Walter de la Mare: The Psychological Ghost Story
Other Early Twentieth-Century Masters
Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries
The work of Walter de la Mare (1873—1956) represents a watershed in the history of weird fiction, and specifically the ghost story. It constitutes—along with the tales of Oliver Onions, L. P. Hartley, and some lesser writers—the definitive transition from the orthodox Victorian ghost story, which reached its pinnacle with M. R. James, to the psychological ghost story, where the events of a tale cannot be definitively ascribed to supernatural agency but must rather be seen as emerging from the disturbed psyches of the protagonists; even in cases where the supernatural comes into play, it is usually fused with an intense focus on the psychological aberration of key characters in such a way that clear metaphysical distinctions between supernatural and psychological horror are, by design, impossible to make.
Our chief difficulty with de la Mare is in delineating the precise scope of his weird writing. Of the dozens of stories he wrote over his long career—including such collections as The Riddle and Other Stories (1923), The Connoisseur and Other Stories (1926), On the Edge (1930), The Wind Blows Over (1936), and A Beginning and Other Stories (1955)—and excluding his many works for children, which are probably to be classified as fantasy, no two readers will agree on which are weird and which are not. A corollary of this difficulty is the frequent ambiguity and allusiveness of de la Mare’s entire approach to writing—an approach that not only links him to such of his predecessors as Henry James (an author for whose ghostly tales he expressed early admiration [Whistler 130]) but looks forward to the equally murky but transcendently brilliant work of Robert Aickman.
Matters are not helped by de la Mare’s relatively few writings about the weird. His long introduction to his son Colin de la Mare’s splendid anthology They Walk Again (1931) offers only the dimmest of hints. Much of the introduction is devoted to a perspicacious discussion of both the similarities and the divergences between the detective story and the ghost story. Among the latter de la Mare singles out the emphasis of the ghost story on the emotions of the reader:
Facts as mere facts … are not the quarry of the ghost story. We must be made to believe in it. At its best it gives us imaginative truth. As with all fine fiction its illusion is its sovereign charm. To be informed in a brief epilogue that such a story is even so much as founded on fact is nothing but a shattering anti-climax. “Atmosphere”, then, is all important. (20—21)
De la Mare goes on to note that the essence of the ghost story “is the gradual conviction that this workaday actuality of ours—with its bricks, its streets, its woods, its hills, its waters—may have queer and, possibly, terrifying holes in it” (21). That may be the most we can get as to de la Mare’s theory of the weird.
To be sure, his interest in the ghostly was of early origin. His very first published story, “Kismet” (1895), is, albeit non-supernatural, intensely terrifying. A sailor returning home after, apparently, several years at sea cadges a ride with a man driving a wagon; he is looking forward to meeting his wife again after his prolonged absence. But the wagon is no ordinary wagon; it is in fact picking up the coffin of the sailor’s wife. His own riding of the wagon brilliantly heralds his own sudden death at the end of the tale.
“Kismet” was one of the tales reprinted in a posthumous collection, Eight Tales (1971), assembled by Edward Wagenknecht, who asserted that another story in the book, “A: B: O.,” had appeared in the Cornhill. It in fact did not do so, and evidently de la Mare forwarded the manuscrupt of the story to Wagenknecht (or to August Derleth, the publisher of the volume). It is, at any rate, another early story (probably dating to 1896), and is unusually grisly for de la Mare. The initials of the title are found on a metal chest that a man and his friend dig up in his property—and they stand for “abortion.” The mere sight of it is loathsome: “There lay the wretched abortion:—it seems to me that this thing is like a pestilent secret sin, which lies hid, festering, weaving snares, befouling the wholesome air, but which, some day, creeps out and goes stalking midst healthy men, a leprous child of the sinner” (2.512).
These early stories are quite crude by de la Mare’s later standards, and it is no surprise that he did not wish them reprinted in his lifetime, as Wagenknecht had proposed. The later stories are occasionally powerful, but are also occasionally frustrating in the excessive ambiguity of their implications, or sometimes of their bare events. De la Mare was so taken with indirection and subtlety, and so focused on the shifting psychological perspectives of his characters, that the tales often lack a powerful climax or a coherent resolution of any kind. Their literary artistry is never in question, but on occasion they can seem a trifle academic and even a bit pretentious.
“Seaton’s Aunt” (1922) is, however, an unquestioned masterpiece. Like many of de la Mare’s tales, it is narrated by an adolescent—in this case, a boy named Withers, who has imprudently agreed to spend a half-term holiday with his friend Seaton and his aunt. What we have here, as de la Mare suggests in what for him are unusually clear hints, is the psychic prowess of the aunt over her nephew. Is she some kind of ghoul or vampire? This is never clarified, but the aunt’s domination—symbolised by the fact that, over a meal, she “enjoyed and indulged an enormous appetite” (1.58)—is evident at every stage. Seaton himself thinks his aunt is “in league with the devil” (1.60), but there is never any reason to assume that the aunt is receiving any infernal aid; Seaton is more accurate when he admits harrowingly, “She just sucks you dry” (1.63). Years later, when Withers makes another visit, he is disturbed to find that the aunt’s appetite is still “Gargantuan” (1.70). It was on this occasion that Seaton had announced his engagement; but as more time passes and Withers wonders why he was never invited to the wedding, he learns that Seaton had died just before the marriage was to take place.
De le Mare frequently repeats this pairing of two individuals in conflict, with many variations. It is not entirely clear that “The Tree” (1922) is a weird tale, but it has frequently been taken to be one. Here a prosperous fruit merchant pays a visit to his half-brother to collect a debt owed to him—the half-brother, an impoverished painter, has apparently just sold a painting for a significant sum of money, so the fruit merchant feels that the time for repayment has come. The portrayal of the money-grubbing merchant is surprisingly crude for de la Mare, but the upshot of the tale is more than a little murky. The immense tree in the painter’s front yard—a tree that the merchant had always found frightening—appears to hold something anomalous: “a kind of huddling shape up aloft there” (1.123). Can the painter have hanged himself? But the painter is found within, old and wizened, and surrounded by countless drawings of the tree. I confess to be not entirely clear as to the direction of this tale, but its atmosphere of strangeness is unmatched.
A bit clearer is “Mr. Kempe” (1925), where a traveller in search of antiquities must skirt a perilous path along a cliff-edge to reach the home of Mr. Kempe, who lives near an ancient circular stone building that may once have been a chapel, as there are graves nearby. Here the psychological focus is on Mr. Kempe, who is fanatically determined to ascertain that human beings have souls—is he terrified of death and clinging irrationally to an outmoded theory of the afterlife? At any rate, there is the suggestion that he has killed several other visitors in pursuit of his theory.
“All Hallows” (1926) might be considered a kind of psychological variant of the antiquarian ghost story pioneered by M. R. James. Here the focus is on a cathedral called All Hallows—but this one is apparently “open … to attack of [a] peculiar and terrifying nature” (1.349), for reasons that are never clarified: is it the declining faith of the local denizens that has induced the legions of the infernal world to take it over? Whatever the case, the result is that the cathedral is being supernaturally restored by unknown hands; as the verger notes with terror:
“Why, I am speaking not of dissolution, sir, but of repairs, restorations. Not decay, strengthening. Not a corroding loss, an awful progress. I could show you places—and chiefly obscured from direct view and difficult of a close examination, sir, where stones lately as rotten as pumice and as fretted as a sponge have been replaced by others fresh-quarried—and nothing of their kind within twenty miles.” (1.350)
Later a visitor sees that “some small animal—a dog, a spaniel, I should have guessed—had suddenly and surreptitiously taken cover behind the stone buttress nearby” (1.359). “All Hallows” is a masterwork of cumulative horror, and next to “Seaton’s Aunt” is de la Mare’s most powerful weird tale.
As for “A Recluse” (1926), its very plot is not entirely clear. The narrator, a traveller, sums up the matter himself in discussing the title character: “all that I can say about Mr. Bloom can be only vague and inconclusive” (2.3). The traveller is forced to take refuge at Mr. Bloom’s lavish estate because he cannot find the gear-key of his car; he had meant only to stay a short time to examine the imposing abode, but is forced to spend the night there. Bloom tells him of the occult experiments that he and a secretary—now dead—had engaged in, although he refuses to specify their nature; are we to gain some impression of them from Bloom’s offhand comment about death (“It is as well to remember there is more than one way of dying. There is first the body to be taken into account; and there is next—what remains” [2.13])? And what are we to make of the fact that, after a number of disturbing episodes at night, the traveller finds the following:
But on the pillow—the grey-flecked brown beard protruding over the turned-down sheet—now showed what appeared to be the head and face of Mr. Bloom. With chin jerked up, I watched that face steadily, transfixedly. It was a flawless facsimile, waxen, motionless; but it was not a real face and head. It was an hallucination. How induced is quite another matter. No spirit of life, no livingness had ever stirred those soap-like, stagnant features. It was a travesty utterly devoid—whatever its intention—of the faintest hunt of humour. It was merely a mask, a life-like mask (past even the dexterity of a Chinese artist to rival), and—though I hardly know why—it was inconceivably shocking. (2.26—27)
I hardly know why either. I think the implication of the story is that Bloom is in fact dead—and, more specifically, a body without a soul that is nonetheless somehow ambulatory. The “mask” really is not a mask, in spite of the traveller’s desperate rationalisations—it is Bloom’s actual face.
De la Mare’s most sustained contribution to the weird is the novel The Return, first published in 1910 and issued in a revised edition in 1922. One of the finest examples of the psychic possession motif, the novel features one of the most harrowing opening scenes in supernatural literature: a man, Arthur Lawford, awakes from sleeping on the tomb of an eighteenth-century pirate, Nicholas Sabathier, and comes home to find that his face has become entirely different from his own—in other words, it has become the face of Sabathier. The critical question, broached but never fully answered in The Return, is whether the physical change in Lawford’s features reflects, or is the vanguard of, a deeper psychological change. At first Lawford feels exactly himself; but a little later he senses “that other feebly struggling personality … beginning to insinuate itself into his consciousness” (42). Of course his personality is affected by the change—whose would not be? Indeed, at the very moment of the transformation he seems a far more vigorous and energetic person than he was before; and he himself later wonders whether the illness he had been suffering, not to mention his generally “feeble hold on life” (101), did not make him a prime candidate for this bizarre victimisation. But the true extent to which Sabathier’s actual personality usurps Lawford’s remains a tantalisingly unsettled question throughout the novel.
Grisel, the sister of Lawford’s neighbour Herbert Herbert, although appearing only for a few chapters of the novel, is perhaps its critical figure. During long walks taken with Lawford, she accepts him for what he is and urges him to carry on. Should we then be surprised that Lawford, even after his face has once again become his own, professes love to Grisel? Certainly, Grisel has shown him more unaffected sympathy than anyone except his own daughter—certainly more so than his wife, Sheila, who reacts to Lawford’s transformation with selfishness and conventional fears of social disgrace. But could it also be that Grisel is herself a supernatural figure—the avatar of the woman Sabathier loved and because of whom he took his own life? More so even than Lawford or Sabathier himself, Grisel is the enigmatic key to the novel.
The Return is about many things at once—physical (and perhaps psychic) possession, domestic trauma, unrequited love, philosophical reflection—and one of the secrets of its greatness is the seamlessness with which all these elements fuse together into a unified whole. But most of all, the novel is about the existential horror of losing control of one’s own being. “You can’t possibly realise what a ghastly change it really was” (129), Lawford says simply but keenly at one point. Elsewhere he ponders his plight:
Round and round in dizzy sickening flare and clatter his thoughts whirled. Contempt, fear, loathing, blasphemy, laughter, longing: there was no end. Death was no end. There was no meaning, no refuge, no hope, no possible peace. To give up was to go to perdition: to go forward was to go mad. And even madness—he sat up with trembling lips in the twilight—madness itself was only a state, only a state. (109)
It is moments of quiet desperation like this that make The Return the triumph that it is.