Sunday, June 1, 2008

TO WALK THE NIGHT by William Sloane

The Maila Nurmi-esque photo on the cover, and the lurid copy on the back, would make one think this was a story of some supernatural temptress. ("From those who inexplicably survived her loathesome evil comes this terrifying story of a time when men's souls and bodies were hideously tortured to sustain the life of a fiendish woman." Seriously, it says that on the back.) But TO WALK THE NIGHT (1937) is far different, an almost delicate and definitely tragic story that walks a line between horror and science fiction. And it's one of the few novels I've encountered that deal with spontaneous human combustion.

The story is told in flashbacks by Berkeley Jones (called "Bark" by his friends) to his best friend's father, who he often calls "Dad." Jerry Lister, the best friend, has committed suicide, and his wife had something to do with it.

In flashbacks, we hear the story of how Bark and Jerry go to a football game at their alma mater, and after the intense game, pay a visit on their friend Prof. LeNormand in the observatory. But when they arrive, the prof is dead, burning to death with no apparent cause. All the questioning and investigation turns up nothing, until the two go to visit the prof's widow, of whom they're shocked to learn, thinking he was never the marrying type. And thus we meet Selena.

Selena is odd, a beautiful woman who has no dress sense, who's socially awkward, who's oddly unmoved by her husband's death, and who obviously is amazingly intelligent.

Of course, the inevitable happens. Jerry keeps in contact with Selena, and ends up falling for her, much to Bark's consternation. (More about that later.) Selena gets a makeover, thanks to Bark's socialite mother. And all the while, Bark puzzles over Selena. She claims to have no family, doesn't talk about where she came from, and often seems out of place in society. At a nightclub magic act, she easily picks the right card from a full deck. While playing bridge, she seldom loses a trick and adds up the scores with a glance. And then...the police investigating Prof. LeNormand's death have stumbled on something else; the disappearance of profoundly retarded Louella Jamison, who bears a strong resemblance to Selena, and who vanished shortly before superintelligent Selena arrives on the scene. Jerry and Selena get married, and things change a little.

Prof. LeNormand had been working on a controversial paper that would have refuted some of Einstein's theories and supplanted them, and Jerry decides to get his Ph.D. and start teaching. What is his project? A continuation of LeNormand's work, and he heads off to New Mexico to work on it with Selena....

Bark was the most interesting character for me. He's more of a friend to Grace than a son. Dr. Lister is more of a parent to him, and he clings to Jerry a lot. They share a Greenwich Village apartment, collect objets d'art, fix each other cocktails, and so on. Bark's resentment of Selena seems a natural extension. My reading of Bark is that he's gay, probably having a long-concealed passion for Jerry. Bark's descent into near-alcoholism after the marriage just seals the deal for me. I don't know if it was intentional or not, but a sympathetic gay character from a 1937 novel? Not something you stumble on every day. Yes, sometimes he seems almost stereotypically gay; he redecorates, he fusses with appetizers, he wears a tie, vest and jacket to visit Jerry in New Mexico. But overall, Bark wants nothing more than what's best for Jerry.

OK, there's spoilers in the next paragraph, so skip it if that's an issue for you.

Of course, the imaginative reader can figure out what's going on with Selena. Prof. LeNormand's work would have led to experiments with time travel. Selena is not human; she's an alien intelligence, with telepathic and psychokinetic powers, inhabiting Louella Jamison's body. Selena is not evil, although her purpose is to stop LeNormand's time-travel experiments. (Why is never stated.) LeNormand's death was an accident (kinda complicated, but interesting), and she genuinely loved Jerry. She never wanted to kill, and the deaths around her affect her deeply. Sometimes her awkwardness is almost painful, and it's easy to feel for her, stumbling her way through society. And toward the end, when Bark finds her weeping while reading the fairy tale "The Little Mermaid," she's no longer a villain but a victim of her mission and her own, newly-found emotions. She's the prototype of all those confused aliens who discover emotions found in Star Trek and other sci-fi TV shows. But Selena is the original.

TO WALK THE NIGHT is Sloane's best work, and it's rather sad he never developed any further. The complex, well-etched characters and the slow unfolding of the plot are good, and the central tragedy gives it heart. It's never been filmed, although the 1963 British film UNEARTHLY STRANGER bears a certain resemblance. (Good luck finding it, though.)

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