She Walks In Darkness is a trunk novel. That is to say that it is an unpublished novel that was found in the papers of Evangeline Walton, who is probably best known for her novelizations of the Welsh epic the Mabinogion. Throughout literary history trunk novels have been hit-or-miss. Sometimes they are diamonds in the rough, and other times they were in the trunk for a good reason. For me, this one falls somewhere in the middle.
Unlike the works for which she was most famous this book is a suspense novel, about a young American woman, Barbara Keyes, young and newly married to the archeologist Richard Keyes. Richard has taken Barbara to Italy for his work, where he is to study the area of Volterra from a nearby Villa. The young couple barely has time to set their foot in the door before a series of events consigns Richard to unconsciousness and places Barbara on her own, in a empty villa without transportation, and unable to speak more than a few phrases of Italian.
The book then veers towards the Gothic as Barbara is seemingly rescued by a cliché of a handsome Italian peasant, Floriano. Unfortunately for her he quickly devolves into a cliché of a laviscious peasant who is a polemic-spouting communist to boot. If that isn't bad enough he turns out to be the bastard son of the Villa's owner, the near-legendary villain Prince Mino. Things only get worse when the Prince himself shows up, gun in hand. He was supposed to have been dead, but faked the whole thing and was living in the endless labyrinth of catacombs that lie beneath the Villa.
Probably the most interesting part of the novel is the history of the area and the Villa, with its creepy semi-Minoan mythology. It was interesting, and scary, and provided a frisson that the earlier sections of the novel lacked. When Mino forces Barbara and an injured Floriano into the caves and tells them of the strange rituals that his ancestors held there I almost felt like I was approaching Poe territory. In these parts of the book Ms. Walton, through Barbara's voice, provides some of the best parts of the novel. The mixture of the strangeness and wonder of the subterranean world beneath the Villa are well drawn. Also interesting is the epistolary sections of the novel, where some of the necessary background history is discovered in the diary of an English soldier who happened to be an archeologist. The coincidence is rather clumsy, and some of the book becomes a bit to expositional, but it could have been worse.
One of the difficulties of the book is the character, and the narration of Barbara herself. She is a woman of her times. It was refreshing for a lead in a novel to not suddenly turn into Lara Croft or Indiana Jones in the midst of a crisis; but at times her lack of initiative and drive made me feel like a was adrift in a rudderless ship. Too often Barbara simply stands by and lets the events of the story wash over her. It is a difficult territory, trying to make the main character realistic but not letting their limitations push them to the back of the story. Ms Walton did a decent job, but I felt that she could have done better. Still it had some thrills and chills, so I will check out the next book that comes from Ms. Walton's trunk.