As in Out of the Deep, which was discussed in the previous post, De La Mare does not appear to have much sympathy for his lead character Arthur Seaton, who is also doomed. How he meets his end is a mystery, but the reader knows from the beginning that he will probably have an untimely one. Seaton’s Aunt (1923) is occasionally seen in anthologies of early 20th century weird fiction; it was originally published in a collection of Walter De La Mare’s short stories called The Riddle and Other Stories. This book, by the way, is an excellent place to start for readers interested in this master of quiet, subtle, psychological horror.
Unlike Out of the Deep, the story of Seaton’s Aunt is not the profile of a single individual so much as the analysis of toxic relationships and their consequence for one member of a family. Readers who have experience in family counseling and family therapy may be spooked by the author’s supernatural “systems approach” to Arthur Seaton’s predicament. However, because this is a horror story, there will be no intervention. The author merely has his narrator observe the demise of Seaton over time—which may or may not be related to the ministrations of his overbearing yet malevolently wise maiden aunt.
No one likes Arthur Seaton, including the author, who describes him as looking “distastefully foreign, with his yellow skin, and slow chocolate-coloured eyes, and lean weak figure.” These are traits he shares with his mysterious aunt, and also disturbingly, with his fiancé later on. In the beginning of the story, Withers, the narrator, and Arthur are both school boys. Arthur is frequently bullied and ostracized by his class mates, but Withers reluctantly befriends him. He goes with him to visit his aunt for an overnight stay.
The aunt for her part does not like Arthur either. She neglects and belittles him during the visit. “When I look upon my nephew…I realise that dust we are, and dust shall become.” Arthur, an orphan like the character Jimmie, in Out of the Deep tells Withers that the house and property are actually his to claim when he comes of age. When that time comes, Arthur plans to have his aunt “hand over every blessed shilling of it.” He strongly doubts that the woman is truly his aunt.
But Arthur is terrified of her, just the same. He believes she is watching him all the time. In fact there are odd drawings of single eyes scattered all over the house—one has a caption underneath that reads “Thou God Seest ME”. He tries to demonstrate to Withers the extent of her supernatural powers and her communications with the spirit world. Seaton tells Withers that his aunt is in league with the devil, had probably killed his mother, and draws “swarms” of invisible ghosts into the house every night—these can just barely be heard in the dark if one concentrates. “She just sucks you dry”, Seaton says. “She simply hates to see me alive.”
In one suspenseful scene, the boys creep up to her bedroom to see what the old woman is up to in the dead of night. But Withers is not persuaded, and accuses Seaton of making all of this up. Seaton’s fears and the observations that support them appear to exist only in his imagination. Yet on the way back to bed, Withers experiences “a kind of cold and deadly terror” that sweeps over him, sending him running to bury himself under the covers.
After the visit, the two boys go their separate ways, and years pass. Near the end of the story, Arthur Seaton intends to marry a young woman named Alice. Withers visits them and the aunt for dinner at the Seaton house. The aunt is dismissive and ambivalent about the impending marriage. There is a tone of cynicism and sarcasm as she regards the couple—and humanity in general—from a distance. Later in the evening, Withers has a disturbing conversation with the aunt while the couple is still out walking in the garden. She reveals herself to be world weary and intelligent, but also cold and reptilian.
There is a sense that marriage might allow Arthur to transcend his aunt’s influence and have a more normal life, but the hope is feeble. Readers who are familiar with biographies of H.P. Lovecraft, (S.T. Joshi and L. Sprague De Camp have written very interesting ones), may imagine a parallel with the triangulation that occurred among Lovecraft, his wife Sonia, and his aunts. The circumstances are very different, except for the strong and controlling influence of the family matriarchs.
Seaton’s aunt is by far the most interesting character in the story. “I was never lonely in my life…I don’t look to flesh and blood for my company.” (I once had an old maiden aunt who said something very similar: “I would rather be alone, than wishing I was.”) Ancient, powerful and supernaturally perceptive of others, she is an archetype of the “crone”—part witch, part matriarch, part mediatrix with the spectral world that surrounds us. She is still alive after Arthur Seaton has passed, and though she ages visibly, it is clear at the end of the story that she will be around for some time to come.