A review of Strangers and Pilgrims: Tales by Walter de la Mare

Reviewed by P.P.O. Kane

Strangers and Pilgrims: Tales
By Walter de la Mare
With an Introduction by Mark Valentine
Tartarus Press
2007, ISBN-13: 978-1905784028, Hardcover: 523 pages, June 2007

All the stories in this wonderful book were selected because they touched on the supernatural or the fantastic. It should be noted though – and Mark Valentine alludes to this in his introduction – that Walter de la Mare’s supernatural fiction was quite frequently an occasion for much else, notably mysticism of a sort. It is telling also, one feels, that the present selection tallies so well with Graham Greene’s choice of ‘what he could not, under any circumstances, spare’ (see Greene’s piece on de la Mare in The Lost Childhood and Other Essays). Telling, because it indicates how, in de la Mare’s work, the supernatural is inextricably bound up with a sense of revelation and mystery, a concern with death, and a vision of nature and human existence. Perhaps one should also mention here de la Mare’s prose, which Greene compares to Henry James’ and Stevenson’s. The latter comparison is the more apposite, in my view, though de la Mare’s prose style is probably best described as a kind of Euphuism. It is both ornamented and idiomatic – rich and spicy – and even de la Mare’s diction (tarradiddles, gowk, flummummery…) seems designed to draw attention to itself and on occasion disconcert. Primarily, de la Mare was a poet and diction or vocabulary – for some merely the humble handgun in the arsenal of a writer – was important to him, as his essay on the work of Robert Nares makes clear.

The outstanding story is undoubtedly ‘Seaton’s Aunt’, written as early as 1909, though only published much later. It has been much praised; H. P. Lovecraft found in it ‘a noxious background of malignant vampirism’, while Hardy termed it ‘splendidly gruesome’. The story centres on the relationship between Withers, the narrator, and Arthur Seaton; and the abiding atmosphere is of a leaden melancholy and regret. The two first meet as boys attending the same school, a school where Arthur is bullied, in part because ‘he looked distastefully foreign’ (racism is a strand in the story, but it is understated). Throughout, Seaton is a victim whom Withers never rescues, though perhaps he could, and the two boys, later men, never connect in a meaningful, authentic way. Withers’ tragedy is that he is too weak, too small-minded, to grasp a friendship that may have given him something extraordinary, changed him in some radical way. Then the possibility is taken away and he is left alone, diminished, with simply a sense of his own inadequacy. This is the crux of the story, apart from the supernatural shenanigans, and it is what gives it its power. ‘Seaton’s Aunt’ should be compared with ‘Miss Duveen’ (‘I began to see we were ridiculous friends,’ the narrator says there at one point), another story where shame, embarrassment and small-mindedness stands in the way of friendship. (One should point out that ‘Miss Duveen’ is not included in the present selection.)

The other stories differ greatly in character and tone, though clearly the imagination of the same writer is at work. ‘The Quincunx’ is a ghost story, but one where the sympathy is for the ghost and her distress, rather than for the living. There is a notion, both in this story and in others, that the figure of the ghost is a way of talking about mortality and the persistence of memory; of how it is only by touching others’ lives that we can exist beyond the grave.

There is a nastiness and an unpleasantness to ‘An Anniversary’, another ghost story, but most of all it is concerned with the cruelty present in an unhappy marriage. ‘Her misery was a kind of dog-like joy to him’ is one telling sentence: de la Mare was a writer who well knew the human heart. Another story, ‘The Vats’, recalls Lovecraft, both his world-view and his powers of description, but the tone here is benign, not one of dread and terror. There is a clear sense of spiritual revelation here, though apparently the story is about time and was written for Edward Thomas. ‘The Riddle’ is different again: a curious and beautiful fantasy, slight but haunting. There is a meaning to this tale, but it is distant to the telling, as in Cortazar.

If one were to sum up de la Mare’s cumulative vision in a few words, it might go something like this: the world that we know, the quotidian at any rate, is akin to the tip of a large iceberg or the surface of a sphere. We can explore the depths that lie beyond our everyday experience, pierce the surface, but this will yield only a fragile knowledge. Yet we should do so, if we are to remedy the diminishment, loss and estrangement brought on by modern life. (The story ‘Music’ is particularly relevant here.) De la Mare’s supernatural fiction was one of the main ways in which he plumbed these metaphysical depths; his poetry was the other.

Strangers and Pilgrims is a rewarding selection of tales, not a few of which are masterpieces, by an unduly neglected writer whose work will never be out of date. I envy readers who are coming to Walter de la Mare’s writing for the first time.

About the reviewer: P.P.O. Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and you can reach him at ludic@europe.com