Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Kind of Face You Slash: Thinking Won't Get You Anywhere

The first time I learned the name William Sloane was in 1988, when in the introduction to Stephen Jones and Kim Newman's seminal Horror: 100 Best Books (and yes, I bring this book up a lot, there's a reason for that) it was pointed out that Harlan Ellison (yes, I bring him up a lot too, leave me alone), was originally going to contribute a piece about Sloane's 1939 novel The Edge of Running Water, but, according to Jones and Newman, Ellison reread the novel, one he'd loved in his youth, and found it to be rotten. The essay Ellison ended up writing to the book was about Clark Ashton Smith, and one can hardly question that choice, but why did Sloane slide into the gutter for him? Having read Sloane now, I'll be honest: I don't know.

The opportunity to familiarize myself with Sloane was afforded to me through the release by NYRB of The Rim of Morning: Two Tales of Cosmic Horror. This volume, originally published in 1964, collects the only two novels that Sloane, mainly a publisher and editor by trade, ever wrote. These are To Walk the Night from 1937, and the aforementioned The Edge of Running Water. He also wrote a number of plays, and, according to Stephen King, in the typically chatty and rather interesting introduction he wrote for the NYRB edition, at least one short story that anybody has been able to track down, but as far as prose fiction goes, that story, called "Let Nothing You Dismay," and these two novels are it. This would make more immediate sense if Sloane had fallen off a bridge in 1940 or so, but he lived until 1974. I'm not going to speculate, but there is an interesting, though by no means off-putting, similarity between the two stories. Though I said I wasn't going to do this, it's possible to wonder if he believed he'd written one book twice. I would argue that he didn't, or that both novels are good enough that it doesn't matter, but why keep barking up this tree that may well not even be the one I'm looking for? But it's interesting. In some ways, you could even say the later novel, The Edge of Running Water, picks up where the earlier To Walk the Night leaves off.

The easiest way to get a sense of what Sloane was up to in a short period of time is to watch The Devil Commands, the adaptation of The Edge of Running Water starring Boris Karloff and directed by Edward Dmytryk that came out in 1941. That film isn't the subject of this post, but even though it whittles a 240-some page novel down to a 65-minute film, it's surprisingly faithful, and the gist, more or less, of that film and of Sloane's fiction is the mad scientist who is driven by either good intentions or understandable emotional turmoil. Sloane's doomed characters are the clear descendants of Victor von Frankenstein..

However, in Sloane's first novel To Walk the Night, the one full-blown scientist is dead, or nearly dead, and soon fully dead, when we first meet him. In fact, we know about all of the deaths in To Walk the Night within about the first twenty pages. The main characters are our narrator, Berkeley Jones and his best friend Jerry Lister, who we learn rather quickly has committed suicide. As the novel begins, Berkeley, nicknamed Bark, is travelling to visit Jerry's father, who knows of his son's suicide, but not the details. Bark is terrified by the prospect of telling him the full truth, but eventually he realizes that he must; perhaps in doing so he and Dr. Lister can figure out what it all means. But that, of course, is what terrifies Bark. The horror began, as even Dr. Lister knows, when the two friends were back at their alma mater, some years previously, for a football game. While there, they decided to visit Professor LeNormand, Jerry's one-time astrophysicist mentor. But they find the man dead, his body bent into an insane posture, and on fire, yet when extinguished strangely cool. When they learn from the authorities that LeNormand was married, Jerry is shocked -- the controversial scientist who'd made enemies with his article "A Fundamental Critique of the Einstein Space-Time Continuum" cared only for his work. But soon the young men meet LeNormand's wife, a stunning woman named Selena who behaves strangely and doesn't seem, in Bark's estimation, to have any idea how to dress, and after a while -- but not long enough, many believe -- Jerry begins romancing her. Along the way, Selena exhibits surprising powers of prediction, continues to behave as though everyday situations are new and confusing to her, and to generally strike Bark as rather frightening, if not quite malevolent. The plot of the novel by this point has shifted all the major characters back to New York City (of which Sloane seems rather fond, which is fine, if this didn't often contrast with a not-quite-but-close sneering attitude towards places that aren't New York City), but there will be two major geographical shifts: one back to the college town where we began, and where the chief of police has summoned Bark because he's made no headway in the death of LeNormand, and wants to share a bizarre theory about connections between Selena (whose alibi at the time of her husband's death is obviously water-tight) and a young mentally handicapped woman who went missing some time ago; and the other to a small town in Arizona, where Jerry and his eventual wife Selena move so he can carry on LeNormand's work, and where he finally commits suicide.

That last bit may sound like I've given away too much, but this is all revealed in Bark's initial conversation with Dr. Lister. The fact that the reader is naturally anticipating the suicide yet Sloane is still able to make it shocking is, I'd say, impressive, but I think I know how he did it. This will sound like an insult, but I don't mean it to be: the suicide is one of the very few visceral moments in the novel. The mystery of To Walk at Night is intriguing, and Sloane's willingness to spend time on things like parties and night's out, and on Bark's reckless, alcoholic behavior as his nameless panic over his Jerry's relationship with Selena, is unusual for writers in this genre, even back in the 1930s. To Walk the Night is by no means a long book, but once he's set everything up, Sloane is in no hurry to cut to the chase. Furthermore, Bark isn't merely a personality-free tube through which Sloane funnels his plot. He's weirder and more obviously troubled than Jerry, I'd say. His mother's weird too -- I won't get into all of that, I have another book to get to, but notice the bit where Bark admits to feeling "unfilial" towards her. And ask yourself, is the effect achieved here what Sloane was going for? And if so, what a weird thing to plunk down in the middle of this particular novel.

More about that book in a minute. When I said that The Edge of Running Water picks up where To Walk the Night leaves off, I meant that the later book takes the work of the mad scientist further, and gives it a definite purpose, which the essential unknowability of To Walk the Night doesn't allow for. That this purpose is taken from Mary Shelley is neither here nor there -- she gave Fankenstein a pretty huge goal to pursue, and it's only natural that other scientists would be driven that way, too. I'm talking about death, of course, and the defeat of death. In The Edge of Running Water, we again have a narrator, less strange than Bark though not quite an everyman, named Richard Sayles. Sayles was once good friends with, and (once again) the student of an eminent professor and scientist named Julian Blair. Once a beloved figure with a great mind, the sudden death of Blair's wife Helen sent him into a spiral that led him to move to a small town in New England called Barsham Harbor. There, five years after last seeing him, Sayles finds him, having been summoned to visit and lend assistance on a mysterious project Blair is deep into, living in a big house with his late wife's young sister, Anne, and a large, suspicious, unpleasant woman named Mrs. Walters. You should know that Sayles was also in love with Helen but he never got in the way of her relationship with Julian Blair, and Anne, when last he saw her, was fifteen, so now she's twenty. You can probably see where that's heading.

A bit more plot-driven than To Walk the Night, though not aggressively so, The Edge of Running Water has an ambling way about lining up and following the paths of its various mysterious. It's not hard to guess what Blair is trying to do before we're told outright. Obviously, he wants to communicate with the dead, and possibly destroy the barrier between life and death. Blair, looking terribly worn down, thin and unhealthy, when Sayles finally lays eyes on him, is more determined than ever to do this, and he claims to be making strides. This is something Sayles can't believe, but Blair refuses to show him any evidence yet. When Sayles learns that Mrs. Walters is a spirit medium, he's even more appalled. Then, all of a sudden -- or not "all of a sudden"; like To Walk the Night, the fates of various characters are told to us early on, and it's our job to find out why they end up the way they do -- The Edge of Running Water turns into a whodunnit. Or rather, a how'dithappen. Blair's lovable housekeeper, Mrs. Marcy, dies, suddenly, apparently from a fall down the stairs. But Sayles and Anne, who were outside when it happened, heard a terrible noise, one both Anne and Mrs. Marcy had heard before. Both Sayles and Anne are positive in this case it wasn't thunder, though a storm was boiling up at the time:

It happened as we passed the maple tree under which we had been lying earlier in the afternoon. Between one step and the next I found myself stopped, as if I had run into a wall, or come to the edge of an unexpected cliff and halted instinctively. For a second I did not understand why I had brought up short, and then I knew. It was the thing Anne and Mrs. Marcy had tried to describe to me. By the time I was fully aware of it, the noise had stopped, but the echo of it was still in my ears...From ahead of us somewhere -- I felt certain that it was from the house itself -- had come such a sound as I have never heard in any other place. It was a deep and indescribable thing, as single and yet as multiple as the noise of a tempest or the roar of a rock slide. An instant after it had reach us there was a sharp rush of wind and a stinging splatter of rain across my naked back, so that I checked my stride only momentarily and was running again toward the blurred loom of the house ahead in the same second, perhaps, that I had paused.

When he and Anne reach the house, they see Mrs. Marcy at the bottom of the stares, with Blair and Mrs. Walters standing over her. It should be noted that the read is fully aware by now that Mrs. Marcy will die, but she's not officially declared dead for several pages yet, which in terms of suspense is a strange move. But then again, this is a strange book, as was To Walk the Night before it. It's a better novel, too (apart from Sloane's seeming hatred of small-town people, which gets a workout here) -- the title The Edge of Running Water turns out to be a great one. Not only does it simply sound good (better than To Walk the Night, a title I was constantly forgetting as I read it), but it ultimately has a meaning that is sad, poetic, and eerie, all at once. Still, I think it's the curious nature of the plot progressions that I'll eventually find so memorable. It's almost like a straightforward mystery story (and with an inquest scene that goes on forever, though this didn't bother me, I have to say) in many ways, but with this cloud of otherworldly terror hanging over everything. 

And of course it's that terror which is the whole point, right? What is going on with Selena, and what was LeNormand doing that Jerry was trying to finish before killing himself in Arizona? And has Julian Blair found a way to end the separation between life and death? Of course, it was H. P. Lovecraft who wrote "And with strange aeons, even death may die," but in context, this wasn't exactly something he hoped for. Neither does Sloane. ("Death is good," said Val Lewton.) NYRB calls To Walk the Night and The Edge of Running Water "Tales of Cosmic Horror," cosmic horror being the subgenre of horror that is most directly associated with Lovecraft. He pretty much started it all, didn't he, with his Old Ones, the horrible gods who live in outer space (roughly speaking), and he did it before Sloane had written a word. Lovecraft in fact died the same year that To Walk the Night was published. 

Stephen King notes the connection between Sloane and Lovecraft in his introduction for NYRB, but only in passing. He brings it up mainly so that he can mark the difference in the two writers' prose styles. King has always given off the air of being somewhat skeptical of Lovecraft's greatness, because of his prose. He says that Sloane is closer to Chandler. I'd say he's not that close, but the examples King pulls from Sloane (such as this from To Walk the Night: "Maybe the Italians can live happily on the slopes of Vesuvius, but I am not that sort of person") do sound more like The Long Goodbye than "The Dunwich Horror."

This is no small thing, though horror fans, I must say, do seem to devalue good prose. They can get behind good purple prose, maybe (and I like that stuff myself, and when Lovecraft was at his best, that's what he wrote, better than a lot of writers), but good clean prose tends to get lumped in with the garbage. Sloane was very good, and he actually provided fewer answers to the questions raised by his horrors than Lovecraft did. Sure, Yog-Sothoth is a kind of metaphor, but Sloane doesn't even give his readers that much. There is something above us that is dangerous. There is something beyond us that is terrible. We don't know what it looks like or what it's called or what it wants or even if it hates us. Perhaps killing us is just an inevitable side effect of its perpetual motion. That's what Sloane is willing to send us off to bed thinking about.

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