Willaim Sloane’s novel To Walk the Night is the first of two featured in the NYRB edition The Rim of Morning; Two Tales of Cosmic Horror with an introduction by Stephen King.
It’s a perfect little read for a dark and stormy night.
Mr. Sloane takes his time. As Mr. King says in his introduction things have to simmer before they can boil. Simmer they do.
To Walk the Night begins with the discovery of a body. Two life-long friends find the body of an old professor of theirs burned to death inside a locked observatory where he worked nights on his studies in astronomy and mathematics. But was he dead when they found him or was he just on the verge of death. The burns form a single line, as though a ray had been projected along his back. The book was written in the 1930’s, the early days of science fiction when terms like ‘ray’ were still in use.
For a while, the story is a locked room mystery. The two friends and the local police detective try to find out who the killer is, with no success. Then one of the friends falls in love with the professor’s widow, a beautiful woman, much more beautiful than either of them would expect to marry the professor.
The two friends largely part ways when one marries the professor’s widow just a few months after the murder. After a time, the local police detective meets with the still unmarried friend to tell him what his investigation has revealed. A few months before the professors marriage, a young woman disappeared. This woman was an “idiot,” the term used in the 1930’s. Unable to do anything to take care of herself, she lived with her elderly parents who doted on her until the day she vanished outside a local gas station while her mother was in the restroom.
After he has finished his story the detective shows the unmarried friend a picture of the girl. She looks exactly like the professor’s widow, exactly. So much so that both are suspicious that the two are the same woman. How can this be?
This would all read like pulp fiction were Mr. Sloane not such a capable writer. His prose is good enough to evoke earlier horror classics like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. That the entire story is told to one of the boy’s fathers long after the events have taken place helps give the novel this feeling. It all works very well. I read it in a single sitting, on a slightly windy Saturday night, when I would have been watching Creature Features if Creature Features were still on. To Walk the Night would have been perfect for it.
In the end, there is a second “murder” and a supernatural explanation that must be accepted as there could be no other cause.
It’s a perfect little horror story gem. I liked it as much as Stephen King did.