Happy Halloween, everyone. I am working on a critical history of the British short story and thought in honor of Halloween this year, I would post a brief discussion from the draft of that book on a couple of the best-known spooky stories of the late great Walter de la Mare.
In his study The Short Story in English, Walter Allen calls Walter de la Mare the most distinguished of the writers who made the Edwardian age a "haunted period" in English literature (88). Part of the reason is the poetic "dignity" of de la Mare as opposed to what is often called the "crude Gothicism" of his contemporaries. David Daiches says in The Present Age in British Literature that de la Mare's particular escape from external reality does not lead him to self-indulgent dreaming but often to "a magical brooding over the sense of loss and mystery that lies at the heart of experience" (186). Lord David Cecil in The Fine Art of Reading calls de la Mare a symbolist for whom the outer world is only an "incarnation of an internal drama." He says de la Mare is concerned with the most profound human issues, particularly the central issue of whether the world has any objective existence or whether it is a reflection of the mind which alters depending on the mood and character of the observer (222). It is obvious that these comments suggest the basically romantic nature of de la Mare's work and thus align it emphatically with the short story genre itself.
Walter de la Mare's most basic characteristic, which makes his work stand out from the work of his contemporaries is what Cecil calls its poetic and lyrical nature, a characteristic which many seem to feel is lacking in the stories of the other Edwardian writers. Most particularly, this poetic nature seems reflected in what Cecil calls de la Mare's fascination with the elfin and the odd and his "curious bias toward the miniature" (220). As opposed to other Edwardian short-story writers, de la Mare, says Cecil, uses ghosts not as devices to arouse shudders, but rather as symbols of the eternal world of the spirit. Children are often used in his stories because they, living largely in the imagination, are less likely than adults to believe that the material world is the only reality. For de la Mare, only the imagination makes reality significant, and what we call external reality itself is like a dream.
All of these characteristics, which are actually characteristics of the short story genre itself, can be seen most readily in de la Mare's two best-known and most anthologized stories, "The Creatures" and "The Riddle," neither of which have received much critical comment. "The Creatures" is built, as many short stories are, on the model of "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," in which the conveyor of the tale to the reader is made to listen to a tale told to him by a stranger he meets on a railway car. The story the stranger tells is in many ways like a set piece; he begins by establishing his philosophic position about the nature of reality and then narrates an experience that seems to illustrate the position. The basic philosophic point of view is the one that Cecil says characterizes de la Mare's work--that the world is a dream created by consciousness.
The story recounts an experience in the teller's past when he chanced upon one of the talented few who seem to be aware of the imaginative nature of reality; the meeting occurred when he himself wandered in search of "that unforeseen nowhere for which the heart, the fantasy aches." In his travels he hopes to get lost, for "How shall a man find his way unless he lose it?" and stumbles into a "country of dream" wherein reason is left behind, and in solitude the spirit "realizes that it treads the outskirts of a region long since called the Imagination."
His encounter with the region's inhabitants--a bent-up woman, a dark gaunt man, and their two dwarfish children--seems very similar to the kind of experience that H.G. Wells uses in "The Country of the Blind" but which Turgenev makes more meaningful in "Bezhin Meadow." The realm is some country half-way between reality and imagination, yet the people who inhabit it seem real. The teller realizes, for example, that the man is one of the small tribe of the aloof, such as hermits, lamas, fakirs and such. The children appear as if "animal and angel had connived in their creation" although they are actually dwarfish. The narrator feels he has come back to the borders of Eden--"gazing from out of dream into dream, homesick, 'forsaken.'" However, the problem of the story, as is usual in such stories, is that the nature of the reality of the creatures is not made clear. On the one hand, they seem real yet strange; on the other hand, the narrator feels that he has entered for a few moments into a "strange region of consciousness."
After returning from the otherworldly region, the narrator asks a pig-like woman of the village about the farm he has visited; her response makes the status of the strange people even more problematical and ambiguous. When the woman asks if the narrator has seen any of the Creatures, the narrator is startled, for the ambiguity of the word suggests that the creatures are indeed inhabitants of another realm of reality, that is until the narrator realizes that Creatures is the name of the host and that Maria and Christus are the names of the two gardeners. The woman's story is of a man--a stranger and a pilgrim--who came there in the past and made his home at the farm. She also tells, as part of what the narrator calls her "absurd story," of a woman from the sea who was either dumb or inarticulate who gave birth to two children who were simple, "naturals." She tells the narrator that the woman is buried in the neighboring churchyard that he might visit. When he does visit it, the last words of the story list what is written on her stone: Feminina Creature.
This final ambiguity about the nature of the creatures--that is whether they are creatures from another realm of reality or whether they are actually people named Creature--is the central ambiguity of the story itself. The question remains unresolved, for the inscription on the stone of the woman could suggest her name as well as her status--that is as an image of the Jungian anima figure who suggests imagination and unitive knowledge itself.
"The Creatures" is a story about the ambiguity that results when reality and dream, consciousness and unconsciousness seem to interpenetrate and remain inextricably entangled. The journey the narrator makes is both to a realm of reality and to a realm of consciousness. The Creatures are indeed creatures, for they have isolated themselves away from the external world to live within their own self-constructed imaginative world. What happens in this story, just as it happens in Turgenev's "Bezhin Meadow," is that the narrator stumbles into the world of the imagination, into the world of folk song and story; for within that very world are those that have transformed themselves into the characters or creatures of story.
De la Mare's other often-anthologized story, "The Riddle," is an unabashed parable, for the riddle exists not within the story, but is the story--a puzzle that readers must solve themselves. Once again the puzzle focuses on whether the characters are real or exist in some realm of reality other than the natural. de la Mare was once asked if the children died and if he meant to make the grandmother a sinister figure, to which he answered that the children did die and that he did not make the grandmother any more sinister than she appeared to be. Such a question can only arise if one takes the characters to be real rather than representative. However, even if one takes them to be representative, the events of the story make it difficult to understand what exactly it is that they represent.
The story begins like a fairy tale in which the children come to visit the grandmother and she tells them that they may play anywhere in the house except in the room where an old trunk sits. Of course, as is typical of such fairy stories, it is to the old oak trunk that the children go first, and one by one and then two by two they disappear into it. The clue to the meaning of the disappearance of the children lies within the means by which they disappear. At first, Henry goes into the chest when he has memories of his mother who used to read to him. Then Matilda goes into the chest singing songs about the absent Henry. Harriet and William go into the chest while pretending to be Sleeping Beauty and the Prince who comes to awaken her. Dorothea and James go in while playing a pretend game about being Eskimos fishing. Finally, Ann, the oldest, goes into the trunk during a dream after she has been reading a story about fairies and gnomes.
It seems clear that the children's entrance into the chest comes in the midst of experiences outside the present world of everyday reality--in memory, in fairy tale, in play, and in dream. Consequently, one need believe that the children die or that the grandmother is evil, but rather that the children's disappearance into the trunk marks an abrupt departure from reality via the world of fantasy and play into another realm that inevitably takes them away from the grandmother. At the end of the story, the old woman's mind is a "tangled skein of memories--laughter and tears, and little children now old-fashioned, and the advent of friends, and long farewells."
The story must be read in a different way from "The Creatures," for here, we cannot take the characters literally, but must see them as metaphors for the boundary line that separates the world of childhood from the world of external reality. The fact that the grandmother and the trunk are the vehicles for this significance is not made clear in the story, except by the suggestion that she herself is the conventional figure of the conventional fairy story which the children inhabit in their childlike world.