[The following is a reprint of a column which originally appeared in the April 27, 2006, issue of Hellnotes.]
Though he was a prolific writer, Walter de la Mare’s horror output was small. He wrote more extensively in the areas of poetry, both for children and adults, and children’s stories. But what he lacked in quantity in weird fiction, he made up for in quality.
Walter John de la Mare was born on April 25, 1873, in Charlton, Kent, England, to an affluent family. His father, James Edward de la Mare, was an official with the Bank of England. His mother, Lucy Sophia, was related to Robert Browning. He was educated at St. Paul’s Cathedral Choir School in London. In 1890, he joined the Anglo-American (Standard) Oil Company in London as a statistician and started writing while employed there. Eighteen years later, he left the company on a government pension, which allowed him to concentrate on his writing. With his wife, Constance Elfrida Ingpen, and their four children, he moved to Taplow in Buckinghamshire to devote himself to writing.
His writing career got underway in 1895 with the publication of “Kismet” in the magazine The Sketch. The first decade of the twentieth century saw a number of milestones: his first book, Songs of Childhood, in 1902 (a collection of children’s poems published under the pen name Walter Ramal); his first novel, the romance Henry Brocken, in 1904; and his first poetry collection for adults, Poems, in 1906. However, he did not obtain success until 1912, with the publication of the poetry collection The Listeners and Other Poems.
Besides Henry Brocken, de la Mare wrote only two other novels: The Return (1910) and Memoirs of a Midget (1921), which won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.
His supernatural works included The Return and stories in several collections, such as The Riddle and Other Stories (1923), The Connoisseur and Other Stories (1926), and On the Edge (1930). Some of his poems, including “The Listeners,” have supernatural themes. Most of his supernatural works are classified as “inconclusive” ghost stories; i.e., the supernatural is hinted at but never fully shown. Because of this, some critics hold that his stories cannot be classified as horror. More than the supernatural itself, he was concerned with the world of imagination and the plight of people who are caught up in otherworldly events.
The Return is a story of spirit possession in which the protagonist, after falling asleep on a grave in a churchyard, is changed physically into the person who was buried there. He returns home and is not recognized by his family and friends. As in many of his stories, this novel emphasizes loneliness and isolation.
One of his best-known stories is “Seaton’s Aunt” (filmed for television in 1983). The title character is a bizarre woman who is obsessed by death and may be communicating with spirits. Seaton, who is a loner with few friends, hates and fears his aunt. In the first part of the story, Seaton is a schoolboy and visits his aunt with a friend, who also becomes frightened of her. In the second part of the story, Seaton and his friend meet again after the former is engaged to marry. He dies under mysterious circumstances before the wedding, and it is hinted that his aunt was a psychic vampire who drew his spirit out of him.
In “Out of the Deep,” the hero returns to his deceased uncle’s house, in which he is haunted by ghostly memories of childhood and then dies. There is another haunted house in “A Recluse,” in which a visitor to the house finds the corpse of his host, meaning that he had been visiting with a ghost all along. A haunted church and a mad rector figure in “All Hallows.” In “A House,” the protagonist is forced to leave his longtime home, and when he returns one last time, he is haunted by memories and is finally absorbed into the fabric of the house.
Spooky beings lurk in the pages of several of his stories. In “Crewe,” a greedy servant drives away other servants so he wouldn’t have to share a legacy; one commits suicide and returns to haunt him. “The Green Room” is about a man who meets the ghost of a poet; when he publishes her poetry, she is displeased. “A.B.O.” tells of a monster occupying a chest that is dug up. In “A Revenant,” the ghost of Edgar Allan Poe haunts a lecturer who attacked the works of Poe.
“The Tree” tells of a frightful plant in an artist’s garden. “The Looking Glass” also takes place in a haunted garden. A mad hermit wreaks havoc in his search for a human soul in “Mr. Kempe.” “The Bird of Passage” is a herald of death. “The Riddle” tells of several children who go to live with their grandmother and disappear into a mysterious chest in her attic. In “What Dreams May Come,” a survivor of a car accident meets Death. “Strangers and Pilgrims” is about a ghost searching for his grave.
De la Mare was also a literary critic. Several critical studies appeared in various magazines or were published in book form, and he served as the main critic for the London Times Literary Supplement from 1910 to about 1922, during which time he contributed over 200 reviews and articles.
Another of his literary endeavors was editing anthologies of poetry and prose for both adults and children. Among these are Come Hither (1923), Desert Islands (1930), Early One Morning in the Spring (1935), Behold, This Dreamer (1939), Animal Stories (1939), and Love (1943).
In 1924 and 1931, de la Mare declined the offer of knighthood, but he did accept the lesser royal awards of the Order of the Companions of Honour (1948) and The Order of Merit (1953). He won many other awards, including the Polignac Prize of the Royal Society of Literature (1911), the Carnegie Medal (1947), an honorary degree from Oxford (1951), and the Foyle Poetry Prize (1957).
De la Mare and his wife moved to Twickenham, which is near London, in 1940. His wife died three years later. De la Mare died on June 22, 1956, and is buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral.