Stephen King

‘The Rim of Morning’ review: Two supernatural novels by William Sloane


Halloween comes early this year for lucky readers with the reappearance of two short supernatural novels by the forgotten writer William Sloane: “To Walk the Night” and “The Edge of Running Water.” Conjoined as “The Rim of Morning,” a handsome omnibus volume released by the publishing arm of the New York Review of Books, these undeservedly neglected works may at last find a permanent home alongside the cross-genre novels they anticipated: books that, in style and theme, move with ease between science fiction, noir, dark fantasy, supernatural horror and mainstream fiction.

William Sloane (1906-1974) graduated from Princeton, worked in publishing for a number of years, headed the wartime Council on Books and was the longtime managing director of Rutgers University Press. Belying his Ivy League background and slightly fusty C.V., Sloane had an interest in the occult. In the early 1930s, he wrote three plays dealing with ghosts, and in 1937 published “To Walk the Night.” Kirkus gave it a thumbs-up: “A supernatural story that is neither sensational nor lurid. . . . A good bet for those who like Poe’s work. A first novel — this man bears watching.”

He still does. Robert Bloch (of “Psycho” fame) named “To Walk the Night” one of his 10 favorite horror novels, up there with “Dracula” and “Frankenstein.” Sloane’s tale blends elements of noir, gothic and science fiction in a story that resists easy classification. It opens as the narrator, Berkeley M. Jones (called Bark), navigates the winding drive to a mansion overlooking Long Island Sound. He is there to deliver terrible news to the estate’s owner, whose son Jerry, Bark’s best friend, has killed himself. Bark wants to spare Jerry’s father the details surrounding his son’s suicide, the import of which Bark himself doesn’t completely grasp.

“I must tell my story matter-of-factly, as if that shadow in the corner of my mind did not exist. That was all. I must not make him feel, as I did, that something horrible lay behind what I said.”

Much of the strength of Sloane’s narrative derives from this matter-of-fact tone. One of the novel’s most unsettling scenes takes place during a flashback to an Ivy League football game in which nothing overtly supernatural seems to occur. After the game, Bark and Jerry, drunk and exhilarated over their team’s win, pay a surprise visit to Jerry’s old astronomy professor. The author of a controversial mathematical treatise, “A Fundamental Critique of the Einstein Space-Time Continuum,” Dr. LeNormand is something of a crank. “If he hadn’t been such a famous man to begin with, Jerry thought, they’d have asked him to resign from the faculty.”

What they find when they enter his observatory is something horrible indeed: The famous astronomer is dead and “burning like a torch.”

In the aftermath, the two young men are shocked to learn that the astronomer, a confirmed bachelor, had married just three months earlier. His widow, Selena, is a classic femme fatale: beautiful, icily intelligent, yet oddly detached. Bark finds her impossible to read; Jerry finds her impossible to resist. Within months, the two marry. Shortly after, they decamp to a remote cabin in the New Mexico wilderness, which is where Bark eventually tracks them down in an effort to learn the truth about who Selena really is.

With its witty dialogue, burnished glimpses of affluence and art, and eerily poignant ending, “To Walk the Night” reads remarkably like a contemporary thriller that pays homage to great noir films such as “Kiss Me Deadly” and “Laura.” But Sloane’s book appeared years before either of those movies or the books they were based on. Surely it deserves a film adaptation of its own?

“The Edge of Running Water,” published two years later, did get its own movie: “The Devil Commands,” starring Boris Karloff. Sloane’s second novel is a bit creakier than his first, slower-moving and more conventional in its setup and marred by an ending that feels rushed.

But the book’s polished style and atmospheric setting — a creepy old house overlooking the Kennebec River in coastal Maine — make up for the languid pacing. As in “To Walk the Night,” there’s a scientist at the heart of the tale: Julian Blair, an electrophysicist shattered by the untimely death of his beloved, much younger wife, Helen. Blair has retreated to the remote town of Barsham Harbor, where he summons his former student Dick Sayles, who was also in love with Helen.

Blair isn’t much in evidence — he’s holed up in a mysterious upstairs room, unavailable to all except his housekeeper, who dusts once a week. The house is also occupied by Helen’s younger sister, who bears a startling resemblance to her dead sibling. What Blair is trying to do is construct a machine that will allow him to communicate with the dead. When he shares the nature of his eldritch research with his onetime pupil, Dick’s reaction is predictable: “This is a mad project. It’s blasphemous. It’s impossible. . . . Have you stopped to think what such a thing as you are trying to do would mean, Julian?”

As one might guess, this doesn’t end well.

Like Shirley Jackson, Sloane masterfully describes the paranoia and close-mindedness of an isolated rural community when outsiders take up residence. The most striking and frightening scenes involve the sounds emitted by Blair’s creation, a sonic nightmare reminiscent of the effects in Algernon Blackwood’s classic story “The Willows.” And there’s a brilliant set piece when Blair finally reveals his machine to the horror-struck Dick, a small masterpiece of the cosmic horror invoked by the volume’s subtitle. After reading both of these elegant, disquieting novels, one can marvel that they escaped mainstream attention for so long and rejoice that they’re back in print.

By William Sloane
New York Review Books. 464 pp. Paperback, $18.95

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Book World: ‘Finders Keepers’ by Stephen King


Stephen King’s superb new stay-up-all-night thriller, “Finders Keepers,” is a sly, often poignant tale of literary obsession that recalls the themes of his classic 1987 novel “Misery.”

At the center of this story is John Rothstein, a novelist whom Time magazine once crowned “America’s Reclusive Genius.” His best-selling trilogy — “The Runner,” “The Runner Sees Action” and “The Runner Slows Down,” is considered “the Iliad of postwar America.”

When the teenage Morris Bellamy reads the first two books, he falls in love with their antihero, Jimmy Gold, “an American icon of despair in a land of plenty.” But Morris finds the third novel, in which the protagonist settles down and takes a job in advertising, a sell-out and an unforgivable betrayal. A smart, deeply troubled kid who’s already done time in juvie, Morris hatches a plan to break into Rothstein’s New Hampshire farmhouse. His hope is to find the new Jimmy Gold novel that Rothstein is rumored to have written since retiring from public view. But when Morris’s plan goes disastrously wrong, he ends up, at age 23, sentenced to life in prison.

That’s where the fun begins — for the reader, if not for Morris Bellamy.

More than three decades later, another teenage boy, Pete Saubers, is living with his family in the same house that had once been Morris’s childhood home. Like Morris, Pete is in thrall of the Jimmy Gold novels, though he has other things on his mind. His family is struggling to get by after his father was injured when a madman plowed a Mercedes though a crowd waiting in line for a job fair. King fans will recognize that tragedy as the seminal event in his novel “Mr. Mercedes” (a much less enjoyable book than this one). They’ll also recognize several characters from that novel, including retired police detective Bill Hodges, now a private investigator. After Pete discovers the trunk with Rothstein’s stolen notes, King begins to weave this web of characters, coincidence and connections with dizzying speed and dazzling facility.

“Finders Keepers” — the second in a planned trilogy — may be a twisted love story, but it’s also a love letter to the joys of reading and to American literature. Rothstein’s books evoke Updike’s Rabbit novels, as well as works by J.D. Salinger, John Cheever and Richard Yates . Pete reads D.H. Lawrence’s “The Rocking-Horse Winner” and realizes too late its lesson that “money from nowhere almost always spells trouble.” And Pete’s favorite English teacher mentions Theodore Roethke’s sublime “The Waking.” That poem’s most famous line — “I learn by going where I have to go” — could serve as a mantra for Pete, who at every step must make life-altering decisions about Rothstein’s literary legacy, his family’s financial well-being and his own survival. In one sense, sweet-natured Pete is not so different from vicious Morris: Both, “although at opposite ends of the age-spectrum, are very much alike when it comes to the Rothstein notebooks. They lust for what is inside them.”Near the end, one of Rothstein’s many fans muses, “I was going to say his work changed my life, but that’s not right. . . . I guess what I mean is his work changed my heart.”

Readers of the wonderful, scary, moving “Finders Keepers” will feel the same way.

Hand’s short novel “Wylding Hall” will be published this summer.

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Book review: ‘Revival,’ by Stephen King

"Revival" is Stephen King’s latest novel. (Scribner)

"Revival" is Stephen King’s latest novel. (Scribner)

"Revival" is Stephen King’s latest novel. (Scribner)

Stephen King’s splendid new novel, “Revival,” offers the atavistic pleasure of drawing closer to a campfire in the dark to hear a tale recounted by someone who knows exactly how to make every listener’s flesh crawl when he whispers, “Don’t look behind you.” King has always been generous in acknowledging the inspiration for his fiction. With “Revival,” he names Arthur Machen’s “The Great God Pan” (1894), one of the greatest supernatural tales ever written.

King updates Machen’s fin-de-siècle setting and erotic subtext, in which a 17-year-old girl is subjected to a primitive lobotomy that allows her to glimpse the terrifying abyss that underlies our world. “Revival” opens in a place nearly as remote from our modern world as Machen’s gaslit London: rural Harlow, Maine, in the early 1960s. Jamie Morton, the novel’s narrator, recalls an incident from when he was 6 years old, the youngest of five children in a boisterous, big-hearted clan. He’s outside playing with his toy soldiers when a stranger appears:

“On top he was wearing a black-for-church jacket and a black shirt with a notched collar; on the bottom blue jeans and scuffed loafers. It was like he wanted to be two different people at the same time.”

The stranger is Charles Jacobs, Harlow’s new Methodist minister, happily married, with a beautiful young wife and toddler. Jacobs quickly befriends Jamie (and King immediately deflects any intimations of child abuse — this is not that story). He brings the boy to his garage to show him a wonder: a realistic tabletop model of the countryside, complete with what appears to be a real lake and miniature power pylons. With a wave of his hand, Jacobs illuminates the vista. Streetlights glow, and a figure of Jesus walks across the surface of the lake.

Jamie is amazed, even when Jacobs shares the secret of the apparent miracle: electricity, which the minister later says is “one of God’s doorways to the infinite.” Fascinated, the boy becomes a surrogate son to Jacobs, a role Jamie will continue to play long after tragedy strikes and Jacobs disappears.

All of the novel’s themes are contained in that early scene: the tug of war between science and belief; the ability of a good huckster, whether preacher or carny, to hold a crowd rapt with the promise of healing. Most of all, the novel explores the nature and abuse of power, whether it’s love, religious faith or Jacobs’s lifelong obsession, electricity.

King spins this story slowly and with great compassion for his characters, damaged as many of them are by grief and loss, addiction and disappointment; the teeth marks left by time gnawing away at youthful love and ambition. The dead-on details of Jamie’s 1960s childhood — van-choc-straw ice cream, the smell of Vitalis, a half-smoked joint hidden in a Sucrets box — give way to the joys of learning to play an electric Yamaha as Jamie embarks upon his eventual career as a session guitarist.

Happiness is notoriously difficult to make interesting in fiction. Idylls are created only to be destroyed. But King’s narrative never surrenders to mere nostalgia or contempt for the broken world that Jamie, like the rest of us, must live in as he ages.

Decades after Jacobs leaves Maine, he and Jamie meet again at a carnival. Here the former preacher, now calling himself Dan the Lightning Portraits Man, astonishes onlookers by using “secret electricity” to perform impossible feats on audience volunteers. Afterward in his workshop, Jacobs uses his secret electricity to pull off another miracle: a bit of electroconvulsive therapy that cures Jamie of his heroin addiction.

But the two part when Jamie questions Jacobs’s act and his old friend’s real intentions. “All your customers are actually guinea pigs,” Jamie notes. “They just don’t know it. I was a guinea pig.”

Years later, Jamie sees a Web site for evangelist C. Danny Jacobs, whose old-fashioned tent revival show advertises that “God heals like lightning.” Jamie finds himself drawn back into Jacobs’s malign orbit, even as he begins to track down those people who have been “healed” by the evangelist’s secret electricity but display disturbing side effects.

And here the narrative starts to dovetail with Machen’s masterpiece. King’s restrained prose explodes in an ending that combines contemporary realism with cosmic horror reminiscent of H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction and the classic film “Quatermass and the Pit.” The tormented relationship between Jamie Morton and Charles Jacobs takes on the funereal shading of an Arthur Miller tragedy — albeit one electrified by the power to bring the dead to life.

Hand’s short novel “Wylding Hall” will be out next year.

Stephen King
Scribner. 403 pp. $30

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