Walter de la Mare: A Master Overlooked?

Graham Greene described Walter de la Mare as one of the few writers of his time fit for the company of Hardy and James, writes Matthew G. Rees.

The richness of the prose in his finer stories, thought Greene, was unequalled possibly since Stevenson. H.P. Lovecraft was another admirer, in his case of the brand of fiction he termed de la Mare’s “fear-studies”. Lovecraft bemoaned the mere “occasional” appearance of these from the pen of a writer who also engaged in poetry, novels, non-fiction and works for children.

De la Mare (1873-1956), a Londoner of French Huguenot ancestry, wrote several collections of stories: Eight TalesThe RiddleThe ConnoisseurOn the Edge and The Wind Blows Over. His tales of the supernatural, the “fear-studies” referred to by Lovecraft, are scattered in each.“De la Mare can be exceedingly powerful when he chooses, and I only wish he’d choose oftener,” lamented Lovecraft, who described de la Mare as “a rare master”.

Two of his finest are held to be ‘All Hallows’ (a visitor reaches an isolated, coastal cathedral on foot late in the day) and ‘The Tree’ (a remarkable specimen encountered by a merchant who journeys into the country to the hovel home of his estranged half-brother). The walker’s arrival at All Hallows is indeed redolent of the writing of Hardy, echoing the dusty, dream-like progress of Henchard and his family in the opening of The Mayor of Casterbridge.

Meanwhile, in ‘The Tree’ (The Century Magazine published a version in 1922), de la Mare’s account of the bewitching power of its arboreal subject uses language and imagery that at times might justly be called magically real.


Many stories written today seem to employ language that is parched and monochromatic. Reading de la Mare, by contrast, is like encountering an illuminated manuscript. Take, for example, this passage in which his narrator, on observing the cathedral and its carvings in ‘All Hallows’, recalls an elderly Salvation Army officer seen years earlier.

“The light striking out of an oil and colourman’s shop at the street corner lay across his cheek and beard and glassed his eye. The soaked circle of humanity in which he was gesticulating stood staring and motionless… it is odd that so utterly inappropriate a recollection should have edged back into my mind… There was as I have said not a living soul in sight. Only a few sea-birds – oyster catchers maybe – were jangling on the distant beach.”

De la Mare is particularly effective when it comes to weather; be it moonlit frost in ‘The Tree’, dust and light in ‘All Hallows’ or the London heat-storm that breaks in the background of ‘Missing’. In this skill, he makes one think of Flannery O’Connor, so adept at describing the skies of her American South: lyricism and economy in the same breath.

As with all good story-writers de la Mare has an eye for telling detail. In ‘Missing’ the (dis)appearance of the dislikeable Miss Dutton, motoring through a town, is noted by the local butcher at work in his shop, engaged in the task of cutting meat for the cheaper trays.


Occasionally an abridged (and therefore, to the fan, not wholly satisfactory) version of one of these is broadcast by the BBC. Yet I sense that de la Mare’s name and work are falling from the page. Mention of his psychological ghost stories can draw blank looks even in bookish circles. That is surely a shame and, given the acclaim he received not that long ago, thought-provoking, too. It could be that de la Mare, for all his ability, has been a casualty of what Malcolm Bradbury identified as the emergence of a new style of story-writing that took hold after the Second World War.

De la Mare’s stories, albeit inventive, sophisticated even, can be seen to have the unity and purpose urged by Poe.

(Cont. next column)

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…” 




Matthew G. Rees is the editor of Horla. He has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Swansea.

Keyhole a collection of 18 stories by him with a supernatural twist is now available from  Three Impostors press.

‘Tales shot through with the shudder of the unexpected and magical transformations…’ Jon Gower

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