By Abrahim Harb
The relationship between both the realistic and supernatural readings of “The Demon Lover” by Elizabeth Bowen is undeniable and utterly confusing sometimes. The short story published in 1945 reeks of unnatural experiences/ metaphorical statements, yet at the same time contains realistic (or “normal”) encounters. Mrs. Drover mentions an unnatural promise, which could be insight on how to interpret the story. It is my personal belief that the story has to be read with one of the options in mind; otherwise, both interpretations crisscross and confuse readers. Are these coincidences or are they trying to create a bigger picture for readers? Bowen certainly does a superb job at confusing readers (me included). The story must be certainly read with either of the two interpretations in mind. Nevertheless an abundance of evidence is presented upon close reading to support a definite supernatural aspect to this story.
Superstition has it ingrained in our minds that cats symbolize the afterlife and black cats are bad luck and also a symbol of death and afterlife. Mrs. Drover encounters a cat just before entering her home (1582). Although Bowen does not mention the type of cat, she is foreshadowing, reasonably alluding to the death of Mrs. Drover at the end. It is also reinforced by her stark and stone-cold description of her hometown. Mrs. Drover describes it without flowery, nostalgic or extensive details, painting a grim and true image of a World War by referencing “clouds already piling up into dark, broken chimneys” (1581) and “some cracks in the structure, left by the lasting bombing,” (1582). Then upon entering her home, after “slowly forcing her latchkey in an unwilling lock” and feeling the “dead air,” she discovers a letter (1582). Normally when one visits a place they once lived, it is filled with nostalgia—not morbid, dark and stoic images, despite the circumstance.
The letter is short, as all descriptions are in the story and signed “K.”, this is when the story takes a turn and hurls into oblivion (cue thriller music) and signs of depression (literally, in the sense of war and clinical) begin to emerge through her verbiage. She ignores the letter and begins to gather her belongings. Who in their right mind would remain in a place where they feel watched and they have found a note? (not me) Confirming suspicion that she is passed on and it doesn’t faze her. It should also be mentioned it is assumed to be from her ex fiancé, exactly 25 years from her unnatural promise to him. This note had no way of being put there, implying it was put there on purpose, which doesn’t necessarily lend itself to a supernatural reading of the story, but it aids the eerie circumstance that is being set. It is also stated that she would not remember his face, if she ever encountered him—which would be impossible, since it was presumed he was dead.
Essentially, this story uses the formula of a typical horror story, but takes it beyond that injecting it with a different style making it stick out among the spine tingling, hair raising stories that make up the genre. Bowen creates this tense atmosp7here when Mrs. Dover reads the note. She ignores whatever she feels—it brings up an image of the girl in the shower and a figure rushes passed the doorway and she thinks it’s someone else—and it obviously isn’t. When she gets into the taxi at the end, she can’t make out the drivers face either. In fact, the way the taxi is introduced into the story is eerie and is one of those moments where if it was a movie, one would yell “NO! DON’T DO IT!” This leads readers to conclude that it is her ex fiancé. Or undoubtedly in her delusional state of mind she believes it is him. One would assume that your fiancé’s features would be ingrained in your mind and vice versa and she can’t seem to recall it. I believe that her fiancé is a metaphor for death, because death is often portrayed without a face. Even though she doesn’t remember what her death was like, or what it looks like, it creeps up on her, without any notice.
Her home is used as a metaphor to describe how Mrs. Drover feels. Her hometown and home is battered and bruised, but has this far survived the destruction of war. Her spirit enters her home, and has even forgotten the note she wrote to herself, which also brings back the notion of her sanity (this thought differs from the prior). She presumes it is written by her ex fiancé, even though she has signed it K. Perhaps this was the unnatural promise she made to herself before passing on, and in her haste and negligence paired with her lack of time recognition in the afterlife has made her forgetful.
The air seems disturbed meaning perhaps leading readers to believe a ghostly encounter has just occurred, because a spirit tends to disturb the air when present, leaving a cold spot of air. But I digress. Was Mrs. Drover’s fiancé stalking her after he was presumed dead? I believe this story because why would he randomly kill her or hurt her? Waiting for a symbolic moment of 25 years after her promise to come back and haunt her is not only ironic, but filled with symbolism—usually those mourn the loss of something on its anniversary; and that is what he planned to do, or even she planned, to mourn his death. He was, and is a scorned man who wants to get his revenge; which is implied that he gets at the end when she gets into the taxi, and he takes off without asking where she is going.
This is where the story stays true to the horror genre and keeps readers begging for more. She bluntly states her fear, and moves on when the narrator says, “She heard nothing—but while she was hearing nothing the passé air of the staircase was disturbed by a draught that traveled up to her face it emanated from the basement...[as if] someone  chose [that] moment to leave the house” (1585).Yet she still continues to gather her belongings, with no fear that somebody is watching her. Nor does she pursue the matter to find out if a person was in her home—much in the same way a ghost has no sense of time. She just mentions that and focus shifts to Mrs. Drover standing at the front door of the house, leading readers to believe time lapsed that were unrecorded in the story.
We are guided by the narrator to a taxi that is “alertly waiting for her” (cue the thriller music one last time) it was also the only taxi (1586). Is Mrs. Drover out to get herself killed or is she really that depressed and insane to see all these events that unfurl out in front of her?
The narrator certainly comes off as if he/she wants her dead by the end, because death traps are set one right after the other for her and it culminated when this taxi driver is waiting for her. Despite all of this, Mrs. Dover remains unharmed until entering the taxi. The narrator says, “The taxi faced the main road: to make the trip back to her house it would have to turn (1586). It certainly depicts the ending via foreshadowing, mere moments before the actual ending of the story and surely Mrs. Drover’s life.
Bowen undeniably takes the readers on a splendidly tragic story that can be argued to be supernatural. The letter remains a topic of discussion and the unnatural promise leaves Mrs. Drover with a guilty conscious and a heavy heart. It is filled with doubt, on the readers and Mrs. Drover mind, in addition to ambiguity and uncertainty as Bowen takes one last leap and accelerates without mercy into the story leaving readers to question every word, thought and action, offering no concrete interpretation created a perfect situation for interweaving analysis that drastically differ.