If the name Walter de la Mare elicits any recognition at all, it’s probably because your tenth-grade English class used an ancient textbook that reprinted “The Listeners,” an eerie, tantalizing poem that begins, “‘Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveller,/Knocking on the moonlit door.” You might even have been given—by an elderly relative, no doubt—a copy of de la Mare’s most famous book of children’s poems, Peacock Pie. Among much else, it includes the story of Jim Jay, who “got stuck fast/In yesterday.” No matter how hard his friends pulled, Jim slowly slipped away from the present. When last glimpsed, he had become a mere speck and soon would be “past crying for.”
“Do diddle di do,/Poor Jim Jay”—there, summed up in a nonsense rhyme, is the fate of most authors, no matter how revered or honored in their time.
In the 1920s and 1930s Walter de la Mare was considered one of Britain’s major literary figures, a triple threat as poet, storyteller, and anthologist. As late as 1948 a tribute volume 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 since the death of [Henry] James, or dare one, at this date, say Robert Louis Stevenson.”
That wasn’t all. Only the previous year de la Mare had been awarded the Carnegie Medal for his Collected Stories for Children. While most of these, such as my favorite, “The Lord Fish,” are utterly enchanting, several are distinctly unnerving. As Dylan Thomas once commented, de la Mare’s fairies can be “as endearing as Dracula.” In “Alice’s Godmother,” an ancient crone is so small that “when she was seated in her chair it was as if a large doll sat there—but a marvellous doll that had voice, thought, senses and motion beyond any human artificer’s wildest fancy.” This dry, wizened creature, with eyes “of a much fainter blue than the palest forget-me-not,” suddenly asks the story’s teenaged protagonist, “How long do you wish to live?” In essence, she offers Alice near immortality, but at what cost? In “Broomsticks” Miss Chauncey discovers that her black cat, Sam, during nights of full moon, signals messages to swooping, airborne witches. In “The Riddle” seven orphans are taken in by their grandmother, who allows them the run of her great house, with one Bluebeard-like caveat: they mustn’t open a certain trunk. Which, of course, each of them eventually does.
De la Mare’s many stories for grown-ups proffer even more complex visions of the familiar transfigured by strangeness. As he once wrote, “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.” Read him at length and you’re likely to agree with the critic Diana Waggoner, writing in The Hills of Faraway (1978), that de la Mare was “the most beautifully melancholy fantasist of the twentieth century.”
Born into a lower-middle-class family in London in 1873, Walter de la Mare left school at sixteen and spent the next eighteen years working as an accounting clerk for the Anglo-American Oil Company. He hated the job; who would not? In his spare time he read voraciously in English literature, and his later thematic anthologies of poetry and prose—focusing on verse for children (Come Hither), romantic adventure (Desert Islands), reverie and the imagination (Behold, This Dreamer!), love’s mysteries (Love), and childhood memories (Early One Morning in the Spring)—testify to the range of that reading. In 1899 the young clerk married Elfrida Ingpen, ten years his senior, with whom he had four much-loved children.
At that time he was also beginning to write in earnest. One early story, “The Almond Tree,” relates the breakdown of a marriage through the eyes of an uncomprehending little boy. Much admired and frequently anthologized, it is composed in plain, efficient prose avoiding the occasional vagueness and lavish descriptions of his later adult fiction. His first published book, Songs of Childhood (1902), proved only a succès d’estime but was followed in 1904 by his first novel, Henry Brocken: His Travels and Adventures in the Rich, Strange, Scarce-Imaginable Regions of Romance.
Growing up an orphan, young Henry escapes into books. One day he saddles his uncle’s old mare, Rosinante (despite the name, it isn’t Don Quixote’s mount—or is it?), and sets off in search of the storybook realms he has hitherto only read about. As his horse trots along, Henry falls into a reverie:
When at last I lifted my eyes with a great sigh that was almost a sob, I found myself in a place utterly unknown to me…. Rosinante seemed to have carried me out of a March morning, blue and tumultuous and bleak, into the grey, sweet mist of a midsummer dawn.
In this dreamlike Other World, Henry encounters a succession of characters from literature, but now as real-life people with real-life troubles. Jane Eyre, unhappy 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 am is but a memory lovely with regret.” In one unsettling episode, the languid and rather odious Prince Ennui reveals a decadent aspect to a classic fairy tale. While keeping watch over his royal family’s preternaturally quiet and overgrown woods, he confides, “You have, perchance, heard somewhere our sad story. This is the perpetual silence wherein lies that once-happy princess, my dear sister, Sleeping Beauty.”
Later on Henry passes an evening with Mr. Gulliver, a lonely misanthrope surrounded by herds of violently antihuman Houyhnhnms. These vicious, murderous horses show no sign of being learned and sagacious beings; indeed, they eventually pursue the young man almost to his death. Elsewhere in this curious bookland, Henry dines at an inn crowded with characters from Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress and even hobnobs with Shakespeare’s Bottom the Weaver, who refers to Titania by the slatternly nickname Tittany.
Eventually the young traveler reaches “The land of Tragedy,” where on a lonely island Chaucer’s solitary Criseyde offers him her love: “I looked long at her in silence; her slim beauty, the answerless riddle of her eyes, the age-long subtlety of her mouth, and gave no more thought to all life else.” Yet at the last moment, Henry shies away from commitment. Does he not trust Criseyde, traditionally known as “faithless Criseyde”? It’s hard to say, but this fantasy-cum-bildungsroman closes with the implication that Henry has funked the most important moment of his life.
In 1908 the poet Sir Henry Newbolt—now remembered for such patriotic lines as “Play up! and play the game!”—managed to secure a lump-sum government grant for de la Mare that allowed him to quit his day job. This newfound freedom unleashed a dozen years of astonishing productivity. In 1910 de la Mare brought out two wildly different novels, which he’d worked on alternately in the previous year; one was The Three Mulla-Mulgars, but the first published was The Return.
The recurrent modern theme of alienation is made manifest in The Return. Arthur Lawford, a “rather fair, not insubstantial, rather languid” middle-aged man, is recovering from illness when one day he wanders into the gloomy Widderstone graveyard. In the cemetery, Lawford’s already moody thoughts turn despondent: “‘What is the good of it all?’ he asked himself inconsequently—this monotonous, restless, stupid life to which he was soon to be returning, and for good.’” Feeling worn out, he plumps down on a bench near the old grave of a French Huguenot named Nicholas Sabathier. After Lawford awakes from his nap, he feels full of unexpected energy, races home to be in time for dinner, and rushes up the stairs into his room to change. When he glances in the mirror, he discovers another man’s face gazing back at him.
Lawford’s wife, Sheila, isn’t so much shocked as embarrassed by this transformation: What will the neighbors say if they see her living with a thin, distinctly wolfish and foreign-looking man? She’s not even sure that Lawford isn’t an impostor and demands proof after proof of his identity. But is he, in fact, the man he was? Besides the alteration of his features, he feels his inner self battling against an alien personality of aggressive vitality.
Hoping to reverse his physical transformation, Lawford returns to the cemetery, where he encounters an enigmatic stranger named Herbert Herbert. From him he learns that his new face precisely matches that of the long-dead Sabathier. He also finds himself deeply attracted to Herbert’s sympathetic sister Grisel. But what of the hints that Sabathier killed himself for love of Grisel? This seems impossible, since the Frenchman died a century earlier. Equally puzzling, why has no one in the town ever heard of the Herberts or their house?
De la Mare regarded Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw as the greatest of all ghost stories, so it’s unsurprising that his own tales aim at a similar ambiguity. Is The Return an account of psychic vampirism or a symbolic portrait of a midlife crisis, one in which Lawford must choose between his lawful conventional wife and his soulmate Grisel? Clearly, his “possession” by Sabathier opens up the possibility of a life far richer and more spiritually satisfying than that of his old petit-bourgeois existence. Still, de la Mare makes nothing easy or clear for his protagonist—or the reader. Who, finally, returns and to what, and why? Does the novel, like Henry Brocken, end with cowardly renunciation, or with heroic renewal?
While 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 Children’s Literature: An Illustrated History (1995), the story was initially read aloud to de la Mare’s four children. In it he “created a quest narrative, a mythology, a language and a landscape whose inventiveness and originality remained unchallenged until Tolkien published 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 across jungles and wastelands and over mountains in search of those fabled celestial valleys. Allegorically, theirs becomes a journey into the nature of things, much simpler in character but similar to 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 quickly emerges as the main character, in part because goodhearted Nod has “magic in him.” He has also been left the Wonderstone by his dying mother. “If in your long journey,” she explains, “you are in danger of the Third Sleep”—the Mulgar name for death—“or lost, or in great fear, spit with your spittle on the stone, and rub softly three times with your left thumb…: Tishnar will hear you; help will come.”
While the Mulgars talk, walk upright, and regularly wear coats to keep warm, they aren’t human beings in fur (as are Badger and Mole in Kenneth Grahame’s contemporary The Wind in the Willows). Thumb, Thimble, and Nod eat fruits and nuts, fear Oomgars (men), and generally interact only with other jungle simians. Still, Nod makes friends with a shipwrecked Oomgar sailor who teaches him rudimentary English and even falls in love, sort of, with a sorrowful and lonely water-maiden. Throughout, de la Mare keeps his prose musical—“Calm and still the mist lay, and softer than wool”—while also occasionally dropping in words from the monkey language, most of them echoing their English equivalents: a zevvera is a zebra, a bobberie a boat.
Today The Three Mulla-Mulgars may come across as overly poetical and somewhat old-fashioned, with another open-ended conclusion, yet its almost underground influence has been widespread. John Clute, perhaps de la Mare’s most astute modern critic, calls the book “one of the central animal fantasies of the 20th century.” When Richard Adams was asked if it had been a model for Watership Down, he answered, “To try to copy The Three Mulla-Mulgars would be like trying to copy King Lear.”
In 1912 the industrious de la Mare finally achieved popular success, first with The Listeners and Other Poems, intended for adults, and the following year with Peacock Pie, aimed at children. However, the distinction between their different audiences is often hard to see. As W.H. Auden noted in his 1963 introduction to A Choice of de la Mare’s Verse:
It must never be forgotten that, while there are some good poems which are only for adults, because they presuppose adult experience in their readers, there are no good poems which are only for children.
Consider, for instance, “Hi!”:
Hi! handsome hunting man
Fire your little gun.
Bang! Now the animal
Is dead and dumb and done.
Nevermore to peep again, creep again, leap again,
Eat or sleep or drink again, Oh, what fun!
Though published for children, “Hi!” is certainly not childish.
Similarly, the simple diction of “An Epitaph” opens up vistas of wistfulness:
Here lies a most beautiful lady,
Light of step and heart was she;
I think she was the most beautiful lady
That ever was in the West Country.
But beauty vanishes; beauty passes;
However rare—rare it be;
And when I crumble, who will remember
This lady of the West Country?
After he’d read “An Epitaph,” Yeats wrote a friend that “there is not an original sentence in this poem, yet it will live for centuries.” Other anthology favorites by de la Mare include “The Bookworm,” which jauntily opens, “‘I’m tired—oh, tired of books,’ said Jack,/‘I long for meadows green,’” and the spooky love poem “The Ghost,” which closes with the haunting phrase with which C.K. Scott Moncrieff titled volume 6 of his translation of Proust’s great novel: “The sweet cheat gone.” Given that de la Mare wrote over a thousand poems, most readers will want an introductory sampler, of which there are several besides Auden’s, the most recent being Faber’s admirable and useful Reading Walter de la Mare, selected and with annotations by William Wootten.
Following the Great War, de la Mare brought out his last and longest novel, Memoirs of a Midget. Published in 1921, this sui generis masterpiece presents the partial autobiography of Miss M., who is never given a last name and who, at least physically, never grows up. Most of the book takes place during her twentieth year, when she appears to be no more than two feet tall and sometimes even smaller—at one point she worries that a ripe pear falling from a tree might crush her. As Theresa Whistler has noted in her excellent 1993 biography of the writer, de la Mare’s characters often possess “some handicap or peculiarity,” which sensitizes them to “man’s true predicament on earth,” our feeling of spiritual exile.
Because her size estranges her from others, Miss M. perceives the unyielding world with gimlet-eyed clarity:
As one morning I brushed past a bush of lads’ love (or maidens’ ruin, as some call it), its fragrance sweeping me from top to toe, I stumbled on the carcass of a young mole. Curiosity vanquished the first gulp of horror. Holding my breath, with a stick I slowly edged it up in the dust and surveyed the white heaving nest of maggots in its belly with a peculiar and absorbed recognition. “Ah, ha!” a voice cried within me, “so this is what is in wait; this is how things are.”
Throughout the book the sweet and bitter constantly intermix. Once, after carefully observing Miss M., a small boy on a train asks, “Mamma, is that alive?” Soon, he is utterly infatuated: “I want that, mamma…. I want that dear little lady. Give that teeny tiny lady a biscuit.” As the object of the boy’s affection comments, it was “the only time in my life I actually saw a fellow creature fall in love.” Soon thereafter, Miss M. herself grows besotted with the beautiful and unscrupulous Fanny Bowater. It is more than girlish friendship.
Like that dead mole heaving with maggots, this seemingly genteel fantasy, when you turn it over, teems with violence, madness, grotesquerie, and death. A reader who fails to pay attention could easily overlook that Mrs. Bowater is not Fanny’s real mother, that Mr. Anon—Miss M.’s true soul-mate—has a hunchback, that Fanny herself probably needs money for an abortion, and that the Reverend Mr. Crimble is going insane. In the end de la Mare’s heroine loses, in one way or another, almost everyone she cares about. For that too is how things are. As Miss M. says of her beloved Fanny, “We were never again to be alone together, except in remembrance.”
Between 1923 and 1936 de la Mare produced four volumes of short fiction for adults: The Riddle and Other Stories (1923), The Connoisseur and Other Stories (1926), On the Edge (1930), and The Wind Blows Over (1936). He also brought out two collections of tales for older children: Broomsticks (1925) and The Lord Fish (1933). It is largely from these that Mark Valentine has selected the contents for Strangers and Pilgrims, the recently published two-volume Tartarus Press edition of de la Mare’s best supernatural fiction. A similar but more selective paperback, Out of the Deep: And Other Supernatural Tales, was released in 2017 by the British Library with a brief introduction by Greg Buzwell. Both books are highly recommended. That said, much of de la Mare’s fiction and poetry is now in the public domain as well as easily findable in reprints, secondhand editions, or as digital texts.
Some of de la Mare’s stories for adults might easily be labeled allegorical fantasies, notably “The Vats,” in which a pair of hikers discover the huge cisterns in which Time is stored, or “The Creatures,” in which the narrator loses his way and wanders briefly into a pastoral version of the biblical Eden. But at least a dozen—headed by “Seaton’s Aunt,” “All Hallows,” “A Recluse,” “Crewe,” and “Out of the Deep”—ensure de la Mare’s position as the most important English author of ghost stories and weird tales of the interwar decades. Their overarching theme is, to quote Dylan Thomas again, “the imminence of spiritual danger.”
“Seaton’s Aunt” is rightly its author’s most famous story. In it, Withers—a name appropriate to its possessor’s austere, unimaginative personality—recounts three visits to the home of Arthur Seaton, the first when they are classmates at boarding school, a second to celebrate Seaton’s engagement, and then a third a few months later. On each of these visits Withers meets Seaton’s aunt, who strikes him as both exceedingly solicitous and viscerally unsettling. Her nephew almost hysterically claims she’s in league with the devil, insisting that she hates youth and vitality, that her house is full of spirits, and that the monstrous creature never sleeps.
Is Seaton’s aunt actually a vampiric demon, or just an old lady envious of the bloom and energy she has lost or never had? Or could Seaton himself be psychologically unbalanced and wrongly vilifying a well-meaning relative? Questions about credence roil the story’s interpretation. Even if we assume that Withers can be trusted as a narrator, his experiences are filtered through Arthur’s fearfulness and anxiety. Every seemingly uncanny element could be explained, or explained away, as natural. Might “Seaton’s Aunt” actually be a study of ageism and elder abuse?
Whatever the case, de la Mare repeatedly suggests something witchy about the old woman:
There was a silvery star pattern sprinkled on her black silk dress, and even from the ground I could 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 attacks her food with a gargantuan appetite. Nephew Arthur stresses that she’s a spider, that she “sucks you dry.” True or false? And what really happens at the story’s mysterious end? “‘I was never lonely in my life,’ she said sourly. ‘I don’t look to flesh and blood for my company.’” Parse that.
Philip Pullman, the author of the astonishing fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials, once declared de la Mare’s “All Hallows” to be “unequalled” among the ghost stories of the twentieth century. In a loose sense, it blends the menacing clerical atmosphere of M.R. James’s “ghost stories of an antiquary” with a favorite theme of the mystical Algernon Blackwood, an incursion from the Other World.
Once again the unnamed narrator is a hiker who has traversed some difficult terrain, this time to reach All Hallows, a medieval cathedral situated in solitary splendor on a tumultuous seacoast. Even an initial distant view of the church thrills him, especially the sculptural magnificence of its gigantic statues of angels and saints: “Only six of them at most could be visible, of course, from where I sat. And yet I found myself counting them again and yet again, as if doubting my own arithmetic. For my first impression had been that seven were in view.”
After reaching All Hallows itself, the narrator finds it empty except for the verger, who seems to be intently listening for something while nervously scanning the northern transept. As the two men talk, the older man stresses the area’s loneliness, of “how close to the edge of things we are.” Where better, he wonders aloud, “would you expect the powers of darkness to congregate in open besiegement than in this narrow valley?” The narrator, vexed by all this innuendo, finally asks, “You mean that the place is haunted?” To which the other replies, “I mean, sir, that there are devilish agencies at work here.”
Is the church somehow being attacked by demons, intent on its destruction? Not so, answers the verger:
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.
In effect, the noble, half-abandoned cathedral is being secretly, and preternaturally, repurposed. But to what end? As the verger says, “There are other wills than the Almighty’s.”
De la Mare’s visions of otherness and the supernatural take myriad forms. In “A Recluse” Mr. Bloom has apparently summoned dark forces he cannot control. What, for instance, happened to his former secretary, whose last diary entry reads, “Not me, at any rate: not me. But even if I could get away for—” and then breaks off, except for an indecipherable smudge. What, too, could be the meaning of a wax mask discovered by the story’s narrator, a wax mask of Mr. Bloom’s own face? Is it a prop from a phony séance? Or has something actually been wearing it and pretending to be alive?
By contrast, “Out of the Deep” mixes horror and pathos in a kind of demonic version of A Christmas Carol, and “A Revenant” verges on literary criticism. In the latter, a self-important academic is presenting an evening lecture called “The Writings of Edgar Allan Poe.” At the last minute a gentleman in black enters the auditorium and stands in the shadows. Professor Monk finds the stranger’s presence inexplicably and increasingly unsettling. De la Mare never identifies this figure—who only admits that he has traveled “some little distance”—but is there any need to? Still, as the Irish novelist Forrest Reid once said of his friend’s stories, “It is not the ghost but the person who sees the ghost that matters.”
Atmosphere also matters. “Crewe” opens in full-bore, Edwardian ghost-story mode:
When murky winter dusk begins to settle over the railway station at Crewe, its first-class waiting-room grows steadily more stagnant. Particularly if one is alone in it. The long grimed windows do little more than sift the failing light that slopes in on them from the glass roof outside and is too feeble to penetrate into the recesses beyond. And the grained massive black-leathered furniture becomes less and less inviting. It appears to have been made for a scene of extreme and diabolical violence.
Overall, de la Mare’s fiction, both long and short, tends to be as death-haunted as Samuel Beckett’s. Even though his prose may initially strike modern ears as archaic, it soon grows insidiously incantatory: de la Mare is a master of intimations, a magician of apprehension. His supernatural entities, if so they be, are never more than glimpsed, and when one blinks they vanish. Moreover, compassion—for the damned as well as the doomed—suffuses his view of poor, forked humanity. Like Robert Aickman, his greatest disciple, Walter de la Mare repeatedly ushers us into a shadowland just outside the accepted boundaries of reality, then leaves us awed and wondering about an experience we can never wholly understand or quite forget.