The Ghost Stories of E.F. Benson

Extract from new post for the Wordsworth Editions Blog…

What would Christmas be without a good ghost story? Tales of haunted houses, vengeful revenants, and, for the more delicate constitution, spiritual redemption, are as much a part of the Christmas ritual as Midnight Mass, the Queen’s speech, presents, carols, and the occasional small sherry. And whether one chooses to worship the Holy or Commercial Spirit during the festive season, chances are you will find yourself drawn to supernatural stories whether you like it or not. There will be readings of M.R. James on the radio and in libraries; the BBC will repeat one of Lawrence Gordon Clark’s terrifying ‘Ghost Stories for Christmas’ from the 1970s and Mark Gatiss will do a new one. The big TV channels will also wheel out The Innocents, The Others, and more adaptations of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol than you can shake a stick at. There will, in fact, be just as much scary stuff around as Halloween. More so if you count your credit card bill.

There’s a reason for this which goes way further back than M.R. James reading a new tale of terror aloud to his students in his rooms at King’s College each Christmas Eve by the light of a single candle, or middle-class Victorian families sharing Dickens’ latest Christmas story around the hearth. Just as Halloween is built upon the foundation of Samhain, the pagan festival of the dead, our Christmas celebrations stem from the winter solstice, the ancient feast celebration that heralded the onset of the ‘famine months’ (January to April in the northern hemisphere), a period of mass starvation for Neolithic humanity. Death was in the air, from the mass slaughter of livestock to conserve resources to the brutal Darwinism of malnutrition and disease, and sacrifices to the old gods of death and resurrection. What the Celts called the ‘Otherworld’ must have felt very close around the communal campfires at night, birthing a rich oral tradition of midwinter horror as a way of dealing with the very real threat of the season. As the heir to Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, wrote in his seminal essay ‘Supernatural Horror in Literature’ (1927):

Cosmic terror appears as an ingredient of the earliest folklore of all races, and is crystallised in the most archaic ballads, chronicles, and sacred writings. It was, indeed, a prominent feature of the elaborate ceremonial magic, with its rituals for the evocation of dæmons and spectres, which flourished from prehistoric times…

Christmas ghost stories are part of our collective unconscious; they might as well be encoded in our DNA. They’ve certainly existed a lot longer than Christmas.

With this in mind, might I suggest an alternative to Dickens and M.R. James this year, brilliant though their stories are? I refer to the short fiction of E.F. ‘Fred’ Benson OBE (1867–1940), a contemporary of James who as a student attended the very first of ‘Monty’s’ Christmas Eve readings at Cambridge. If you’ve not read him, I promise that Benson at his best will match the thrill of reading James whenever you first encountered him, before his stories became as familiar as old friends, especially at this time of year. There’s that same sense of the long Edwardian summer between the wars, of upper class social and scholarly gatherings, all leading to a satisfying and very nasty epiphany. And if you do know Benson, why not reacquaint yourself? You might discover a new story.

Benson’s name is most closely linked to his enduringly popular ‘Mapp and Lucia’ series, published between 1920 and 1937, comic novels gently but unerringly satirising the mores of the upper-middle-class provincial English. The series represents an ongoing struggle for social prestige in the fictional seaside town of ‘Tilling’ (based on Rye in East Sussex, where Benson lived and, like Lucia, served as mayor) between appalling snobs Mrs. Emmeline ‘Lucia’ Lucas and Miss Elizabeth Mapp. There have been several TV and radio adaptations, the most recent by the BBC in 2014. Benson’s combination of humour and social commentary is reminiscent of P.G. Wodehouse and Ivy Compton-Burnett and the so-called ‘camp novel’. His first novel, the fashionably provocative Dodo (1893), had been an immediate bestseller and his early literary success allowed Benson to live in comfort and do nothing but write, travel and play. He thus found time to write 64 other novels, three autobiographies, and 30 works of nonfiction, including biographies of Charlotte Brontë, Queen Victoria, and Edward VII, and A Book of Golf.

What is perhaps less well known nowadays is that Benson wrote literally dozens of what he called ‘spook stories’. These were originally published in magazines like Pearson’s, Hutchinson’s and the Pall Mall and then reprinted in the collections The Room in the Tower and Other Stories (1912), Visible and Invisible (1923), Spook Stories (1928), and More Spook Stories (1934) – all collected chronologically in the Wordsworth Editions’ Night Terrors: The Ghost Stories of E.F. Benson edited by David Stuart Davies. His story ‘The Bus Conductor’ (1906), in which the hero is haunted by a hearse driver in premonition of a fatal crash, was adapted in Basil Dearden’s segment for the 1944 Ealing anthology horror film Dead of Night. The story’s chilling mantra ‘Room for one more’ became a national catchphrase and when Bennett Cerf included it in his Famous Ghost Stories it spawned an urban legend that persists to this day. In his own era, Benson was as famous as a horror writer as he was a humourist. H.P. Lovecraft considered him a writer ‘of singular power’ and praised his stories as ‘lethally potent’ in their ‘relentless aura of doom’, rating Benson alongside Wells and Conan Doyle, H.D. Everett, May Sinclair, and William Hope Hodgson – not quite up there with the ‘Modern Master’ M.R. James, but a pretty fair second place. In structure, there are similarities with James’ stories, but what distinguishes them from those of the antiquarian academic is the setting. Unlike James’, Benson’s supernatural world is utterly contemporary: that of the inter-war gentleman of means and confirmed bachelor (like James, Benson was discreetly gay); with manservants, motorcars, summer leases, property envy, bridge, golf, brisk walks, and plenty of huntin’, shootin’, and fishin’. In short, it is the same world as that of ‘Mapp and Lucia’. Benson’s jaunty narrators, who are often writers clearly based on himself, combine, as did he, the easy confidence and breezy enthusiasm of his class, an open mind, and a fierce intelligence. They are invariably rich single men drifting from one let, holiday home, or long visit to the next, who, mostly in company with another male friend, meet an elemental monster in the woods or find themselves in a haunted house. Imagine a Bertie Wooster figure, only with the intellect of Jeeves. And then shove him towards something terrible.

It must be admitted that the prolific Benson was a much more versatile writer than James, whose primary output was academic and whose only fiction was the Christmas Eve ghost stories. As Clive Bloom has argued, ‘the ghost is innately conservative’. This is because, writes Bloom, ‘ghosts tell us of stability and permanence’, like the (haunted) stately homes of England, the ruling elite and governing class to which James and Benson both belonged, and the literary aesthetic James treasured. This was a scholarly blend of Christian theology, Renaissance drama, and Victorian realism that had no time for contemporary fiction or Modernist experiment. The Provost of King’s was not at all impressed with Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw for example. With its roots in folklore, the ghost story was always an aberrant sub-genre within both gothic and horror fiction, difficult to categorise and complicated by belief, Spiritualism having become a formal religion in the US in 1883. Benson’s range seems to revel in this ambiguity in a way that James’ antiquarian ghost stories did not. He didn’t experiment with form, but with content. While far from being a modernist, Benson nonetheless pushed the creative boundaries much more than James, blazing a trail later twentieth century horror writers would follow. Benson put vampires in a modern setting, for example, decades before EC comics, Richard Matheson, and Stephen King, while bloodsucker ‘Mrs Amworth’ (Visible and Invisible) floating outside the window of an adolescent boy at night feels a lot like the Danny Glick scene in Salem’s Lot which gave everyone who saw the 1979 TV version nightmares. Similarly, the experiments of physicist Sir James Horton on the dead tissue of First World War soldiers in ‘And the Dead Spake –’ (Visible and Invisible) reminds one of Lovecraft’s ‘Herbert West – Reanimator’ (West was a medic in Flanders), the common root for both stories, which were written around the same time, being Frankenstein.  

This range is apparent in Benson’s first collection, The Room in the Tower and Other Stories, published in 1912. There are a few conventional ghost stories – all beautifully done, mind – and the influence of James is apparent in ‘The Other Bed’, a premise not a million miles from ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’. The Kiplingesque ‘At Abdul Ali’s Grave’ belongs in the tradition of the imperial gothic; ‘The Terror By Night’ follows the Victorian stereotype of the apparition of a loved one appearing at the moment they die elsewhere, ‘The Bus Conductor’ is a warning from beyond, and ‘The Cat’ feels like Poe and Le Fanu in an updated setting. But there any hint of cliché ends. The title story, ‘The Room in the Tower’, is a surreal tour de force concentrated upon a recurring dream that has haunted the protagonist since childhood. And as he ages, so do the figures in the dream, the unifying factor being the voice of a schoolfriend’s mother (even after her death in the dream narrative). ‘Jack will show you your room,’ she always tells him, ‘I have given you the room in the tower.’ The dreamer never reaches the tower; all he knows is that a thing of nameless dread and malignant evil awaits him there. Then, on a visit to a friend in the country, he realises that this is the place he’s been dreaming of all those years. I won’t tell you what waits in the tower. You’ll just have to read it…

To read the full article, please click here

To purchase Night Terrors – The E.F. Benson Anthology, please click here

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