Tuesday, May 14, 2024

'That Strange Little Book': Ding Dong Bell by Walter de la Mare

Walter de la Mare was most known as a poet when, at the urging of his friend and fellow-author Forrest Reid, he gathered a first volume of his short stories, The Riddle and Other Stories (1923). This was a success, and was already into a third edition by the following year. It includes such classics as “Seaton’s Aunt”, “Out of the Deep”, and “The Creatures”.

His publishers, Selwyn & Blount, were therefore interested in a further book of fiction. De la Mare had from time to time worked on pieces that his biographer, Teresa Whistler, labels ‘essay-stories’. These explored personal experiences or interests in a reflective, meditative way, but using a fictional framework, as for example, in “The Vats”, another story in The Riddle.

In Ding Dong Bell (1924), which celebrates its centenary this month, he offered the reader three pieces in this style, all based on graveyard epitaphs (a fourth was added in a later edition). The author enjoyed visiting old churches and churchyards, and a character in the book, no doubt speaking for him, says he simply cannot pass them by without looking in, even if he only has a few minutes to spare.

In "Lichen" a young woman waiting for a train at a rural station gets into conversation with an older man who tells her all about the neighbouring churchyard, quoting some of the epitaphs and recalling the people they commemorate. In "Benighted" a couple out walking lose their way one summer evening and take shelter in a churchyard, reading the inscriptions by match-light. In "Winter" a solitary traveller is the one who cannot pass a churchyard.

All of the characters are well-drawn, with brief but telling details, and de la Mare also uses fine detail to describe the wild flowers, mosses and shrubs of the quiet sanctuaries, the deep dark yews and cypresses, the crumbling, lichened memorials. He conjures up well the stillness of a country halt, the half-light of a summer night, and the brittle loneliness of a dwindling winter’s day. But the particular interest of his three vignettes is in the epitaphs, all invented, with singular phrasing, sometimes blunt and brusque, at other times yearning. De la Mare deploys these obliquely to discuss larger themes such as individuality, mortality and the after-life, if any.

In its way, the book is an unusual experiment which confounds expectations. The graveyard settings are likely to lead the unwary reader to suppose that some apparitional scene will follow, that there will be some distinct flitting of phantom forms. We might expect these to be subtle, elusive, delicate, but surely there will be something there, some glimpse. There isn’t. The only haunting is in the faded, fragmentary memorials of past, lost lives.

Forrest Reid, in his Walter de la Mare, A Critical Study (1929) calls Ding Dong Bell ‘that strange little book which is neither wholly essay nor wholly story . . . Quaint, whimsical, and delightful it is . . . A faintly macabre note is struck once or twice, but for the most part a playful friendliness prevails, an affection tinged with humour.’

Ding Dong Bell is indeed an odd book, pleasantly curious, and highly characteristic of its author, but I wonder: does it quite work either as fiction or as essays?  It has atmosphere, certainly, and eccentricity, but I am not sure there is enough narrative in the pieces to make them satisfying as stories, whereas, since the epitaphs are imaginary, they do not offer the interest of antiquarian scholarship. They are best read perhaps as prose vignettes, reveries, evocations of moments, more akin to his poetry than his fiction.

Walter de la Mare was soon to go on to issue a second full short story collection, in The Connoisseur and Other Stories (1926), which was equally as good as his first: it included more of his poetic and enigmatic tales such as “Mr Kempe” and “All Hallows”.

(Mark Valentine)


  1. I think 'reveries, evocations of moments' is a perfect description. It lies between fiction and essay, in (and I hate to say it,) a liminal between form. My copy has a very muted grey jacket, which I take to be the original. It's almost as if the publisher didn't know what to do with it either.
    I have found myself thinking of the book, on quiet occasions. That must count for something.

  2. I had assumed a work like this would be rare and expensive but a cursory search reveals a volume easily attainable at modest prices. Go figure.