The Return is among the earliest of Walter de la Mare’s “ghost stories,” and it contains many of the features that were to become intrinsic to his work in that vein—not least, of course, the ambiguity that requires the addition of quotation marks to the description. Although The Return uses an author-omniscient viewpoint rather than employing a possibly unreliable narrator (as many of de la Mare’s later tales of this genre do), the question of what has happened to Arthur Lawford remains stubbornly unresolved and defiantly unresolvable.
The ending of the story is particularly revealing in this respect. Countless tales of surreal experience written in the previous century had been resolved by final awakenings, but de la Mare’s story ends with both the protagonist and his observer falling asleep. Climactic awakenings implicitly condemn not only the particular supernatural intrusions of individual stories to the world of dreams but also all supernatural intrusion into people’s everyday lives. De la Mare’s reversal of the formula is no mere refusal of a cliché; it amounts to a claim that people’s conscious lives are perpetually and inescapably shadowed by the supernatural—metaphorically, if not literally. Sleep can offer no release from this shadowing; at the beginning of the story, it is Lawford’s lapse into sleep that facilitates the change that overtakes him. The text tells us nothing about the condition he will be in when—or if—he awakes from the slumber that overtakes him as he tries to write to his absent wife to explain that he has decided to “blunder on” within their unsatisfactory relationship.
It is difficult to say with certainty what actually happens in the course of the plot of The Return. Perhaps the soul of Nicholas Sabathier really does emerge from the suicide’s grave to bid for possession of Lawford’s body, only to fail on the anniversary of its previous retreat into oblivion. In that case, Lawford’s spiritual battles really are the elements of a war of self-preservation. The main support for this thesis, however, is provided by the Herberts, whose own real existence seems to be a matter of some doubt; nor is the Herberts’ support for a frankly supernatural explanation free of its own intrinsic ambiguities. Whether or not the Herberts inhabit the same world as Lawford’s wife and her determinedly mundane friends, they are certainly not of that world. They represent a whole new world of possibilities into which Lawford might escape if only he has the will to do so, but it is...
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