"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 to badly, it was not there."
With these ominous first lines of She Walks in Darkness, we are introduced to the Gothic Adventures of Barbara Keyes, the newly married wife of archaeologist Richard Keyes, as she honeymoons at an isolated Tuscan villa. The villa is owned by a member of an aristocratic family that has lived there for generations and sits on top of the cavernous Etruscan catacombs which Richard hopes to study, thus combining business with pleasure. But soon Barbara finds herself having to fend for her life as well as her husband’s after Richard gets seriously injured in a car crash on their first night there. As Richard lies unconscious in their honeymoon bed, Barbara worries about how to get much needed help—but their car is destroyed, the telephone line doesn’t work and the next town is miles away. Her only hope is that the groundskeeper, Mattia Rossi, will show up—but then she finds his murdered body, a body that subsequently disappears mysteriously and leads Barbara to the realization that the killer is still there. And that she cannot leave Richard alone.
What comes next is the harrowing recounting of the hours following Richard’s accident in true gothic form, complete with Terrifying Scares, Horrible Tragedies, Claustrophobic Predicaments, Looming Threats and the pervasive sense that something supernatural might be afoot. It is a tale of obsession and madness that interplays with historical (those Etruscans as so elusive) and family mysteries to great effect.
It’s worth noting that Evangeline Walton (1907-1996) was a writer who had been writing since the ’30s and whose career experienced a brief surge of popularity in the ’70s. She Walks in Darkness was first written in the ’60s and it never saw the light of day (when first attempting to sell it, Walton was told that “gothic” was not “in” anymore) until Tachyon decided to publish it now. My greatest fear when deciding to read it was that the book would be too dated, but it is perfectly readable despite its old-fashioned feel (which in fairness, works brilliantly for this genre).
My other fear was that it would be a sexist book in danger of placing Barbara in the role of housewife and helpless victim without agency on either role. Thankfully, Barbara’s narrative is perhaps my favorite thing about She Walks in Darkness. She is Richard’s confidant as well as his wife and there is a strong sense of a marriage of equals despite his tendency to want to overprotect her (which she questions). She might have been first introduced as Richard’s wife (meaning: in relation to him) but with him out of the picture, it is her story and hers alone. And if there are moments where she is almost overtaken by her fear and panic, those are usually followed by her attempting to spring into action. Not that her (or anybody else’s) fear and panic and tears are not perfectly understandable—in her shoes, I’d probably still be locked in a room, crying with fear of the dark. Seriously.
That is to say: Barbara is a perfectly complex character with agency and voice. One of the best things about the novel is that, when she meets an extremely attractive young man who makes unwanted sexual advances, she acknowledges her libido and her desire as well as her control and choice over them ("I don't belong to Richard, but I do belong to myself").
Admittedly, there is an inordinate amount of exposition and exaggerated villainous speeches but again, to me, they kind of fit the feel of gothic fiction where everything including the telling is dramatic and extravagant. For example, every time Barbara thought of Richard, it would be accompanied by an exclamation mark and, I paraphrase: “Omg what is happening to Richard? Richard!” There is also this amusingly pervasive negative sentiment toward Communism which is quite possibly the most dated thing about the novel.
All in all, it’s a fun book, perfect for this time of the year.
In Booksmugglerish: a perfectly (perfectly!) fine 7 out of 10.