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I first read Walter de la Mares fiction in his seminal ghost story Seatons Aunt (the ending of which built to such a level of menace that I still retain a visual image in my mind of the final scene). Id also heard Erik Bauersfelds performance of de la Mares All Hallows (which concerns odd, metaphysical hauntings at a brooding, seaside cathedral) on the marvelous 60s radio show THE BLACK MASS from KPFA in San Francisco (many available here in sometimes spotty audio quality). Outside of that, I have a note that I enjoyed his story Bad Company but cant recall much about it at the moment.Checking The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural (always a great resource for author overviews), it sounds as if I should really make the effort to read more of de la Mares short fiction. While hes justly remembered as a fine poet and childrens author, he also seems to have been quite the distinctive weird fiction author of the the early part of the 20th century - neither as horror-minded as E.F. Benson or Montague Rhodes James, nor as metaphysically abstract as Arthur Machen, de la mare turned out eerie fiction concerned with children, imagination, visions, and the human spirit and identity.THE RETURN (published in 1910, but revised in 1922 and 1945) is, on the face of it, a fairly simple idea for a novel. Arthur Lawford, an average man recuperating from a long fight with influenza, wanders into a churchyard and falls asleep next to a gravestone. On returning home after his nap, he discovers that his features have changed and he no longer resembles his own photograph. As he struggles to understand his situation and claim his identity (his wife and friends doubt his story, despite his being able to answer any questions they have of his past), he begins to find evidence that he now resembles the scandalous Frenchman, Nicholas de Sabathier, whose gravestone he napped near, an amorous, Rousseau-like rogue who died a suicide. As his familys doubts mount, who can Lawford turn to?Whats interesting about this book is that it doesnt take a direct, DOCTOR JEKYLL & MR. HYDE-type approach to its story of (possible) possession. There isnt much action, and Lawford doesnt struggle against the cackling evil ghost of a hundred-years dead scoundrel. Instead, the book is very reflective and internalized, as we are privy to Lawfords thoughts and psychological distress, mostly over his situation. At first, only his aged vicar and his daughter really believe in him, and things start to go awry as his personality subtly changes (or is this just the expected reactions to stress?). His wife, whom he assumes to be a lynchpin of solidity, accepts his story only at first and as societys disapproval (of her housing a strange man while her husband is ill) grows, she quickly folds and abandons him. Taken in by some interested, newly acquainted friends (Herbert Herbert and his sister Grisel), he finds out more about Sabathier and also falls in love with Grisel. But even this seeming triumph is laced with conflict and loss.I cant imagine that everyone would enjoy this book. Its brooding and methodical and those looking for a more modern type of horror classic will be sorely disappointed by a distinct lack of action. But it is a very powerful, if sad and moving, book. If you like the literature of the 19th and early 20th century and are interested, you should check it out. Its worth noting that The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural refers to de la Mares prose as less accessible (than his poetry) and I did find it is somewhat challenging in longform. His dialogue - which may have been an attempt to capture the actual speech patterns of his chosen social class of characters - seems meandering, abstract and circuitous at times. Its not as dense and hard to crack as, say, Henry James but I had a similar reaction to THE RETURN as I did reading Thomas Pynchon - it takes a little bit of exposure before the rhythm of the writing really sinks in. Also, I imagine THE RETURN, which is fairly short, might go down better all in one sitting instead of piecemeal, as Ive been reading it for the last month.There are some specific aspects of the book Id like to comment on: large (view spoiler)[first of all, its interesting that at some points in the book it almost seems as if the face-changing event hasnt actually happened (despite the obvious reaction of some characters) and instead what we are reading about is the nervous breakdown or mid-life crisis of a conflicted man. The occultic aspects of the possession are never heavily expounded upon (in fact, almost nothing is ever examined as factually occurring, so much as we get opinions on it from various characters). Even though the vicar and others confirm the exchange, Lawford worries he is going mad (he feels as if he is speaking out of a mask). There are (only) occasional moments where he suffers odd visions and voices (Who the devil are you he asks his reflection, only to see his eyes open in surprise. Later - Brazen it out a jubilant thought cried suddenly, follow it up, play the game! Give me just one opening. Think - think what Ive risked!).That last bit ties to another interesting aspect - that the supposed possession is never directly presented as an evil occurrence except as judged by society (because Sabathier is a suicide and a notorious roue), although it does upturn Lawfords life. There is very little direct suggestion of the kind of creeping domination that implies occult possession and Lawford remembers his own past clearly. This leads me to wonder about how the book starts. Lawford is recovering from influenza (influenza dispirts one so) and his invalid state has reignited dreamy, reverie-like qualities from his youth (along with a feeling of something not quite reckoned with). In a way, Lawford seems on the verge to returning to a life he isnt very satisfied with - he refers to himself as rather a dull creature and refers to his monotonous, restless, stupid life which he will be resuming for good (post-transference, his wife refers to how he used to dream and idle on and he refers to how feeble a hold I had on life).This melancholy, comtemplative state in the churchyard then takes a darker turn. It seems that there are strong hints that Lawford is contemplating self destruction: What is the good of it all? he asks himself, spying a memorial to a young mother and her baby. Reading Sabathiers tombstone, he says he killed himself. That seems to hint at brains.There seems to be indications, to me at least, that Lawfords change is not actually a possession by evil, but that it can be viewed as something like a supernatural/divine intervention to save or change his life. Upon awakening from his reverie, he seems energized (as if I had a real long rest he tells his wife) and in the course of the novel the transformation, while traumatic (he obtains a poison from an apothecary but never uses it), also causes some positive changes: it leads to his meeting with and eventual love for Grisel, it severs him from his wife who seems only to tolerate him, and exposes the hypocrisy of his social circles (who judge him by his face and cultural signifiers, not his character or actions) as it opens up new worlds for him (his new face allows him to mix and identify with the lower classes, for one). In fact, his reaction to his new face is laced with interesting descriptions - at first it is the tense, sinister face of midnight, the rotten bad face, a lean, long, sallow, hungry, keen face. But then it is also a face he no longer bitterly rebelled at, nor damned with scrutiny, but a face that was becoming a kind of hold on life, even a kind of refuge, an ally. It is a fearless, packed, daring, fascinating face with a spice of genius in it. What would he not do, Lawford wonders when the old moods and the brains of the stupid Arthur Lawford, whom he had appreciated so little and so superficially, came back to him?This change of direction in life is not without pain: he loses his daughter, his home and his new love (which makes me wonder whether, since Lawfords regaining of his visage corresponds to his rejection of Grisels love, that that pivotal action may also be what the spirit of Sabathier - assuming he is actually involved in the proceedings - sacrifices in reciprocity for his suicide and licentious life). But the change itself is the important thing. The vicar, sensing thoughts in this direction from Lawford, loudly exclaims you cant begin again!, just as he denounces the character of Sabathier and those who stray from the flock only to meet wolves, not angels, in the wilderness. Lawfords wife and friends are convinced that this divine punishment must result from some secret sin. The vicar, meanwhile, defines the dead man from his memoirs as Rousseau with a touch of Don Quixote in his composition, and an echo of that prince of bogies, Poe! and as an amorous, adventurous, emotional Frenchman - both sets of qualities to be looked down on by civilized, respectable Englishmen. Yet Herbert Herbert, who first supplies information on Sabathier, expounds the alternate view on the situation - anything outlandish, bizarre, is a godsend in this rather stodgy life. Later, Lawford awoke out of reverie to find himself smiling at the thought that a changed face was practically at the mercy of of an incredulous world, whereas a changed heart was no ones deadly dull affair but its owners. (hide spoiler)]

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