A Recluse by Walter de la Mare, 1930
by Walter de la Mare, 1930
The reader of Walter de la Mare's short stories is never likely to forget that they are the work of a considerable poet. His stories are as exactly shaped as his poems, and they often deal with the same tricks of atmosphere and mood. Like the poems, the best stories are simultaneously precise and nebulous, both exactly solid and teasingly ethereal. "A Recluse," collected in On the Edge (1930), is all of these things and is one of de la Mare's finest stories. It fuses the humdrum and the extraordinary in a remarkable tale of terror that is made all the more menacing by the insistent obliquity of the narrative and by the number of questions left unanswered.
In outline the story is simple. The narrator, Mr. Dash, reads in The Times an advertisement for the sale of a house (Montrésor) and is reminded of an experience he once had there. He had stopped his car to look at what he thought was an empty house, was tricked by its solitary occupant, Mr. Bloom, into spending the night there, and discovered his host to be a spiritualist whose experiments took him beyond the "edge," which turns out to be an important word in the story. Mr. Bloom produced phenomena that induced the narrator to make an early morning flight from the house, driving his car away at speed, absurdly dressed in "a purple dressing-gown and red morocco slippers" that he had borrowed from another occupant of Montrésor, lately dead. The materials are those of many a lesser ghost story. This, however, is no ordinary ghost story, and its special character resides as much as anything in the exactness and evocativeness of de la Mare's language.
The story might be said to begin with the narrator's reaction not just to the advertisement in The Times but also to the linguistic idiom of the advertisement. Montrésor is described as "imposing" and as a "singularly charming freehold Residential Property." It is the idiom of the stable, middle-class commercial world, and it expresses a worldview that was perhaps that of the narrator before his adventure at this very house. Prior to his encounter with Mr. Bloom, we meet the narrator climbing into his "cosy two seater." There is smugness in the false poeticism with which he presents himself and his car: "a lime-tree bower her garage was." Later, however, he is no longer able to feel so confident of the kind of certainties that the language of the estate agent so complacently articulates. As he proceeds to tell his remarkable story, moving into more questionable areas of experience, the narrator's language increasingly creates the sense of the unexplained, and perhaps inexplicable, and the uneasy. A dense texture of allusion and reiterated images draws us into a world more mysterious and nearly ineffable than the journalistic idiom can encompass.
Relatively early in his dealings with Mr. Bloom, the narrator confidently and contemptuously dismisses the whole world of spiritualism as a silly and dangerous waste of time. By the end of his experiences at Montrésor he feels that his earlier objections "seemed now to have been grotesquely inadequate." His realization now is that "this house was not haunted, it was infested." But infested with what? That remains essentially unknowable. The narrator knows not what kind of company it was that shared Mr. Bloom's "charming house." (That such a phrase should thus recur in the closing sentences of the story is a piece of malevolent irony.) He can comment only that "here edges in the obscure problem of what the creatures of our thoughts, let alone our dreams, are 'made on."' The Shakespearean allusion to Prospero's speech in act 4 of The Tempest recognizes the essential insubstantiality of human life itself and implicitly raises questions about the nature of any afterlife: "We are such stuff/As dreams are made on; and our little life/Is rounded with a sleep." The narrator has earlier reminded us of one of Hamlet's most famous soliloquies in talking of that "'other side's' borderline from which, according to the poet, no traveller returns." For Hamlet the "other side" may be an "undiscovered country," but for Mr. Bloom it is a country from which he is unable wholly to escape. Mr. Bloom asserts that "there are deeps, and vasty deeps," the echo this time of Glendower's claim in 1 Henry IV that "I can call spirits from the vasty deep." It will be remembered that the claim prompts a rejoinder from Hotspur: "Why, so can I, or so can any man,/But will they come when you do call for them?" The spirits have certainly come when Mr. Bloom has called them. Now, however, they come uninvited, and their entry cannot be refused. It is as a defense in his solitude against the inhabitants of that other country that Mr. Bloom so much desires to detain the narrator.
In presenting Mr. Bloom and his house—with the two frequently identified metaphorically, in the best traditions of the supernatural tale—de la Mare is concerned that we should see both of them as being simultaneously of the utmost physical solidity and yet characterized by an ominous vacancy. Their physicality, especially in the case of Mr. Bloom, is not enough of itself to make them altogether real. Earlier, when faced with the "ordinary" presence of Mr. Bloom, the narrator is moved to question the very nature of things: "What made him so extortionately substantial, and yet in effect, so elusive and unreal? What indeed constitutes the reality of any fellow creature." "The Recluse" is perhaps best seen not merely as a tale of the supernatural but also as yet another of those meditations on metaphysical problems that are to be found everywhere, irrespective of genre, in de la Mare's work.