft.  Unlike Lovecraft, he had a successful career in both writing and publishing, working for various publishing houses and eventually becoming the director of Rutgers University Press from 1955 until his death in 1974.  Sloane published several plays in the early 1930s, some dealing with supernatural subjects, and a number of short stories.  He formed his own company, William Sloane Associates in 1946, and later edited two anthologies of science fiction in the 1950s. 

He wrote two impressive novels, To Walk the Night and a later work, The Edge of Running Water, (1939).  The latter was made into a movie called The Devil Commands (1941).  It starred Boris Karloff as a scientist obsessed with communicating with his deceased wife via weird technology and the help of a treacherous medium.  Both of Sloane’s novels appear together in The Rim of Morning, originally published in 1964, and re-issued this year. 

Stephen King, who wrote the introductory notes to the most recent release, notes that Sloane once met Carl Jung, the famous psychotherapist and J.B. Rhine, a renowned expert in extrasensory perception at a special luncheon in 1937.  Jung had read an earlier version of To Walk the Night—it had first appeared as a play—and was apparently impressed with Sloane’s work.  Jung’s notion of the mysterious archetypal feminine principle, the “anima” is strongly echoed in Sloane’s character of Selena LeNormand.   

Rhine, who was originally a botanist, became intrigued with the paranormal after attending a lecture by Arthur Conan Doyle, who expounded on scientific proof that it was possible to communicate with the dead.  After publishing his experience of debunking a fraudulent medium, Rhine went on to develop scientific procedures for testing the presence of extra sensory perception.  He is credited with being one of the founders of parapsychology.  E.S.P. is an important element in To Walk the Night, enhancing the essential otherness of the principle female character.

To Walk the Night is a compelling blend of horror, science fiction and mystery genres.  Though there is reference to higher level mathematics and Einstein’s theory of the Space-Time Continuum, this is basically a novel of quiet, psychological horror.  The story is told in a series of flashbacks bracketed by two unnatural deaths, one gruesome and inexplicable, the other tragic and perhaps unavoidable.

The pace will seem slow and leisurely to many contemporary readers, who have come to expect intense action and graphic detail. To Walk the Night is mainly a series of conversations and set pieces, and Sloane makes adept use of the psychology of a family’s relationships, where issues of trust, anxiety and fear of change complicate the arrival of a new member.  Sloane hooks his readers with a bizarre death in the opening chapters and then retreats into a sequence of reminisces that grow increasingly disturbing as events are recalled in greater detail. 

The focus gradually sharpens on Selena LeNormand, widow of the doomed astronomer.  She is a strange woman who alternately attracts and repels, abruptly changing the lives of two men who have grown up together as brothers.  She marries one of the two men not long after the grisly demise of her first husband.  Incredibly intelligent and alluring, she seems to have no recoverable past, only a present and perplexing future. 

Selena displays an eerie knack for subtle imitation, making herself a kind of screen onto which others project their desires and anxieties.  Her new in-laws grow ever more uncomfortable with unanswered questions about the woman’s origin, nationality, social class, age, intent—there is a suggestion that she could be either a celebrity in hiding or perhaps a subversive.  But Selena remains utterly unknown, part of a larger mystery.  Her power over the others continues to grow.   
To Walk the Night is remarkable for its depth of characterization, mastery of subtle, even witty dialogue, and deft portrayal of family dynamics in the wake of mystery and tragedy.  It is refreshing to see conventional details that are almost completely absent from the fiction of Lovecraft and his colleagues:  smoking, drinking, dancing, dinner parties, family gatherings, interesting women, intimacy.  The scenes and characters in Sloane’s novel are credible, familiar and normal.   Their very conventionality serves to magnify the horror that emerges.  The depiction of that horror—of a willful, intelligent and self-sufficient woman—is sophisticated for the genre fiction of the time. 


Fans of H.P. Lovecraft will want to check out the November issue of Rue Morgue, which features several articles commemorating the author’s 125th anniversary.

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