I dislike horror films. But a couple of Christmases ago, a blockbuster horror movie was so tenacious in its marketing that I suggested we go and see it. It looked so terrifying, I thought it might be a hilarious, rollercoaster-style experience. My husband, a 260-pound firefighter, said gravely that he would not be going to the cinema with me, because he was afraid he might “scream like a little girl.”
While strolling through the internet the other night, I came across an interview with Joanna Lumley discussing her obsession with poetry. She read “The Listeners” by Walter De La Mare. I’ve gone back to this poem several times over the past few of days, fascinated by its creepiness. Unlike the cheap thrills of a Hollywood horror movie, it gently plucks at our darkest fears with expert fingers. It’s a delicious experience.
BBC Radio ran a series of short ghost stories by Walter De La Mare, read by excellent narrators such as Richard E. Grant. They are mostly half an hour long, and available on YouTube, so I galloped through “The Riddle,” “All Hallows,” “Crewe” and “The Almond Tree.” His writing has a cinematic quality and clarity, which reminds me of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.”
The stories are inconclusive and enigmatic, leaving us off-balance, filled with questions answered only by our imaginations. This is deliberate: it’s all about the experience, not neat resolutions. He doesn’t make you jump, he unnerves you — a more sophisticated sensation.
I’m worried that no one reads him any more. I had quite a job tracking him down in the catalog, and I hope that after reading this, you will throng to Rhode Island libraries and demand him. Because, I think, as summer begins to slip away and autumn begins to creep around our shoulders, it’s not the bludgeoning violence of a horror movie that we crave, but the age-old pleasure of a really great ghost story, told by a master of storytelling.
Jules Belanger is a reference librarian at the Westerly Library.