“But then, Alice could seldom sleep in the afternoon because of her troublesome cough…”
Several of Walter De La Mare’s short stories have been discussed in previous posts, among them The Creatures, Out of the Deep, The Tree, and his well known Seaton’s Aunt. They may be found in an excellent collection of his work called The Riddle and Other Stories (1923). He is a master of quiet subtle supernatural fiction. In nearly every story he makes skillful use of minor details—easily overlooked upon first reading—to create a sense of foreboding and dis-ease. For that reason his stories must be read slowly and savored.
Even death is typically depicted offhandedly and with great restraint—its understatement magnifying the discovered horror. Here is his description of the demise of the wastrel in Out of the Deep:
“That is why when, next morning, out of a sounding slanting shower of rain Mrs. Thripps admitted herself into the house at the area door, she found the young man, still in his clothes, lying very fast asleep indeed on the trucklebed in the attic…She merely looked at what was left of him; her old face almost comically transfixed in its appearance of pity, horror, astonishment, and curiosity.”
It is difficult to imagine H.P. Lovecraft—admittedly a very different kind of author—ever creating such subtle modulation of shock and dismay. Without characterization, dialogue, or relationships among his characters, he had to rely heavily on setting and lengthy back story to create mood and foreshadowing. De la Mare can do this with a conversational response, the appearance of an everyday object, or a thought that is unspoken. What is also very interesting about De La Mare is what he does not say in his stories, the spaces he leaves unfilled.
Why is young Alice unable to leave the service of crotchety old Miss Lennox? Who wrote the letters that she has kept bundled up with a faded blue ribbon all these years? Is the garden haunted? By whom? The author of The Looking Glass leaves these and other questions unanswered. Events in the story appear to be straightforward, as they often are in De La Mare’s work. Alice is a companion and caregiver to the aged Miss Lennox, but is allowed a break from her work every afternoon—which she spends in the garden. Her routine often includes a conversation with Sarah, an old servant from next door.
Perhaps the two older women are stand-ins for the Red and White Queens of Lewis Carrol’s Through the Looking Glass (1871), though the comparison is imprecise. De La Mare’s description of the garden, with its low wall separating Alice’s small confined world from the meadows beyond is suggestive of a chess board, upon which her movements are quite limited. There are no men in this story, and certainly no White Knight that will rescue her. There are just the letters she has saved, and the ones she writes but never sends.
Much of what the two older women say to Alice seems inexplicable, especially their respective comments about whether the house and garden are haunted, and by whom. Sarah’s comments are especially unsettling and prophetic, (the White Queen could “remember” future events). “May-day’s the day, and midnight’s the hour, for such as be wakeful and brazen and stoopid enough to watch it out.” She later tells Alice that she herself, because of her age and loneliness, is metaphorically speaking, a ghost. But that idea is taken much more seriously by Alice.
She begins to see the garden as a kind of mirror, reflecting her thoughts, her spirit, and her solitude: “What was all through the place now like smoke Alice perceived to be the peculiar clarity of the air discernible in the garden at times. The clearness as it were of glass, of a looking glass…” She makes herself a white “watch gown” with embroidered daisies. There is some urgency—who is it for? What occasion?
At the end of the story, a day in the garden is once again described, from dawn until dusk. But the author emphasizes its utter emptiness. “…there came no watcher—not even the very ghost of a watcher…” It is the final absence of anything in the garden that is the most terrifying notion.