It’s just not fair: the case of Evangeline Walton

It’s bittersweet to read — and read about — gothic novelist Evangeline Walton. 

The sweet part has to do with Tachyon Press, that scrappy little Bay Area-based publisher of all things fantasy, receiving a fantastic opportunity to introduce readers to an overlooked work of gothic fiction by Walton (accompanied by an excellent foreword by Paul Di Filippo and an excellent afterword by Douglas A. Anderson).

evangeline waltonThe bitter part has to do with Walton’s publishing circumstances. It’s great that she finally is enjoying posthumous recognition (she died in 1996), but does it have to be posthumous?

My friends, I know that writers shouldn’t be driven to write by their audiences — it’s the inner voice that’s supposed to be the motivation, right? — but a little recognition, a little connection, is food for any writer’s soul, whether in print or here, in the WordPress universe. It makes you feel good to know that someone is listening. When you feel that way, that feeling informs your work and can make all the difference.

Walton seems to have had very little such nourishment. Di Filippo’s foreword describes her very bruising, painful publishing history, and the brief fame she enjoyed for her Mabinogion Tetralogy — a set of books that some place alongside Tolkien and T.H. White.

“She Walks in Darkness” made the publishing rounds in the 1960s and landed back in the proverbial desk drawer when no one was interested. The book’s a small miracle in prose. A tightly-controlled, first-person narrative of a terrifying experience in a remote Italian villa.

Barbara, the narrator, and her husband Richard are honeymooners. They travel to Tuscany not for a wine-and-sunshine experience like you’ll find in Frances Mayes’ bestsellers, but because Richard is an archeologist eager to study the Etruscan catacombs under the Villa Carenni. The romantic devil.

The patriarch of the Carenni family “believed that the villa had been built over the site of an ancient temple to Mania, Queen of the Underworld….It was the old Etruscan name for the Queen of the Underworld before they began using Greek script names, and identified her with Persephone. Her rites weren’t pretty. Roman records mention the substitution of poppyheads for the kind of offerings she’d received earlier…Little boys’ heads….

Walton-Walks-in-Darkness-coverWhen Richard is injured in a car accident, and lies unconscious, and Barbara believes a murder has escaped from a local prison and is hiding among the buried tombs — or is it Mania herself? — the story takes off. She doesn’t know what to do. She can’t make a long trek to get help, she can’t leave Richard, not when she’s convinced someone is lurking around the deserted villa. Barbara’s trapped.

Just the sort of book I’d have pounced on when I was reviewing for the paper.

Walton’s compression, her economy is brilliant … Barbara’s narrative, for instance, moves easily from the horrifying present to the innocence of the previous day in a single tense-shifting paragraph. No bells or whistles. Deftly done.

“The Da Vinci Code’s” Dan Brown also could learn something from her handling of big, historical enigmas. Theories don’t drop into her narrative like big, chunky encyclopedia entries — at one point, Barbara’s reading of a discovered notebook seamlessly gives us a theory of the true identity of the Etruscans, who originated in a place called Tyrrha:

Did not Plato say that Atlanteans once occupied the Tyrrhene coast? Whether the place that in his Greek foolishness he called Atlantis lies beneath the sea, or—as is more likely—beneath the sands of the Sahara, that land was the cradle-land, the birthplace of all the arts of man. The birthplace of the Rasenna [Etruscans].

The book reflects its time period — the 1950s — in Barbara’s view of herself, her relationship to her husband, an unexpected hunky Tuscan, and men in general … But such dating isn’t necessarily a bad thing, is it? It reminds us that the book wasn’t written in a vacuum, that it arose out of a particular time from someone’s particular circumstances.

I’m just sorry that we had to discover it now, when it’s much too late for Walton to receive some of the praise she deserves.

Related:

Go here to learn more about Tachyon Publications, publisher of Walton’s novel.

Go here for another nice review of “She Walks in Darkness” at Bibliophilic Monologues.

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9 responses

  1. i’m traveling and a olittle short on commenting time, but one thing did strike me – your use of the words “compression” and “economy”. i’ve found when research is called for, there are times when a chapter read here or there may end up in my piece as a sentence.

    Not to be crass, but perhaps it’s learning the fine art of distillation – as a substitute for regurgitation!

  2. No, it’s not fair. Kudos to Tachyon and her “writing hers” for reviving her work. It’s interesting that Mary Renault beat her to the publishing punch for several books. Surely there would have been room for one more woman atop the throne of myth!

  3. Walton definitely learned the art of distillation. I’m finished with a revision of a novel, and I’ve found that the word count has come down significantly because of such distilling. How much is necessary for the reader to know? How much do we stick into our writing just because we want to showcase our research? Walton’s book is small, 172 pages — 172 loose formatted pages. A lot of space, wide margins. And yet it’s a novel. It has the arc and the layering. It came late to me in my own writing process, but it was still a good lesson.

  4. Definitely better late than never, Nish. I agree. I guess I just feel more sympathy for all of Walton’s work after finishing a novel of my own. It’s too bad she can’t see the response, but it’s lucky for us that we have it. In another comment in this thread, to Shoreacres, I pointed out a big lesson that her little novel teaches any writer.

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