Tuesday Terror! The Demon Lover by Elizabeth Bowen

Remembrance…

This week’s story comes from a new anthology of eerie stories from the British Library’s Tales of the Weird series, this one with the theme of settings in the various districts of London – Into the London Fog. The tale of terror I’ve selected is set in Kensington, during the Blitz, and comes from the pen of an author I’ve seen mentioned a lot around the blogosphere but have never previously read…

The Demon Lover
by Elizabeth Bowen

Elizabeth Bowen

Mrs Drover is in London for the day, and visits her deserted home to pick up some things she’d left there when she and her family fled to the country to avoid the Blitz. She finds herself feeling a strange sense of dislocation…

In her once familiar street, as in any unused channel, an unfamiliar queerness had silted up; a cat wove itself in and out of railings, but no human eye watched Mrs. Drover’s return. Shifting some parcels under her arm, she slowly forced round her latchkey in an unwilling lock, then gave the door, which had warped, a push with her knee. Dead air came out to meet her as she went in.

Everything is cold, and the empty rooms show the things usually unnoticed in a full house…

…the yellow smoke stain up the white marble mantelpiece, the ring left by a vase on the top of the escritoire; the bruise in the wallpaper where, on the door being thrown open widely, the china handle had always hit the wall.

She passes through the hall to go upstairs…

A shaft of refracted daylight now lay across the hall. She stopped dead and stared at the hall table—on this lay a letter addressed to her.

How could a letter be there? Who could have put it on the table? Mrs Drover hurries up to her bedroom, and opens the letter…

Dear Kathleen: You will not have forgotten that today is our anniversary, and the day we said. The years have gone by at once slowly and fast. In view of the fact that nothing has changed, I shall rely upon you to keep your promise. I was sorry to see you leave London, but was satisfied that you would be back in time. You may expect me, therefore, at the hour arranged. Until then…

K.

She remembers. She remembers the day her soldier fiancé left in 1916 to return to the war in France. She remembers their last meeting in the evening gloom of the garden, and the promise he forced from her before he left. She remembers his unkindness and her relief that he would soon be gone.

Turning away and looking back up the lawn she saw, through branches of trees, the drawing-room window alight: She caught a breath for the moment when she could go running back there into the safe arms of her mother and sister, and cry: “What shall I do, what shall I do? He has gone.”

She remembers being informed that he was “missing, presumed killed”. But she does not remember the appointed hour for the fulfilment of her promise. And she does not remember his face…

* * * * *

Well, this is a little cracker – right up there with The Turn of a Screw in terms of ambiguity! It’s only a few short pages, but Bowen builds a tremendous atmosphere of apprehension and the dislocation of war. We think of WW1 and WW2 as two separate events, but Bowen shows them as a continuum – the second war reviving traumas barely healed from the first.

Mrs Drover is outwardly a passive character. Her first lover seemed to rather want to possess her than love her, and her reaction seems to have been entirely submissive. Left single after the end of the war, she is grateful to attract another man and strives to be a good wife and mother. But there are subtle indications that there may be more going on beneath her calm surface…

Since the birth of the third of her little boys, attended by a quite serious illness, she had had an intermittent muscular flicker to the left of her mouth…

This wonderfully ambiguous character portrait leaves the reader unsure whether anything is true. It’s told in the third person, but if the narrator is omniscient she chooses carefully which parts of her knowledge she will reveal. Is it the repeated trauma of war – the loss of a lover in the first, the loss of a home in the second – that has driven Mrs Drover over the edge? Or is her lover really about to return – living or dead? The ending manages the difficult feat of being both almost entirely unexplained and yet fully satisfying.

Is it a ghost story? Or a story of revenge for a promise forgotten? Or a story of mental breakdown brought on by trauma? I still haven’t decided – you’ll need to read it and make up your own mind! Here’s a link. Whatever it is, the porpy and I think it’s great!

Fretful Porpentine rating:   😮 😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

41 thoughts on “Tuesday Terror! The Demon Lover by Elizabeth Bowen

  1. Two out of two ‘terrors’ have caught my interest so far! I do like this kind of suggestive menace rather than more explicit ghosties and ghoulies, which don’t usually tickle my terror button.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The porpy is dancing with delight! Yes, I like the more psychological horrors too, though I’m fond of the occasional ghost as well. I find the more I read in the genre, the more receptive I’ve become. I guess it’s like anything else – you have to ‘learn’ it to really appreciate it. All the intros to these new anthologies have helped me to understand the context, and I enjoy it so much more now that I’ve read enough to spot influences and suchlike.

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  2. This is totally the wrong place for this comment but the email address on your about page doesn’t seem to like me. ‘Fraid I have to pull out of the Tender is the Night review-a-long. My apologies, FF – a family situation that requires full-time focus for at least the next few weeks. Sorry!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, I’m sorry to hear that, Sandra – not that you’re pulling out though of course I’m sorry about that too, but that you have a family situation. Hope it gets resolved soon. Take care of yourself – I’ll be thinking of you. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    • It’s amazing how much atmosphere she packs into something so short, isn’t it? Yes, me too – I’d never really thought she’d be my kind of writer, but this has changed my mind.

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  3. Thanks for putting the link up, I’ll have a read. The ambiguity of both the main character and genre or theme of the story sound fascinating, it seems as though this has a lot to say although it is very short.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Oh, this does sound deliciously creepy, FictionFan! That atmosphere sounds perfect for the story, and I can see what you mean about the tension building up. That moment of picking up and reading the letter is definitely one of those hairs-at-the-back-of-the-neck moments…

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s amazing how much atmosphere she managed to pack into something so short. I love these ambiguous tales that leave you wondering, so long as they’re not so vague as to be unsatisfying. In this one, the scariness comes more from what she doesn’t tell you than what she does… 😱

      Liked by 1 person

  5. That porpy meme is simply precious!! Don’t tell him that, as he’d probably prefer to be seen as scary and threatening, ha! This sounds like an interesting story, one I want to read. Drat, that I have to work instead (oh, well, maybe later I’ll treat myself!)

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve also seen Bowen around the blogosphere a lot but had mentally parcelled her off with Barbara Pym and Elizabeth Taylor, and all the other women writing domestic fiction about spinsters’ lives in post-war Britain. This makes her sound extremely different – I’m definitely keen to give her a go now (though I shall start with something less spooky).

    Liked by 1 person

    • That was my impression of her too, which is why I haven’t bothered to try her, but this story has changed my mind. I suspect even if her books are domestic, they won’t be cosy – she seems to have too sharp an eye for that. I can’t decide whether to read one of her novels or hunt down the collection of eerie stories that this one came from. Maybe I’ll have to do both… 😉

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  7. I enjoy stories with loads of ambiguity and this sound like a good one! Unfortunately I don’t have time to check out the link, but I may save it for later. Impressed you taught the porpy to high-five!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha, just wish I could train my cats to do it – or anything, in fact! 😉 This one is beautifully ambiguous without being annoyingly vague, and it’s very short, so if you do decide to read it it won’t take you long. Though it might take you longer to recover… 😱

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I hope I remember to come back and read the story you’ve linked to when I have more time…. it sounds great! Looks like it gave Porpy a bit of a fright, too. (by his rating, not his cute antics. 😉 )

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Thanks for including that link! I’ve bookmarked it to return to later this afternoon. It sounds very good. Can you believe I haven’t read Turn of the Screw yet? I really need to get on that…

    Liked by 1 person

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