Friday, May 20, 2011

Strangers and Pilgrims

The obscurity of so many great twentieth-century ghost story writers is one of the tragedies of contemporary supernatural fiction.  M.R. James has never been out of print, and justifiably so, but what of H.R. Wakefield?  Oliver Onions?  Robert Aickman?  They turn up in anthologies from time to time, but if not for the attention of small publishers like Ash-Tree and Tartarus, they would scarcely have modern collections at all, and the limited printings required by the economics of book production mean that many readers will never come across those volumes.  But slim opportunity is better than none; one can only celebrate what availability there is for these nigh-forgotten masters.  And there is much to celebrate about Strangers and Pilgrims, Tartarus' hardcover collection of supernatural tales by Walter de la Mare.

First, there is the production of the book.   £35/$60 (including shipping) may seem like a lot to pay for a hardcover, but every aspect of its design is attractive but not needlessly flashy: "rich, not gaudy."  From the light yellow jacket to the durable grey covers with gold stamping, from the thick, solid paper stock to the soft ribbon marker, the book is a joy to behold, and larger even than its count of 510 pages might suggest.  This is a book to admire as well as to read, and its understated elegance is the perfect complement to the stories within.

De la Mare is, one gathers, best known as a poet and a writer for children; only his often-anthologized story "Seaton's Aunt" has attained particular fame as supernatural fiction.  That tale, with its evocation of awkward visits to an acquaintance's house and its ambiguous hints of ghosts and emotional vampirism, is indeed a masterpiece, but it is by no means de la Mare's unparalleled triumph.  Like Robert Aickman, he is masterful with the overlap between eccentricity and the inexplicable.  In a story like "Mr Kempe" or "The Recluse," it almost does not matter if the disagreeable figure who hosts the lonely traveler is haunted by anything more substantial than his own quirks of personality, and the insistent verger of "All Hallows" may simply be a lonely old man with an overactive imagination.  The air of unease is the same.

Strangers and Pilgrims is arranged chronologically, which means that the most effective stories come in the middle, bookended by less successful early and late efforts.  But even minor de la Mare has its virtues, and the atmospheric language of a "The Moon's Miracle" or a "Bad Company" prevents their simple plots from becoming a disappointment.  Likewise, de la Mare's stories for children, which often have a simplicity absent from his adult tales, are so charmingly crafted that older readers will be spellbound as well, whether by the elderly lady of "Alice's Godmother" and her deserted house, or by the lonely child and inviting fairy of "Miss Jemima."

De la Mare's skill as a poet serves him well in several of the collection's eeriest tales, including "The Green Room," in which he credibly evokes the evolving style of a young poet as her life ranges from joy to despair, and "Winter" and "Strangers and Pilgrims," two stories that deal with gravestone inscriptions and capture the pregnant stillness and strangeness of burial-grounds with nary a rattling chain or winding sheet on display.

Although, as Mark Valentine observes in his thoughtful introduction, all de la Mare's stories share a sense of the numinous potential on the edges of everyday life, they are so diverse that to call them all "ghost stories" is to do them an injustice.  "The Riddle" is either a tale of unidentified menace or a poignant metaphor for growing up; "The Bird of Travel" is not so much about a family curse as it is about an emotionally-fraught meeting and the meaning of travel.  "A Revenant" is almost an essay-in-fiction, with a lecture on Edgar Allan Poe attended by an unexpected visitor.  And then there are "'What Dreams May Come'" and "The Guardian," two late, enigmatic stories that are alike only in offering that bewildering, inexplicable satisfaction that the best weird tales provide.

Although he was, chronologically speaking, a contemporary of M.R. James, de la Mare writes an entirely different kind of story, one whose supernaturalism is a matter of mood, more subdued even than the terrifying suggestions of MRJ.  More psychological and philosophical, they're nonetheless rich in atmosphere, quietly haunting and disturbing.  Strangers and Pilgrims is a book like no other, and not to be missed.

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