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.

New in bookstores: bite-sized epics

The curse of contemporary life: Not enough time.

It is a real challenge to find a few moments for yourself just to be still, to meditate, to inhale deeply.  But what if you're a reader of epic fantasy? How do you fit a thousand-pager into your week? (I remember managing to do it with George R.R. Martin's "Storm of Swords," but it nearly killed me.)

You can't simply give them up, can you?  They're a necessity to life: The worlds constructed by Martin, or Patrick Rothfuss, or Jay Lake, or Neil Gaiman, or Carrie Vaughn, or Kelly Link are wonderfully interesting when our own lives aren't. But they also require big, fat commitments of time. So what do you do?

Editor John Joseph Adams has hit on the solution in his latest anthology, "Epic: Legends of Fantasy," published by Bay Area-based Tachyon Publications. If you haven't heard of Tachyon, you need to check them out. They're a great publishing unit doing an invaluable service -- like Link and husband Gavin Grant's Small Beer Press -- to keep the work of some very fine writers in circulation.

In "Epic," Adams gives us tales from contemporary practitioners of epic fantasy. Some of the names mentioned above are included -- like Martin (his contribution, "The Mystery Knight," is a story of Westeros that's a good supporting piece to "A Song of Ice and Fire"); and Rothfuss ("The Road to Levinshir" plunges its narrator down in an uneasy, murky landscape).  But there are others here are well -- like Robin Hobb (whose dragon series is worth picking up) and Ursula Le Guin and Vaughn and Brian Sanderson (who took on the project of finishing the late Robert Jordan's "Wheels" saga).

It's an excellent selection that gets us back to the point mentioned at the top of this post. How do you manage to squeeze in epic tales when you don't have enough time in your life?  The answer is, you do the best that you can when you can. Or else you can turn to this anthology by Adams which, in a phrase I've used before, gives readers evocative stories delivering the full caloric load of a novel in half the time. You'll come away from this fine edition feeling very satisfied.