She Walks in Darkness by Evangeline Walton
Many of us who have read Evangeline Walton have her, mentally, on our epic fantasy bookshelf with people like J.R.R. Tolkien and Mervyn Peake, for her retellings of the Welsh mythic cycle The Mabinogion. For us, She Walks in Darkness is a surprise. This previously unpublished novel, brought out by Tachyon Press, is not epic fantasy at all but a gothic thriller.
Written in the early 1960s, She Walks in Darkness was a casualty of Walton’s dispute with a publisher. The publisher had handled Dark Runs the Road badly, and Walton’s contractual agreement stipulated they got first crack at her next book, which happened to be She Walks in Darkness. Walton put the book in a drawer, along with many other works. Now, more than fifty years later, it is seeing the light of day, so to speak.
It is dated, but She Walks in Darkness holds its own pretty well. The story is set in the early 1950s in a remote part of Italy, where an American archeologist and his wife have come to study the Etruscan ruins beneath a villa. The former owner of the villa, Prince Mino Carenni, an old-school aristocrat who may be imprisoned, or dead, was a scholar of the Etruscans, holding them in high esteem. There was, however, something dark about Prince Mino, and a scandalous rumor of a young Englishman who disappeared on the property, shortly before the end of the war.
All of this we find out shortly after the opening, but the opening itself is chilling:
Old Mattia Rossi’s body is gone. It no longer lies at the foot of the cellar stairs. This morning, when I finally braced myself to go down and look for those keys I need so badly, it was not there.
And that can mean only one thing.
The first-person narrator is Barbara or Barby, Keyes, the young wife of Richard, the archeologist. Richard lies unconscious in the room behind her, concussed; they arrived at the villa to find no hired man, no electricity and no phone. When Richard went to move the car, he was attacked and the car destroyed. Barby is stuck in a strange house in a country she doesn’t know, without transportation, with an injured husband… and a murderer.
Walton controls the tone and voice of the book perfectly, as Barby shifts in moments of present-tense panic as she tries to decide what to do, but also slows down enough to give us the background. She is clearly a pre-feminist heroine, but smart and strong, a thinker who manages to hold her own in debates with her loving husband, as we see in flashbacks.
The situation is dire at first, but soon another character appears. Floriano is a handsome young local who can speak, read and write English. He agrees to help, and before long becomes as involved in the mysteries of the villa as Barby. Floriano obviously has a connection to the Carenni family. As he and Barby look for a way to escape, he begins to tell her stories of the Carenni and their various atrocities.
Familiar tropes pop up right and left. Floriano, the handsome peasant lad, is one; the dreaded prison back in the town and the “escaped prisoner” Barby heard about just before she and Richard left is another; my personal favorite is the “secret journal” of Roger Carstairs, the young Englishman who disappeared at the villa. Floriano just happens to find the journal while he is searching for his bicycle, which has been stolen. Walton spices up the predictable parts with fascinating bits about the Etruscans, and some genuine eeriness, like a larger than life statue of the Queen of the Underworld, Mania, who is a winged woman with a human youth in her arms. There is such a statue in the garden of the villa, but as the story progresses and Barby ends up deeper and deeper underground, she finds another depiction of the goddess, in an exotic and terrifying setting.
The face below had an awful beauty, not base, not vicious, majestic, perhaps even noble, but infinitely remote from the heat of all passion, from all the softening gentleness of pity. She stared with unwinking black eyes into that hissing curtain of steam that could never warm her.
For a traditional 1950s housewife, Barby has some enlightened views of personhood and equality. At one point she tells an attacker, “I don’t belong to Richard, but I do belong to myself.” Later in the book, Barby nearly escapes, reaching a small hamlet in the mountains. She speaks no Italian or any of the regional dialect, and the people stare at her with suspicion. She realizes “… the filthy scarecrow figure I made then cannot have looked quite human, and there is a terrible world-wide delusion that that is just what foreigners are. Not quite people, not like oneself, ourselves.”
Barby is not a physical fighter, and a bit too weepy at times, but on the other hand she makes her way through a subterranean labyrinth in darkness in a chiffon dress and pumps, which I couldn’t do. She uses her mind and reason to outwit the villain and escape, and her loyalty to Richard is unshaken even when Floriano, who she describes as “beautiful,” is plying her with wine and in general behaving badly. The tone of the book reminded me a little of some early Mary Stewart gothic romances, like Thunder on the Right, This Rough Magic and Moon-Spinners. The story bogs down in spots while characters lecture each other, especially near the end. Still, Walton keeps it interesting.
I hope this isn’t the last posthumous book we see from Walton. She Walks in Darkness shows her range, reminds us of her beautiful prose, and tells a suspenseful story. Tachyon has graced the book with a lovely cover and added a foreword and afterword that give us a little more history about Walton. This slim book, just under 200 pages, is worth a few hours of your time.
I’ve got to read this. Gothic+Etruscans+Evangeline Walton’s writing? Sign me up.
Me too! How’d I miss this book? I’m very glad to see Evangeline Walton making a sort of resurgence, and definitely glad to see some of her unpublished writings coming to press.