Every October, in the run up to Hallowe’en, I like to recommend ghost stories. This year I’m featuring the work of British author E.F.Benson (1867-1940). He is best known for his humorous `Mapp and Lucia’ novels but he was also a prolific and versatile writer of short stories with supernatural elements. Benson himself called these his Spook Stories. They include stories which might be classified as Horror, Paranormal Crime or Speculative Fiction as well as classic Ghost Stories. If you just want a taster of Benson’s style, you could try his 1912 collection The Room in the Tower, which contains some of his most famous stories. To get the full range I suggest a bumper anthology – Night Terrors: The Ghost Stories of E.F.Benson edited and introduced by David Stuart Davies (Wordsworth Classics 2012). This is easily available in paperback or as an ebook. I bought the version that doesn’t have a giant spider on the cover.
Edward Frederick Benson was part of a fascinating family. His father was a scholarly clergyman who became Archbishop of Canterbury. His mother, Minnie Sidgwick Benson, was described by the then Prime Minister, Gladstone, as the cleverest woman in Europe. After her husband’s death, Mrs Benson boldly set up a household with the daughter of the previous Archbishop. E.F.Benson had three talented siblings who all wrote fiction – brothers A.C. and R.H.Benson and sister Maggie, one of the earliest female Egyptologists. E.F. doesn’t seem to have been intimidated by any of this. His early work was published when he was still a student at Cambridge and after a big commercial success with his first satirical novel (Dodo 1893) he was able to earn his living as a writer. For much of his life Benson lived in the picturesque Sussex town of Rye in Lamb House, which had previously been rented by Henry James, author of one of the most famous of all ghost stories, The Turn of the Screw.
Rather surprisingly, E.F. seems to have inherited his interest in the supernatural from his father who co-founded a society for the investigation of ghosts while he was a student at Cambridge. Henry James claimed that The Turn of the Screw was based on a story told to him by Archbishop Benson. The most disturbing of all ghost story writers, M.R. James (see my Fantasy Reads post of October 2013), was a close friend of E.F.’s older brother, Arthur. E.F. attended some of M.R. James’ famous ghost story-telling sessions when he was a student. M.R. James later wrote admiringly about many of E.F.’s Spook Stories but felt that some of them stepped `over the line of legitimate horridness’. It is certainly true that much of E.F. Benson’s work is more explicit and violent than M.R. James’ stories, which usually suggest more than they show. If you think many literary ghost stories are too tame, you may find the Spook Stories more to your taste.
One reason that E.F. Benson is less well known as a Fantasy author than he should be is that he was such a chameleon. He could, and did, write stories in the styles of M.R. James, William Hope Hodgson (see my Fantasy Reads post of December 2013) and Arthur Conan Doyle and he was happy to use types of monster created by other writers, such as vampires, elementals, vengeful Ancient Egyptians and even Abominable Snowmen. Like M.R. James, he was masterly at making everyday things frightening, including telephones, a piano, a step-ladder, a desk-calendar and a bath-chair. One of his eeriest stories involves a phantom Bus-Conductor and don’t ask me what he did with caterpillars because it gives me the shudders. The settings of the Spook Stories are varied (London, rural England, Scotland, Switzerland and Egypt) and so is the tone. Some of the stories are grim or horrific, others are poignant, uplifting or funny. When you dip into an anthology of Benson’s work you never know what you are going to get and that is part of the attraction.
For the rest of this review I am going to concentrate on three ghost stories which I think are distinctively E.F.Benson. I’ll start with A Tale of an Empty House. Many of the Spook Stories involve a pair or a group of friends who rent or visit a haunted house which is later discovered to have been the scene of a gruesome crime. It’s a winning formula. In this example the narrator is forced by bad weather to stay in a coastal village where he is captivated by the the beauty of the tidal landscape. You don’t think of E.F.Benson as a nature writer but his detailed descriptions of the plants and wildlife of this estuary are wonderfully evocative. On a walk, the narrator comes across a lonely house which seems to be abandoned but he hears the footsteps of a limping man and glimpses a shadowy figure. When the narrator and a friend are later forced to take shelter in the lonely house during a storm they discover in a terrifying way that it is not as empty as it should be. A Tale of an Empty House has two typical E.F.Benson characteristics; firstly that people may experience ghosts with different senses (some mainly hearing them, others seeing or feeling them) and secondly that friends who staunchly support each other can overcome even the worst of psychic horrors.
Male friendships were extremely important to Benson throughout his life. Some critics see him as a misogynistic writer who created monstrous women in his fiction but I think this is unfair. It is true that in Night Terrors you will encounter a charming society lady (Inscrutable Decrees), a respectable widow (Mrs Amworth) and a vicar’s daughter (The Wishing Well) who all have very dark secrets but these female monsters are greatly outnumbered by the male ones. There are some brave, intelligent and compassionate woman in Benson’s fictional worlds. One of these appears in How Fear Departed from the Long Gallery which was Benson’s favourite among his Spook Stories (and mine). It begins in a light-hearted way, describing the numerous spectres which haunt Church-Peveril House so that `to the Peverils the appearance of a ghost is a matter of hardly greater significance than the appearance of the post to those who live in more ordinary houses.’ There is however one haunting which the Peverils take seriously because it arose from an horrific event in 1602 – the murder of twin toddlers in the fireplace in the long gallery. The murdered twins haunt the long gallery after dark and anyone who sees them or even hears their sinister laughter soon suffers a terrible death.
The story centres on a young relative of the family, Madge Dalrymple, who falls asleep on a sofa in the Long Gallery one winter afternoon and wakes to find that it is already dark. She is desperate to get out before the twins appear but she cannot find her way to the right door. If you’ve ever tried to get through a dark room during a power-cut you’ll know how even familiar pieces of furniture become your enemies, blocking or tripping you. This is what happens to Madge as the deadly twins approach and it is truly terrifying to read about. Yet the story does not end as you might expect because of Madge’s empathic reaction to the perpetually young ghosts. In several of the Spook Stories characters discuss the origin of hauntings and postulate that violent events which create powerful emotions are somehow permanently imprinted on their physical locality. In How Fear Departed From the Long Gallery there is a strong sense that awful events such as the murder of children should never be forgotten.
In a story called Pirates, Benson suggests that intense happiness can also leave an imprint on a place. A plot summary could make this sound like a standard ghost story – a wealthy businessman called Peter Graham buys a country house inspite of warnings that it may be haunted and meets his end there. Benson turns this plot into something delicate, moving and very personal. His lonely businessman returns to his childhood home after all the rest of his family are long dead. The story is set in Cornwall, where the Benson children lived while their father was Bishop of Truro but by the time it was written Benson had outlived all his own siblings. In the story, visiting his old home brings back many happy memories of his childhood to Graham and those memories begin to take on tangible forms. I can only hope that Benson was haunted by happy memories too. If over 700 pages of E.F.Benson’s Spook Stories aren’t enough to put you in a Hallowe’en mood you could always go on to Ghosts in the House: Tales of Terror by A.C.Benson and R.H.Benson. Until next time….