Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Walter de la Mare diffuses the real horrors of this rather horrible story by his choice of point of view and by a deliberate use of parallelism. Withers is presented as the commonplace “regular guy,” both at school and in early manhood; thus he is both significantly different from Seaton and enough like him to sympathize distantly with his distress. From the beginning he sees Seaton as a failure, in the way that boys rate their schoolfellows as if gauging their chances of surviving adolescence. By all the signs, Seaton will not make it, and that causes Withers some discomfort. However, he cannot identify with Seaton, in the way of friends—Seaton is at first too unprepossessing, later too “sensitive,” or “imaginative,” or simply embarrassing, for that.

In this way, Withers—and the reader—are spared the full horror of Seaton’s fate. He tells the story as if he were relating the curious story of someone else, of one of the others, those who are not quite like us. By the end, he comes close to accepting what happened as something predestined for those like Seaton—but not for him and, by inference, not for the reader. Thus he does not finally assent to Seaton’s version of the events, with its overtones of evil spirits, diabolic possession, and occult influences; he remains free to believe that Seaton’s aunt is merely conventionally rather than unconventionally evil—the parent who blights the child by indifference and hostility, the egotistical bully, rather than the demon who sucks souls. He leaves with the safe observation that Seaton had been buried all of his life.