William Sloane's Two Novels Cut Right Through Genre And Burrow Into a Dark, Uncanny Unknown
Whenever a genre writer appears whose work even literary critics can't pretend they don't enjoy--someone like Raymond Chandler, Shirley Jackson, or Philip K. Dick--he or she is officially allowed to have "transcended the genre." There's something disingenuous and galling to the genre fan about this special dispensation, as though any work of crime, horror, or science fiction that's actually good must not, by definition, actually be crime or horror or science fiction.
The rehabilitation of Philip K. Dick's literary reputation has been particularly poignant, since Dick cranked out novels that were retitled The Zap Gun or Solar Lottery for a pittance, often lived near the poverty line, and suffered doubts about his own talent and worth (one of his non-sci-fi books was titled Confessions of a Crap Artist). He lived just long enough to see some early footage from Ridley Scott's adaptation of his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. If he had lived 20 years longer, he would not only have seen Blade Runner become a classic but might've been rolling in Hollywood money from Total Recall, Minority Report, and A Scanner Darkly, among others, and seen himself respectably reprinted in slickly designed new editions and enshrined in the American Library.
In ways, William Sloane's career was the opposite of Dick's. In contrast to Dick's crank-fueled 40-odd-novel output, which varied wildly in quality, Sloane produced only two novels, 1937's To Walk the Night and 1939's The Edge of Running Water (later reissued as The Unquiet Corpse), both of them perfect, highly polished gems. Dick's prose could be wonky, sloppy, even a mess; Sloane's is never anything but elegant. Whereas Dick just barely supported himself by hacking out paperbacks, Sloane had a long, respectable career as an editor and publisher: he was vice-president of Henry Holt, editorial director of Funk and Wagnalls Co., director of the Rutgers University Press, and founded his own house, William Sloane Associates Inc. And, unlike Dick, Sloane has enjoyed no great critical apotheosis; both his books are now out of print, although they still occasionally turn up on fans' and critics' lists of "classics," "must-reads," and "lost masterpieces." (Both books were adapted for movies, however, as Unearthly Stranger (1964) and The Devil Commands (1941), respectively. The former is supposedly an intelligent, well-written thriller, now unavailable on VHS or DVD; the latter is a pretty solid horror movie starring Boris Karloff.)
Sloane didn't exactly transcend his chosen genre; he was merely its most sophisticated and masterful practitioner. His books' premises are deceptively easy to encapsulate: To Walk the Night is about the widow of a mathematician killed by what looks like spontaneous human combustion, about whom there is something subtly but profoundly wrong; The Edge of Running Water concerns a scientist who's haunted by the memory of his dead wife and retreats to an old house in an isolated village, along with an imposing medium, to devise a technology to communicate with her. What distinguishes these novels from other genre fiction, pulps that seem to have been written by committees of 10-year-olds, is that they read like real literary novels. There is time, in their slow, deliberate unfolding, for details of place and character, authorial observations, for odd moments, and for mood.
Slow, however, does not mean dull. The books are genuinely creepy. Both novels begin with prefaces as urgent as a whisper in the dark, the kinds of openings for which I'm a sucker: "The man for whom this story is told may or may not be alive." Sloane takes his time to establish plausible, mundane normalcy so that when, inevitably, the paranormal creeps in, it feels as credible and uncanny to us as it does to the characters who are trying to explain it sanely away. He orchestrates suspense with masterful precision and restraint: We do not see the machine Julian Blair is building in Running Water until late in the book, by which time we have come to dread it. Odd incidents, seemingly unrelated and easily rationalized individually, accumulate: Night's Selena is a beautiful woman who dresses badly, a brilliant woman who seems strangely ignorant; she brakes to avoid a car before anyone could've seen it coming and bests a professional prestidigitator at a nightclub; she laments, in a curious breach of tact, that a Brancusi is imperceptibly flawed; she dances like a dream. She also has no past and bears a disturbing resemblance to a profoundly retarded girl who disappeared a year ago. Again and again Sloane's narrators apologize for boring us with seemingly incidental details and atmosphere, but they insist that these things are somehow essential to understanding the strange and terrible story they're trying to tell--and they are, of course, right. In the end it all coalesces to form a picture that we can't quite bear to face, everything making terrible retroactive sense, just as when we finally read the confession of Dr. Henry Jekyll.
There's something else disturbing going on in these books, on a distinctly earthbound and human plane. The narrator of Night has been taken in by his best friend's family as a surrogate son--he has his own room in their house and calls his friend's father "Dad"--and becomes obsessed with his best friend's fiancée. His own mother is an indifferent but vivacious socialite, and his relationship to her is, as he puts it, "distinctly unfilial." His friend, meanwhile, falls in love with his dead mentor/father figure's widow and marries her a month after his death. In Running Water, the narrator has his own mentor/father figure who's obsessed with the memory of his dead wife, with whom the narrator was also secretly in love. The narrator later falls in love with her much younger sister, whom he used to take to the circus when she was a little girl, and who has grown up to look just like the dead wife.
It's all very weird. The characters sometimes joke about Oedipal complexes, but Sloane doesn't present any of this as pathological, and I'm not sure whether he means us to find it creepy, or if mores and taboos have simply changed since the 1930s: men did used to have more paternal relationships to their wives, and social worlds were smaller, so people often married relations or siblings' widows and widowers. There is, at the very least, an easy masters' thesis to be written here. Sloane appears to be working out, in different guises and combinations, a kind of personal incestuous mythology, as perverse and doomed as Hephaestus/Aphrodite/Ares or Flash/Dale/Ming.
What exactly Sloane's genre is, whether these books are classifiable as science fiction or gothic horror, depends largely on how we interpret the events described in them--whether we choose to believe Selena is an incorporeal alien from another dimension or a kind of supernatural possession, whether we believe that Julian Blair's machine opens up a black hole or a portal to the world of the dead. Sloane is turning us gently to face the fact that we don't really understand the difference between these things, that these explanations are reassuring but meaningless labels we try to stick on the unknown. Listen to this magnificent passage from Night, a description of a pre-Columbian megalith on a mesa top that evokes the sublime terror and mystery of the world itself:
Certainly this was one of the "high places" that men of the very ancient world had felt to be holy, whether in Palestine or in the American desert. Even when houses had stood on the mesa top, this must have been a still place, aloof and plainly not a part of the business of human living at all. So they had hewed a stone and put it where it could lie for century upon century, here on this height, under the sky and swept clean forever by the great winds. An altar, yes, and in a place where they had felt that the immensity of the universe touched the immediacies of the earth on which they lived. This stone was their ebenezer; it marked their recognition of the something more than they could put a name to, a memorial to the tremendous force or will that had created the earth and the stars.
Age dulls our capacity for wonder--it is one of its more unforgivable deprivations--and we are still deeply grateful to any artist who can revive it within us. I love To Walk the Night for the glimmering it gave me of this universe as older and stranger and more terrible than I can imagine, the vertiginous sense of the world turning under my feet and the awful abyss falling away overhead. And I love The Edge of Running Water because I am a man who, in middle age, believes in neither God nor an afterlife, and this book made me genuinely afraid not of death, but of the dead, a far more primal and magical fear. And because when I first read, after dark in an isolated cabin, Sloane's description of the noise the unseen machine produces, it gave me an authentic case of the willies.
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