What is most striking about Walter De La Mare’s stories is their quiet subtlety. Settings, characters and the events are carefully but indirectly rendered, leaving it to the reader to sketch in the rest of the pattern. Characters’ emotions—always modulated and restrained—are depicted almost without any words at all, but are conspicuous and powerful in the absence of any overt description. It is not always clear whether the substance of the story is a dream, a spectral presence, or an actual reality. This gives his work a haunting, open ended feel.
The Creatures (1923) is not really a horror story or even a ghost story, and yet it contains elements of both. It is a tale within a tale: the narrator, traveling by train across a desolate landscape of hills, farms and rocky shoreline, is trapped by courtesy when he shares a car with an intense gentleman. The latter has something he needs to tell him, and rants poetically and philosophically about how ‘forsaken” human society is, how we are all merely “visitors, visitants, revenants, on earth…” The terrain outside reminds him of something he had seen long ago, as a younger man. He proceeds to tell the narrator all about it. But did it really happen, or was it just a strange dream?
As a young man the speaker often wandered the countryside, intentionally trying to lose himself in it. “How shall a man find his way unless he lose it?” he asks rhetorically. The land he describes is one of dream, full of unforeseen possibilities, “on the edge of life”—and so unlike what is possible, living in cities. One afternoon, almost by accident, he finds a strange old farmhouse, which announces its presence with an odd musical, harp like sound. An elderly couple, an old man and his caretaker, give him rest and some food to eat.
The “low grave house, grey-chimneyed” is described in rustic detail, but without any particular focused view. There is a feeling of great age, richness, and serenity, both in the house and its inhabitants, but also of sadness and melancholy. Arrangements of flowers are pretty, but may be funereal. Birds seem unafraid and are nearly in the house at times with its owners; the old man of the house appears to address them “in a low sibilant whisper”.
It may be that the young man falls asleep after his meal with the old couple, but the transition to dream is seamless and not easy to delineate. There is this ominous line: “…my consciousness sank deeper and deeper, stilled, pacified, into the dream amid which, as it seemed, this soundless house of stone now reared its walls.”
Two figures suddenly appear in the doorway, a boy and a girl. There is something unusual about them. They are “dwarfish”, and speak in slurred, guttural, shrill tones—speech that appears to be broken, barely intelligible English. Though childlike in manner, they are physically much older, perhaps in their late teens. Their bodies are strangely out of proportion. (Today they might be described as developmentally disabled). The two of them are friendly and welcoming to their guest, and lead him outside to tour their garden.
This is not an ordinary garden. In fact, it is a version of the Garden of Eden—if that famous garden extended its borders to a rocky shore of the North Sea. “Yet how can one call that a garden which reveals no ghost of a sign of human arrangement, of human slavery, of spade or hoe?” De La Mare describes a wild landscape of mossy boulders, lichen covered trees and scrabbly uncultivated fruit trees. “It was the harbourage of birds…It cried ‘hospital’ to the wanderers of the universe.” The memory of the place leads the speaker to return to his earlier concern: the forsakenness human society and its separation from “a world of welcoming and fearless life…”
Later, the young man wanders away and returns to a much less ethereal world. At an inn he is served by a friendly but judgmental woman, whom the speaker compares to her pig. She informs him about the nature and history of the strange family he visited. “And did you see any of the ‘The Creatures’?” she asks, referring to the old man and his two children, who are named Maria and Christus, it turns out. The latter are “simples”, the anticipated product of the man’s unholy union with “a woman from the sea” who had lived with him in sin.
The innkeeper gives the young man directions to the woman’s grave, in a section of the church graveyard distant and separated from ‘the elect.’ It is a simple rough hewn stone, “with but a name bitten out of the dark rough surface, ‘Femina Creature.’”
It is not possible to do justice here to the marvelous lyricism Walter De La Mare employs to unsettle his readers and touch them on so many levels. The story offers subtle criticisms of modernity and urban life, prejudice, and human arrogance. The Creatures contains Biblical references to the fallen nature of humanity, the Garden of Eden, the parable of the talents, and Judgment Day among other themes. Yet it is not a traditional religious story. There is no moral. It is rather a haunting depiction of one man’s wrestling with spiritual questions. Something very important has been lost, and we may not even realize it, much less understand what it is.