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.


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.

Writing that flows: Bertsch’s ‘Death Canyon’

river water “I should try to just scribble out a mystery.”

Ever heard that before? I have. I think I've even been guilty of saying that myself. Writing a serious novel is hard, Olympian work, but writing a mystery? Oh, c'mon, anyone can do that. It’s not even writing: it’s just scribbling.

My friends, what I've learned from working on a novel of my own is what you probably already know: No writing is ever just scribbling. It’s all hard work. Any story demands steady commitment (and a kind of madness) to stay focused on it for weeks, months — even years — because you want to get it right. Writing a novel has made me far more humble as a reader and a critic ... and far more careful about the words that I use.

Mystery-writing, I think,  often gets reduced to “scribbling” because there’s a simplicity to the narration -- especially in hard-boiled tales -- that makes it all seem plain and easy. I started thinking about that because of David Riley Bertsch’s “Death Canyon: A Jake Trent Novel” (Scribner), published in mid-August but that I’m only getting to now.  It’s a perfect book for summer — murder and secrets in the great outdoors — but since it’s not summer anymore, I realized something else: It’s a perfect book for anytime, especially if you're in the mood for a lesson about good writing.

When I read, I like to search for the author's biography in between the lines. That’s a complicated thing in some author’s work, but in Bertsch’s novel it was easier to detect. This story is suffused with a love and celebration of the great outdoors that's obvious. Then I turned to the jacket flap and discovered why:

Since 2009, [Bertsch] has lived in Jackson, Wyoming, where he is a professional fly-fishing guide.

Of course he is. How could he NOT be?  (For more about Bertsch, you can visit his author's website.) Some passages about the experiences of Jake, an ex-prosecutor, are so full of bliss and joy that they must be rooted in Bertsch's own experience, like this one:

After he finished setting up his sleeping quarters, Jake pulled the fire pan from the skiff and walked a short way down the island to prepare dinner; not daring to attract bears or other curious predators to his sleeping area with the scent of food. He season the trout with a mixture of salt, pepper, garlic powder, and dill that he kept with his fishing equipment. He opened the bottle of beer he had brought along, and as evening settled further into the river canyon, the dusky ambiance and alcohol lightened Jake's mood. He smiled when he thought of his earlier frustration with the council. Things moved slowly here, and he needed to be patient and persist. Besides, he thought, I moved here to escape external pressures. I'm hard enough on myself.

Think Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River.” Think of Jake — like H’s Nick Adams — burned by the world and seeking some healing in this beautiful place, Wyoming’s Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks.

And this, mind you, comes in one of those easy-to-scribble mysteries.

This landscape is Eden-like, and soon enough Jake discovers a serpent. He comes upon a corpse, and this death -- along with two more -- are unexpectedly linked. Villains and a development project loom on the horizon.

It’s a great deal to juggle, and some reviews have been lukewarm, but I think that's because those critics have never written books of their own.  If they did, passages like the Hemingway-inspired one would have impressed them. The same goes for the descriptions of the corpses, which Bertsch pulls off without resorting to cliches. Try to write a scene about a dead body and you'll see how hard that is.

In the end, "Death Canyon" is a deftly executed thriller that serves as a simple reminder of something else: Writing’s never easy.