Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The descriptions in the story are pure poetry, but they contain no words for their own sake. Each detail helps to build the atmosphere, to delineate character, or to further the action. The eerie quality is established at once by the date, the midnight hour, the cemetery, the dark church with moonbeams playing on marble tombs, the discussion about ghosts, and the stealthy manner of Philip. His obsession introduces the ultimate mystery.

Character is built by the boys’ conversations: Philip’s snobbish attitude toward the used clothing that his mother has given to Dick’s mother; Philip’s very unkind remarks about Dick’s mother and presumed father; Dick’s praise of the kindness of Philip’s mother and his own determination to be a comfort to his mother.

Small details serve to foreshadow the tragedy: The law of gravitation is mentioned, as are the brittle walls of Dick’s neat skull; Philip announces that he would like to see Dick’s ghost; Dick’s beautiful singing voice “would need no angelic tuition—even in a better world.” Disaster is implicit from the start.

Although some of the conversation between the boys is completely realistic, that of Philip is less believable when he recounts at length stories from the Bible. It is true that he has been forced to sit through his father’s sermons since he was a baby and has searched the Bible for information about angels and trumpets. However, the reader finds the glib recital unnatural in the mouth of a small boy, even one with a haunting obsession. Again there is the mingling of the real and the unreal.

De la Mare’s true triumph in this weird story is his use of two little boys and a church monument to create an atmosphere of refined spiritual terror that symbolizes the human urge to find answers to life’s mystery.