The Return by Walter de la Mare.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars.
Until this point, I’d only been familiar with de la Mare’s name, and not with his works. The Return has rectified that, but I’m left with some confusion about whether I actually liked the novel… and about whether I actually knew what was going on throughout.
So that’s a reasonable start, I guess: if both of those thorns haven’t put me off other authors, they shouldn’t put me off ol’ Walter, right? Right.
Loosely speaking, the novel considers postmortem return. The existence of revenants. But it’s also an examination of whether ill health – particularly mental, though influenza receives a pretty big poke here, too – can mimic, or cause the same result as a supernatural occurrence. Lawford, the main character, falls asleep in a graveyard, and returns home changed.
But how? I have some theories, but the text is coy with explanations, really. Varying experts have their say, and there’s histories and acquaintances who know more than they’re saying – but de la Mare holds the cards close to his chest. Is there really a returned fiend, an unhallowed burial come to claim a new body? Or is there just a sick bloke with a wife who [apparently] hates him?
(Have you ever looked at yourself in a mirror so long that your face begins to look unfamiliar? Welcome to this story.)
From the beginning transformation – real or imagined – the novel’s characters struggle to find an explanation to satisfy their own curiosity, but also one which will be acceptable socially. There’s a distinct element of class, of propriety at play: how does a returned ghoul enter and leave a house without drawing the attention of the neighbours or the help?
The novel is often mentioned in terms of weird fiction in the Poe or Lovecraft vein. There’s certainly the straitlaced descriptiveness of Poe and the inability (chosen or otherwise) to fully explain horrors of Lovecraft, so this makes a fair bit of sense to me. But unlike those authors, de la Mare’s main character is not a loser loner, labouring in some garret. He’s an ostensibly successful – though dull – man who has friends, a wife, and a child. He’s plucked from the quotidian life and placed outside of all frame of reference, and has to figure how to get back in – or even if he wants to.
If you’d like to read a copy of the novel, it’s available online here. The version I read was published by Dover, and was fine except for an obvious spelling snafu. The strangest thing about this edition – other than the narrative, that is – was that S.T. Joshi, who wrote the introduction, managed to somehow have larger billing on the book’s title page than the author.
(He also wrote an introduction which manages to give away a bunch of the following story, which is obviously something I love.)
This was the second of de la Mare’s weird novels. Based on this, I’d be interested to read more. It’s a mannered work, for sure, but there’s something indefinite about it which really appeals.
(My Goodreads profile is here.)