Cosmic horror is a term generally applied to H. P. Lovecraft and his circle. My reading of cosmic horror has been either the Lovecraft circle (Donald Wandrei, Clark Ashton Smith) or those influenced by Lovecraft.
That segues into William Sloane’s To Walk the Night which I finally set time aside to read. I had heard about the book on the old pulp mags Yahoo group. Somehow, I was alerted that New York Review of Books had reprinted two novels by Sloane as a trade paperback omnibus.
To Walk the Night was published as a hardback in 1937. There were paperback reprints in the 50s, 60s, 1980 and in hardback as an omnibus with Sloane’s The Edge of Running Water as The Rim of Morning. Stephen King wrote an introduction. I am not a fan of Stephen King, this is the second introduction I have read by him where he takes digs at H. P. Lovecraft. Stephen– you either like Lovecraft or you don’t, make up your mind.
To Walk the Night is told in first person with a framing sequence of Berkeley Jones bringing the ashes of his best friend Jerry Lister to his father. He stays up all night telling Lister’s father the events of the past two years. The story starts with Jones and Lister driving from NYC to their college alma mater to watch a football game. Lister convinces Jones to stop by and visit Professor LeNormand, an eccentric scientist of astronomy. Their night visit to the observatory finds Professor LeNormand in a chair and burning with an unearthly fire. If LeNormand was alive when they arrived, he wasn’t for long. They call the college president who then calls the local police department in an attempt to keep things discreet. Lister and Jones are interrogated and released. Before they leave the next day, they are introduced to LeNormand’s wife. They are shocked as LeNormand seemed to be the eternal bachelor. Jones describes there is something off about Selena LeNormand.
Jerry Lister returns to Collegeville to attend Professor LeNormand’s funeral. He is smitten with Selena LeNormand and convinces her to move to New York as a change. In short order, Jerry Lister is engaged to Selena LeNormand. Meanwhile, Jones travels to Collegeville to discuss LeNormand’s death with the detective on the case. There is no background to Selena LeNormand that the detective can find. There is also the case of the disappearance of a girl from South Carolina at a gas station a few months earlier. The girl is a complete moron cared for by her aging parents. Selena LeNormand arrives almost out of thin air a few days later and married to Professor LeNormand. A picture of Luella Jamison resembles Selena LeNormand in a way.
Bark Jones’ unease with Selena LeNormand grows through as series of small incidents. His drinking grows out of control, he makes a scene at Jerry Lister’s wedding, and the two best friends grow apart.
A year and a half later, Lister contacts Jones urging him to come out to rural New Mexico where Lister is working on his thesis. Lister had taken up Professor LeNormand’s ideas and worked on the mathematical aspect of LeNormand’s theories of time. There is a somewhat trivial incident of running out of matches while out for a long hike. The two arrive back at the house to find that Selena has a fire started despite the lack of means to start a fire. The revelation causes Lister to go into his study and put a bullet through his head.
There is a disclosure at the end of Bark Jones story to Dr. Lister. Selena makes a sudden appearance and the conclusion is something else. It is cosmic, while some is revealed, much is left to the imagination.
The way I describe To Walk the Night is imagine F. Scott Fitzgerald writing a story that combines elements of H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Thing on the Doorstep” and “The Shadow Out of Time.” The style is totally shorn of any Gothic atmosphere but Sloane slips in clues that are mind-blowing. Lovecraft would have loved the concept. He might not have cared for the writing style. I can’t help but think that Sloane was familiar with Lovecraft. He later edited two science fiction anthologies made up of stories from science fiction pulp magazines.
To Walk the Night was a breath of fresh air. I burned out a long time ago on Lovecraftian pastiches. I have an unfinished article on the interaction of Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. In one of their letters early on, there is discussion of cosmic horror. Sloane’s novel shows there is a lot of mileage in cosmic horror in right hands.