Home » Fear in the Short Fiction of D.H. Lawrence

HORLA ARTICLE (October 2019)

 

FEAR IN THE SHORT FICTION OF D.H. LAWRENCE

A personal perspective from JORDAN WHATMAN, a writer who hails from Lawrence’s home town in Nottinghamshire, England

D.H. LAWRENCE  (1885-1930) is most commonly associated  with scandal and the erotic; his better known works have been adapted into television dramas and films of the kind that, if you happen to have your parents or in-laws round for the evening, incline you to wash your car or mow the grass, irrespective of the hour (9pm or later). 

From Lady Chatterley’s Lover (which now has a Wetherspoon’s pub named after it in my and Lawrence’s hometown of Eastwood) to Sons and Lovers to Women in Love, it’s obvious that his life in fiction was primarily built on explorations of romance.

There is more to Lawrence the writer than this; when he wanted to switch it up from flirtation to fear he did so with reverence and mastery. Selected Stories (2007) curates some of Lawrence’s shorter works in a way that makes clear how well he understood people and the unique relationships and bonds between us all, but it also brings to light the way Lawrence could tell stories differently from how one might expect.

‘Love Among The Haystacks’ is a beautiful tale of youth and passion, made even more accessible by the description of areas and landmarks I have walked through and among throughout my life. ‘Odour Of Chrysanthemums’ is likewise set in the country of both mine and Lawrence’s heart, but tells a tragic story of circumstantial loss threaded from the start with palpable tension. This is the first pang of fear in Lawrence’s work in this particular collection, and layers form henceforth.

A strong example of Lawrence’s purveyance of the sheer spooky comes from his short story ‘The Rocking Horse Winner’ (adapted into a film, see below). In this tale a very young, highly observant and downright psychic little boy tries to prise his family out of financial hardship by tapping into his ability to predict the winners of horse races. He gets the gardener to place bets for him, folding him and eventually his uncle into a syndicate of winning bets. When he can no longer predict the winner under increasing emotional pressure to alleviate the financial strain on his mother, he becomes deeply manic and ultimately loses his life owing to the emotional and mental stress with which he has been coshed. This is a prime example of Lawrence titillating the reader with a plot machination not typically part of his vernacular.

That the supernatural element is not explained nor a rational explanation for the boy’s powers provided, is part of what makes this so effective. It is the equivalent of Martin Scorsese putting a film out in which, when you get to the pictures, it starts off in 1970s New York with car chases and betrayal aplenty, only for aliens to suddenly show up around the hour mark and leave you in a spin.

It is Lawrence laughing at you, teasing you for expecting something different and feeling very pleased with himself. The image of the mother arriving home from a party she could not afford to go to, hearing the familiar scraping sound from upstairs in the dead of night, the door creaking open, and her little boy frantically swinging back and forth on his rocking horse blurting out the names of racehorses is straight out of the gothic playbook. It is a style that suits Lawrence well, the rhythm and showmanship of his language building tension and dread. In this respect, the means of telling the story for Lawrence is no different to a more typical story of his where he is describing a romantic relationship. The difference is that, on this occasion, he redirects the fictional crescendo into something tragic and disturbing.

‘Things’ is another tale worthy of inclusion for its ability to provide a desolate backdrop and with it a sense of dread. This story is not scary in its visceral description of monsters or murder, but in its damnation of the material as an unfitting substitute for true happiness. We follow two young Americans who Lawrence would like us to know are ‘idealists’ as they emigrate to Paris in a pursuit of the beautiful, which they believe to lie in culture. They are not satisfied, so on to Italy they go, becoming immersed in Buddhism along the way. By the time they realise that transcendental meditation is probably not for them ten years have passed, they are obsessed with their apartment and all the furniture they’ve bought, and now have a child. The story ends with the couple in an eerie funk as they return defeated to their family back in America, allowing themselves to be enveloped by full-time jobs and a sense of unwanted settlement as they fly into their forties. It is probably important to note that I am a twenty-five years old at the time of reading this story, and maybe that’s what really makes it scary. As the throngs of adult life begin to accelerate out of all control and whilst under great pressure to achieve certain milestones, I think I’m in a very particular demographic – and  feeling personally attacked by this one.

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The way Lawrence can impose the cage of working life over me decades beyond the grave is impressive and nuanced, whilst offering the moral of the old fable that eudemonic happiness lies in having lived well and not in having spent well. However the most fearful aspect of this story lies not in what Lawrence tells us, but what he doesn’t.

We begin the story with a young couple in love, as is typical to our subject, but by the end they are deluded and embittered. If this were even a novella, the plot would have one trajectory for our dampened idealists and it would be down into conflict, the depths of which are trusted by Lawrence to our own imagination.

A more externalised instance of this sense of social immobility arrives in ‘The Man Who Loved Islands’. A story triaged by way of the protagonist living on three separate islands, it is a character study focusing on isolation and disillusionment. As the story progresses the description phases from being functional and grounded in reality, to pervading a sense of intensifying unreality. Having failed to successfully manage and finance the running of the first island the protagonist recedes to a second, smaller island and enters a loveless affair which bears a child. In turn, he retreats from this situation into a third, completely remote island which becomes buried under snow, the sea described in ways resonant of chasm and void. It feels like a retreat into the protagonist’s psyche, almost Freudian in its composure. First he failed in his professional endeavours, then in his personal life. He arrives at a point on the last island where he has lost his motivation to live and aspirations to succeed, avoiding human contact and finally becoming trapped, unable to escape. The final line of the story alludes to the cold weather as being a force beyond his control, but it is a metaphor not for all his failings, rather his failure to try to recover from them and reassert control.

This story could resolve with a redemptive final act from the protagonist or an attempt by one of the people he has met along the way to possibly rescue him, but it doesn’t. The story ends with him trapped in the snow, on an island far from the shore. It’s important to note that, throughout, our protagonist hsn’t been driven by anything evil and has done nothing criminally wrong.

Lawrence’s chief domain across his body of work is perhaps his honest portrayal of human behaviour and that shines through here. This character could have done better, but he didn’t and now he is alone. Social isolation is at best a temporary discomfort and at worse a traumatic event which can lead to doubts over one’s purpose and identity and this story ends with a man who initially knew exactly what he wanted becoming a husk who has cornered himself in solitude. This, like with ‘Things’ and ‘The Rocking Horse Winner’ provide a more allegorical angle on fear. It is not the things that go bump in the night that are coming to find you, it is yourself.

Growing up in the shadow of D.H. Lawrence makes reading his work all the more textured. His books are not taught in school back in Eastwood, or at least they were not when I was taking my GCSEs.

He is not buried in the family plot at the local cemetery, instead making his final resting place in the USA after passing away in France.

It is clear that there was some isolation, loneliness and pain in his initial life experience which is perhaps displayed more vividly in the stories mentioned here than the better known novels he produced, driving him away from his roots.

Eastwood is now, as it was more so in Lawrence’s time, built on mining heritage, beautiful countryside and working class families. Perhaps it is this pastiche of community spirit and natural beauty that gave Lawrence some inspiration for his most famous works. But, as candlelight always leaves a shadow, the arguments and troubles arising from the pits and pubs may just have given Lawrence insight into that other side of human nature… where fear lies, within.

 

 

Jordan Whatman (pictured, left, outside the Lady Chatterley pub in Eastwood) is a writer based in Nottingham. He studied Philosophy and International Relations at Nottingham Trent University and currently works for a local authority. He recently completed the manuscript of a science fiction novel. Previous writing has included match reports for Nottingham Forest Football Club in a local fanzine, as well as contributing to Horla.