Monday, May 1, 2023

The Centenary of 'The Riddle and Other Stories'

The Riddle and Other Stories, which was published about one hundred years ago, in May 1923, was Walter de la Mare’s first collection of short stories, compiled at the insistence of his friend Forrest Reid. A particular quality of the book is de la Mare’s prose style, which is delicate and finely-shaded and influenced partly by his early aspirations as an Eighteen Nineties aesthete and also, of course, by his graceful, melodic poetry.

De la Mare was fifty years old, a late age for such a first collection. However, the contents were selected from work covering over twenty years. The first in the book, ‘The Almond Tree’, for example, belonged to late 1899. Others were more recent: ‘The Vats’ was written in 1917, and had its origin in a discussion with the poet Edward Thomas about the nature of Time, while ‘The Creatures’ was inspired by a Cornish holiday of 1919. 

De la Mare had already been granted a Civil List pension for his poetry, which, with reviewing and other miscellaneous literary work, had enabled him to give up his job as a clerk in an oil firm to concentrate on his writing.

The publisher, Selwyn & Blount, issued other titles that year that seem to reflect an interest in the whimsical, fantastical and dream-like. They included The Adventures of Harlequin by Francis Bickley; Star Dust: Fairy Tales for Children from Six to Sixty, written and illustrated by Miriam Gerstle; and The Queer Side of Things by Mary L. Lewes. De la Mare was thus in sympathetic company.

The fifteen stories in his book include several that were to become acknowledged classics.

‘Seaton’s Aunt’ is recognised as one of the finest examples of the ambiguous uncanny story, and has attracted a variety of interpretations. Perhaps the most favoured is the idea that the redoubtable Aunt of the title is some sort of spiritual or emotional vampire, sucking the life out of her hapless nephew. However, I have also suggested that he may himself may be the main source of the supernatural, as implied by several clues in the story (‘With Whisperings and Mumblings: Walter de la Mare’s “Seaton’s Aunt”’, Haunted By Books, 2015).

‘The Vats’ is one of de la Mare’s most ethereal stories. There is no plot, as such, no development. It is a reverie, a dream-vision. Indeed, de la Mare was trying out a new form, here, a sort of essay-story, in which he was ahead of his time: his approach is similar to what is now called ‘creative non-fiction’.

The narrator and his companion, out walking one spring day and engrossed in their talk, come out onto a plain which contain the ‘vats’, vast moss-covered cisterns: prosaically, they sound something like a disused waterworks. But de la Mare keeps their exact nature and purpose elusive: and to the two friends they are a source of wonder.

The vats, the narrator notes, ‘had been abandoned. But by whom? My friend and I had talked of the divine Abandoner . . . Here was the vacancy of his presence . . .  ‘. This is a poetic meditation on the absence of meaning in the mortal world: ‘No sound? No spectral tread? No faintest summons? And not the minutest iota of a superscriprion? None. I sank my very being into nothingness . . .’

‘The Creatures’ offers a highly evocative description of haunted landscape, when a stranger out walking finds himself in an otherworldly domain with half-elfin inhabitants. ‘Out of the Deep’ is a subtle psychological study of the persistence of childhood fears in an old house. The title story, in which children disappear one by one into an old chest, has the quality of an old fairy tale and its secret, though it has been guessed at, has never been satisfactorily explained.  

In this book, and those that followed, de la Mare began to refashion the modern ghost story from the late-Victorian standard, with its forceful drama and emphatic ending. He pioneered instead the elusive, enigmatic tale, where the reader is never quite sure about what is evoked. The Riddle is therefore a significant volume in the field of literary supernatural fiction. It repays frequent re-readings, and what better occasion for one of these than its centenary?

(Mark Valentine)

Image: L W Currey. The UK first edition of The Riddle and Other Stories.


  1. That collection is also included as part of the collected volume Short Stories 1895-1926, if that's still available (?). Fantastic writer. I was intrigued by his early recognition of Owen Barfield, very different but they seemed to have some sympathetic resonances

  2. "Creative nonfiction" was a major component of my last class at UNF, studying depression era documentaries.