De La Mare’s Out of the Deep (1923) is basically a ghost story, but it is also a subtle psychological profile of its principle character, as many ghost stories seem to be. It is never certain whether the various apparitions and effects in the tale actually exist separate from the character’s mind. This uncertainty leaves the narrative open to interpretation, and makes it all the more haunting and disturbing.
Upon the death of his uncle, a young man returns to the mansion where he lived as a child. Jimmie—he keeps this infantilizing name throughout the story despite his adulthood—is ambivalent about living in the house and has no emotional attachment at all to its contents. He is soon stealthily selling off its valuables to raise cash. It is clear that his childhood in this vast mansion was fearful and unpleasant.
He chooses to sleep in his uncle’s lavish bed. This is a kind of triumph, after having been banished as a child for many years to a tiny attic room. He remembers “that high cupboard in the corner from which certain bodiless shapes had been wont to issue and stoop at him…crab-patterned paper that came alive as you stared…” and “the window cold with menacing stars”. He has never been able to sleep very easily, especially in the dark. He surrounds himself with candles when he goes to bed. De La Mare creepily describes how Jimmie likes to sleep in this bed: laid out straight, as if in a casket.
There is a sense that Jimmie does not belong in this house, and perhaps that he never did. The cold treatment he received from his uncle, aunt, and one of the servants, and his lonely friendlessness might engender sympathy. But the author has none for him, seeing him mainly as an opportunist and a usurper, though trapped by childhood memories of anger and fear. He has inherited the home, but does he really deserve to own it?
So much seems to depend on the pulling of various bell cords scattered about the house. These were used to summon the servants, now long gone. There is one above his uncle’s old bed, and also one in the dark little attic room where he was once forced to sleep. He obsesses about these: if he pulls one, what might it summon in this empty house? In one oddly hallucinatory scene, he pulls the bell cord above his uncle’s bed—it was earlier described as “the sumptuous crimson pleated silk bell-pull, dangling like a snake with a huge tassel for skull…”—and sees “the hidden fangs flickeringly jet out…”
A servant does appear at his bedside—and the silent figure closely resembles him. Over several days other apparitions follow, but they do not really interact with Jimmie much. They go about their business, as Jimmie grows increasingly obsessed and agitated. Why are they there? Whether in his own mind, or manifested by the ringing of the bells, these ghosts are forces just beyond the edge of his comprehension. Jimmie’s eventual fate is foreshadowed from the very beginning of the story; he is doomed to return to a place that he never truly escaped.
A haunted house can be seen emblematic of the haunted person’s mind and emotional state. Exploring forgotten or hidden rooms—or avoiding them as we do in nightmares—may signify a coming to terms with forgotten capacities, memories, interests, and traumas. Or might not. For one reason or another, the character in Out of the Deep, is not able to resolve his bitterness, and so he remains inside a tiny, four cornered nightmare.