Ghostly Sensations in Walter de la Mare's Texts: Reading the Body as a Haunted House

25 May 2018

Although de la Mare, whose literary career spanned from 1895 to 1956, is a significant figure for both contemporary and later writers, he occupies a somewhat marginal place in current accounts of literary history, even in the genre of supernatural fiction for which he is known. This essay addresses this by exploring how he stretched out and redefined the boundaries of the ghost story, or, more broadly speaking, what it is to experience the ghostly in literature. I take as my starting point T. S. Eliot’s assessment of his stories as “shivers” to analyse how the ghostly in de la Mare is often internal, immaterial, and inexplicable, which arouses a distinct kind of auditory attention in the reader. His awareness of the volatility of matter, informed by modern physics, animates his imagination of the unknown. Drawing on unpublished material as well as his poems and short stories, I demonstrate his recurring concerns with ghosts of imagined voices in literature, the recalling of other texts, and the ghostly sensations in the embodied experience of reading. Haunted by past texts and haunting them by listening for their echoes, de la Mare’s writings illuminate how reading is an inherently ghostly experience, even in the way in which language affects the reader. Rather than merely scaring readers for their amusement, the ghostly in de la Mare’s texts offer a fluid theory of reading.