Out of the Deep: Walter de la Mare’s Supernatural Tales

27 Oct

What qualities contribute to the making of a really good ghost story? A deftly crafted air of unease and suspense is essential. A well-defined sense of place is also an advantage – the isolated mist-shrouded mansion, or the forest landscape never penetrated by the sun. Then you need a protagonist, someone who is haunted as much by loneliness and doubt as by the spirits of those departed. All these qualities help to shape a good ghost story, but the best ghost stories, and those by Walter de la Mare are certainly among the best, have something else in their favour – an enduring sense of mystery and a solution or explanation that remains tantalisingly out of reach. Take for example perhaps the most famous ghost story of them all, Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898). James’s tale certainly has the atmosphere, the location and the troubled protagonist, but it also raises numerous tantalising questions. Are the ghosts in the story ‘real’, or do they only exist within the mind of the governess? Do the children within her care see the ghosts but refuse to admit it, or are they totally innocent and merely bewildered by events? Is the governess malevolent or mad, or is she rather the only hope of salvation in a story that deals almost exclusively with evil? James’s ability to weave ambiguity into the fabric of the tale makes it a sublime ghost story. Walter de la Mare possessed a very similar ability to create narratives in which many interpretations are possible, something which – taken together with his perfectly pitched sense of place and his elegant prose – made him one of the finest writers of supernatural tales in the language.

Walter de la Mare (1873–1956) was born in Charlton, Kent, the sixth of the seven children of James Edward Delamare (as the name was originally spelt), an official at the Bank of England, and his wife Lucy Sophia. He was educated at St Paul’s Cathedral School, from which perhaps his love of ecclesiastical buildings derives. Like the work of his near-contemporary M R James, the ghost stories of Walter de la Mare often feature cathedrals, churches and churchyards. The layers of history, antiquity, legend and ritual associated with such places makes them ideal settings for tales in which the seemingly safe and traditional often harbours something altogether more mysterious. Later, between 1890 and 1908 he worked in the statistics department of the Anglo-American Oil Company, a dreary and ill-paid job that he made bearable by writing stories and poems in his spare time. In August 1899 he married Constance Elfrida Ingpen and the couple had four children, the eldest of whom, Richard, became chairman of the publishing house Faber and Faber.

De la Mare’s career as a writer began to take flight in the mid-1890s, just as a taste for Gothic and supernatural tales was beginning to flourish. Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, for example, had been published in 1891, while Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw would appear in 1897 and 1898 respectively. M R James’s first collection of ghost stories – Ghost Stories of an Antiquary – was published in 1904, although some of the stories including Lost Hearts and Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book had first appeared in the mid-1890s. For someone with an interest in writing mysterious and haunting tales there were few better times to embark upon a literary career than the Victorian fin de siècle. De la Mare’s first published story, Kismet, appeared in the Sketch in 1895 under the pseudonym Walter Ramal. The story, which opens with two lone travellers, one on foot and the other with a horse and cart (a cart in which there is a coffin) owes something to Thomas Hardy. Like Hardy’s work, the stories of de la Mare reveal a great love of the English countryside, with its buildings and its people, its folklore and its customs. Like Hardy, again, de la Mare’s stories often feature a strong undercurrent of melancholy. The protagonists, particularly in the later stories, are often men who find themselves suddenly faced with old age, gloomily left to reflect upon distant youthful days and the path not travelled. Perfect, in many ways, for ghost stories – a genre in which the past is frequently more alive than the present.

Walter de la Mare’s literary output was huge. He published over a thousand poems and rhymes, about a hundred short stories and four novels, including the sinister The Return (1910), a tale of possession from beyond the grave, and the splendidly titled and surreal Memoirs of a Midget (1921). Although accomplished in every literary form to which he turned his hand, he is especially well known today for his ghost stories. The reasons for his success in the field are many, but one comment that sheds particular light on his success occurs in a letter he wrote to Naomi Royde-Smith, the literary editor of the Saturday Westminster Gazette, in August 1911: “Now and again over one’s mind comes the glamour of a kind of visionary world saturating this.” This observation gives us an insight into the faintly hallucinatory quality possessed by many of de la Mare’s ghost stories, that sense of meaning being ever so slightly beyond our grasp and the feeling that events are running marginally out of kilter with reality. A particularly good example of this occurs in his story Winter, in which a figure glimpsed in a snowy churchyard appears not so much as an illusion or a ghost but rather as a visitor from an alternate world existing just beyond that which our senses normally perceive.

Walter de la Mare’s prolific output makes the task of selecting just a few of his finest ghost stories a difficult one. Seaton’s Aunt in particular is a work shrouded in such mystery, and open to so many interpretations, that few supernatural tales can rival its air of enigmatic menace. Other tales are much less well known. A:B:O., for example, owes something to M R James, featuring as it does a box containing a creature that bears some (but disturbingly not quite enough) resemblance to a human being. The Riddle (click to read!) is a short tale that perfectly captures de la Mare’s ability to turn expectations upside down – initially the story appears to centre upon a group of children, but it is the old lady with whom they are staying who carries the weight and the meaning of the story. The Green Room, meanwhile, is a brilliant example of descriptive writing with its perfectly evoked setting of a book-lined room in which the shadows play upon the walls as the seasons change outside. As a descriptive writer, and a writer with a poet’s eye for the perfect word, de la Mare has few equals.

Finally, to return to where we started, perhaps it is worth adding one more quality to the ingredients of an excellent ghost story. Along with atmosphere, suspense, place and mystery we should add – as with all the best fiction – the ability to bear repeated re-reading. Indeed one could argue that de la Mare’s ghost stories demand re-reading. They do not rely on a single twist ending for their dramatic impact –something which, no matter how brilliantly executed, tends to work only on a first reading. De la Mare is much more subtle than that, and with each re-reading of his stories new details emerge, deft descriptions take on a new significance, and the seemingly throwaway comments made by a character gain a new depth. And yet each newly revealed detail only serves to deepen the surrounding mystery and makes the story itself more sinister, and more profound.

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