Walter de la Mare's writing was of an astonishingly rich texture, and all his stories are multi-layered, and many quite satisfyingly ambiguous. I like supernatural/horror tales which leave me to make up my own mind as to what it was all about, I'm not overly-fond of tales that tie all the mysteries up very neatly. The ambiguity is at its very best in probably his best known work "Seaton's Aunt", a work which bears several readings (just who or what is this monstrous, domineering old lady, and what is the power that she has over her weak nephew?). Equally as good to my mind is "Out Of The Deep", about an eccentric, lonely young man who inherits his uncle's house. He finds that tugging on the bell-pulls at night causes ghostly servants (amongst others) to appear. Put like that it sounds like a straightforward ghost story, but I can assure you it's not. You can read a very dark message in this one, (just how evil was Old Soames the butler?) and I personally rank it as one of DLM's most memorable pieces. "All Hallows" is also exceptional, about a traveller who comes across a church by the seaside at dusk. On talking to the verger he discovers that some unnamed evil has taken up residence there. There are some genuinely very eerie moments in this, and it all feels gloriously M R James-ish. There is something very Jamesian too about the character of the old recluse in "Mr Kempe", and others have drawn comparisons with H P Lovecraft in this story.
There is very much a feel of the post-WW1 Britain in many of the stories. Of a country traumatised by 4 years of war. In "The Nap" we have Mr Thripp, who is to all outward appearances an affable working-class family man, the very picture of normality. Under his genial exterior though Mr Thripp is a seething volcano of white-hot anger, which threatens to explode at any moment. "Missing" is about two strangers who meet by chance in a London coffee-shop one hot thundery afternoon. One tells the other a tale about a woman who has gone missing from his house which he shares with his mad sister. Again, this story is ambiguous, you never find out what happened to her, but it's an intriguing tale nonetheless. A lot of the stories are set in the English countryside, but in "The Lost Track" DLM takes us to rural America, with an Englishman finding an abadoned railway track in the Virginia countryside. This is a bit different to the usual DLM fare, and you can see that DLM, for all that he comes across as the elegant Edwardian at heart, was quite captivated by America in post-Wild West/early Hollywood times. A very small handful of the stories didn't work for me. The ones that originally made up the "Ding Dong Bell" collection are constructed around the inscriptions on old tombstones, and I didn't share the author's fascination with these! But there are plenty of others which more than made up for it.
Before reading this collection I had only come across his novel " Memoirs of a Midget "( which I'd imagined to be some kind of Diane Arbus number ! ) Fascinated by this very unique and (nowadays ) obscure author I was delighted to find this recently published collection, containing some of his previously unpublished stories.
I think he is a master of the short story ; he creates so vivdly and evocatively an atmosphere and moment in time that the reader feels like it is a shared memory. The story reveberates in the readers mind long after , so that you end up thinking about the characters and revising your views as if their existence went beyond the boundaries of the book.
One word of caution : the fading light of edwardian gardens, summer nights in forgotten country grave yards, not to mention the lonely hours of odd only children, can all get beyond pleasant melancholy and in to the realms of the desolate. So to appreciate De La Mare's art......one story at a time.