“The Demon Lover,” a third-person narrative, achieves its effects by means of the technique of juxtaposition. What appears at first to be a tale of the supernatural becomes in fact an account of a nervous breakdown. The imaginative paralleling of the ghost tale and the case history is achieved primarily through concentration on the details of setting. The boarded-up house, the reluctant lock, the dead air of the hallway, the mysterious letter for whose presence no rational explanation can be made, the mysterious lover from the past, the chiming bells emphasizing the passage of clock time as opposed to emotional time, the betrothed who seems to have no will of her own, and the persistent rain all combine to create a compelling and provocative ambience. Even the claw marks made on the floor by the absent piano assume an eerie significance.
The story also makes use of flashbacks to emphasize the notion that the past, though forgotten, exists in the mind to be recalled by the symbols and images of the present. The girl Kathleen promises in 1916 to marry a soldier who dies in the war. She suffers a psychic “dislocation,” the seriousness of which she does not fully comprehend. No suitable young men present themselves for marriage for at least a decade, a comment on the decimation of a generation by the machine of war. Kathleen marries at the age of thirty-two and has two children. She is, furthermore, in her early forties, confronting another change in her life. She is like the cracked teacup mentioned in the story, from which time has evaporated, leaving a residue of memory. There are in Kathleen’s psyche, symbolized by the house, “cracks in the structure,” and there is nothing that she can do about them.
The letter signed K., her own initial, may be a hallucination, a means of restoring the past to the present. Dependable, prosaic Kathleen Drover, her family’s mainstay against time and change, succumbs to the pressures of World War II. The fear of death from the sky, the feeling of desuetude and decay brought to the city by the blitz, and the burdens of responsibility to herself as she was and as she is all combine to catalyze a nervous collapse that manifests itself as the return of a former lover from the dead.
The most compelling sequence in the story, Proustian in the immediacy with which it is rendered, is that in which Kathleen recovers the past as her younger self says good-bye to her doomed young lover in her family’s garden. Past emotion overwhelms present inhibitions to fuse into a single overwhelming sensation: Kathleen reexperiences her promise and looks to her palm, feeling again the welt left by the button of her lover’s uniform.