Friday, May 16, 2008
THE EDGE OF RUNNING WATER by William Sloane
I first learned of William Sloane's work from an article about "weird mysteries" I read in college. I'll be damned if I remember the author or the book it was in, but I did copy down a list of titles and authors that I still have somewhere. And that was over twenty years ago. Sheesh.
The cover looks promising, but the lurid promise isn't carried out too well. (The edition I have is a 1967 paperback; the novel itself was published in 1937.) The story is the account of Richard Sayles, a college professor from New York, who visits a former colleague in an isolated house in coastal Maine. His friend, Julian Blair (rather Dark-Shadows-ish, that) has been engaging in some strange, secretive experiments. He just hasn't been himself since his beloved wife died, y'see. And staying with him are his young sister-in-law and the surly, arrogant, and mysterious Mrs. Walters.
The foreshadowing is laid on thick in the opening chapters. There's a lot of "had I but known!" stuff going on, and several paragraphs are dedicated to breathless, purple gloom-and-doom prose. He writes of the town near the house, "How can they look down their own streets and across the river to the point where Julian's house once stood without feeling the hairs lift on the backs of their necks?" Yeesh.
There's also a lot of punches communicated in advance. We're basically informed of the impending deaths of several characters as soon as they're introduced. Kinda takes the surprise out of it.
Anyway, Richard tries to deal with Julian, who's clearly becoming a Mad Scientist, and the surly Mrs. Walters, whom he instantly loathes, and romances the pretty sister-in-law, Anne, even though it's made clear he was very much in love with the late Helen, Julian's wife.
This goes on, back and forth, for a while, with various vague hints of what's going on. There's a mysterious death that's rather annoying. Richard walks in on some extremely suspicious circumstances, but after he's made sure we're aware of his dislike and distrust of Mrs. Walters, he believes every single thing she tells him about the death. Not until the very end of the story does he even register any suspicion. It's a clumsy, out-of-character plot device that simply doesn't work. Even the most thickheaded reader can tell something's going on and wants to scream at Richard to find out more.
Until the last 40 pages or so, there's no horror at all. What we have is merely a sort of bland murder mystery. Until finally the dark content kicks on, and we find out what Blair's been working on. Of course, he's trying to build a machine that will communicate with the dead. Mrs. Walters is a medium, egging him on. The machine certainly has some sort of effect, but it's potentially very dangerous.
I won't spoil the very ending, but any savvy person reading this could guess. It's almost a forgone conclusion. The device, when it's finally described, is actually pretty cool-sounding. But it's unfortunate that little is done with it.
The Edge of Running Water isn't all that great. It's fairly pulpy and sometimes sloppy. There's some intriguing ideas behind it all but Sloane doesn't seem capable of making them truly click. Despite all that, it was filmed in 1941 as The Devil Commands with Boris Karloff as Julian Blair, which I'll check out at some point.
Sloane only wrote two novels; the other, To Walk the Night, will be reviewed in the near future. One gets an idea of him as a starving hack, but in reality he had a distinguished career, including being vice-president of Henry Holt, editorial director of Funk and Wagnalls, director of the Rutgers University Press, and founded his own publishing house, William Sloane Associates. So it seems he had a better head for business than writing, I suppose. I often see Edge referred to as a "lost classic," but I find it to be badly flawed, but with some very interesting material in the last few chapters.
Seek it out if you want to; it may be worth your while and you may like it better than I do.