To Walk The Night
Reading is one of the greatest pleasures in life, that beautiful feeling of opening a book to let your imagination run wild. It encourages you to relax and concentrate in one thing: the words in front of you. It often demands so much attention, depending on the complexity of the story, that it makes it impossible to think about anything else at the time (not even sex can claim that). Of course, we’re talking about great books here: the story must seize you, the writing should be pleasant, and it does help too if you’re in the right mindset, all in the best interest of an absorbing read.
Such was the word that kept coming to mind when I began reading To Walk The Night: absorbing. I knew, right after the very first paragraph, that I could not stop until it was all over. And true enough, this is a story that I have read twice over a period of two or three days. I could barely stop wondering what would happen next in the tale. The book is average in size, roughly two-hundred pages, but feels like a breeze. William Sloane’s writing is breathtaking, exquisite, engaging, enchanting and a whole lot of other adjectives I can’t think of at the moment. He’s descriptive enough without ever becoming tedious, his sense of pacing is brilliant, the plot is expertly crafted, raising increasingly fascinating questions but providing satisfying answers at the right time. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I skimmed through the book in both opportunities.
As is often the case with these sort of stories, I can’t tell much without spoiling the surprises. It all begins when Berkeley “Bark” Jones, the protagonist, pays a visit to Dr. Lister under gloomy circumstances. You see, Dr. Lister’s son, Jerry, has died recently and Bark is very sorry to inform him that it may have been a suicide. They both know that this is completely against Jerry’s nature, especially Bark who was an intimate friend of him and is aware of certain unsettling details pertaining to the final days of his life. Afraid as he is to tell the truth, maybe because he’s partially reluctant to ponder the meaning of his suspicions, Bark sits down with Dr. Lister and unwillingly begins to tell the most fantastic story involving spontaneous combustion, Albert Einstein, an obsession with the stars, and Selena. Oh, Selena… The woman that steals Jerry’s heart, who somehow is behind all this. She’s deeply beautiful and yet she doesn’t seem to care about her looks, dressing badly and being unkempt most of the time. Something is decidedly off about her and everybody but Jerry realizes this. As the recounting unfolds, we delve into layer after layer of mysteries wondering how it all comes together (spoiler: it does). Perhaps most importantly, the characters behave logically when facing strange phenomena, prominently featured throughout the story, which is always refreshing. Sloane skillfully weaves Bark’s narration with present time debates with Dr. Lister, as they both analyze the hard facts of the tale and provide their own interpretation. Whatever the meaning behind all this is, it’s wholly arresting and you don’t want to miss a single word from the very beginning.
I’ve always been amazed by the fact that To Walk The Night was first published in 1937 (then revised in 1954), as it’s a book that could have easily been a bestseller today. There are very few elements that give it away as a product of the 30’s. It’s also hard to classify it in a genre: it’s not quite Science Fiction, it would be misleading to call it a Thriller and it certainly isn’t Horror. Rather, it is sort of Fantasy but only in the loosest sense of the word. This goes to show that, without doubt, the best books do not belong in any genre. Unfortunately, William Sloane wasn’t such a prolific writer. He was primarily a publisher, and quite a renowned one at that, who mostly penned plays. In addition to collecting science fiction stories, he only wrote two novels: this and The Edge Of Running Water. The latter was actually adapted into a movie with Boris Karloff under the name of The Devil Commands. I haven’t read that one, which is said to be even better than To Walk The Night, nor watched the movie (yet).
There is one major problem here though and that is the lackluster ending; an issue that nearly always surfaces with the best mysteries: some things are simply better left unknown. In the conclusion of the book, Sloane decides to explain everything, showing us all the secrets behind his magic, and as a result it takes away some of the charm. He should have left a few aspects of the plot untold; in truth, one key point is left to the reader’s imagination, hinted yet never revealed, but basically, the last pages feel like a rush of anticlimactic exposition in stark contrast with the rest of the book. Fortunately this turns being just a minor qualm. At least it’s a fulfilling conclusion, if only a bit dull, becoming a small dent in the overall power of the story.
Still, To Walk The Night is hands down one of the best written books I’ve ever read. Like I said before, Sloane’s prose is masterful and many sequences in the story remain firmly embedded in your memory (such as the events in the stadium and the plateau… oh my, those moments in the plateau). I’ve likened him to a lightweight H. P. Lovecraft, which by no means is a bad thing. A curious tidbit: there seems to be an unofficial adaptation of this story as well, called Unearthly Stranger. William Sloane was never credited as the original writer but the entire plot seems to be lifted straight from the book. Plagiarism? Very possibly. Anyway, this is one of those books that I’ve lent often and was, without exception, thoroughly enjoyed every time. It’s the perfect companion for a rainy weekend, especially if you like well-told mysteries.