The novel “Darker Than You Think” by Jack Williamson was published for the first time in 1948, an extended version of a novelette published in 1940.
Will Barbee is a reporter who goes to witness the return of a group of scientists from Mongolia, where they studied the alleged ability of some people to transform into animals. His interest is not only professional because the expedition is led by one of his former university professors and he knows the other members as well.
At the airport, Will Barbee meets April Bell, a young fellow journalist for whom he feels attraction but at the same time finds that there’s something strange about her, also because she manifests hostility towards the members of the expedition. When the leader of the expedition suddenly dies before revealing his discoveries, Will feels there’s something really strange going on and April seems involved.
Jack Williamson was famous as a master of science fiction but over the course of his career he also wrote stories in which he explored other genres that he published in various pulp magazines. In 1932, he published the novella “Wolves of Darkness” in the magazine “Strange Tales” in which he explored the theme of lycanthropy by mixing folklore about the subject with pseudo-scientific elements. He reprised that theme in a novelette published in 1940 in the magazine “Unknown” which was later expanded into the novel “Darker Than You Think”.
In this novel, Jack Williamson revisits classic themes of the horror genre such as lycanthropy and witchcraft offering pseudo-scientific explanations for these phenomena generally considered supernatural. The author includes many details that are more or less scientific related to physics, archeology, psychology, and other sciences to offer rational explanations that make this work fall at least in part in the science fiction genre.
Despite the extensive use of pseudo-scientific details, “Darker Than You Think” is developed with typical horror story tones. Will Barbee finds himself embroiled in a story that becomes increasingly big and dangerous as various among his acquaintances are killed. There’s also a noir element with the protagonist determined to investigate these events without much success and increasingly involved with a femme-fatale such as April Bell.
The events go far beyond the rational and Will Barbee’s ability to understand what is really happening is put into serious crisis with problems for his mental clarity. This part is a bit weak because the protagonist seems to take a very long time to make a rather simple logical reasoning. Perhaps the lengthening of the original work weakened this part of the story or perhaps 1940s readers were more naive.
In general, Jack Williamson manages to create a non-trivial plot by mixing elements of various genres well with the dark sides of the characters developed from both a psychological and a more horror/fantasy point of view. Even in the longer version, the pace is fast and at the same time, many details are included concerning the mysteries investigated by Will Barbee that slowly lead to their solution through a series of twists.
“Darker Than You Think” quickly became a classic that transcends literary genres because it’s been enjoyed for decades by readers of different genres. In some parts, you can notice its age but overall it’s a novel that remains intriguing and for this reason, I recommend reading it regardless of the genre label.