Post-war a trend to a more broken, shard-like style of story-telling took root. In the latter part of the last century Bradbury thought he saw a reconciliation of these styles. Some might feel, however, that in recent years a new and deeper divergence has occurred, with, perhaps now, a weighting towards the shard-like style of story-writing.
While not Jamesian in length de la Mare’s stories cannot be said to unfold in a hurry. One can see how, in an age of micro-fiction, bite-size news and general screen-scrolling, some contemporary readers might find the telling of ‘Missing’, a story divulged via a conversation in a tea-room, somewhat testing. From today’s perspective de la Mare’s favoured milieux can seem naïve and archaic. Greene highlighted a fondness for desolate railway stations (as in the story ‘Crewe’). And yet, how much good writing in the supernatural genre is, even now, about places of remoteness, emptiness and journeys toward them?
‘Seaton’s Aunt’, with its apparatus of two well-to-do schoolboys, an elderly spinster and a country house, is a period piece right enough. Yet it possesses a strange and troubling power. Seaton, a quiet, unpopular boy at school, dies mysteriously before his wedding: the suggestion being that his domineering, self-preserving aunt has somehow sucked the life from him.
De la Mare’s stories have in them the sense that both he and his characters are searching for something never fully found. A certain melancholy is their hallmark. These qualities render the reader not disturbed, but pensive. As Greene put it: “Mr de la Mare is concerned… to find out: his stories are true in the sense that the author believes – and conveys his belief – that this is the real world, but only in so far as he has yet discovered it. They are tentative.”
Possibly the biggest factor in the shift away from authors such as de la Mare, and their school of writing, is the change that seems to have occurred in the demographic of those who write short stories, and, through what tends to be published, those who read them.
Turn the clock back seventy-five years or so and it can seem as if the form was the near preserve of those with backgrounds in journalism. One thinks of Damon Runyon, Rudyard Kipling, Edgar Wallace, Ernest Hemingway, Arthur Machen, Graham Greene, Martha Gellhorn and Mavis Gallant to name but a few.
In his memoir-style work The London Adventure, published in 1924, Machen observed: ‘… as a newspaper reporter I saw queer things and odd prospects which, otherwise, I should not have seen.’
Such figures seem to have been supplanted by practitioners whose lives are mostly spent on university campuses as lecturers or post-graduate researchers, or who work in publishing or an annexe, as editors, agents or assistants. That is an observation not an attack. In recent years a fair amount of my own time has been spent on such a campus. And, of course, teaching is a financial lifeline for many writers.
But I’m not sure anyone would seriously disagree that the material emerging from such environments is inevitably massively different from that produced by the likes of Runyon, a New York newspaperman of the hot metal era, who wrote about baseball and boxing, had a mobster accountant for his best friend and who met his wife on the so-called Pancho Villa Expedition to Mexico in 1916.
For the record it should be acknowledged that de la Mare’s background was not hard-bitten. He was the son of an official at the Bank of England, was educated at St Paul’s Cathedral Choir School and worked in the statistics department of the London office of Standard Oil.
Later a Civil List pension enabled him to concentrate on his literary career. W.H. Auden, William Golding, Russell Hoban and Richard Adams are among those said to have been influenced by his work.
Graham Greene knew de la Mare, of course, but (being Greene) didn’t fret about dismissing a third of de la Mare’s stories as not being up to much. In praise of the remainder, however, Greene added, admiringly, “what a volume would be left…”