Review: “Seaton’s Aunt”, Walter de la Mare, 1922.
This week’s Deep Ones’ story strikes some of the same notes as E. F. Benson’s “The Room in the Tower“: old English school chums reunited in a country home with strange things going on.
That’s where the similarity ends.
There’s been a lot of discussion and diagramming and classifying of weird fiction and its relation to cosmic horror, “regular” horror, the ghost story, and stories of the supernatural.
Whatever taxonomy or diagrammatic schema you use, this story belongs solidly in the category where the weird is not obvious or surrealistic, yet the tone is of menace, the story unsettling and mysterious.
H. P. Lovecraft read the story in 1926 and wrote it had a “noxious background of malignant vampirism”.
Maybe. It definitely doesn’t have any bared fangs. There are no blood-bloated corpses in coffins.
There may be a sort of psychic vampirism at work. There just may be ghosts.
And the story has a theme of regret. The narrator and, maybe, general society is culpable for his “friend” Arthur Seaton’s fate at the end.
The narrator is Withers, and he tells us of three encounters with Seaton.
The first is at Gummidge school. “Pongo” Seaton has unusually large amounts of pocket money, a sallow complexion, and he’s met with “condescension, hostility or con-tempt” by his “true-blue” English classmates.
But this is not a story of horrific taunting and bullying at school. Mostly Seaton is just ignored. Seaton buys a few minutes companionship with gifts of candy.
The narrator doesn’t pass himself as virtuous enough or kind enough or courageous enough to have much time for Seaton.
But Seaton does make overtures to Withers, and, one day, after gulping down a jar of “mulberry coloured jelly” that Seaton gives him, Withers agrees, in a fit of impulsive gratitude, to visit Seaton’s home the next school holiday.
And not just Seaton’s home but to visit Seaton’s aunt, the same aunt, from the very start of the story, Seaton keeps mentioning.
It’s rather shocking for Withers to hear that the aunt is expecting him. “She’s sure to be quite decent to you, Withers”, he hears from Seaton.
And so we meet Seaton’s aunt, an undersized woman of long face, yellowish skin, heavy-lidded eyes, an oversized head, an immense mane of hair, and an immense appetite when she dines.
And her conversation with Wither’s drips with irony, and sarcasm, calculated pauses, and unspoken jabs. She may be “extremely kind and attentive” to Withers, but she makes him “peculiarly uncomfortable”. To Seaton, she is neglectful and insulting.
Is she an inhuman monster? Does she treat Seaton with malice? Abuse him? Does her switching of Withers’ name to Johnson during the meal suggest senility?
“When I look on my nephew, Mr. Smithers, I realise that dust we are, and dust shall become. You are hot, dirty, and incorrigible, Arthur.”
After Withers is shown to his room, the place where Seaton’s older brother died, the two go out into the afternoon sun and the garden around the house.
Withers ask about the rather benign neglect his aunt has for the boys roaming about.
Doesn’t she want to know what they’re up to? She already knows Seaton tells him.
” . . . she sees everything. And what she doesn’t see she knows without. … Don’t appear to be talking of her.”
And she’s not Seaton’s aunt. They just share a grandmother. Seaton thinks she killed his mother, that she’s after his inherited money, that “she’s in league with the devil”.
After suffering a game of chess, where she toys with him but doesn’t mate him, Withers and Seaton retire to their rooms.
But not to bed, at least not Seaton. He gets Withers up and tells him how he listens for ghosts every night, the victims of those his aunt sucked dry.
Withers scorns the idea. Seaton is unruffled. He doesn’t expect a friend, just a listener:
“I shan’t be at school long. And what’s more, you’re here now, and there isn’t anybody else to talk to.”
Withers mocks Seaton, and says
” . . . your aunt has been civil to me and all that, and I don’t believe a word you say about her, that’s all, and never did.”
Seaton challenges to Withers to creep into his aunt’s bedroom with him:
“You’re the only chap I care a button for; or, at any rate, you’re the only chap that’s ever come here; and it’s something to tell a fellow what you feel. … you laid a tanner she’s in bed, Withers; well, I know different. She’s never in bed much of the night … “
And she isn’t in bed. Fearing, on the way back to their rooms, they will encounter her, they hide in a closet. After the aunt falls asleep, the two sneak out of the room, but Seaton is so overcome with fear he can barely move.
And the next morning, before he returns to school, the aunt, in her characteristic, tacitly mocking way, asks Withers how he slept. “Triumphing over my affected innocence”, he says.
Returning to school, Withers has as little to do with Seaton as possible before the latter leaves school abruptly.
Several years later, on the Strand, the two meet by chance, and Seaton drags Withers “not too cheerfully” off to lunch. Seaton’s in London to buy an engagement ring for his fiancé.
Withers inquires after the ghosts.
“You are making game of me, Withers”, is Seaton’s reply and continues “I’m not as fanciful as I was.”
Seaton begs Withers to visit his house again. It seems his aunt doesn’t seem to care much about the impending marriage.
Seaton finds the house and grounds run down. Seaton’s stories of wealth, it seems, were untrue. Still, Seaton finds it the one place he doesn’t feel like an interloper “on the earth, disfiguring and staining” it. But he holds that all humanity is such an interloper.
Withers meets the fiancé. Seaton introduces him as a “dear old friend and schoolfellow”. She seems to have a “curious provocative reserve” beneath her impassivity.
But Withers thinks all this talk of a marriage is futile because the aunt is in the house,
an invincible power in the background, to whom optimistic plans and love-making and youth are as chaff and thistledown.
The aunt is larger, her mane as massive as ever, her eyelids “a little heavier”.
Her talk is as cryptic and ironically mocking as before. She claims to be pleased about the marriage: “Are we not all in need of a change in this fleeting, fleeting world?”
And talking, after supper, Seaton shows he hasn’t changed his believes:
“I don’t think, perhaps, Withers … I don’t think you quite understand. Perhaps you are not quite our kind. You always did, just like all the other fellows, guy me at school. You laughed at me that night you came to stay here — about the voices and all that. …
“I mean I know that what we see and hear is only the smallest fraction of what is. I know she lives quite out of this. She talks to you; but it’s all make-believe. It’s all a ‘parlour game.’ She’s not really with you; only pitting her outside wits against yours and enjoying the fooling; She’s living on inside, on what you’re rotten without. That’s what it is — a cannibal feast. She’s a spider.”
One evening, while Seaton and his fiancé walk in the garden, the aunt plays Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” for Withers. It’s a performance “disillusioned, charged with mockery and bitterness”. She also plays a consoling hymn, making it ache with “desperate estrangement”.
She remarks, when Withers, commenting on the fiancé, says he prefers brunettes, that brunettes are dark women
“dark hair, dark eyes, dark cloud, dark night, dark vision, dark death, dark grave, dark DARK!”
Withers and her share, she says, “affinities”.
And she tells Seaton that, when he’s gone, she will only have “memory for company — heavenly memory — the ghosts of other days”.
Withers is invited to the wedding, but doesn’t go.
Several months later he thinks again of Seaton.
He visits the aunt one autumn night. She’s blind and pallid. Withers asks for Seaton’s address to send a wedding gift.
The marriage, he’s told, never happened.
He asks where Arthur is.
The woman won’t say and leaves the room.
In the dark, he explores the house and enters the aunt’s bedroom. She thinks, for a moment, he’s Seaton. Then, recognizing him, she bids him go away, refers to him as “That disgusting man!”.
In the nearby village, Withers finds out Seaton died three months ago and visits his grave.
There’s no proof of anything supernatural in the story. Arthur Seaton claims to hear ghosts and that his aunt is a monster. She is strange, no doubt, but we can not definitely say she is a “spider” or in league with the devil.
Yet, the grounds are more run down, Arthur still constrained by her; her conversation in that last visit hints that maybe she can, as Seaton says, perceive something outside of normal reality. Perhaps she really does drain his soul away.
Or are Arthur Seaton and his aunt, as he suggests, something not quite human, preternaturally perceptive?
That passive fiancé, is she a victim of the aunt? There seems no psychic vampirism at play. After all, the aunt still seems to live in her home. That would seem to rule out some sort of body-switching story a la H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Thing on the Doorstep“.
Has she somehow supernaturally consumed Arthur? Does his ghost haunt the house along with others, there to keep the aunt company?
But there is a clear bit of horror, realized by the narrator in the final sentence. But it’s not about Seaton’s aunt. It may even be symbolically referenced in the narrator’s name, “Withers”.
It’s about him, the man who should not have impatiently spurned Arthur Seaton, a man who, as the aunt suggests, is a kindred, consuming spirit to her:
My rather horrible thought was that, so far as I was concerned — one of his extremely few friends — he had never been much better than ‘buried’ in my mind.
There seem to be several reviews of this story on the Web of a Million Lies. I didn’t read them all, but two are perceptive: The R’lyeh Tribune’s “A Supernaturally Dysfunctional Family” and Compulsive Reader’s review of de la Mare’s Strangers and Pilgrims.