Seaton's Aunt by Walter de la Mare, 1923
by Walter de la Mare, 1923
The short story "Seaton's Aunt," collected in The Riddle and Other Stories, provides a good example of Walter de la Mare's sense of the macabre. Though the aunt of the title eventually dominates the story, the author is careful to begin with a narrative and characters conventional enough to set off her strangeness. Seaton, an unpopular schoolboy desperately clinging to a half-unwilling friend, and Withers, too embarrassed to refuse a treat he does not want, are at first little different from stock characters in innumerable school stories. The adolescent fear of sentiment, of unfamiliar experience that escapes the crude and simple categories of schoolboy tradition, is conveyed in ordinary schoolboy language.
The setting, too, with a coach house, rambling orchard, pondlike stream, and meadow, is redolent of late Victorian ease and confidence. But instead of the expected crowd of sisters and servants, we find our attention focused on a single strange being. Though we see and hear enough to form a judgment of our own, we also have an artful contrast of points of view. Seaton's view is different from Withers's, and the boyish perception of each is different from his later adult understanding. The atmosphere is built up by the contrast between Seaton's mixture of real apprehension and his exhibitionist desire to impress his friend and the friend's sturdy attempts at skepticism. Because Withers is also the narrator, there is a contrast between the strange things he describes and his contemptuous rejection of Seaton's interpretations. Some of Seaton's suspicions may be mere fantasy. How can we know whether the aunt "as good as killed" his mother? But the scoffing Withers is gradually affected by the atmosphere so that the two boys, normally so lacking in mutual sympathy, are driven by fear to hide together in the cupboard in the aunt's bedroom and must cling to each other for support.
The aunt's sinister quality is maintained in two opposite ways. She is mostly absent. Her face is "fixedly vacant and strange," and she seems to be living a more intense life in an unseen world. But when she speaks, she is able to turn commonplaces about a "fleeting world" or "dust to dust" into messages or personal malevolence toward her nephew. She is a master of particularizing the general. This becomes more apparent in the later adult scene, when Seaton's fiancée Alice has been added to the party. Her dark hair becomes a text for a sermon on mortality that is also a personal threat: "Consider, Mr. Withers; dark hair, dark eyes, dark cloud, dark night, dark vision, dark death, dark grave, dark DARK!"
But the threat also goes beyond death when she quotes Withers: "As for death and the grave, I don't suppose we shall much notice that." This foreshadows the story's climax when, on Withers's last visit to the house, after Seaton's death, she calls to him by Seaton's name. Her expression at finding herself in the presence of the living suggests that her real enjoyment is in tormenting the dead. Similarly, previous hints about ghostly companions are given definite expression when she rebuts the suggestion of loneliness:
I was never lonely in my life. I don't look to flesh and blood for my company. When you've got to be my age, Mr. Smithers (which God forbid), you'll find life a very different affair from what you seem to think it is now. You won't seek company then, I'll be bound. It's thrust on you.
In a story full of ambiguities, her "God forbid" is the most poignant. Does it spring out of malevolence or pity? If the second, then we may find something almost unselfish in her pessimism. Perhaps she means that life only becomes sadder as it goes on longer.
Like so many de la Mare characters, after this Withers escapes to the railway station. He feels guilty because he does not go to look for Seaton's grave in the churchyard, but he does not clearly know why this is. The story's last sentence, which might easily be dismissed as a mere formality, is worth special attention:
My rather horrible thought was that, so far as I was concerned—one of his extremely few friends—he had never been much better than "buried" in my mind.
There is a general point here that helps us define the differences between de la Mare and writers of ordinary ghost stories. The ghostliness in de la Mare is subordinate to general human values that do not differ from those embodied in literary forms usually considered more weighty then the ghost story. In the end what matters most is not just the eeriness of paranormal experience but human relations. We suddenly see Seaton and his ill-requited dependence on his friend in a new light. We experience vicariously opportunity irrevocably lost. Seaton is beyond Withers's help even if he may not be beyond his aunt's interference.
A similar general point could be made about de la Mare's lifelong obsession with death in his prose and verse writings. Spooky, eerie, artful it often is, but it is more than that. It also has the dignity of radical questioning about life, for until we form a view about the meaning of death, we cannot have a coherent view of life. We might miss the hint here if the point were not more explicit elsewhere, for instance, in de la Mare's "Peacock Pie" or in the eloquent passage about "Mors" in "Ding Dong Bell": "It means, well, sleep, or nightmare, or dawn, or nothing, or—it might mean everything." On the whole there are more questions than answers on the meaning of death, but in de la Mare the questions never became mere literary devices. In age, as in youth, the curiosity about the overwhelming question retains its freshness.
—A. O. J. Cockshut