“An Ideal Craftsman”: Psychological Horror from Walter de la Mare

“An Ideal Craftsman” is a story by British writer Walter de la Mare (1873–1956) about a tragic adventure of a young boy one night when his parents are out. Tragic does not mean that he dies, for what it’s worth.

What most impressed me was the way that de la Mare narrated the story, from the boy’s perspective, leaving out all of the judgments and signposting that one might expect from a narrator. Instead the story follows the boy’s train of thought and so many of what I might call the mind’s utterances, such as, “so that’s what that is like.”

The Best Stories of Walter de la Mare
Published by Faber Paperbacks, 1984.
Paperback, 400 pp.
Acquired on loan from the Free Library of Philadelphia.

A Summary of “An Ideal Craftsman”

“An Ideal Craftsman” begins with the non-conceptual, uncanny knowledge* possessed when a boy awakes. Didn’t he hear something that woke him from his slumber? Does not know. But this strange knowing is quickly swept away by the most boyish urges: hunger.

Yet here like so many other crucial moments, de la Mare does not tell the reader that the boy is motivated by hunger. Instead, he hands the reader piece after piece so that a scene appears in media res in its detailed plenitude.

The narrator is a boy, and boys lack — for they do not need — anything resembling self-consciousness. The boy doesn’t need to know why he’s climbing out of be and strapping on his fashioned sword and scabbard (an ersatz belt and “poniard”), his socks, and his cap. He’s ready for adventure.

He sneaks downstairs through the darkened house, at each moment haunted by Jacobs, the manservant, who may be absent but is still present, ready to jump out and catch the boy red-handed. All until the boy nearly reaches his destination, the kitchen’s larder.

Something is amiss.

Someone is crying, sobbing, he hears. But Jacobs never cries, his austerity and violence will not allow.

A woman, some nameless woman presumably working as staff in the household. Not a lady. Not the boy’s mother, dead, just a memory. Not the boy’s stepmother. A woman upset, standing in the kitchen. She freezes when she sees the boy standing at the door; he freezes when he sees her. They both stand guilty, but for reasons unknown to the other.

The boy sees a woman out of place. She sees the master’s son.

She sits down and faints. The body knows immediately what to do, water, a strong waking odor, and wax paper to place beneath her nostrils … to make sure.

Injured Memory

This guileless gesture comes at a cost, an injury to the memory of attending to his now deceased mother, upon the same occasion. Now that memory has been soiled by the addition of this sobbing, inscrutable, bothersome, and stupid woman.

Awake now but still upset, she finally departs. By himself the boy can continue where he was interrupted, but that he spied something just inside the cupboard. It must be Jacobs. But before he can find out, the woman is back, having failed in making egress, befuddled by the bushes surrounding the house.

What Has Happened

And now Jacobs was dead. So that’s what that was like. He jerked his head aside, and his eyes became fixed once more on the gallipot. That was the real and eloquent thing.

p. 68

She see the boy has seen Jacobs, and her crying continues, her horror amplified. After a few cryptic words, the boy realizes that Jacobs will not be jumping out of the cupboard. He struggles to open it but find Jacobs, his wan face, his limp hand resting on a gallipot — “the real and eloquent thing.”

The gallipot is Proust’s madeleine. A physical object imbued with the powers of memory. Albeit of the same piece of crockery in a horror story that the boy had read. Two young men conspire to steal a relative’s purse but leave the man hanging, an apparent suicide, to conceal the crime.

This bothersome, dumb woman is ready to accept the consequences of her actions, strangling Jacobs after he’d insulted her so caustically, so hatefully. She’s just a woman, as Jacobs had treated her. The boy resumes where Jacobs left off, but not to assist his feckless, ignorant creature to conceal her crime. To make Jacobs a suicide. To exceed in the same villainy the boy had vicariously admired, as a boy would.

‘You could, I tell you. A baby could do it. You’re afraid. That’s what it is! I’m going to, I tell you: whether you like it or not.’ He stamped his stockinged foot. ‘Mind you, I’m not doing it for myself. It’s nothing to do with me. You aren’t taking the least trouble to understand.’ He looked at her as if he couldn’t believe any human being could by any possibility be so dense. ‘It’s just stupid, he added over his shoulder, as he sallied out to the boot cupboard to fetch a rope.

p. 69

When the craft appears complete, the boy knows something is missing.* He shows the woman to the door, all but pushing her out so that she will not be caught. There, as he stands on the porch seeing the woman’s figure disappear into the darkness, what’s missing becomes clear.

The kicked chair. The final detail.

Yet, done, complete, his surroundings acquire a new valence. For the boy is, alas, a boy. Now alone in a large house. A boy who has never been alone. And alone with the dead body. He cries out for his mother, with increasing urgency.

Non-Didactic Exposition

To what degree does the author owe the reader an explanation, a guide through the morass of details? Or, is the story a story because it tells the reader what happens?

de la Mare appreciates the complexity of experience. His prose presents the reader a thousand and one details, but it does not explain what to think.

In other words, it does the opposite of what I’m doing.

“Theoretical” Confessions

Although gravitating to formalism in all things, my judgment frequently falls upon realism as a prima facie justification for literature. Yet the lack of adequate grounds for realism embarrasses my judgment. “Because it’s so real … man.”

The temptation to laud de la Mare for accurately representing how things really are. Pathetic.

Realism has no justification, not because reality does not exist. There is something called realism. But literature has to do with experience, to some considerable degree, and there realism is in a terra incognita.

When you do not know what to say, draw on Latin.

The Boy Becomes a Boy: Psychological Horror

I asked my son to read this story, in part because I wanted to see what he would take from the story, how he would understand it.

Would he see how the boy’s horror arrived? How the boy went from a disinterested spectator toying with what was within reach into a boy who is left in the presence of a dead body of the man who’d governed him.

That, to me, was one of the most salient moments in the story, when the oblivious boy stops moving quickly through discovering a crime and then assisting — insisting upon — its concealment finally realizes what he has done and where he is. That is the psychological horror.

What is Known

  1. The boy misses his mother and subsequently hates his stepmother for having supplanted her.
  2. The boy vacantly enjoys gruesome stories of crime and murder.
  3. The woman had been sleeping with Jacobs.
  4. Jacobs had promised her some kind of relationship, some status.
  5. Jacobs was a real, physical threat within the boy’s environment.
  6. The boy fails to grasp the reality of the murder.
  7. The boy is a sociopath (perhaps future Prime Minister).


*This kind of knowledge would probably not even fall into the category of tacit knowledge since it’s a kind of knowing that you do now know that you have. For example, when you turn and see someone looking at you. What is it that directs you to that?