The Demon Lover and other Stories by Elizabeth Bowen

Much as I like the idea of a complete or collected volume of stories or poems, I do tend to find that they have a negative effect on my reading; they’re often so large that they actually put me off reading them, and I have a number of these books scattered all over Mount TBR which is shameful. And to get to the point, one of these is the Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen. I haven’t read enough Bowen – what I *have* read has been quite wonderful so there’s no reason why I shouldn’t pick her books up regularly. However, it took a chance find of a fragile old Penguin collection “The Demon Lover & Other Stories” in a charity shop to actually get me to read some of her short stories – and they really are amazing.

bowen demon

The book was published in 1945 and collects together 12 stories written by the author during the War years. Bowen worked as an Air Raid Warden as well as continuing to write, and all of the stories in the book are rooted in the conflict that was going on – most of them being set in London. However, these aren’t just tales of conditions in wartime; instead Bowen reaches deep into the psyche of her characters to explore the effects on people during conflict and results are really rather remarkable. It goes without saying, of course, that the prose is wonderful – Bowen really could write beautifully and her descriptions are just stunning.

Full moonlight drenched the city and searched it; there was not a niche left to stand in. The effect was remorseless: London looked like the moon’s capital – shallow, cratered, extinct. It was late, but not yet midnight; now the buses had stopped the polished roads and streets in this region sent for minutes together a ghostly unbroken reflection up. The soaring new flats and the crouching old shops and houses looked equally brittle under the moon, which blazed in windows that looked its way. The futility of the blackout became laughable; from the sky, presumably, you could see every slate in the roofs, every whited kerb, every contour of the naked winter flowerbeds in the park; and the lake, with its shining twists and tree-darkened island would be a landmark for miles, yes, miles, overhead.

Several of the stories, including the title one, feature ghosts or supernatural happenings, but oddly enough these sit well in the setting of a broken London. Bowen also draws on mythology and folk tales to underpin some of the strangeness reflected in her fictions. I’m not going to go into specifics, because that would spoil the impact of the tales, but I will say that “The Inherited Clock”, “The Cheery Soul”, “Pink May” and “Green Holly” all deal with the spectral in some shape or form; “In the Square”, “Sunday Afternoon” and “Careless Talk” show how things have changed because the War and reflect how people’s lives are fractured and unlikely to be the same again; “Songs My Father Sang Me” and “Ivy Gripped the Steps” look back from within wartime to events in the protagonists’ pasts; and the three remaining stories, “The Happy Autumn Fields”, “Mysterious Kôr” and the title story itself all deal with illusions and delusions and are probably the stand-outs in what is a first-class collection.

Elizabeth Bowen, by Angus McBean, 1948 (NPG)

Elizabeth Bowen, by Angus McBean, 1948 (NPG)

“The Happy Autumn Fields” is a powerful piece, juxtaposing two different times which may or may not be related, and shows how what is almost hallucination was necessary for mental survival during the conflict. In “Mysterious Kôr” the transformative power of the full moon works its magic on the damaged city, allowing vital fantasy into a girl’s life. As for “The Demon Lover” itself – well, apparently it’s one of Bowen’s most anthologised stories and I can see why; it’s spooky, atmospheric, effective, chilling and ambiguous. The wartime setting and the atmosphere of a damaged city add to the suspense but like many of the stories in this book, it harks back to the past and the previous war. I’m still getting goosebumps thinking about it!

If you just want to read the stories in the book, they do appear in the “War Years” section of the Collected Stories, along with some other titles. However, this lacks the fascinating afterword from Bowen in the original collection where she discusses the genesis of the stories and what it was like to write them through the War. All in all, “The Demon Lover…” is one of the finest short story collections I’ve ever read; each story is distinct, gripping and memorable, and yet each makes up part of a whole, leaving an impression of the strange, surreal atmosphere of wartime living. Even though large volumes of short tales tend to put me off reading them, I’m really feeling drawn to Elizabeth Bowen’s collected stories now…