The Line of Terror
THE LINE OF TERROR. Arthur Machen’s review of On the Edge by Walter de la Mare, published in 1930 by Faber and Faber and sold for 10s. 6d. The review was published in the Autumn Books Supplement of The New Statesman for 11 October 1930 on pages vi and viii. For any copyright concerns, contact email@example.com.
Read Dale Nelson’s review of the collection.
When the hour sounds from the belfry, the strokes sound clear, definite and distinct in the air. Everyone can hear that is it one, or seven, or twelve, as it may be; and there the matter ends for most of us. But if we listen more curiously, and forget about dinner time and appointments kept or missed, we shall hear between the master strokes of the bell a melodious humming murmur, and this in its turn may be resolved into notes mounting the scale in a fixed and certain order, mounting and still mounting into worlds beyond our sense, into eternity. These sounds are the overtones; they have their analogies in the region of the arts, with a difference. For in the affair of the bell founders, the overtones are only of this importance, that the tuners have to take them into account if the bell is to be perfectly in tune; otherwise they are a mere by-product of the great stroke; incidental, not essential. But the arts exist for their overtones; it is by their presence or absence that we distinguish genius from talent. It is the main business, nay the only business, of the bell to tell us that it is twelve o’clock, but it is not the main business of Tennyson to tell us that Ulysses and his companions came into the land of the lotus eaters at some time after that hour. In the one case, the overtones are accidental; in the other, they are essential. It is the affair of the clock to tell us the time; it is the affair of the arts to take us out of time into eternity, into that region which is beyond the world of the logical understanding, beyond the power of direct utterance.
And yet, in the art of literature certainly, in the arts of painting and sculpture probably, the great stroke – to continue the bell analogy—must be clearly enunciated, with no doubtful sound. It is hard to believe that the Augustus John portrait of Madame Suggia suffers in any way from its being, quite evidently and undeniably, a picture of a woman playing the violincello; it is hard to think it would have been a still greater masterpiece if it had looked rather like a tiger under a palm tree. But however this may be with painting and sculpture, it is certainly true in prose literature: the finest work is defined. It need not be scientifically true, as it happens, that human eyes and bones, when submerged at a depth of thirty feet become pearls and coral; but the poet, though mistaken, is clear and definite in his statement. Poetry, it is true, has a larger licence in this matter than prose, since poetry is a near approach to that primitive incantation from which all literature proceeds. There is a certain confusion in the narrative of “Kubla Khan”; and the magic casements charmed by the song of the nightingale are misty. And it might be urged, perhaps, in some quarters that Mr. de la Mare has availed himself of his poet’s licence in writing some of the curious and beautiful short stories in On the Edge. There is an everlasting question that besets not the minor but the major decisions of criticism. It is a simple thing to dismiss “Standing at the buffet in immaculate evening dress he selected a dozen of the succulent bivalves.” It is more difficult to decide whether a clearer definition would have improved “A Recluse,” one of the most singular of these singular studies.
In this tale the narrator, “Mr. Dash,” is motoring one May evening along a country road, when he is strangely drawn by the appearance of a house seen through high gates of wrought iron. Mr. Dash, I say, was drawn to this house, but hardly by the attraction of love. It had about it those veils of mystery, that sense of aliquid latet, which haunt certain visible things: houses, trees, garden, the shape of hills, secret and silent valleys:
To all appearance it was vacant, but if so, it could not have been vacant long. The drive was badly in need of weeding; though the lawns had been recently mown. High-grown forest trees towered round about it, overtopping its roof – stately chestnuts, their massive lower branches drooping so close to the turf they almost brushed its surface. They were festooned from crown to roof with branching candelabra-like spikes of blossoms. Now it was daylight; but imagine them on a still, pitch-black night, their every twig upholding a tiny, phosphoric cluster of tapers.
Mr. Dash drives his car past the iron gates, and strolls by the terrace of the quiet red-brick Georgian house, with its singular hint of undefined mystery, and discovers that, after all, it is still tenanted. The owner, Mr. Bloom, a heavy, stooping, bearded man, is standing at the threshold; a bald man, with a domed brow. He greets Mr. Dash courteously, but that gentleman “wanted to shake him off, to go away. He was an empty-looking man . . . if his house had suggested vacancy, so did he; and yet, I wonder.”
It is impossible to summarize Mr. de la Mare without committing outrage and injustice; but it must be said that Mr. Bloom lures Mr. Dash into his hall, strangely occupied with a hugger-mugger of fine old furniture, as if an antique dealer were about to flit. Mr. Bloom leaves his guest in the library for a moment, and when he returns Mr. Dash, distressed, uneasy, he knows not why, shakes hands, and in spite of protestations, makes his way to his car. The gear-key is missing; the nearest town is seven miles away; and Mr. Dash must be Mr. Bloom’s guest for the night. The two dine together, simply and choicely; and Mr. Bloom speaks of his dead secretary who has been of great use to him in his “literary work”; and then the literary work becomes “little experiments,” which yielded “the most curious and interesting results”; and the little experiments are at last defined as the processes of the séance of the spiritualists. Mr. Dash had dabbled a little in spiritualism and thought poorly enough of the results, and spoke of it all as a silly and dangerous waste of time; and his host grew grey with rage. The evening wears on; it becomes apparent that there was some hideous mystery about the death of Mr. Champneys, the secretary; and it is into the bedroom of the dead man that Mr. Dash is shown. The servant who prepared the dinner is gone for the night: Mr. Dash and Mr. Bloom are the only tenants of the house. Mr. Dash falls asleep, and wakes suddenly with the dawn; and looking about him sees the room as it were drenched in terror: “this is how Mr. Champneys’s room would appear to anyone who had become for some reason or another intensely afraid.”
And then he heard voices speaking, echoing hollow in some distance of the house; one of the voices Mr. Bloom’s, the other like it; and there was the sound of hurrying feet overhead. Mr. Dash goes into the study, and sees there a small bed, and on a table beside it the contents of Mr. Bloom’s pocket, among them Mr. Dash’s missing gear-key. And the bed:
The lower part of it was all but entirely flat, the white coverlid having been drawn almost as neat and close from side to side of it as the carapace of a billiard table. But on the pillow—the grey-flecked brown beard protruding over the turned-down sheet—now showed what appeared to be the head and face of Mr. Bloom . . . It was a flawless, facsimile, waxen, motionless; but it was not a real face and head. It was an hallucination. . . it was inconceivably shocking.
Mr. Dash flees the abhorred, infested house.
I should have made it clear that Mr. Bloom detained Mr. Dash because he was human, because the horrors that the necromancer had summoned from the depths pressed now so thick about him that even his foul soul was shaken and aghast. I should have mentioned also a faint hint that there was some tincture of corruption in the personality of Champneys, the dead secretary: medium, it is to be supposed, was his true title. Such, then, in crude outline, is the story of “A Recluse.” Would it have been a better tale if it had been told more definitely? I leave that an open question.
Is the purely personal objection valid? I am not quite clear as to this; but I am bound to confess that I have such an objection to make against “A Recluse.” It is this. The word of the enigma is, clearly, spiritualism; and no structure built on that basis can appal me, or enchant me, or make my breath come quickly, or, indeed, win the faintest interest from me. I take the word of the spiritualists themselves, that the séance is a homely, friendly, and helpful institution; that the spirits are as harmless and playful as kittens, and, sometimes, as helpful as big St. Bernards and Church Workers. No tale that begins with a planchette, a hidden slate, or a rapping table can make me quail. Whereas another of the stories in the book, “Crewe”—. In that tale there is a scarecrow which is luminous, but not in the light of the sun – a hideous terror.
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