Saturday, November 21, 2015

Book Review: The Rim of Morning: Two Tales of Cosmic Horror by William Sloane

(New York: NYRB Classics, 2015)

A quick scan of William Sloane's biography reveals that he contributed more to the literary world as an editor and publisher than as a novelist. Sloane's only two novels, recently collected by NYRB Classics as The Rim of Morning, were To Walk the Night (1937) and The Edge of Running Water (1939). The latter was adapted into a Boris Karloff movie, The Devil Commands (1941). Both are genre-blending narratives which borrow elements of horror, hardboiled mystery, and science-fiction (then a burgeoning genre in its own right). The novels stand out not so much by their narratives - which today seem rather formulaic and too obvious, even if at the time they were inventively reworking the existing formulae. They stand out rather on account of their not inconsiderable literary qualities. Sloane's novels are a perfect storm of pulp sensibility and overall good writing. To this end, NYRB Classics did well to secure Stephen King's short introduction to the text. King nicely puts the novels in literary context, for instance playing them off against the acknowledged giant of 1930s American horror, H.P. Lovecraft. As King drives home, Sloane captures much of the same horror as Lovecraft - horror of a "cosmic" type - without the oft-tortured prose.

To Walk the Night is a mystery centred on a grisly unexplained death, blending themes of alien minds, advanced physics and psychic projection. Unquestionably the greatest aspect of the book is the self-construction of its narrator, the protagonist's best friend, as a drunken Oedipal mess. The novel is many things, but most of all a character study. Sloane is something of a psychologist, which is precisely what makes him a literary writer (see Iris Murdoch on this point, for example in The Sovereignty of Good). For its part, The Edge of Running Water is a "mad scientist" story set in rural Maine. An electrophysicist, with the help of a shady medium, constructs a dangerous and terrifying machine to communicate with his dead wife (the film adaptation inexplicably - though predictably - adds a mentally disabled manservant to the mix). Here again, the narrator is an outsider looking in - a former colleague from the university who was once also in love with the dead woman. He now sets his eyes on her recently grown-up younger sister (to whom he was once an "uncle" - here Electra resonates more than Oedipus). With its blend of mystery, love interest and rural American gothic, The Edge of Running Water reads precisely like an old movie. This explains its swift adaptation but it also, to my mind, makes it the more pleasurable of the two novels by a long shot.

The payoffs of the two narratives are unfortunately slight. To a jaded 21st Century reader like me, there is no great mystery in Sloane's horror/sci-fi mysteries. The pleasures of reading them lie elsewhere - certainly in the aforementioned quality of the writing and the neat genre-blending, but also in the theme of cosmic horror itself. As Devin has mentioned here on the blog, a new cosmic pessimism is in vogue in philosophy, and its purveyors (such as Thacker) have made the connection to horror explicit. What Sloane offers up is above all the chilling possibility (and historically recurrent philosophical theme) that everyday reality is an ephemeral gloss on a limitless, meaningless chaos. His books channel the strange, the unthinkable. But they do it through the eyes, and the limited understanding, of the middle-class professional who would like very much to get on with the business of his love interests etc. To this extent, Sloane does not plumb very deep when he suggests great depths - doing more with less. Put this book on your reading list if you'd like a few good cosmic chills. Keep looking if you want to go deeper.

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