The great roll call of horror fiction is dominated by short stories, with enough potent works from the genre to keep you up late at night throughout every last autumn and winter season of your days. A lot of years I reread the ghostly presentations of M.R. James and E.F. Benson, dip once more into the twisted, grisly visions of Ambrose Bierce, dance with the old-time haunts of Hawthorne, and feel my teeth chatter for the latest time on account of Cynthia Asquith’s crossed-over interlopers.
For a long time, I considered Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House the best horror novel I knew. Terror fiction has always fared better in the short form, with the trick of a novel being to expand that form while still making it feel compact, like the visitation you are experiencing is focused tightly and squarely upon the reader’s brain, soul, and heart, rather than made diffuse by 400 pages.
Jackson was especially good at this in Hill House because the prose style was suggestive of an internal presence that moved from thoughts of its disturbed central character, Eleanor, to the reader’s increasingly asunder wonderings, with the ghosts perpetually percolating. Hill House is a ghost story, which makes it easy to classify, but me, I like my terror—at least the kind I read—to be bereft of any literary cousins, a lone wild rogue of fear that forever beckons, and awaits, your return.
I reread William Sloane’s To Walk the Night at least once a year. For a host of reasons. People don’t know William Sloane. No shame in that. He was born in Plymouth, Massachusetts in the summer of 1906, died in New York City in the fall of 1974, after having acted as director of a press out of Rutgers for almost the last twenty years of his life.
He was not a prolific writer, though it will take you about a clause of To Walk the Night to know that he could write with utter ease. His output, essentially, was this first novel, from eighty years ago, a second called The Edge of Running Water from 1939, and a lone short story that I believe he wrote to flesh out a horror anthology he was editing. And that’s it. But not only is To Walk the Night the single greatest work of horror fiction I’ve ever read, it’s the perfect autumn read, while also being one of the flat out finest novels at the textured, brilliantly embroidered level of its prose—for Sloane could give Flaubert a good push—and for how it compels your future returnings to its folds. Once you read this book, it becomes stapled to who you are.
Like The Edge of Running Water a couple of years later, To Walk the Night is told in the first person, in this case by Bark Jones, a young man who is returning to the Long Island home, late in the weary night, of the man, Dr. Lister, who adopted and raised him. Dr. Lister wants to know, via an in-person account, how his son Jerry died. The two men sit out on the deck as the Long Island Sound laps the beach, with Bark telling his tale.
Voice is tricky. It’s like a 100 mph fastball: you have it or you don’t. Most authors don’t, which is why you see such a prevalence on third person, because the third person voice can be flat, monotonish, with no expectation that it evince personality, no responsibility to show us what a character is all about via the words he uses, the energy that comes piping through, the contours of his soul as revealed by how he talks. That’s a gift, nothing that can be taught, and Sloane had it in spades.
Jerry wants to be thorough with his story, in part because he doesn’t understand how aspects of it played out, because basically no mortal could, so he talks as much to himself as to Dr. Lister as he begins by remembering the trip he and his best friend/adopted brother Jerry made to their alma mater for the annual homecoming football game.
I’ve never read a better account of autumn on a college campus. I guess that’s one reason I have to reread this book once the calendar flips to Fall. It’s a northeastern campus without a specific name. Browned leaves cartwheel over the pavement, our duo parks in an embankment where they take slugs of whiskey before walking over to the stadium.
They are young men who have made their first forays into what we call “adulting” these days, with Bark being the talker, Jerry the scientifically-minded member of the friendship, desiring to see their old team past their rivals, while getting their buzz, hashing over some old memories, before returning back to reality. In short, they do what you are bound to do if you’re returning to your alma mater between now and November. They also clearly love each other, and you, the reader, want in on their friendship, because who wouldn’t want to hang out with two people like this?
The game rages on like so many football games do between heated rivals, until there is this fraction of a second of complete quietude in the old stadium, like the universe has blinked.
“I had an impression of frightening power without control, of a field of force in some other dimension than our usual three,” Bark recalls. The game ends, the boys start to head back to their car, shaken by something neither expresses to the other, when Jerry hits upon the idea of visiting his old mentor, Professor LeNormand, who had been formulating some controversial theories about other planes that had made him a pariah in his field.
Jerry and Bark get to the observatory where LeNormand always hangs out, staring into the heavens, to find his body on fire in a chair, with no other flames anywhere else in the room, and no one in the building. He has been roasted from the inside out. The president of the university is called, then the cops, Jerry and Bark are questioned, then learn that LeNormand, a lifelong bachelor, took a wife named Selena. Eventually they meet her, Jerry falls in love, marries his former mentor’s widow, and things go from there. They do not go well.
Sloane’s genius is that while scaring you out of your mind, he’s able to serve up a classic study in social naturalism. We’ve all had a best friend meet someone who, in effect, replaced us, with our relationship continuing on, the same but different. You’re happy for them, of course, but it’s also hard, especially if you don’t have your version of what they’ve just acquired.
Bark wonders if this is where his resentment for Selena stems from. She is a savant. Brilliant, but child-like, with that latter quality disappearing more and more with each day. He learns of a couple who had visited from the South, who had a daughter who most people think is developmentally challenged to the point of being an invalid. Said daughter disappears. The police can’t locate her. But the inspector tasked with solving the LeNormand case shows Bark a photograph of the missing girl, and he starts to think that it’s Selena, who is clearly not your standard-issue human. In fact, as the novel goes along, she appears to be something not human at all.
Jerry begins pouring over LeNormand’s work, to the displeasure of his wife. They relocate to New Mexico, where the Lister’s have some property they’ve inherited. I don’t know how much great New Mexican-set fiction there is, but my goodness did Sloane hit upon an idea in moving this story to that locale. We associate the Northeast with all of the ghosts of autumn—pumpkin-headed night-riders, old family curses, haunted battlefields—but the butte and desert scenes fashioned by Sloane speak to the fears of a man stranded upon his own private, tumbleweed-festooned island that no other man, back in the regular sanity of life, can reach.
But Bark tries, after Jerry summons him. Normally I’d have no problem saying what happens, because when you write about a little-known novel from 1937, the expectation is that the reader isn’t actually going to check it out. You’re telling them about the book, and that telling is the experience they’re going to have with it. But dive off this board into this particular pool of terror that is part sci-fi novel, part post-college accounting of early adulthood, part family saga, part preternatural ghost story, part true crime entry. Fail-proof recommendation, as they say. I’d stake my mortal soul on it.
For me, there are three ultimate “oh no you didn’t just do that” moments in all of fiction I’ve personally encountered. By which I mean, something occurs that you could never see coming, that all but makes you drop the book, then walk around the room, practically drooling the words “No freaking way” all over yourself, no matter how many times you’ve read that book. The only one for a long time, in my reading experience, was in Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, at mid-book, when we learn where Laura Fairlie really is. The other two come from the end of To Walk the Night. One takes the form of a death unlike any other, the other is someone’s appearance back in that Long Island night as the Sound laps the shore.
Temporality isn’t an easy thing for an author to play around with, but to bring temporality to the fore in a novel that questions the rigidity of time and space and our notions of both, shows a mystical, almost un-human command of writing. That the same writing is warm and enveloping, an act of fellowship in the face of a ghastly world, makes it your friend, just like Jerry and Bark are friends. The death in this particular analogy is that the experience of reading To Walk the Night must end. But I tend to just start again, and then again, temporality be damned. Take me, Selena.