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.

The once and future mystery: recent in bookstores

'Twill never be forgot: Robert Goulet and Julie Andrews in "Camelot." A few years ago, Adam Ardrey published a couple of books about the history behind the King Arthur legend, and he titled them "Finding Merlin" and "Finding Arthur." Both are speculative histories that peel away the myths and try to identify the flesh-and-blood figures of early Britain who inspired the Arthurian legend. When "Finding Camlann" (W.W. Norton & Company) appeared, I thought it was another installment by the Scot, aiming for a trilogy gift-set just in time for the holidays. It isn't.

Instead, "Finding Camlann" is an enjoyable literary detective novel by Sean Pidgeon that had me thinking of Byatt's "Possession" and Kostova's "The Historian." Both of those books are partly about trails of clues left in ancient manuscripts, and Pidgeon's first novel clearly belongs with them in your library.  For his novel's two researchers, Donald and Julia, the hunt for the real Arthur's kingdom is facilitated by "The Song of Lailoken"--a Welsh poem that tells the story of the king's final, fatal battle.

There's nothing better than a mystery connected with literary tradition. Dan Brown might grab the headlines for his new Dante-themed thriller,  but Pidgeon's book deserves a look this summer. Not only do books like his help us to appreciate stories thoroughly embalmed by our high school English classes, they remind us that the past contains so much that's worth our time.

SPEAKING OF ARTHUR: by the way, the mailman delivered the best kind of mail yesterday: a copy of "The Fall of Arthur" by J.R.R. Tolkien and published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. This will probably be the last (is it really?) "new" Tolkien item to appear in the years since the ringmaster's death in 1973. Edited and curated by Tolkien's son, Christopher, the book was delivered into my hot little hands just in time for the three-day holiday: Nothing better than some alliterative Anglo-Saxon verse poolside!

I'll have a full report next week. Until then, my friends, a happy Memorial Day to you and yours.

Reviews of Dan Brown's latest ... ugh

Il Miglior Fabbro in a pensive mood (perhaps thinking about books and book reviewers): portrait by Agnolo Bronzino

Another Dan Brown novel, another pack of smug reviews.

Here’s my confession:  I’m already sick of the reviews of Brown’s "Inferno," and the book only pubbed a day ago. Reviewers say that Brown doesn’t do anything new in his latest, but here’s the thing: neither do they.

The criticisms are predictable; the angles are all the same. "How can he write such drivel?” they say, wringing their hands. At this point, after four books, attacking Brown's prose style or story line is unimaginative and tiresome -- like shooting fish in the proverbial barrel.

If they can do better than Brown, then they should give it a try. Please. That’s what’s changed for me, my friends. As I've worked with historical material and puzzles in a book of my own,  I’ve come to appreciate Brown even if I wouldn’t make the same narrative choices.

Every reviewer, in fact, should try to write a novel or a story before offering to review one. That doesn't mean that you'll become an instant cheerleader. But at least you'll have a broader perspective ... and maybe you'll avoid carpal tunnel syndrome from all that hand-wringing. Writing  is an extraordinarily humbling, powerful journey.


Good: New York Times (keeps perspective on the story, and the thriller genre):

Decent: The Globe and Mail (it starts off like all the rest, and then changes) New York Daily News:

Eye-rollers The Standard: Clives James in USA Today:

Praise (with an extreme back of the hand) The Telegraph:

Completely lame: The Guardian (imitating Brown’s writing)

Mea culpa: I’m no innocent bystander. I was once guilty of this sort of holier-than-thou reviewing too,0,5481048.story (blech)

Profile in courage

Dan Brown Inferno coverDante Alighieri is a fascinating figure, and hopefully I'll be able to tell you what really fascinates me about that poor, exiled figure at some point in the near future when my work on a book about him is done. Keep your fingers crossed for me, beloved friends. In the meantime, I feel like I should at least present the cover image of Dan Brown's forthcoming book "Inferno," which is being published by Random House in May, for your viewing pleasure. The publisher sent out images of the cover yesterday. This will be the fourth action novel featuring renowned symbologist Robert Langdon.

I have to admit, it's a little disappointing to see Dante's profile, that familiar, angular chin and nose, clouded over by a bunch of thriller imagery, but thankfully it still shows through -- like a mountain peak through a bank of fog.

That red band running down the cover and merging with the red of Dante's cap and robes -- is that like the Rose Line of "The Da Vinci Code" or is it just a little design element?  Brown's book jackets are always packed with symbolism, so I'd guess that there's more to it. We will see in May.

The 'D' in 'Dan Brown' stands for 'Dante'

IS THIS WRITTEN IN CODE? Dan Brown's signature. In "The Lost Symbol," the most recent of Dan Brown's thrillers featuring symbologist Robert Langdon, there's a moment when Langdon compares the murky, distant secrets of Europe with those of colonial America.

This nation may not be too old in comparison to the world across the pond, but there's a rich tradition of secrecy in this country that is exciting and intriguing. That's what he thinks. Soon after these musings, Langdon sets off on another chase-and-race-against-the-clock that is rooted firmly in red-white-and-blue soil.

In his forthcoming novel, however, Brown -- and Langdon -- are heading back to Europe. The publisher Doubleday announced today that it will publish a new Dan Brown novel in May. The title, "Inferno," refers to the one and only Dante Alighieri and his epic poem of medieval Italy, The Divine Comedy.

Here's Brown, from the news release, on what drew him to the immortal Tuscan:

"Although I studied Dante's Inferno as a student, it wasn't until recently, while researching in Florence, that I came to appreciate the enduring influence of Dante's work on the modern world," Brown says.

What exactly does "enduring influence" mean?  In Brown's world, it also points to a familiar theme in his past books: conspiracy. "With this new novel," Brown adds, "I am excited to take readers on a journey deep into this mysterious realm.... a landscape of codes, symbols, and more than a few secret passageways."

An exec editor at Doubleday also mentions that "Inferno" includes "a mystery that has global ramifications..." (Hm, I wonder if the Priory of Sion ever traveled to Italy.)

I'm looking forward to May so that I can see what Brown makes of a figure whom I've adored for all of my reading life.

My interest in the book isn't entirely neutral -- I have a story of my own involving the poet in the works -- but regardless of that, any time that is spent with Dante is time well spent. There's nothing better than turning off the television and wandering for a few hours with Virgil in Hell or up the slopes of the mountain in Purgatory.