Halloween comes early this year for lucky readers with the reappearance of two short supernatural novels by the forgotten writer William Sloane: “To Walk the Night” and “The Edge of Running Water.” Conjoined as “The Rim of Morning,” a handsome omnibus volume released by the publishing arm of the New York Review of Books, these undeservedly neglected works may at last find a permanent home alongside the cross-genre novels they anticipated: books that, in style and theme, move with ease between science fiction, noir, dark fantasy, supernatural horror and mainstream fiction.
William Sloane (1906-1974) graduated from Princeton, worked in publishing for a number of years, headed the wartime Council on Books and was the longtime managing director of Rutgers University Press. Belying his Ivy League background and slightly fusty C.V., Sloane had an interest in the occult. In the early 1930s, he wrote three plays dealing with ghosts, and in 1937 published “To Walk the Night.” Kirkus gave it a thumbs-up: “A supernatural story that is neither sensational nor lurid. . . . A good bet for those who like Poe’s work. A first novel — this man bears watching.”
He still does. Robert Bloch (of “Psycho” fame) named “To Walk the Night” one of his 10 favorite horror novels, up there with “Dracula” and “Frankenstein.” Sloane’s tale blends elements of noir, gothic and science fiction in a story that resists easy classification. It opens as the narrator, Berkeley M. Jones (called Bark), navigates the winding drive to a mansion overlooking Long Island Sound. He is there to deliver terrible news to the estate’s owner, whose son Jerry, Bark’s best friend, has killed himself. Bark wants to spare Jerry’s father the details surrounding his son’s suicide, the import of which Bark himself doesn’t completely grasp.
“I must tell my story matter-of-factly, as if that shadow in the corner of my mind did not exist. That was all. I must not make him feel, as I did, that something horrible lay behind what I said.”
Much of the strength of Sloane’s narrative derives from this matter-of-fact tone. One of the novel’s most unsettling scenes takes place during a flashback to an Ivy League football game in which nothing overtly supernatural seems to occur. After the game, Bark and Jerry, drunk and exhilarated over their team’s win, pay a surprise visit to Jerry’s old astronomy professor. The author of a controversial mathematical treatise, “A Fundamental Critique of the Einstein Space-Time Continuum,” Dr. LeNormand is something of a crank. “If he hadn’t been such a famous man to begin with, Jerry thought, they’d have asked him to resign from the faculty.”
What they find when they enter his observatory is something horrible indeed: The famous astronomer is dead and “burning like a torch.”
In the aftermath, the two young men are shocked to learn that the astronomer, a confirmed bachelor, had married just three months earlier. His widow, Selena, is a classic femme fatale: beautiful, icily intelligent, yet oddly detached. Bark finds her impossible to read; Jerry finds her impossible to resist. Within months, the two marry. Shortly after, they decamp to a remote cabin in the New Mexico wilderness, which is where Bark eventually tracks them down in an effort to learn the truth about who Selena really is.
With its witty dialogue, burnished glimpses of affluence and art, and eerily poignant ending, “To Walk the Night” reads remarkably like a contemporary thriller that pays homage to great noir films such as “Kiss Me Deadly” and “Laura.” But Sloane’s book appeared years before either of those movies or the books they were based on. Surely it deserves a film adaptation of its own?
“The Edge of Running Water,” published two years later, did get its own movie: “The Devil Commands,” starring Boris Karloff. Sloane’s second novel is a bit creakier than his first, slower-moving and more conventional in its setup and marred by an ending that feels rushed.
But the book’s polished style and atmospheric setting — a creepy old house overlooking the Kennebec River in coastal Maine — make up for the languid pacing. As in “To Walk the Night,” there’s a scientist at the heart of the tale: Julian Blair, an electrophysicist shattered by the untimely death of his beloved, much younger wife, Helen. Blair has retreated to the remote town of Barsham Harbor, where he summons his former student Dick Sayles, who was also in love with Helen.
Blair isn’t much in evidence — he’s holed up in a mysterious upstairs room, unavailable to all except his housekeeper, who dusts once a week. The house is also occupied by Helen’s younger sister, who bears a startling resemblance to her dead sibling. What Blair is trying to do is construct a machine that will allow him to communicate with the dead. When he shares the nature of his eldritch research with his onetime pupil, Dick’s reaction is predictable: “This is a mad project. It’s blasphemous. It’s impossible. . . . Have you stopped to think what such a thing as you are trying to do would mean, Julian?”
As one might guess, this doesn’t end well.
Like Shirley Jackson, Sloane masterfully describes the paranoia and close-mindedness of an isolated rural community when outsiders take up residence. The most striking and frightening scenes involve the sounds emitted by Blair’s creation, a sonic nightmare reminiscent of the effects in Algernon Blackwood’s classic story “The Willows.” And there’s a brilliant set piece when Blair finally reveals his machine to the horror-struck Dick, a small masterpiece of the cosmic horror invoked by the volume’s subtitle. After reading both of these elegant, disquieting novels, one can marvel that they escaped mainstream attention for so long and rejoice that they’re back in print.
By William Sloane
New York Review Books. 464 pp. Paperback, $18.95