Evangeline Walton lived a long life (1907-1996) and wrote all along, but didn't publish much, though she has impeccable genre publishing credentials. Her 1945 novel Witch House, a notable (if not entirely successful) addition to the "psychic detectives" sub-subgenre, was published by August Derleth's Arkham House, and her first novel (The Virgin and the Swine, 1936), a fantastic retelling of one "branch" of the Mabinogion, was reprinted in the beloved Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series as The Island of the Mighty (1970), leading to the publication of the other three "branches" by Ballantine.
It seems that among Walton's papers is quite a bit of unpublished material, including several novels. She Walks in Darkness, a brief, self-described Gothic, was written in the 1960s, but shelved "when the Gothic craze expired" (p. 177). While flawed, in some ways severely, it's not without interest or pleasures, and its publication is welcome.
The novel takes place in and around the tenantless Villa Carenni, near Volterra, outside Siena in Tuscany, where newlyweds Barbara and Richard Keyes have come to live while Richard does archaeological work on the Etruscans. The time is probably the very early 1960s, contemporaneous with the writing of the novel.
The last of the Carenni family, Prince Mino, an aristocratic hater of democrats and Fascists alike, was accused of murdering a British archaeologist who took refuge in the Villa during the war; he is rumored to have died in an asylum. Just after the Keyes’ arrival at the Villa, Richard is knocked into prolonged unconsciousness in a seeming car accident, and Barbara discovers the missing caretaker, old Mattia Rossi, with his head bashed in. She has no way to get help; the Villa is a long walk from Volterra, and the phone doesn't work. In her moment of need, a young Italian, Floriano Silveri, shows up.
The story develops into a Gothic thriller in the sense of those paperbacks, ubiquitous in the 1960s, whose covers showed young women in imminent peril walking through mist holding a candle or fleeing from a mansion or castle. To give many details would be to spoil the story, which has a few notable twists and reveals. It involves a dark family history, class and generational hatred, hidden Etruscan tombs and a temple to a rather forbidding goddess, murder, and various cases of sexual transgression and their sometimes horrifying punishment. There is minor speculative content concerning Etruscan origins and relics, and elements of non-supernatural horror.
In the Gothic mode, during much of the book, Barbara finds herself in the clutches of villainous men, and often powerless, though in one case she finds herself helplessly, reflexively, attracted to one of her captors. In his introduction to this edition, Paul Di Filippo apologizes somewhat for Barbara who, while "bright, lively, smart" is "nonetheless a bit timid, prone to succumbing to male dominance" (p. v). But in her (never quite named) arousal, she is not so much succumbing to the dominance of the male—though there may be a momentary touch of Stockholm syndrome involved—as breaking out of the mold of the little newlywed whose husband calls her "Barby-girl" (p. 19) and tells her she's a "good girl," someone bound by the mores of her society, class, and era, who trails along blithely where her husband's career takes them. Walton adds a level of complexity to this somewhat browbeaten heroine by having her, while essentially powerless, feel an involuntary sexual response to a sexual predator to whom she is vulnerable, which at the same time adds an element of unpleasantness and dread to the situation. She underlines Barbara's helplessness while making her seem more than just a rag doll in distress, partly by couching much of this in language typical of romance:
Before I could move, he had me; his arms tight about me, his kisses coming hard and fast upon my mouth. His hunger was a contagion. That was the horrible part; I was no longer myself. Not Barbara, Richard's wife, not even a woman; only a mindless female stripped of all individuality, and so of dignity, the thing that only one’s own individual worth can give . . .
"No!" I was still trying to fight him, but I could only squirm ingloriously, like a hooked fish. "My husband—" . . .
He kissed me again. For another degrading moment the whole world seemed to be burned away. Then I only felt sick and cold and ashamed (pp. 88-9)
As Di Filippo points out, there is something of nascent feminism in Barbara. It lies, perhaps, in her ultimately relying on herself and her fundamental values in determining her worth. But her relative helplessness needs no apology; there is an essential value in its depiction. In current popular literature, we have become used to a range of female protagonists who are tough, smart, take-charge, even "kick-ass," and anything less would probably be unpopular (even Janet Evanovich's very popular Stephanie Plum seems to be losing some popularity through her fecklessness). But while most protagonists, male and female, may be equal to every situation, most people aren't, or don't generally find themselves in problematic situations which they can resolve quickly and decisively by the exertion of autonomous power. At several points Barbara is vulnerable to men who are simply much stronger than she is and ready to be violent, or are armed, or both. What comes across vividly, if uncomfortably, at times, is just what it would feel like to be so vulnerable and helpless. That this may have been a convention of the Gothic just underlines Walton's achievement: she took a convention and made it vivid enough to feel. If part of the point of reading is to be opened to the experience of others, to experiences we may not have had, then this book, not generally deep or thoughtful (though it has its moments), succeeds thus far: we can feel the frustration and fear of the powerless, and our sympathy for them is thereby deepened, as uncomfortable as that might be.
The mingled sexual attraction and repulsion evinced by Barbara appears again and again in Walton's work, even to the point of sexual transgression, evoking dis-ease, dread, or even horror. In Witch House, the heroine is so powerfully threatened by, and drawn to, a cousin, that she has literally to escape the situation. In The Children of Llyr (1971), one of Walton's Mabinogion pastiches, one woman is forced to submit sexually to save her husband, and another comes to loathe the husband to whom she was once strongly drawn, even while he still tries to exert a sexual pull on her. The motif shows up in some of her short stories, as well, most strongly in "The Other One," collected in Above Ker-Is and Other Stories (2012), her most purely horrific story, in which a man has compulsive sex with his wife's evil double. In She Walks in Darkness, this motif makes its most horrific appearance in the punishment of ancient adulterers, bound together in a way that’s particularly gruesome. This uncomfortable, slightly perverse element helps infuse life and power into Walton's writing, which can, truth to tell, at times be somewhat uncompelling, though this book, especially in its central section, moves along nicely and is generally enjoyable.
The book provides other pleasures as well: those of a nineteenth-century Gothic romance and at times, the imaginative vividness of a 1920s-era pulp; as Di Filippo says, the depths beneath the Villa Carenni put us "almost in A. Merritt territory" (p. v).
But unfortunately it is not an "utterly deft and competent production," as Di Filippo characterizes it in his introduction (p. iv). Walton starts Barbara off telling the story in medias res, with events still occurring. The first paragraphs run:
Old Mattia Rossi's body is gone. It no longer lies at the foot of the cellar stairs. This morning, when I finally braced myself to go down and look for those keys I need so badly, it was not there.
And that can only mean one thing. (p. 1)
At the end of the book she says: "Between those walls our first child was conceived, Richard's son and mine. Soon he will be fathering his own children; all that terror was long ago" (p. 172). But there is no transitioning between these two modes, no place where Barbara indicates in any way that she's moving from one time to another. Walton just seems to slide imperceptibly from one to the other somewhere in the third and fourth chapters, possibly without realizing it herself, and seems not to have noticed that her ending and beginning don't go together. The book was evidently marketed but not sold while she was alive. Perhaps if the book had had a sympathetic and professional edit at that point, and changes could have been freely suggested and made, she would have fixed the problem. If the current editors noted it, what could they do about it? The book is the artifact of a deceased artist; it could hardly be altered by others now, at least in so major a way.
Walton's familiarity with the place and culture she's writing about seems a bit spotty or questionable (other than some research into the history of the Etruscans, as far as that was known in the 1960s). Her description of the barrenness around Volterra doesn't seem to match the reality of it; at least, on a brief recent visit, it mostly seemed surrounded by calendar-worthy Tuscan scenery, though it could have changed in fifty years. But of the few words of Italian that appear in the book, that which appears most often and prominently is "aita," which Barbara uses when calling "help." The Italian word for help is "aiuto." There's no indication that Walton knows the word is wrong. It's hard to accept the scene in which a distraught Barbara, calling hysterically for help, in an Italian mountain village, is met by cold stares. Within my (admittedly limited) knowledge, Italians in small villages might be harsh to strangers if they're trespassing in some way, but not, as a group, to someone obviously in distress and seeking help. This sets up the unintentionally funny possibility that Barbara is met with cold stares because her one "Italian" word, "aita," is gibberish.
The latter part of the story is robbed of drama by being told after the fact rather than shown as it occurs. Most of the book has been in the first person, but toward the end, Walton needed action that occurred outside of Barbara's point of view, and so we have long expository passages describing actions whose outcome is already known. Still, in the sections leading up to the end, Walton does manage to convey some real threat and considerable atmosphere, some enjoyable melodrama and even a pleasantly pulpy sense of wonder. The book is dated, minor, and flawed, but should still be of interest to fans of Walton or of She Walks in Darkness's mix of genres.
Bill Mingin, a graduate of Clarion West, has published two dozen short stories with more forthcoming, and over three hundred nonfiction pieces; he currently reviews audiobooks for AudioFile Magazine. His fiction appeared most recently in Best of Talebones. He's married and lives in central New Jersey, where he runs a small book export business.