In the late 1930s, William Sloane wrote a pair of novels — his only novels, in fact — that are classified as “cosmic horror” by NYRB Classics: To Walk the Night (1937) and The Edge of Running Water (1939). After being out of print in the United States for around thirty years, both books have recently been released in one NYRB Classics volume entitled The Rim of Morning: Two Tales of Cosmic Horror.
It is the perfect time of year, of course, to settle into something horrifying, and for me it’s hard to find much that is better than the great cosmic horror — that fear of the unknowable depths of the universe — that flourished in the 1920s and 1930s. With these two books, each running approximately 225 pages, Sloane is carrying on in the tradition of H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith. It was a fascinating time for horror fiction: science was uncovering more and more about not only the cosmos but also about the unseen things that occupied the seemingly empty air around us: electricity, radio waves, atoms. The true horror of some of these discoveries could not have been predicted, but some moved warily through this age of discovery, rightfully questioning just how these discoveries would, if not destroy us, change us. In these two books, Sloane explores existential concepts so unaligned with what we call “real life” that, they suggest, even thinking about the concepts is dangerous. They are each narrated by a man who understands that the story he is telling may be dangerous — knowledge can destroy the world simply by destroying your concept of it.
In Two Walk the Night, our narrator himself does not want to tell the story for fear he will get at the underlying terror. He’d rather remain ignorant, especially since the knowledge he may attain seems to have killed two men, one of whom was his best friend, Jerry. It’s not just that Jerry died, perhaps because of some knowledge; he killed himself. And now our narrator finds himself having to explain what happened to Jerry’s father, a man who wants to know everything.
“I don’t want to think about it any more.”
“Then it will go on festering in your mind, and in mine as well. I’ll always wonder if you could not have told me something more that would . . . that would make this thing less intolerable.”
I said, “I don’t want to die. Jerry thought this thing through, and that’s why he’s not alive now.”
The book itself is the telling of the tale, the narrator and his listener drawing closer and closer to the knowledge one hopes to avoid. To be sure, contemporary readers will see where this is going from the start, but that didn’t hinder my enjoyment much. On the contrary, at the end, there was a moment when a genuine chill went down my spine — and I loved it!
In The Edge of Running Water, our narrator writing the story and plans to publish it as fiction. His hope is that in order to dissuade someone he hopes might stumble onto it from digging too deeply into a certain existential question.
The man for whom this story is told may or may not be alive. If he is, I do not know his name, where he lives, or anything at all about him, except that there is something which it is vital for me to tell him. It is a strange, clumsy method of communication, this expedient of writing an entire book without even the certainty that it will come into his hands, and yet I can see no other way of warning him.
In this case, the warning is to not poke your nose where it doesn’t belong. Science may reveal some things that humans simply cannot deal with.
While I preferred The Edge of Running Water, finding it on the whole a bit better written and paced, with some genuinely frightening imagery — and sound — I read each tale with an appetite that only grew bigger as the stories went on.