HomeBook‘Devilish Companies at Work’ | Michael Dirda

‘Devilish Companies at Work’ | Michael Dirda

If the title Walter de la Mare elicits any recognition in any respect, it’s in all probability as a result of your tenth-grade English class used an historical textbook that reprinted “The Listeners,” an eerie, tantalizing poem that begins, “‘Is there anyone there?’ mentioned the Traveller,/Knocking on the moonlit door.” You would possibly even have been given—by an aged relative, little doubt—a replica of de la Mare’s most well-known guide of kids’s poems, Peacock Pie. Amongst a lot else, it consists of the story of Jim Jay, who “obtained caught quick/In yesterday.” Irrespective of how exhausting his buddies pulled, Jim slowly slipped away from the current. When final glimpsed, he had grow to be a mere speck and shortly can be “previous crying for.”

“Do diddle di do,/Poor Jim Jay”—there, summed up in a nonsense rhyme, is the destiny of most authors, irrespective of how revered or honored of their time.

Within the Nineteen Twenties and Thirties Walter de la Mare was thought-about one in every of Britain’s main literary figures, a triple menace as poet, storyteller, and anthologist. As late as 1948 a tribute quantity marking his seventy-fifth birthday featured a Max Beerbohm caricature, a verse greeting from T.S. Eliot, and an appreciation by Graham Greene, who argued that de la Mare’s prose was “unequalled in its richness because the dying of [Henry] James, or dare one, at this date, say Robert Louis Stevenson.”

That wasn’t all. Solely the earlier yr de la Mare had been awarded the Carnegie Medal for his Collected Tales for Youngsters. Whereas most of those, comparable to my favourite, “The Lord Fish,” are totally enchanting, a number of are distinctly unnerving. As Dylan Thomas as soon as commented, de la Mare’s fairies might be “as endearing as Dracula.” In “Alice’s Godmother,” an historical crone is so small that “when she was seated in her chair it was as if a big doll sat there—however a marvellous doll that had voice, thought, senses and movement past any human artificer’s wildest fancy.” This dry, wizened creature, with eyes “of a a lot fainter blue than the palest forget-me-not,” out of the blue asks the story’s teenaged protagonist, “How lengthy do you want to reside?” In essence, she affords Alice close to immortality, however at what value? In “Broomsticks” Miss Chauncey discovers that her black cat, Sam, throughout nights of full moon, alerts messages to swooping, airborne witches. In “The Riddle” seven orphans are taken in by their grandmother, who permits them the run of her nice home, with one Bluebeard-like caveat: they mustn’t open a sure trunk. Which, in fact, every of them ultimately does.

De la Mare’s many tales for grown-ups proffer much more advanced visions of the acquainted transfigured by strangeness. As he as soon as wrote, “This workaday actuality of ours—with its bricks, its streets, its woods, its hills, its waters—could have queer and, presumably, terrifying holes in it.” Learn him at size and also you’re more likely to agree with the critic Diana Waggoner, writing in The Hills of Faraway (1978), that de la Mare was “probably the most fantastically melancholy fantasist of the 20th century.”

Born right into a lower-middle-class household in London in 1873, Walter de la Mare left faculty at sixteen and spent the following eighteen years working as an accounting clerk for the Anglo-American Oil Firm. He hated the job; who wouldn’t? In his spare time he learn voraciously in English literature, and his later thematic anthologies of poetry and prose—specializing in verse for youngsters (Come Hither), romantic journey (Desert Islands), reverie and the creativeness (Behold, This Dreamer!), love’s mysteries (Love), and childhood reminiscences (Early One Morning within the Spring)testify to the vary of that studying. In 1899 the younger clerk married Elfrida Ingpen, ten years his senior, with whom he had 4 much-loved kids.

At the moment he was additionally starting to jot down in earnest. One early story, “The Almond Tree,” relates the breakdown of a wedding by the eyes of an uncomprehending little boy. A lot admired and regularly anthologized, it’s composed in plain, environment friendly prose avoiding the occasional vagueness and lavish descriptions of his later grownup fiction. His first revealed guide, Songs of Childhood (1902), proved solely a succès d’estime however was adopted in 1904 by his first novel, Henry Brocken: His Travels and Adventures within the Wealthy, Unusual, Scarce-Conceivable Areas of Romance.

Rising up an orphan, younger Henry escapes into books. Sooner or later he saddles his uncle’s outdated mare, Rosinante (regardless of the title, it isn’t Don Quixote’s mount—or is it?), and units off seeking the storybook realms he has hitherto solely examine. As his horse trots alongside, Henry falls right into a reverie:

When eventually I lifted my eyes with a terrific sigh that was nearly a sob, I discovered myself in a spot totally unknown to me…. Rosinante appeared to have carried me out of a March morning, blue and tumultuous and bleak, into the gray, candy mist of a midsummer daybreak.

On this dreamlike Different World, Henry encounters a succession of characters from literature, however now as real-life folks with real-life troubles. Jane Eyre, sad in her marriage to Rochester, is flirtatious and confessional. The nymphs of Robert Herrick’s love lyrics sigh that the world has forgotten their existence. “Why feign and lie?” says Anthea. “All I’m is however a reminiscence beautiful with remorse.” In a single unsettling episode, the languid and fairly odious Prince Ennui reveals a decadent facet to a basic fairy story. Whereas maintaining watch over his royal household’s preternaturally quiet and overgrown woods, he confides, “You have got, perchance, heard someplace our unhappy story. That is the perpetual silence whereby lies that once-happy princess, my pricey sister, Sleeping Magnificence.”

Afterward Henry passes a night with Mr. Gulliver, a lonely misanthrope surrounded by herds of violently antihuman Houyhnhnms. These vicious, murderous horses present no signal of being realized and sagacious beings; certainly, they ultimately pursue the younger man nearly to his dying. Elsewhere on this curious bookland, Henry dines at an inn crowded with characters from Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress and even hobnobs with Shakespeare’s Backside the Weaver, who refers to Titania by the slatternly nickname Tittany.

Finally the younger traveler reaches “The land of Tragedy,” the place on a lonely island Chaucer’s solitary Criseyde affords him her love: “I seemed lengthy at her in silence; her slim magnificence, the answerless riddle of her eyes, the age-long subtlety of her mouth, and gave no extra thought to all life else.” But on the final second, Henry shies away from dedication. Does he not belief Criseyde, historically often called “faithless Criseyde”? It’s exhausting to say, however this fantasy-cum-bildungsroman closes with the implication that Henry has funked crucial second of his life.

In 1908 the poet Sir Henry Newbolt—now remembered for such patriotic strains as “Play up! and play the sport!”—managed to safe a lump-sum authorities grant for de la Mare that allowed him to give up his day job. This newfound freedom unleashed a dozen years of astonishing productiveness. In 1910 de la Mare introduced out two wildly completely different novels, which he’d labored on alternately within the earlier yr; one was The Three Mulla-Mulgars, however the first revealed was The Return.

The recurrent fashionable theme of alienation is made manifest in The Return. Arthur Lawford, a “fairly truthful, not insubstantial, fairly languid” middle-aged man, is recovering from sickness when someday he wanders into the gloomy Widderstone graveyard. Within the cemetery, Lawford’s already moody ideas flip despondent: “‘What’s the good of all of it?’ he requested himself inconsequently—this monotonous, stressed, silly life to which he was quickly to be returning, and for good.’” Feeling worn out, he plumps down on a bench close to the outdated grave of a French Huguenot named Nicholas Sabathier. After Lawford awakes from his nap, he feels filled with sudden vitality, races dwelling to be in meal time, and rushes up the steps into his room to vary. When he glances within the mirror, he discovers one other man’s face gazing again at him.

Lawford’s spouse, Sheila, isn’t a lot shocked as embarrassed by this transformation: What’s going to the neighbors say in the event that they see her residing with a skinny, distinctly wolfish and foreign-looking man? She’s not even certain that Lawford isn’t an impostor and calls for proof after proof of his id. However is he, actually, the person he was? Apart from the alteration of his options, he feels his interior self battling in opposition to an alien persona of aggressive vitality.

Hoping to reverse his bodily transformation, Lawford returns to the cemetery, the place he encounters an enigmatic stranger named Herbert Herbert. From him he learns that his new face exactly matches that of the long-dead Sabathier. He additionally finds himself deeply drawn to Herbert’s sympathetic sister Grisel. However what of the hints that Sabathier killed himself for love of Grisel? This appears unimaginable, because the Frenchman died a century earlier. Equally puzzling, why has nobody within the city ever heard of the Herberts or their home?

De la Mare regarded Henry James’s The Flip of the Screw as the best of all ghost tales, so it’s unsurprising that his personal tales intention at an analogous ambiguity. Is The Return an account of psychic vampirism or a symbolic portrait of a midlife disaster, one by which Lawford should select between his lawful standard spouse and his soulmate Grisel? Clearly, his “possession” by Sabathier opens up the potential of a life far richer and extra spiritually satisfying than that of his outdated petit-bourgeois existence. Nonetheless, de la Mare makes nothing straightforward or clear for his protagonist—or the reader. Who, lastly, returns and to what, and why? Does the novel, like Henry Brocken, finish with cowardly renunciation, or with heroic renewal?

Whereas The Return is psychologically intense and claustrophobic, The Three Mulla-Mulgars (later retitled The Three Royal Monkeys) ushers its reader into the sunny lands of make-believe. As Julia Briggs notes in Peter Hunt’s Youngsters’s Literature: An Illustrated Historical past (1995), the story was initially learn aloud to de la Mare’s 4 kids. In it he “created a quest narrative, a mythology, a language and a panorama whose inventiveness and originality remained unchallenged till Tolkien revealed The Hobbit in 1937.”

Thumb, Thimble, and Nod are the grown sons of the far-wandering Seleem, the brother of Assasimmon, the Mulgar (or monkey) Prince of the Valleys of Tishnar. After Seleem’s disappearance, the brothers trek throughout jungles and wastelands and over mountains seeking these fabled celestial valleys. Allegorically, theirs turns into a journey into the character of issues, a lot easier in character however just like George MacDonald’s phantasmagoric Lilith (1895) and David Lindsay’s head-spinning A Voyage to Arcturus (1920).

As in so many fairy tales, the third and youngest sibling rapidly emerges as the principle character, partly as a result of goodhearted Nod has “magic in him.” He has additionally been left the Wonderstone by his dying mom. “If in your lengthy journey,” she explains, “you’re at risk of the Third Sleep”—the Mulgar title for dying—“or misplaced, or in nice concern, spit along with your spittle on the stone, and rub softly thrice along with your left thumb…: Tishnar will hear you; assistance will come.”

Whereas the Mulgars discuss, stroll upright, and often put on coats to maintain heat, they aren’t human beings in fur (as are Badger and Mole in Kenneth Grahame’s up to date The Wind within the Willows). Thumb, Thimble, and Nod eat fruits and nuts, concern Oomgars (males), and usually work together solely with different jungle simians. Nonetheless, Nod makes buddies with a shipwrecked Oomgar sailor who teaches him rudimentary English and even falls in love, kind of, with a sorrowful and lonely water-maiden. All through, de la Mare retains his prose musical—“Calm and nonetheless the mist lay, and softer than wool”—whereas additionally sometimes dropping in phrases from the monkey language, most of them echoing their English equivalents: a zevvera is a zebra, a bobberie a ship.

Right this moment The Three Mulla-Mulgars could come throughout as overly poetical and considerably old school, with one other open-ended conclusion, but its nearly underground affect has been widespread. John Clute, maybe de la Mare’s most astute fashionable critic, calls the guide “one of many central animal fantasies of the twentieth century.” When Richard Adams was requested if it had been a mannequin for Watership Down, he answered, “To attempt to copy The Three Mulla-Mulgars can be like making an attempt to repeat King Lear.”

In 1912 the industrious de la Mare lastly achieved in style success, first with The Listeners and Different Poems, supposed for adults, and the next yr with Peacock Pie, aimed toward kids. Nevertheless, the excellence between their completely different audiences is usually exhausting to see. As W.H. Auden famous in his 1963 introduction to A Selection of de la Mare’s Verse:

It must not ever be forgotten that, whereas there are some good poems that are just for adults, as a result of they presuppose grownup expertise of their readers, there aren’t any good poems that are just for kids.

Contemplate, for example, “Hello!”:

Hello! good-looking looking man
Hearth your little gun.
Bang! Now the animal
Is lifeless and dumb and finished.
Nevermore to peep once more, creep once more, leap once more,
Eat or sleep or drink once more, Oh, what enjoyable!

Although revealed for youngsters, “Hello!” is actually not infantile.

Equally, the easy diction of “An Epitaph” opens up vistas of wistfulness:

Right here lies a most stunning girl,
Gentle of step and coronary heart was she;
I believe she was probably the most stunning girl
That ever was within the West Nation.

However magnificence vanishes; magnificence passes;
Nevertheless uncommon—uncommon or not it’s;
And after I crumble, who will bear in mind
This girl of the West Nation?

After he’d learn “An Epitaph,” Yeats wrote a good friend that “there’s not an authentic sentence on this poem, but it would reside for hundreds of years.” Different anthology favorites by de la Mare embody “The Bookworm,” which jauntily opens, “‘I’m drained—oh, uninterested in books,’ mentioned Jack,/‘I lengthy for meadows inexperienced,’” and the spooky love poem “The Ghost,” which closes with the haunting phrase with which C.Ok. Scott Moncrieff titled quantity 6 of his translation of Proust’s nice novel: “The candy cheat gone.” On condition that de la Mare wrote over a thousand poems, most readers will need an introductory sampler, of which there are a number of in addition to Auden’s, the newest being Faber’s admirable and helpful Studying Walter de la Mare, chosen and with annotations by William Wootten.

Following the Nice Warfare, de la Mare introduced out his final and longest novel, Memoirs of a Midget. Revealed in 1921, this sui generis masterpiece presents the partial autobiography of Miss M., who isn’t given a final title and who, at the least bodily, by no means grows up. A lot of the guide takes place throughout her twentieth yr, when she seems to be not more than two toes tall and typically even smaller—at one level she worries {that a} ripe pear falling from a tree would possibly crush her. As Theresa Whistler has famous in her wonderful 1993 biography of the author, de la Mare’s characters usually possess “some handicap or peculiarity,” which sensitizes them to “man’s true predicament on earth,” our feeling of non secular exile.

As a result of her dimension estranges her from others, Miss M. perceives the unyielding world with gimlet-eyed readability:

As one morning I brushed previous a bush of lads’ love (or maidens’ spoil, as some name it), its perfume sweeping me from high to toe, I came across the carcass of a younger mole. Curiosity vanquished the primary gulp of horror. Holding my breath, with a stick I slowly edged it up within the mud and surveyed the white heaving nest of maggots in its stomach with a peculiar and absorbed recognition. “Ah, ha!” a voice cried inside me, “so that is what’s in wait; that is how issues are.”

All through the guide the candy and bitter continually intermix. As soon as, after fastidiously observing Miss M., a small boy on a practice asks, “Mamma, is that alive?” Quickly, he’s totally infatuated: “I need that, mamma…. I need that pricey little girl. Give that teeny tiny girl a biscuit.” As the item of the boy’s affection feedback, it was “the one time in my life I truly noticed a fellow creature fall in love.” Quickly thereafter, Miss M. herself grows besotted with the attractive and unscrupulous Fanny Bowater. It’s greater than girlish friendship.

Like that lifeless mole heaving with maggots, this seemingly genteel fantasy, once you flip it over, teems with violence, insanity, grotesquerie, and dying. A reader who fails to concentrate may simply overlook that Mrs. Bowater just isn’t Fanny’s actual mom, that Mr. Anon—Miss M.’s true soul-mate—has a hunchback, that Fanny herself in all probability wants cash for an abortion, and that the Reverend Mr. Crimble goes insane. Ultimately de la Mare’s heroine loses, in a method or one other, nearly everybody she cares about. For that too is how issues are. As Miss M. says of her beloved Fanny, “We have been by no means once more to be alone collectively, besides in remembrance.”

Between 1923 and 1936 de la Mare produced 4 volumes of brief fiction for adults: The Riddle and Different Tales (1923), The Connoisseur and Different Stories (1926), On the Edge (1930), and The Wind Blows Over (1936). He additionally introduced out two collections of tales for older kids: Broomsticks (1925) and The Lord Fish (1933). It’s largely from these that Mark Valentine has chosen the contents for Strangers and Pilgrims, the just lately revealed two-volume Tartarus Press version of de la Mare’s finest supernatural fiction. An identical however extra selective paperback, Out of the Deep: And Different Supernatural Tales, was launched in 2017 by the British Library with a short introduction by Greg Buzwell. Each books are extremely advisable. That mentioned, a lot of de la Mare’s fiction and poetry is now within the public area in addition to simply findable in reprints, secondhand editions, or as digital texts.

A few of de la Mare’s tales for adults would possibly simply be labeled allegorical fantasies, notably “The Vats,” by which a pair of hikers uncover the massive cisterns by which Time is saved, or “The Creatures,” by which the narrator loses his means and wanders briefly right into a pastoral model of the biblical Eden. However at the least a dozen—headed by “Seaton’s Aunt,” “All Hallows,” “A Recluse,” “Crewe,” and “Out of the Deep”—guarantee de la Mare’s place as crucial English writer of ghost tales and peculiar tales of the interwar a long time. Their overarching theme is, to cite Dylan Thomas once more, “the imminence of non secular hazard.”

“Seaton’s Aunt” is rightly its writer’s most well-known story. In it, Withers—a reputation applicable to its possessor’s austere, unimaginative persona—recounts three visits to the house of Arthur Seaton, the primary when they’re classmates at boarding faculty, a second to have a good time Seaton’s engagement, after which a 3rd just a few months later. On every of those visits Withers meets Seaton’s aunt, who strikes him as each exceedingly solicitous and viscerally unsettling. Her nephew nearly hysterically claims she’s in league with the satan, insisting that she hates youth and vitality, that her home is stuffed with spirits, and that the monstrous creature by no means sleeps.

Is Seaton’s aunt truly a vampiric demon, or simply an outdated girl envious of the bloom and vitality she has misplaced or by no means had? Or may Seaton himself be psychologically unbalanced and wrongly vilifying a well-meaning relative? Questions on credence roil the story’s interpretation. Even when we assume that Withers might be trusted as a narrator, his experiences are filtered by Arthur’s fearfulness and anxiousness. Each seemingly uncanny component may very well be defined, or defined away, as pure. Would possibly “Seaton’s Aunt” truly be a research of ageism and elder abuse?

Regardless of the case, de la Mare repeatedly suggests one thing witchy concerning the outdated girl:

There was a silvery star sample sprinkled on her black silk costume, and even from the bottom I may see the immense coils of her hair and the rings on her left hand which was held fingering the small jet buttons of her bodice.

She assaults her meals with a gargantuan urge for food. Nephew Arthur stresses that she’s a spider, that she “sucks you dry.” True or false? And what actually occurs on the story’s mysterious finish? “‘I used to be by no means lonely in my life,’ she mentioned sourly. ‘I don’t look to flesh and blood for my firm.’” Parse that.

Philip Pullman, the writer of the astonishing fantasy trilogy His Darkish Supplies, as soon as declared de la Mare’s “All Hallows” to be “unequalled” among the many ghost tales of the 20th century. In a free sense, it blends the menacing clerical ambiance of M.R. James’s “ghost tales of an antiquary” with a favourite theme of the paranormal Algernon Blackwood, an incursion from the Different World.

As soon as once more the unnamed narrator is a hiker who has traversed some tough terrain, this time to achieve All Hallows, a medieval cathedral located in solitary splendor on a tumultuous seacoast. Even an preliminary distant view of the church thrills him, particularly the sculptural magnificence of its gigantic statues of angels and saints: “Solely six of them at most may very well be seen, in fact, from the place I sat. And but I discovered myself counting them once more and but once more, as if doubting my very own arithmetic. For my first impression had been that seven have been in view.”

After reaching All Hallows itself, the narrator finds it empty apart from the verger, who appears to be intently listening for one thing whereas nervously scanning the northern transept. As the 2 males discuss, the older man stresses the world’s loneliness, of “how near the sting of issues we’re.” The place higher, he wonders aloud, “would you anticipate the powers of darkness to congregate in open besiegement than on this slim valley?” The narrator, vexed by all this innuendo, lastly asks, “You imply that the place is haunted?” To which the opposite replies, “I imply, sir, that there are devilish companies at work right here.”

Is the church one way or the other being attacked by demons, intent on its destruction? Not so, solutions the verger:

I’m talking not of dissolution, sir, however of repairs, restorations. Not decay, strengthening. Not a corroding loss, an terrible progress. I may present you locations—and mainly obscured from direct view and tough of a detailed examination, sir, the place stones currently as rotten as pumice and as fretted as a sponge have been changed by others fresh-quarried—and nothing of their sort inside twenty miles.

In impact, the noble, half-abandoned cathedral is being secretly, and preternaturally, repurposed. However to what finish? Because the verger says, “There are different wills than the Almighty’s.”

De la Mare’s visions of otherness and the supernatural take myriad varieties. In “A Recluse” Mr. Bloom has apparently summoned darkish forces he can not management. What, for example, occurred to his former secretary, whose final diary entry reads, “Not me, at any fee: not me. However even when I may get away for—” after which breaks off, apart from an indecipherable smudge. What, too, may very well be the which means of a wax masks found by the story’s narrator, a wax masks of Mr. Bloom’s personal face? Is it a prop from a phony séance? Or has one thing truly been sporting it and pretending to be alive?

In contrast, “Out of the Deep” mixes horror and pathos in a type of demonic model of A Christmas Carol, and “A Revenant” verges on literary criticism. Within the latter, a self-important tutorial is presenting a night lecture known as “The Writings of Edgar Allan Poe.” On the final minute a gentleman in black enters the auditorium and stands within the shadows. Professor Monk finds the stranger’s presence inexplicably and more and more unsettling. De la Mare by no means identifies this determine—who solely admits that he has traveled “some little distance”—however is there any have to? Nonetheless, because the Irish novelist Forrest Reid as soon as mentioned of his good friend’s tales, “It isn’t the ghost however the one that sees the ghost that issues.”

Ambiance additionally issues. “Crewe” opens in full-bore, Edwardian ghost-story mode:

When murky winter nightfall begins to settle over the railway station at Crewe, its first-class waiting-room grows steadily extra stagnant. Notably if one is alone in it. The lengthy grimed home windows do little greater than sift the failing mild that slopes in on them from the glass roof outdoors and is just too feeble to penetrate into the recesses past. And the grained huge black-leathered furnishings turns into much less and fewer inviting. It seems to have been made for a scene of maximum and diabolical violence.

General, de la Mare’s fiction, each lengthy and brief, tends to be as death-haunted as Samuel Beckett’s. Regardless that his prose could initially strike fashionable ears as archaic, it quickly grows insidiously incantatory: de la Mare is a grasp of intimations, a magician of apprehension. His supernatural entities, if in order that they be, are by no means greater than glimpsed, and when one blinks they vanish. Furthermore, compassion—for the damned in addition to the doomed—suffuses his view of poor, forked humanity. Like Robert Aickman, his biggest disciple, Walter de la Mare repeatedly ushers us right into a shadowland simply outdoors the accepted boundaries of actuality, then leaves us awed and questioning about an expertise we will by no means wholly perceive or fairly neglect.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Most Popular

Recent Comments