The instance of there being two talented sibling writers in the same family is rare but for there to be three famous authors born to the same parents is truly exceptional. The most famous case, of course, is the Bronte sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne. Less well known but still of great interest are the three brothers A C, E F and R H Benson, born between 1862 and 1871, who between them managed a literary output consisting of over a hundred works of fiction and non-fiction, both short and long. While ghost stories formed only a relatively small part of their collective output, it was the contribution that each brother made to the supernatural genre by the quality of their work that is most remarkable.
The Benson brothers’ early life was as dramatic and sensational as the horror stories that they would later write. Their father E W Benson was the Archbishop of Canterbury and, following a failed marriage, was often brutish and cruel to his sons as if in revenge. They also had a sister, Mary, who was criminally insane and a mother who left them to pursue an affair with another woman. It may well be that experiencing such an upsetting domestic situation in their youth contributed to the fact that none of the brothers ever married, although it has also been speculated that they were all homosexual – a theory for which there is no concrete evidence. It is interesting to note that while the scope of the three brothers’ oeuvre is very wide and diverse, each of them produced weird tales of ghosts, hauntings and unnatural events. The need and inspiration for this may well have come from the siblings’ dark father, who had a liking for such material, as well as from another source with whom they were all intimately acquainted – M R James.
The eldest of the three brothers, A C Benson, was one of James’ closest friends at Cambridge and like him wrote only a handful of ghost stories, which he read at the traditional Christmas gatherings of the Chitchat society in King’s College. After a period as a housemaster at Eton, A C Benson moved to Cambridge in 1903, where he was later appointed Master of Magdalene College. A curiously nervous and melancholic man, he loved music and composed words for a number of songs including ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ for Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance march. Indeed A C Benson’s finest story, The House at Treheale, may be autobiographical in its depiction of a musician whose personality is warped by his contact with the supernatural. Unfortunately, the manuscripts for several of the ghost stories that he read to his university friends disappeared mysteriously after his death; had they survived, A C Benson might have acquired a reputation every bit as impressive as James as a writer of ghost stories.
The youngest Benson brother, R H Benson, first achieved notoriety when, despite being the son of an Archbishop of Canterbury, he renounced his father’s religious beliefs and became a Catholic Priest. Like his brothers, R H Benson was also a prolific writer who produced works of great variety in the fields of science fiction, historical drama, children’s tales and of course horror. R H Benson’s ghost stories are heavily influenced by the religious fervour that infused all of his writing and this is demonstrated by his two collections of short supernatural fiction: The Light Invisible (1903) and A Mirror of Shallott (1907). The earlier volume takes the form of a series of anecdotes told to the narrator by an old priest recounting a series of encounters with the paranormal while the later one, made up of a series of tales told by a group of priests, is much darker. The hallmark of R H Benson’s work, as with A C Benson (and M R James for that matter), is his detached, precise prose, which works to effectively create unease in the mind of the reader.
E F Benson was the most famous of the three literary brothers, largely due to the huge success of his shocking novel, Dodo, mocking society and “its lies and swank”, and the popular Mapp and Lucia series. Like his brothers, he was classically educated and formed a deep interest in archaeology, although he had no desire to settle for the life of a scholar as they had done. He also became fascinated by the supernatural – particularly psychic phenomena – and this inspired him to write stories which were (in his own words) “deliberately written to frighten”. A contemporary and acquaintance of M R James, E F Benson is perhaps the only horror author of his generation who can truly be considered his equal. Far more prolific as a writer of ghost stories than James, E F Benson’s stories are also broader in theme and much more accessible to the casual reader who might find James’ sometimes dense prose occasionally off-putting. A number of his stories, including the nauseating Caterpillars and the two gruesome vampire tales, The Room in the Tower and Mrs Amworth, have become the favourites of anthologists, while his own popular collections, Spook Stories and More Spook Stories, are also well worth seeking out in their own right. The Bus Conductor (click to read!) is one of E F Benson’s most famous stories and was memorably filmed in the classic horror Dead of Night in 1944.