Friday, May 11, 2012
THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #22: A review of "Seaton's Aunt" by Walter de la Mare
Here we have another big story in the evolution of the genre. De la Mare’s impact is still felt through such writers as Ramsey Campbell and James Herbert. This one definitely has earned its place in history.
It is the tale of Arthur Seaton, as seen through the eyes of our narrator, Withers (hey, a named narrator!). Young Mr. Seaton has zero friends and is the butt of many jokes at school. Withers isn’t really a friend, either, but he tolerates Seaton a bit more than the others. Why do all these boys look down on Seaton? It’s strictly a physical thing. Like with bullying today, classmates single out the one who looks strangest and weakest, and they pick on him. Poor Seaton just drew the genetic short straw.
Withers doesn’t really have meanness in him, but he does want to fit in, so he steers clear of Seaton. Seaton mistakes this for compassion and invites Withers out to see his aunt’s place on holiday. Well, there’s a bit more to it. Seaton shows a bit of subterfuge in this endeavor, and Withers joins him on this trip.
Seaton’s aunt is a very, very strange bird. Very aloof, she seems to torment the young man just as much, if not more, than his classmates. She shows her concern for him, though, when she asks Withers why no one likes her nephew. Very strange.
Stranger still, Seaton claims that the house is haunted, and his aunt, who has made a pact with the devil, has called these ghosts to her. Not only that, but she can read Seaton’s thoughts, and she is so intrusive, it is driving him crazy.
Taken from a purely psychological standpoint, this makes for an odd tale for 1922. It seems to be more about how domineering, emotionally abusive parents can absolutely cripple their children, at least from a social perspective. Very progressive for its time, and this is certainly an important tale to bear in mind for today’s overprotected youth. The aunt’s motives are never really delved into, but it is suggested that she does these intrusive and ugly things to prepare her nephew for the real world, which isn’t exactly a carnival of fun and games.
But when exploring such didactic themes, writers of the day (and really, many do this today, as well) felt the need to protect their work against outcry by disguising their motives with the supernatural, much in the same way Rod Serling would use speculative fiction to express himself through THE TWILIGHT ZONE. So, naturally, de la Mare goes that one extra step.
SPOILER ALERT. By the end of the story, Withers has lost contact with Seaton, who was to be married when last he saw him. Now that he’s older, he feels the need to keep contact with people from his past, so he visits Seaton’s aunt, seeking Seaton’s address. He doesn’t get many answers out of her, except that Seaton did not get married, and the revelation that his aunt always knew Withers’s true feelings on the matter of her nephew. Later, as he makes his way out of the house in darkness, he distinctly hears Seaton’s voice telling him to get out. He complies, and when he returns to town, he learns that Seaton has been dead for three months. END OF SPOILERS.
So it’s a very subtle tale, kind of between the tradition of polite horror and what we know as horror now. The only flaw is, the beginning is pretty slow. However, once you’re past the first few pages, the ball really gets rolling, and you will be rewarded. If you’re unfamiliar with this classic, you should rectify this right away.
[This story first appeared in THE LONDON MERCURY and can be read here.]