Rounding out this week’s Spring Break Short Story Recommendations is Walter de la Mare‘s 1923 psychological ghost story “Out of the Deep.” This story is the second in Chilling Ghost Stories, edited by Stefan Dziemianowicz.
“Recommendation” is perhaps a strong word for this story, which is, at times, excessively wordy and confusing—and that’s coming from me!
“Ghost story” is also, perhaps, a bit of a misnomer, though there does appear to be at least one—and possibly three—apparitions in the story, although that’s never made entirely clear.
It’s the wordiness and lack of clarity, though, that paradoxically make the story interesting. Walter de la Mare was a poet, and brings something of poetry’s attention to the consonance of words. At least, I’d like to think that’s what he is going for here; he clearly enjoys playing with language, almost the way a punster does. It makes for tedious reading at times, but does have the effect of keeping the reader guessing as to what is really happening.
But I digress. The real “ghosts” are the ones haunting the protagonist, Jimmy, a listless young man who has taken possession of his late uncle’s rambling London townhouse. Jimmy apparently has no occupation, and lives by selling off the sumptuous possessions his aunt and uncle left behind. Jimmy is also something of an eccentric insomniac, who finds it difficult to sleep unless bathed in candlelight (at least once in the story he sells some household items so he can purchase candles).The memory of his unhappy childhood in the house, particularly that of the imposing butler, Soames, haunts Jimmy, who refuses to sleep in his old attic bedroom, instead occupying his deceased uncle’s elaborate Arabian bed, in a room with painted nymphs on the ceiling. A constant fixture of the story is a series of cords above the bed, used to summon servants to the master’s chamber.
Early in the story de le Mare establishes that Jimmy and his maid, Mrs. Thripps, are the only residents of the house, but on successive nights of cord-pulling, a young butler (Jimmy dubs him “Soames Junior”); a young girl; and a massive, white, pig-like creature all pay Jimmy nocturnal visits. Each of these visits call up some childhood memories for Jimmy, though he is never quite certain the “servants” are real.
As the story unfolds, de le Mare seems to suggest that Jimmy is ill in some way. His isolated, languid lifestyle is certainly unhealthy (as those of us living in The Age of The Virus are well aware), as is his morbid fascination with the ghosts of his unhappy childhood. The story also establishes that Jimmy is, essentially, alone in the world, friendless and without family. His interactions with Mrs. Thripps are erratic and, apparently, unsettling to the sweet maid; even his interactions with the “ghosts”/”servants” are odd: when he demands primroses, the little girl brings them delicately in a nearly-overflowing bowl, and he angrily claims he wanted violets instead.
The title suggests the game de le Mare is playing here: Jimmy’s memories are coming up from “Out of the Deep” to play upon his mind, casting doubt as to whether or not he is really in his right mind. The title also suggests the labyrinthine nature of Jimmy’s dwellings, as he searches high and low for secret servant’s quarters where his ghostly “servants” might be hidden.
It all boils down to a trope familiar to readers and viewers of psychological thrillers today: the unreliable narrator. Can we trust what Jimmy is seeing? Are these actually spirits, or just figments of his high-strung imagination? Are they fever dreams?
De la Mare leaves us guessing through many pages of overwrought prose. Still, it’s worth tackling to read an early twentieth-century example of what is now a common trope.