I was like a man walking down an unfamiliar street in a strange city, late at night, with a vague substratum of uneasiness in his mind. He does not say to himself, “Maybe I am going to get held up and beaten in this place.” He simply feels uneasy. But if he sees the shadow of a man shouldered back in a doorway his fear rushes together like wind to the heart of a cyclone. It fastens itself on that figure and embodies itself with its image. My fear seemed to have no such focal point; it colored the rest of my thoughts but it had no shape of its own.
William Sloane (1906 – 1974) was an American publisher, editor, and author who worked primarily in the fields of science fiction and the supernatural. Early in his career, he composed several plays that featured the fantastical, and he later tried his hand at two novels—To Walk the Night (1937) and The Edge of Running Water (1939) — collected for release this year in The Rim of Morning from New York Review of Books. After producing these two novels, Sloane then turned to editing and publishing, serving as director of Rutgers University Press and later launching his own eponymous company. Admirers of his fiction include Robert Bloch, who counted To Walk the Night among his top ten favorite horror novels, and Michael Moorcock, who included the same title in his Fantasy: The Best 100 Books. The Edge of Running Water was also adapted into a 1941 Boris Karloff film called The Devil Commands.
The two novels contained in The Rim of Morning have not had a proper release since appearing in mass-market editions from Del Rey in 1980. Upon reading them, it is nearly impossible to fathom why. They often appear on lists of “lost masterpieces,” and numerous other prominent figures have praised them, including Stephen King, who contributes the introduction to this edition. Sloane’s writing is a fine balance of economical and complex, never straying into the kind of purple prose that can sometimes bog down work done in a cosmic horror vein. And these are works of cosmic horror, but they’re certainly more than that. They’re mysteries wrapped in the garments of science fiction with well-placed dashes of the fantastical that challenge the kind of positivism that would generally confine a science fiction piece. Sloane is concerned largely with exploring the nature of our limits of knowledge and mining terror from the edges at which the weird threatens to intrude. It is perhaps a minor detail but noteworthy nonetheless that the two individual titles are both suggestive of constant movement forward, and the title chosen for the containing volume (originally used in a 1964 edition) perfectly sums up the sensations created at the disquieting borderland between the known and unknown.
In To Walk the Night, two close friends stumble upon the body of a former professor dead from a fire, the cause of which seems to defy the laws of physics. We know early on when we read our dear narrator claim, “there is nothing the human intelligence can’t cope with”, that we are looking not just at a cautionary science tale, but at a work that is concerned with the stability found within what we think we know and the frameworks of understanding that allow us to use that knowledge to interpret the world. To say the least, the protagonist’s statement is rendered questionable by the strange experiences that ensue. He also makes clear that the story he is recounting finds its impact in its smaller details, which accomplish much by way of implication rather than straightforward exposition. This is perhaps the novel’s finest distinguishing point when examined against other horror of the time period.
As To Walk the Night unfolds it builds its tension slowly, and it does so in a rather distinct way by preferring a close attention to character to the kind of grandiose events that mark other common tales in the cosmic horror tradition. The author spends most of his time down on earth, examining human relationships and finding unsettling truths about just how impossible it is to know a person apart from oneself. Stylistically, Sloane’s prose reads as remarkably modern when considered next to most science fiction or horror writers of his day. That he can elicit effects comparable to the best of those categories with much greater restraint is a testament to his skill.
The Edge of Running Water finds psychologist Richard Sayles summoned to an isolated house in Maine by a former colleague who has grieved the death of a shared love for several years. Parlaying his grief into an obsession, he embarks on an attempt to devise a way to communicate with her in the afterlife. As one might expect, things do not quite go according to plan, and the social dynamics, emotion, and intrigue that are such a crucial part of the book’s tension are well-drawn and remain as relatable as ever. Apart from some of the scientific references, which exist more as MacGuffin than anything else, it feels like a book that could have been written last week.
There in that faded magnificence of a room, with the running sweep of the river beyond its windows, we talked in the dry phrases and formulations of science. But all the time we were, between us and without knowing what we did, creating a horror. The sequence of our words was like an irrevocable syllogism, building step by step to a conclusion which was neither rational nor, in the abstract, credible.
With its focus on electricity, immortality, and the obsessions of a pariah scientist, Sloane seems likely to be consciously inheriting a few motifs from Shelley. The theme of human knowledge and its limits or lack thereof is on prominent display, but Running Water and the preceding piece do not map directly onto the traditional cautionary science tale. There is not quite such a direct link between mankind’s hubris and its own undoing like one night find in a piece by Shelley or Wells, even if at first it might appear to be striving for exactly that. Sloane gets closer to the kinds of theme and effect articulated by an author like Lovecraft or Jean Ray, though far more restrained in content and prose style than the former. The catalyzing agents are less grandiose and quieter than the unearthing of a new pantheon.
Lovecraft and other Weird staples have tended to be less concerned with the cautionary tale and more interested, like Sloane, in exploring what happens when the entire framework within which our knowledge exists is upended and rendered void of significance by a collision of the known with the unknown. In The Rim of Morning, we’re looking at systems that are slightly open, rather than closed or self-contained. Obsession and hubris are present, but not wholly sufficient. There are external factors, perhaps indistinguishable from the fantastical, and Sloane uses them to achieve unsettling effects on par with any great work of the Weird. By bringing them back into print, New York Review of Books has restored these two novels to a position that they well deserve.