Byline: Monica Foot
In our time, the short story has fallen upon hard times. Whereas the long factual essay is booming away, fiction, at least in short bursts, has fallen foul of the silver screen and the highly episodic soap.
Stories that retain their following: P G Wodehouse's Mulliner or Ukridge immortal tales or Kipling's Just So Stories succeed because they are not really short stories at all but episodes or chapters in a longer narrative of similar events in the same life or at least the same kind of life. Even the divine malevolence of Saki has a samey quality and can easily be swallowed at a sitting.
Walter de la Mare, better known for his poems and anthologies, is having something of a resurgence and this volume two of his short stories is a fat and attractively presented book. It is not obviously one for modern tastes. Yet a volume one has been successful and a Walter de la Mare Society is alive and well, following a conference in 1996 at King's College, London.
These stories cannot be read at a gallop. They must be individually savoured, relished, reflected upon and digested. But they do, collectively, portray a way of life and an era that is well and truly dead and gone. De la Mare brings to life a strange and seedy world of mysterious strangers, spiritualism, ghosts and pre-Freudian fears and obsessions in the first half of the last century.
His is a poetic language, full of allusions to great literature and the currency of a well-furnished mind. In A Recluse, Mr Dash reflects: 'I even found myself whistling as I climbed back into my cosy two-seater again. A lime tree bower her garage was: the flickering leafy evening sunshine gilded the dust on her bonnet. I released the brake; she leapt to life.'
He is wonderful on the English countryside and the vanished world of the Edwardian country house: In Willows, Ronnie leans on a gate and sees: 'sedate old mother ewes . . . a host of long-legged lambs, their small inquisitive faces all turned in his direction, with sudden tremors of dangling flat woolly tails, and zig-zag leapings, and skippings aside . . . What adorable country! And the woods over there, a faint purple with their bare twigs. …