Book Review by Sylvia D:
Walter de la Mare is probably best known as a writer of children’s stories and for his poem, The Listeners, but he also published a number of psychological horror stories. One of these, The Return, was first published in 1910 and then revised in 1922. The slim edition I read was yet another revision from 1945. What I thought was going to be a quick read turned out to be printed in dense type on very thin utility paper and the novel is in fact 248 pages long. Much of the text is devoted to philosophising about the nature of death and the after life, so I imagined de la Mare must have written it when he was older. But he was born in 1873, so he was only 37 when the first edition appeared. He died in 1956.
Arthur Lawson is a rather dull, middle-aged, middle-class Victorian convalescing from influenza. In the course of a gentle stroll, he finds himself in the churchyard in the local village of Widderstone and falls into a doze beside an overgrown, cracked grave. The grave is located at a distance from the other graves and the inscription on it reads:
Here lie ye Bones of one,
Nicholas Sabathier, a Stranger to this Parish,
Who fell by his own hand on ye
Eve of Ste Michael and all Angels.
Finding himself invigorated on awakening, Lawson flies home only to be confronted when glancing in the mirror by a strange face, ‘expressionless, cadaverous, with shadowy hollows beneath the glittering eyes’ – (p 88). This haunting, sinister face provokes feelings of unease in those who see it. Although Arthur is still intrinsically himself, every now and then his voice also changes and he speaks really hurtful words that seem to come unbidden.
This Kafkaesque transformation (Metamorphosis was published in 1915) gradually leads to the breakdown of his relationships with his wife, his alienation from the few acquaintances who are permitted to see his strange face and the constant questioning of his own sanity. The novel takes on a more of a Gothic feel as Arthur, locked in his room by his wife by day, increasingly becomes a creature of the night. One evening he wanders back to the churchyard where the transformation took place and meets a stranger with the odd name of Herbert Herbert. Herbert is startled when he catches a glimpse of Lawson’s face in the moonlight and invites him to his house which is a strange wooden place where you are perpetually aware of the noise of the river Widderstone tumbling into a great black reed-ridden pool.
Herbert reveals to Lawson that Sabathier committed suicide and thus was buried in unconsecrated ground. He gives Lawson a tatty, stained pamphlet which purports to be Sabathier’s autobiography. It seems he was a French Huguenot, something of a rogue, a privateer and a philanderer. From a drawing in the pamphlet Arthur realises that it is Sabathier’s features that he has taken on. Arthur slowly finds himself again when he goes to stay for a while with the eccentric Herbert and his sister, Grisel, with whom he falls in love. De la Mare doesn’t really explain why Lawson and Grisel feel they have to part with Lawson dragging himself back home. Maybe it was out of a sense of duty towards his sixteen year old daughter, Alice, who seems to be the only family member Lawson cares for.
I must say I struggled with this book and wished it was only a short story, which might have worked better. The initial premise is intriguing but De La Mare doesn’t really develop it. The plotting is weak and the novel is dominated by long rambling philosophical reflections on identity, the nature and purpose of life, the power of evil, the nature of death, the possibility of another plane of existence and reincarnation, all of which fail to come to any real conclusion. This is Herbert speaking, for instance:
We are so much the slaves of mere repetition. Here is life – yours and mine – a kind of plenum in vacuo. It is only when we begin to play the eavesdropper, when something goes askew; when one of the sentries on the frontier of the unexpected shouts a hoarse “Qui vive?” – it is only then we begin to question; to prick our aldermen and pinch the calves of our kings. Why, who is there can answer to anybody’s but his own satisfaction just that one fundamental question – Are we the prisoners, the slaves, the inheritors, the creatures, or the creators of our bodies? Fallen angels or horrific dust? As for identity or likeness or personality, we have only our neighbours’ nod for them, and our precarious memory – (p 116).
I found the ending most unsatisfactory. The story just comes to a stop with innumerable unanswered questions. Perhaps, though, that is the essence of genres dealing with the supernatural.