New York Review Books Classics has just packaged two novels by renowned author, editor and teacher William Sloane into a single offering, The Rim of the Morning: Two Tales of Cosmic Horror. Sloane is not an author I’d previously known, probably due to the fact that these stories are two of only three novels that he ever published. Stephen King contributes a short but impeccable introduction, providing a tight analysis of the stories and windows into Sloane’s background and style. Sloane wrote and edited primarily supernatural mystery/scifi, but is known in literary worlds as a writing teacher.
The first of these novels, To Walk the Night, is a Lovecraftian tale of the investigation into an apparent murder and suicide. This is the much stronger of these two stories. It’s a heavy, moody, genre-bending mystery that drips with molasses-dread and alone is worth the full price of the book. The second is The Edge of Running Water, also mystery-based — the tale of an obsessed professor determined to find a way to communicate with his recently departed wife. Each story is about 200 pages long. I’ve reviewed them separately below.
To Walk the Night
A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
– From Endymion (A Thing of Beauty) by John Keats
The first story is a weighty and serious scifi/mystery, with Greek tragedy in its tone from the outset. Sloane borrows generously from the myth of Selene, goddess of the moon, who asks Zeus to keep her beautiful human lover, Prince Endymion, forever young. To Walk the Night is suggestive of this myth, though, and not too literal, but it’s fun to catch Sloane’s references to the ancient story sprinkled liberally throughout this novel.
The story opens as our primary narrator, Berkeley (called Bark), journeys to bring his best friend’s ashes home following his suicide. Jerry Lister’s death weighs heavily on Bark, and forms the narrative momentum for the initiation of the story. In many ways, this is a 1930s CSI, as Bark must work back through recent events, piece by piece, to uncover all the details and identify what’s pertinent and relevant to Jerry’s suicide.
Through Bark, Sloane dramatically builds the density and importance of the full backstory and makes clear the dread and imperative nature of the need to find the true reason why Jerry shot himself. Bark reflects on the complexity of events leading up to the suicide and remembers an “atmosphere of strangeness, even of terror, which was so much a part of my life while these events were in progress.”
To Walk the Night feels very gothic: there is a dark and deep polished walnut-tone vibe to Bark’s narration and exposition. The mythological themes are set early, though I only caught the first Selene clue in retrospect, upon reviewing my notes. Not all references are directly related to the story of Selena and Endymion, but the suggestion is always there… sometimes a little deeper under the surface than other times.
Bark dissects his recent trauma as part of a late-night discussion with his informally-adoptive father, Dr. Lister – also Jerry’s father. Bark ponders:
Nothing in life, I think, ordinarily happens in great, thunderous episodes of obvious and romantic force. Life is a series of small things, and most of them mean much or little depending on how the observer thinks of them.
It’s these small things, combined with some larger clues, that feed the narrative and drive the plot.
Bark tells of a visit that he and Jerry made to a former professor — a misunderstood, antisocial, introverted and clearly obsessed scientist (Sloane seems to have been enamored with this character-type). The young men found Professor LeNormand, who had been working late and alone at the campus observatory, on fire and apparently murdered. This is the core mystery around which the remaining narrative revolves.
And it’s at this point that we meet our goddess of the moon: Selena. Selena LeNormand is the professor’s widow and she’s just downright bizarre. In no way does she behave like a normal human, let alone someone who just lost the love of her life. She’s tall, lithe but strong, and thought by many to be the most beautiful woman in the world. Selena’s repeatedly thought of as more than statuesque, but statue-like. Her age is indeterminate, but she’s compared to the “Greek girls in the frieze of the Parthenon.”
Sloane’s writing weeps with loaded language. Language that’s very purposeful in its dramatic flair, while implying things beyond the range of normal human activity:
In the silences that lay between us I heard the bumbling of an insect against the glass of the lamp and the faint slither of water moving on the beach below us.
Instead of doors, he refers to ‘portals’.
There are suggestions of ghosts and that something horrible laying just out of sight. A shooting star “plummets down like a tear of light and vanished in the dark above the Sound.”
Tables are described as altars.
Likewise, the vocabulary reeks of symbolism and weighted meaning. The names, for example: Bark is the strength of the story, and like his namesake, his role is uber-protector of his friend and of that which is normal and sane. Jerry’s actual name is Jeremiah… and like his namesake, the prophet, his role is as a revealer, working to expose the truth of his former mentor. LeNormand was a French tarot reader famous during the reign of Napoleon, and like their namesake, both the professor and Selena are, in their own respects, seers beyond normal human perception.
This is a dark any enjoyable read, with enough literary and narrative weight to stick with the reader days after its completion.
The Edge of Running Water
Like To Walk the Night, the opening chapter of The Edge of Running Water sets the stage for some past dread and draws us into narration looking back across events. The story sends Professor Richard Sayles to a barren coast in Maine where he investigates the scientific shenanigans of his former mentor, Julian Blair. Blair sets the tone:
A year ago it would have seemed to me ridiculous to assume that there are some facts it is better not to know, and even today I do not believe in the bliss of ignorance or the folly of knowledge. But this one thing is best left untouched. It rips the fabric of human existence from throat to hem and leaves us naked to a wind as cold as the space between the stars.
The fringe of that cold touched me once. I know what I am talking about.
Professor Blair has gone off the grid, 1930s-style, to develop a mechanism for speaking with his deceased wife Helen (she of the world-class beauty). Helen, it turns out, was also the focus of Sayles’ own unrequited love. Joining Sayles are Blair’s young sister-in-law Anne, which creates some touching (and awkward) emotional moments, and his assistant/medium, Mrs. Wallace.
Sloane is persistent in the idea that these well-bred foreigners from fancy universities and “cities” are total outsiders in the close-knit society in rural Maine. Sloane is thematically suggestive of the ritual nature that develops throughout the story, as the obsessed professor is positioned as a reclusive high-priest working his voodoo magic with unseen celestial forces. This theme dovetails with Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein in its notions of Prometheus and her doctor’s approach to god-like status. The natives are both awed and horrified by the power and are ultimately driven to violence.
The story is foreshadowing-heavy and melodramatic, and drags at the moments when the narrative becomes a straight-up murder mystery, complete with detectives, and detailed discussion around whose shoe prints could be found in the muddy woods.
Like To Walk the Night, the names in The Edge of Running Water are drenched in meaning: Helen was the beauty and love that motivated men to apparent madness. The locally born housekeeper is Elora Marcy — Elora means ‘foreign’; and ‘Marcy’ is Latin for the Roman god of war, also known as Mars. Marcy’s death is the pivotal point that drives the townspeople from suspicion and fear to violence.
Midway through this story, I was convinced that the plot was leading nowhere, but it grew on me over time. And I wasn’t completely dissatisfied with the conclusion, despite its rather nebulous ending…
While both of these stories are mysteries at their core, neither can be defined as entirely science fiction or horror, but each contains elements of both. King points out that these two novels, apparently Sloane’s only full-length works, were uncommon during an era of pulp science fiction and horror, due to their depth, readability and relative literary prowess.
You’ll note that these stories were each originally published in the 1930s and reflect their era. I lost count of how many ‘highballs’ were ordered and imbibed in To Walk the Night (and, yes, I had to look up what a highball even was). And while women play formative and strong characters in each, there’s a subtle shade of misogyny in the suggestive role of women in society — perhaps not right, but also perhaps not out of place within the context of the time it was written. Also, a lot of people and things were unironically referred to as “swell” (though Sloane, I believe, was using it metaphorically at times as well).
I thoroughly enjoyed To Walk the Night and give that alone a 5-star rating. The Edge of Running Water is a bit meandering and the characters are prone to some stereotypical mystery-novel stupidity, but the tale has stuck with me and I’d give it 3.5 stars. Overall, I rate The Rim of the Morning 4.5 stars.
It has come to my attention that New York Review Books has just released two wonderful old novels by William Sloane in one volume, entitled The Rim of Morning: Two Tales of Cosmic Horror. I would like to heartily recommend this wonderful volume to everyone’s attention, as the two novels it contains, To Walk the Night and The Edge of Running Water, are both doozies. I read both of these titles many years ago, and they have certainly stayed with me.
But indeed, if it hadn’t been for James Cawthorn and Michael Moorcock‘s indispensable overview volume entitled Fantasy: The 100 Best Books, I probably would never have heard of To Walk the Night (1937) to begin with, and would thus have been deprived of a wonderful read. After I read it, though, it seemed to me that this, Sloane’s first novel, could just as easily have gone on someone’s Top 100 Horror, Mystery OR Sci-Fi list, as this terrific book has elements of all those categories mixed in.
The tale concerns two young men who visit their alma mater and discover one of their old professors murdered… burnt to a crisp by some mysterious flame. One of the two ex-students falls in love with the dead professor’s widow, a very mysterious woman with cold and emotionless qualities. They eventually marry, and this is the point where the book really takes off. The reader will never guess the background of the lady in question, or why she evinces such unusual mental powers, and why she seems to be an outsider everywhere she goes. This is certainly NOT your traditional murder mystery! The novel is beautifully written by Mr. Sloane; it’s hard to believe that this is his first book. It’s an extremely suspenseful page-turner that does not disappoint. Once the reader finishes this book, he/she will doubtless feel compelled to seek out William Sloane’s only other book, The Edge of Running Water.
Although his first effort, To Walk the Night, had been a combination sci-fi/horror/fantasy/mystery tale concerning a mysterious, otherworldly woman, two years later, Mr. Sloane came out with The Edge of Running Water, and this one, I feel, is even better. It concerns an electrophysicist, Dr. Julian Blair, who is attempting to construct an apparatus that will enable him to communicate with his dead wife. The book takes place on a promontory on the Kennebec River in a lonely part of Maine (hence, I suppose, the title). Like the first book, this one is beautifully written, with a few sharply drawn characters, great pacing and suspense, and a tremendous windup. Given the fantastic nature of the central premise, it may come as a surprise how realistic and believable the presentation is. The story is told by Richard Sayles, an ex-student of Dr. Blair’s, who has come to visit the professor and assist him in his work. The gradually unfolding horror is seen through his eyes, and he makes for a very creditable eyewitness of the amazing events.
I really can’t say enough about this terrific novel. It seems to have everything: an intriguing murder mystery; a great and well-described setting; appealing and interesting characters; suspenseful action; and a unique premise. In the book’s terrific conclusion, all the characters get exactly what they deserve. It is an extremely satisfying denouement. Sloane, as I mentioned, writes wonderfully. What a pity that he only produced these two great books. There are so many passages that one will want to read over. For example, this one, in which Dr. Sayles reflects on his love for Blair’s deceased wife:
A love that is true to living persons and existing realities is steadfast and fine. But I saw then, for the first time, that a love which has fastened upon the dead and true to nothing but a past that was finished, is not a good nor true emotion. If it went on too long, it could become an incubus, throttling a man from the real life of the present, which is the life that we were fashioned to meet and experience.
This book, despite the horror theme and eerie developments, is nonetheless a quite literate experience. It was, incidentally, made into a Boris Karloff movie in 1941 called The Devil Commands, which, good as it is, cannot compare to its source material. After watching the film some years after reading the book, I was compelled to write the following:
“I must confess to a degree of disappointment after having watched The Devil Commands the other night, after several years of waiting to do so. The memory of its excellent source novel, William Sloane’s The Edge of Running Water (1939), is still very much with me from several years ago, you see, and I’m afraid that the film does suffer in comparison. The book has sharply drawn characters, a well-detailed plot (a scientist attempting to communicate with his dead wife), great suspense and a very satisfying windup. The film, unfortunately, has none of these things in much abundance. Still, there ARE some good things to be said for it. Boris Karloff, as usual, is wonderful, as is Anne Revere in her role as his assistant. The effects are more than passable, and, at a mere 65 minutes, there is no unnecessary padding. Indeed, the film can be accused of being not fleshed out enough! Several things aren’t explained; even Boris’ fate is never clearly shown, unlike his character’s amazing finish in the book. This is a story that is truly ripe for a remake, if done faithfully and by a team that respects the source material. Still, I can think of many more fruitless ways to spend an hour than by curling up with The Devil Commands….”
Anyway, both To Walk the Night and The Edge of Running Water have been out of print for decades, and so it is fortunate that New York Review Books has seen fit to bring both these wonderful reads back today, almost 80 years after their initial publication. A new generation of readers are now in for a double shot of fun with this one!