I’ve mentioned The Benson Brothers in a previous post but the most famous and talented of them, E F Benson, really does deserve special attention. Benson was always interested in psychic phenomena and ghosts, and later described some of his own strange encounters in his autobiography Final Edition (1940). For instance, Benson records that on one bright hot summer day he and the Vicar of Rye both saw the ghostly apparition of a man in black at the bottom of his garden. It is no coincidence that Benson was well acquainted with that other great master of the genre, M R James, for nearly fifty years. He was a member of the Chitchat Society, a Cambridge literary society which had for its object ‘the promotion of rational conversation’ (i.e. the telling of tall tales around a homely fire). Benson was present at the historic meeting on 28 October 1893 when James read his first two ghost stories, Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook and Lost Hearts, but of all of those in attendance on that occasion he was the only one destined to follow the lead of the incomparable James. United by a perfect chilling atmosphere and graceful literary style, Benson’s ghostly stories range from the horror of vampires, homicidal ghosts and monstrous spectral worms and slugs to the satire of humorous tales that poke fun at charlatan mediums and fake seances. Whilst Benson’s tales may be somewhat less imbued with sheer terror than those of M R James, one thing that can be said of them for certain is that they never fail to chill and mesmerise.
Benson began his productive career as a writer of ghost stories half way through the Edwardian era, in magazines such as the Pall Mall and the Illustrated London News, and over the next three decades he penned at least two a year, with an even more prolific rate in the 1920s. The Christmas of 1911 saw the publication of How Fear Departed from the Long Gallery, a tale which featured a pair of young children, murdered in the 17th century, who haunt a country house. To set eyes on them means almost certain death, but a sympathetic woman who sees them defuses their fatal qualities with her compassion. This was Benson’s own personal favourite from all the short stories he ever wrote. In the preface to 1912’s The Room in the Tower, Benson’s first collection of supernatural tales, he ‘fervently wishes his readers a few uncomfortable moments’. The title story is a fine, dreamlike tale of vampirism, while other memorable stories from this collection include the nauseating Caterpillars and The Bus Conductor, which was later turned into an episode of the classic British film Dead of Night. Three further collections of Benson’s work appeared in 1923 (Visible and Invisible), 1928 (Spook Stories) and 1934 (More Spook Stories). Although his stories are extremely varied in content, from a close reading certain common themes start to emerge.
There is a very noticeable autobiographical thread running through nearly all the ghost stories. Most are narrated by an unnamed bachelor, whom one assumes to be Benson himself (he never married, or contracted any close or long-term relationship with members of either sex). The narrator is often to be found on a long working holiday where he can finish writing manuscripts undisturbed. Switzerland and winter sports are a favourite theme, while Egypt, the Italian Riviera, Sussex (specifically Rye, where he lived) and other Benson haunts also recur consistently throughout the tales. Most of them, too, relate to events in the past which are not connected to the heroes and narrators, who are merely spectators, bystanders, who merely chance to trigger off a recurrence on the astral plane of some bygone crime or calamity; they are witnesses, but not directly involved. In several of the stories, the lust to possess a particular house forms the fulcrum of the plot (as in Bagnell Terrace) and the unassuaged anger and vengefulness of the dispossessed owner is often what creates the haunting.
Interestingly, Benson’s more alarming spectres tend to limp – the angry ghost of Naboth’s Vineyard, for instance, or the terrifying unseen whistler in A Tale of an Empty House. One theory is that these limping ghosts are modelled on Benson’s own dread-inspiring headmaster, Waterfield, who is referred to in his autobiography, or even his father, the equally terrifying Edward White Benson, first headmaster of Wellington College and subsequently Archbishop of Canterbury. The siblings’ father seemed to be capable of arousing a kind of suppressed resentment and fear in all of the Benson children, as well as no doubt providing a fertile source for the grim material of ghost stories. Equally notable, though, is the fact that women rarely seem to appear as the central figures in Benson’s ghost stories. When they do, their role is both portentous and ominous. Consider Mrs Amworth in the tale of the same name, who has a vital and voluminous presence and a loud jolly laugh. She is in fact a particularly nasty vampire, who prefers to prey on adolescent boys. Mrs Stone from The Room in the Tower and Mrs Labson from The Corner House are both equally loathsome antagonists. Some critics have relied on these stories as illustrations of Benson’s underlying fear and dislike of women, which is perhaps the result of his own difficult relationship with his adulterous mother and mentally disturbed sister.
Ultimately, although less celebrated than those of M R James, the ‘spook stories’ of E F Benson have been widely read and appreciated for over a century. During his lifetime, Benson was often called upon to read his supernatural fiction to select gatherings (like the pupils of Wellington College, his former school) and to old friends like Lord Halifax, who was an inveterate collector of ghostly tales. Roald Dahl was always an admirer of Benson and in the 1950’s he was commissioned to write a series of television screenplays entitled Ghost Time, with Benson’s controversial tale The Hanging of Alfred Wadham set as the pilot to launch the series. This story was deemed ‘too strong’ for 1950’s TV audiences, so the entire series was dropped. Thankfully, Benson’s written stories are still with us to this day and I’ll leave you with one of the most famous (and disturbing) Negotium Perambulans (click to read!). Like all the best Benson short stories, this tale features a lone traveller who stumbles upon something unimaginably evil while on an innocuous walk in a seemingly pleasant location. Enjoy!