THE WEIRDNESS OF E.F. BENSON
The Terror by Night (Vol 1) All Hallows 20, February 1999
The Passenger (Vol 2) All Hallows 23, February 2000
Mrs Amworth (Vol 3) All Hallows 28, October 2001
The Face (Vol 4) All Hallows 34, October 2003
Sea Mist (Vol 5) All Hallows 39, June 2005
THE TERROR BY NIGHT: Collected Spook Stories Vol. 1 by E.F. Benson; edited by Jack Adrian
Ash-Tree Press, 1998; xviii + 161pp; £23.50/US$38.50/Cdn$51.00; ISBN 1-899562-55-9
Reviewed by Alexis Lykiard
In 1996 Ash-Tree Press published Ghosts in the House, an uneven, though fascinating, volume (edited by Hugh Lamb) of stories from two out of those three oddball, all-initialled writer-brothers. But A.C. and R.H. were really no match for their middle sibling E.F.—the prolific if bafflingly suave, chameleon-like 'Fred'—when it came to writing of horror and the macabre. So now at last justice is belatedly being done to Fred, one of the twentieth century's most effectively gruesome specialists in me whole genre. This, the first volume of five, covers the period 1899-1911 and opens Ash-Tree's ambitious and laudable project: publication of what may well be the completest possible, hence definitive, collection of Fred's ghostly stories. The five volumes, chronologically ordered, include rare items from long-forgotten magazines of the time, plus other work not previously collected. The editor of this excellent enterprise is the notable expert on E.F., Jack Adrian, whose informative biographical and bibliographical introduction tells readers as much as they probably need to know about the weird and wonderful Bensons. Adrian also whets the appetite for the feast of terrors ahead and puts E.F. Benson himself into the appropriate social-historical perspective.
It's certainly high time, too, that Fred's darker side, the disturbingly sardonic yet deeply neurotic part of his nature, is re-acknowledged. The numerous fashionable novels, those slick society comedies he concocted, once ensured him a comfortable living, but most All Hallows readers would gladly trade Mapp, Lucia, and their ilk for a new or less familiar Benson tale half as good as his classic chiller "The Room in the Tower'. A new generation now has ample opportunity to judge for itself and enjoy those 'few uncomfortable moments' Fred so diffidently (if also 'fervently') wished readers, back in 1912.
Perhaps one should stress here that it sometimes takes generations for good writing of any kind to resurface from even a partial oblivion. With regard to his best work—the three autobiographical books As We Were (1930), As We Are (1932), and Final Edition (1940), and his uncannier writings—the reputation of E.F. Benson (1867-1940) hasn't always stood so high. As recently as 1972 or 1973, for instance, none of this work remained in print. After finally persuading the British paperback firm Panther to let me edit and introduce a Benson selection, I had to use my own rare, battered copies of the four published ghost books (fifty-plus stories, found in The Room in the Tower, 1912; Visible and Invisible, 1923; Spook Stories, 1928; and More Spook Stories, 1934). The result, published in 1974 as The Horror-Horn and subtitled by Panther 'The Best of E.F. Benson', was of course a personal choice of my favourite thirteen stories. Even then, however, there must have been around 40,000 Bensonians in the U.K., for the title soon went out of print. Yet the publishers mysteriously would neither reprint, nor consider a further selection I'd prepared.
During the 1980s and 1990s, various paperback imprints (Transworld, Thorsons, Oxford, Robinson) have seen fit to publish different EFB selections, always aptly compiled by enthusiasts like Cynthia Reave]], Adrian, Richard Dalby, etc. But not until this fine and comprehensive Ash-Tree Press edition, entirely appropriate for fin de siecle, even millennial, reassessment, have readers been offered all E.F. Benson's shorter uncanny work in hardback format. It will be fascinating to rediscover, step by step, what's indeed a very solid and significant ghostly corpus . . . Especially so, since few contemporary readers can have set eyes on The Judgement Books, 1895; The Image in the Sand, 1905; Across the Stream, 1919; Colin, 1923; Colin II, 1925; The Inheritor, 1930; or Raven's Brood, 1934—various overlooked full-length EFB works with macabre or horror elements. I'd be prepared to bet, though, that the short story actually suited his talents best. Within such a succinct form Benson could contain, yet sustain, both suspense and the most outlandish fancies. He could there imaginatively give his worst fears and nightmares free rein while keeping tight control of self and narrative.
It's clear, though, that a high proportion of weirdness persists among Benson's eighty-odd published books. The sociable, socialising Fred evidently needed, throughout his full and productive life, to write of the horrific and the strange. Did it provide an antidote to the blandness of so many of his other books? Was facing horror a means of self-help, a method of keeping at bay the recurrent bouts of madness and breakdown suffered by Benson parents and children alike? Maybe Fred simply (or complicatedly) just enjoyed writing such extreme things. At any rate, to confront what he himself called 'fear of what might be coming out of the huge darkness which lies on all sides of human experience' generally involves belief in the supernatural or something approaching it. Thus your storytelling can carry conviction, style perfectly married to content.
In any case, although these are 'early' stories, in no sense are they apprentice work: EFB at thirty-something was already a master of the macabre. Indeed, The Room in the Tower, his earliest ghost story collection to appear in bookform, is arguably his most memorable, and one of the best of the century. Fifteen of its original seventeen stories are included here: the famous title tale and one other, dating from 1912, will appear in volume two. As it is, those who don't know (for instance) that horridly nasty fable of fear and disease, 'Caterpillars', will find it retains its paranoid eeriness to this day. 'Caterpillars' and other notably gruesome pieces like 'The Thing in the Hall' make it clear why Lovecraft in particular praised Benson. Yet Lovecraft's archaising luxuriance of style is very remote from Benson's own descriptive talents. A quarter of a century ago I wrote that Benson's 'terse, no-nonsense style .. . tellingly contrasts with his wide-ranging and horrific subject-matter'. This still seems valid to me, and the stories once read 'do linger in the mind and distil their unease with real art'.
While the opening three tales of this first volume may seem the most uneven, no one could call them failures, or deny their power. They do go on just a bit too long, but this tendency to ramble was itself short-lived: Benson's control of narrative and eye for significant detail soon won the day. As it is, his subject-matter remains intriguing enough. 'At Abdul Ali's Grave' describes Egyptian exhumations and a struggle between Black and White Magics. Next, in the better-known "The Man Who Went Too Far', an artistic fellow over-indulges in some dangerous Nature-mysticism, hears the Pan-pipes, and becomes that tricky god's not altogether willing victim. Published in 1904, it must have read even then like a throwback to the 1890s. But Fred himself went still further, cheerfully owning up to expanding and recycling the idea 'into a book called The Angel of Pain', a rather odd sort of sadomasochistic novel published in 1905. Either way, it appears an uncustomary failure in artistic judgement
The same criticism applies to the third story, 'The Cat". As a lover of both women and cats, I'm somewhat out of sympathy with the Fred who can write: 'She was one of those blonde, lithe, silken girls who, happily for the peace of men's minds, are rather rare, and who remind one of some humanised yet celestial and bestial cat.' Here again, a sensitive artistic chap is laid low by powerful natural urges, most often sexual, if always fatally repressed . . . Readers may still enjoy the skilful writing and the predictably ghastly conclusion, provided they can accept the general misogyny and lads-togetherness for what they are—all-too-sadly widespread Edwardian attitudes. Such attitudes were by no means exclusive to Fred Benson, though in his case—life and writings—they often quite openly erupted despite himself, whether quasi-hysterically or in the more controlled guise of satire.
Cruelty, neurosis, sleek but steely charm: it's all there, a sinister and fascinating brew, without a single dud among the twelve terrific stories that follow. Like his friend Henry James, Fred's outward style was affable if aloof: both were cultural rather than social snobs. And like James also, E.F. Benson remained unmarried but 'wedded to his work'—finally honoured and admired yet always, to the end, unknowably cryptosexual.
The author who wished readers 'some pleasant qualms' perusing his stories might have been pleasantly surprised himself by this splendid edition. Skilfully edited, handsomely produced—claret binding and endpapers; jacket artwork by Douglas Walters and Rob Suggs; photo of the young Fred Benson—Ash-Tree Press's The Terror by Night is highly recommended on every score. Rush to order it now!
THE PASSENGER: Collected Spook Stories Vol. 2 by E.F. Benson; edited by Jack Adrian
Ash-Tree Press, 1999; xx + 153pp;
£24.00/US$39.00/Cdn$51.00; ISBN 1-899562-81-8
This second volume of the weird short stories of Edward Frederic Benson (1867-1940) continues Ash-Tree Press's admirable project of bringing together all of the author's 'known tales of the strange and supernatural into a five-volume set'. As the publishers point out, not only has most of Benson's supernatural fiction been long out of print and proved difficult for general readers to obtain, but 'over the past two decades nearly a score of previously uncollected stories have been unearthed, which need to be integrated within the Benson "spook story" canon.' Jack Adrian, to whom much credit is due for discovering most of this fascinating 'new' material, is the excellent editor of the series and contributes here another informative and enjoyable introduction.
Adrian's chronological rearrangement of the stories now gives us the chance to see just how prolific, consistent, and remarkable was Benson's work in the genre. The fourteen stories included here date from 1912-1921. The opener itself—the title also of Benson's first and perhaps most celebrated collection—has a grisly power and conviction which even its very inventive and resourceful author rarely equalled. 'The Room in the Tower' is one of the best of all shorter ghost stories, of its kind a twentieth century classic. Indeed, readers who don't already know this much-anthologised, concise, and creepy tale will find it lingers in the mind, memorably nasty in its swift, matter-of-fact way. There's a horrid and inexorable logic to the progress of events, centering upon a recurring dream. 'The Room in the Tower' hooks you from the very start—from that unpuctuated yet precise, clear yet suggestive, leisurely yet rapid, opening sentence: 'It is probable that everybody who is at all a constant dreamer has had at least one experience of an event or a sequence of circumstances which have come to his mind in sleep being subsequently realised in the material world.'
Whether or not E.F. Benson himself actually believed in ghosts (Adrian is inclined to doubt it), it's pretty certain he did draw for fictional purposes upon his dreams. Given the Bensons' bizarre family background and Fred's own repressed—or anyhow highly secretive—sexuality, no wonder some of these stories are lurid to say the least! Misogyny and throat-cutting, for instance, are just a couple of distinct Bensonian leitmotivs. As to the former—women tend to be victims and vampires, attractive (and therefore duplicitous) betrayers, objects of satire or hideous ghouls: examples abound in virtually every story here. Yet Benson is such a powerful and convincing writer that we read on, spellbound, prepared to overlook the nastier prejudices, social injustices, and fashions of his day.
Perhaps, indeed, one has to be a profoundly disturbed individual to dream up such thoroughly disturbing fictions? Fred Benson certainly possessed the necessary talent to do so—and not only through his prolific short story output for the magazines of his time. In his longer works of the same period too, may be located equally unsettling, quite as grotesque and gruesome encapsulations of Benson's recurrent, obsessive concerns. For instance, the 1919 novel Across the Stream contains an extended nightmare sequence involving a beautiful classical statue. This serene figure (female, of course) duly disintegrates and seethes into a frightful mass of worms writhing outward from its own inner decay! Continuing misogyny seems proven, although Jack Adrian—as also in the introduction to his 1988 Benson story collection The Flint Knife—has much of interest and relevance to say regarding Fred's sexuality.
But the generally male ethos of the stories here—all good fellows together—needn't put newer readers off. As Timothy Mallard's father warns his son in 'The Psychical Mallards': There's nothing which wholesome English boys dislike so much as queerness. Get over your queerness, my dear, and do credit to the great middle class from which you come.' In fact some nice satire, both intentional and unintentional, quaintly dated or still contemporaneously applicable, is to be savoured throughout Benson's macabre work. I'm still unconvinced, though, that 'humorous' or whimsical ghost stories really work: they seem to me a contradiction in terms, and there are several in this volume.
No, Fred Benson seemed far happier with hanged men, vengeful revenants, murderous butlers, and as mentioned earlier, throat-cutting. (For the latter, in this volume, check out 'The Passenger', 'The Return of Frank Hampden', and 'The Chippendale Mirror'.) The narrator's chum in several stories is 'Hugh Grainger, the ruling passion of whose life is crime and ghosts'. HG, an affable enough chap, if not exactly your bona fide psychic detective, admits to 'funk' but nonetheless complains: 'It's so difficult to get frightened nowadays. All but a few things are explained and accounted for. What one fears is the unknown. No one knows yet what ghosts are, or why they appear, or to whom.' All of which remains true.
Apart from some occasional perceptive comments, however, Grainger is more or less a cypher. A more interesting character, expert rather than amateur, and so too perhaps worthier of fictional resurrection elsewhere, is Teesdale—protagonist of one of the very best stories here, 'The Confession of Charles Linkworth'. 'In his leisure hours Dr Teesdale was a considerable student of the occult, for like most advanced and proficient physicians, he clearly recognised how narrow was the boundary of separation between soul and body, how tremendous the influence of the intangible over material things, and it presented no difficulty to his mind that a disembodied spirit should be able to communicate directly with those who still were bounded by the finite and material.'
Writing as a committed Benson fan, but trying to be as objective as possible, I'd say half-a-dozen stories here were first-rate, while a couple of others—'The Passenger' and The Ape'—for all their professional verve seem somewhat perfunctory and hence don't quite make it. The rest are flawed in other ways: they come across as too flippant, whimsical, even gentle—their author seeming content to be a sociable entertainer rather than that impressive explorer of things horrific and inexplicable which he was at his best. At least three of these failures have for their theme Spiritualism, a view of things more generally soppy than genuinely creepy . . . Readers may regret that Fred didn't harshly or horribly enough test the opinion voiced by a character in his novel on that particular subject, Across the Stream: 'She hated the idea of commerce between the living and the dead; there was the root of it. The strangeness of the idea made it seem unnatural.' If only he had given us more Teesdale, less of those eponymous Psychical Mallards!
But even in that light-nonsense piece (the final story here, from 1921), Mallard fils hears from his house-master 'the terrible news that, in a fit of temporary insanity, his father had cut the throats of his cook, his wife, and his parlour-maid, and, subsequently, his own'! Madness, for the Benson clan, was by no means a laughing matter, nor was violence, but it was Fred, perhaps the 'sanest' of them, who had the clearest literary skill and humour (black or otherwise) to help him survive. And this he triumphantly did, just as—a mere two lines after the wholesale literary throat-cutting—'Tim resolutely faced the future'. As for us, we must resolutely, if not impatiently, look forward to three further volumes of spooky tales: Ash-Tree Press promise some horrid Bensonian treats in store. An appropriate Douglas Walters cover, plus a most striking author photograph —Fred handsome, pensive, droopy-moustached, gazing rather obliquely and pale-eyed towards the camera—make this edition a must for collectors.
MRS AMWORTH by E.F. Benson edited by Jack Adrian
Ash-Tree Press, 2001; xxiv + 204 pp; £26.007 US$ 41.507 C$56.00; ISBN 1-55310-018-2
Reviewed by Alexis Lykiard
E.F.Benson (1867-1940) was the longest-lived, most sociable, professional and prolific of the three Benson brothers. In literary terms he was also the most substantial, if in many ways the weirdest, of this very peculiar trio. Like his brothers A.C. and R.H., and in common with the majority of specialists in the macabre, Fred[eric] was most effective when most concise - within the short story or novella form, rather than via novels. The latter, however, Fred steadily produced with awesome regularity, and his abiding interest in the supernatural manifests itself in several of them and sheds additional light on his even more accomplished, shorter spook stories.
I was reminded of this on reading for the first time two longer Fred Benson books, Colin (1923), and Raven's Brood (1934), his last macabre novel. Both works are adept and on occasion impressive, yet although both do contain striking eerie elements and episodes, the tension and ghoulish horror of his short stories are notably absent. What is exposed, or becomes ever more apparent, is an overt misogyny - alongside its converse, a covert homoeroticism. It's with the shorter works, however, that Benson could most memorably express or channel what seems to have been a fear and loathing of women.
Take, for example, two of the strongest tales in this extraordinary collection (the third volume of five in Ash-Tree's definitive, complete set of EFB's shorter supernatural fictions) - the much-anthologised title-story, and 'The Outcast'. In these as in other Benson works women are depicted as almost another species, creatures beyond the pale, beyond male understanding, and all too often deadly. For Benson the fair sex seemed dark indeed: it could be analysed and satirised very successfully in his social comedies, but in his ghost stories women evidently had also to be exorcised. The eponymous Mrs A. is a vampire, while the outcast Mrs Acres provides another, different view of the Undead; in these truly strange stories Fred's own dread fairly bubbles over.
Equally bizarre or ghastly are the fates met by these doomed, cruel, dismaying creatures, for Benson metes out fictional retribution with something close to relish. Thus females, even if not always villains, sadists - or mutant hags, as in 'The Horror-Horn' -tend to be victims or suicides. In this collection alone they must be buried, impaled, hanged, incinerated, drowned, strangled, hacked with a skate, etc. Even the best of women, as in 'Roderick's Story', are made to endure bereavement and disfigurement... Par too, for Benson's gruesome course, is 'And The Dead Spake...', whose murderess after a fit suffers a broken skull and then has her brain dissected. Serve the vile beast right Fred seems to say with something approaching glee, in this unusually H.G.Wellsian tale. But while some science-fictional aspects of this story may be Wellsian, its other recurrent themes, such as the misogyny and throatcutting, are not. (And there's more of the latter, by the way, in 'The Gardener'.)
Far from flinching at horrific detail, Fred enjoyed making our flesh creep, and here he distinctly resembles the first-person narrator of 'Roderick's Story' - that self-styled "horror-monger" whose own tales are "designed to be of an uncomfortable type". As for those stories-within-the-story savoured by Fred's fictionalised friend Roderick, "one concerned a vampire, one an elemental, the third the reincarnation of a certain execrable personage". Through the new chronological re-ordering of the whole series (or by an apt post-modern irony), these just happen to be three of the weirdest tales included in this 2001 collection. But like so many of the most powerful ghost stories, Benson's are grimly revelatory narratives, psychologically speaking. They pose uneasy questions: how to confront or deal with dark, irrational fears? The process of suggesting possible answers -by the urgent projection or transformation into literature of recurrent inner disturbances and barely resistible phobias - spins one important strand of an effective uncanny yarn.
So I have doubts about Jack Adrian's contention that there can really exist such an odd hybrid or oxymoron as the comic ghost story. Of course the supernatural as literary genre is wonderfully flexible and accommodating; the idea, however, of its inherent comedic potential seems not only limitation, but contradiction in terms. Nervous laughter in the face of horror or panic may naturally be a valid, indeed frequent, reaction. Yet shock and hysteria must lurk nonetheless, and there's surely little room in the haunted house for parody or hilarity. Prefacing the second edition of his initial spook collection, The Room In The Tower, Benson himself underlined the fact that his stories "deal with the dim unseen forces which occasionally and perturbingly make themselves manifest", and concluded: "The author therefore fervently wishes his readers a few uncomfortable moments". Benson's sense of humour was sardonic (and besides, outrage, breakdowns, violence and madness seemed to run in the family!) but his ghost stories don't usually play for laughs. It is the relatively few gentler, more whimsical tales that seem dated or just don't work. Not even the worldly and cynical Fred managed to render the paranormal and inexplicable especially humorous; he couldn't have found death funny or the supernatural a true subject for comedy.
As it is, GSS readers can rest assured that there's scarcely a dud among the sixteen stories in this third volume. Only 'Mr Tilly's Seance', a jokey send-up of spiritualism, actually misfires. (Perhaps because spiritualism itself is ridiculous enough without requiring parody?) Anyhow the very productive period covered (April 1922 to November 1923) spawned some vintage Benson stories - oddly obsessional, horridly convincing ventures into the shadowlands of nightmare. And as a bonus for Benson fans, there are three excellent 'unknown' stories, unearthed from obscure magazines by the indefatigable series editor, Jack Adrian. These - 'No 12'; 'The Top Landing', and 'Boxing Night' - are short, sharp and gruesome. They ring the changes on some favourite Bensonian themes of suicide and premonition, paranoia and nightmare, fitting in fine with the more familiar tales included, like 'Negotium Perambulans' (a chip off M.R. James's block, or church pew) and 'The Horror- Horn'. H.P.Lovecraft no less, analysing Supernatural Horror in Literature, praised Benson's versatility and singled out both 'Negotium Perambulans' - "whose unfolding reveals an abnormal monster from an ancient ecclesiastical panel which performs an act of miraculous vengeance in a lonely village on the Cornish coast, and 'The Horror-Horn', through which lopes a terrible half-human survival dwelling on unvisited Alpine peaks".
Looking back in Final Edition (1940), Benson comments that through "a selection of disturbing details", his practice has been "to induce in the reader an uneasy frame of mind". Having set the scene and conjured the required atmosphere, Fred would dream up an assortment of shocks - involving a gruesome revelation or climactic encounter - and then deliver a last twist of terror to the tale, a grisly coup de grace. In this fascinating collection, contrasted locations familiar to their well-travelled author are recreated to telling effect: Rye and environs, London, Sussex, Cornwall, Scotland, the Alps. The various landscapes are rapidly and accurately sketched; the descriptive powers of Fred in his mid-fifties seem at their height. Always alert to social nuances, the writer shows himself attentive to particulars and observant, if cynically waspish, about credulous humanity in general.
His admirers now have the chance to reassess a few stories previously underrated -such as 'At The Farmhouse', 'Inscrutable Decrees' and 'Expiation' - while those unfamiliar with Fred's macabre work have some treats in store. But even the sceptics should discover something of interest in this distinctively horrid literary brew... Finally, more down-to-earth matters. Jack Adrian's Introduction is very informative also about Benson's byzantine dealings with publishers like the egregious and autocratic Walter Hutchinson: readers who aren't actually writers themselves may find such detail excessive, but they can always skip. This third volume is just as finely researched and produced as the preceding pair. Editing and artwork (Douglas Walters, Rob Suggs) are as ever with Ash-Tree, impeccable, and no one interested in the deceptive art of the ghost story should be without it.
THE FACE by E.F.Benson edited by Jack Adrian
Ash-Tree Press, 2003; xxii + 181pp; £28/US$ 457 C$59.00; ISBN 1-55310-052-2
Reviewed by Alexis Lykiard
This, the fourth in Ash-Tree's admirable five-volume set of Benson's Collected Spook Stories, covers the period December 1923 to November 1927. As before. Jack Adrian's scrupulous and painstaking editing of this indispensable series involves - along with Adrian's editorial discoveries and a wealth of fascinating information - the chronological re-ordering of numerous wonderfully macabre, consistently well-written tales. All this enthusiastic scholarship enables readers old and new to expect some gruesome and gripping delights, and none, surely, will be disappointed. Ash-Tree's production, and the artwork (by Douglas Walters and Rob Suggs) are as usual excellent. The edition, limited to 600 copies, will rapidly become a collector's item, so place your orders and read on!
Of the fifteen stories here, several are among Fred Benson's best: four of them, indeed, I selected for my two-volume choice of his ghost stories, made for Panther in the mid-1970s, but GSS readers will doubtless enjoy compiling and comparing their own list of favourites. What's becoming clearer, critically speaking, is how E.F. Benson (1867-1940) - apart from being the most gregarious, productive, and in literary terms substantial, of the three Benson brothers -contrived to cope with, if not exorcise, the madness and melancholia afflicting the whole family. His own unforgettable uncanny stories would seem to have accomplished that vexed trick for him, which perhaps accounts for their timelessness, their enduring power. Quite possibly it was Fred's energetic upperclass socialising - all affable partygoing, comfortable travelling and gentlemanly sporting activities: the 'outdoor' or surface side of his character - that disguised or even restrained the darker aspects of a complex, often enigmatic writer.
In fact, the more one reads of Benson the more haunted seems this truly deceptive, ultimately secretive author. For whenever he abandoned those urbane potboilers and social comedies (he scarcely needed either the practice or the money) in favour of grimmer excursions into the supernatural, Fred Benson really let rip. Adrian tells how publisher Arthur Hutchinson rejected one such narrative as "a powerful story that is actually repellent". However, Fred would and did, as the publisher complained, "deal with the horrible"; the author saw no earthly reason to cease doing so: whereas in life there might be due reluctance or reticence, in literature there was none. On the contrary, a certain grisly relish informed his forays into the supernatural. Throughout his life Fred Benson was preoccupied with "these dim avenues of the unseen", and displayed nothing of what (in his 1919 novel, Across The Stream) he also termed "the habitual contempt of the thoroughly normal and healthy mind for anything akin to psychical experiences".
While he could poke fun at phoney mediums and spiritualism (see the previous volumes, and 'Spinach' in this one), Fred nevertheless manifested a lifelong interest in areas of what's generally labelled paranormal experience, examining premonition, deja vu, time-slips, coincidence and so on. In 'Corstophine', he reflects: "What is the use of communications between this world and some other world inaccessible to the ordinary perceptions of mankind if these communications contain nothing that is of value or interest?" Hardly coincidental then, that 'Corstophine' should open with the name given the narrator's visitor-friend: the secret sharer, as it were, in the ensuing, curiously philosophic (perhaps even quasi-Platonic) dialogue. What name? Fred Bennett. So was Fred Benson/Bennett 'bent' - and what importance in his work have such sly or jokey hints? We may never know: there's anyhow less implicit homoeroticism and rampant misogyny on view in this fourth volume. This mid-1920s series of tales, while as effective as ever, is rather more meditative, gentler than usual - but for a few surprisingly nasty exceptions.
Hugh Lamb once observed: "the narrator of 'A Tale Of An Empty House' not only hears and sees the ghost of a murderer, but finds himself wrestling with it. And here we come to one of the keys to Fred's success in this field: his ghosts are very physical". In other frequently anthologised stories - 'The Face'; 'And No Bird Sings'; 'The Temple'- the threatening entities are also vengeful, tactile, malign. "The Bath-Chair' and 'The Dance' are misanthropic, memorably nasty gems, wherein spirit and flesh battle it out to the inevitable and horrifying finish. This time round, favoured Bensonian themes (throatcutting, female grotesques, etc) aren't so pronounced, although the former recurs in 'The Temple', and "the great misshapen bulk" of a murderous spouse terrorises a meek little mouse of a man in "The Corner House'. The travesty of a relationship in the latter contrasts with the affectionate couple portrayed in another, unusually gentle yet effective story, "The Call'. (But as Jack Adrian informs us, 'The Call' appeared in the 1926 issue of The Radio Times, the week before Christmas. This might explain its mellower, almost-feel-good flavour!)
Lamb and others have also remarked that "sardonic humour permeates much of Fred's work". If innate wit helped Fred Benson preserve his own mental equilibrium - a difficult enough tightrope act, amid all those eccentric, dysfunctional or barking-mad members of the Benson family! - it must have been equally hard to keep his wits about him when facing the privileged class-values and shallow prejudice of 1920s England. He was clearly an accomplished satirist, a sceptical, beady-eyed observer of that very frivolous society, as he proved with almost gleeful facility in his other, better known books. Fred Benson's deeper, darker, introspective side was, however, best expressed in his superb supernatural writings. Witness the final paragraph of 'The Sluice', the last story in this fourth volume: "Of the other phenomena recorded I have no explanation to give, but only suggest that the veil between the seen and what we call the unseen is of thinnest gossamer, and that ever and again we have glimpses of what lies outside our mortal vision."
A convincingly vivid descriptive writer, Benson's a mythmaker whose stranger fancies are full of unexpected twists and suggestive insights. Such propensities perhaps ran in the family: after all, it was Fred's father, the formidable former Primate, who told Henry James the story James used for The Turn Of The Screw. Christian clergy are notoriously the most obsessed and fluent of myth-merchants, but sceptical Fred, unlike his brother the Monsignor, had better sense than to become a religionist. He seemed to believe in whatever was out there that could not be glibly explained. And he tried exploring such things in his blackly humorous, sceptical way: "The only inexplicable folk are the wise, and wisdom has very little to do with cleverness. Wisdom is perhaps the cleverness of the soul, that looks down with pity on the manoeuvres of the mind."
SEA MIST by E.F .Benson edited by Jack Adrian
Ash-Tree Press, 2005; xxx + 348pp; £29.007 US $48.507 CDN $59.00; ISBN 1-55310-078-6
Reviewed by Alexis Lykiard
This is the fifth and final volume of the 'Collected Spook Stories' of E.F.Benson, and it brings together all the recently discovered tales assiduously unearthed and republished by editor Jack Adrian in several Benson anthologies from the 1980s on. The latest collection, like those preceding it, provides a fascinating rearrangement of the stories themselves according to their chronological order of composition and original publication. The stories vary in interest and quality, as one might expect, and first appeared in a number of long-defunct, mostly forgotten, now well-nigh inaccessible magazines and journals: the prolific Fred Benson produced his macabre stories at a remarkably steady rate throughout a lengthy and successful writing life. It concludes a wonderful and indispensable series, and is the culmination of a project that beyond doubt now places Benson where he fittingly belongs - among a small, select group of 19th and 20th century virtuosi who specialised in that deceptively difficult genre of supernatural horror.
Sea Mist covers the period between December 1927 and Benson's death in 1940. A very generous helping of the creepy, the whimsical and the satirical (seventeen stories) is supplemented by 150-odd additional pages. These include editorial material and comment, sources, acknowledgements, and three Appendices (though please, not Appendixes, which are always anatomical not scholarly!), alongside various essays — such as 'The Technique of the Ghost Story', and the 1895 'The recent "Witch-Burning" at Clonmel — plus extracts from other, longer works of biography, criticism, and memoirs. There's a fascinating appreciation of Stevenson's success and failure vis-a-vis Jekyll and Hyde, with witty and invariably judicious reflections on the Brontes, Le Fanu, Demoniacal Possession and much else. All Hallows readers will already know from my reviews of the preceding four volumes that this is an indispensable set, whose editing and production could scarcely be excelled, let alone superseded.
As for highlights - memorable moments, perceptive asides, and black humour - many such are to be found in this fifth volume. Admittedly, we are some fifty pages into the book before there's any vintage Bensonian horror (e.g. that throatcutting leitmotiv previously remarked), but Fred's writing is ever-professional, generally skilful and descriptively absorbing, even on those rare occasions when the narratives might seem perfunctory or unconvincing. Certain stories here — especially the more familiar or widely-anthologised ones, such as "Pirates'; 'The Hanging of Alfred Wadham'; "The Bed by the Window'; 'The Step'; "The Sanctuary', and 'Monkeys' - are indeed classics of the genre: these dark gems still shine from their fondly detailed settings, both geographical (Cornwall, Egypt, Norfolk) and thematic (recurrent dream, murder and retribution, black magic, vivisection, etc), and their newest readers will very likely experience the pleasurable shivers Fred specifically intended them to feel.
His own ambivalence toward, and abiding fascination with, the supernatural, means that a healthy edge of scepticism undercuts even his lighter, more whimsical tales, like the first two here, dealing with time-slips and mediums - 'Sir Roger de Coverley' and 'The Box at the Bank'.
Nevertheless, the latter contains a medium's declaration of faith, "We hear things that are not audible to our corporeal senses", and Fred, who admitted to attending a number of seances himself, does not always mock or dismiss the possibility, however unlikely, of some genuine communication with or from whatever lies Beyond. But philosophic speculations never ruin his rattling (or creeping) good yarns: 'Alfred Wadham' contains a gruesomely interrupted sermon that harks back to Le Fanu and a Catholic confessional situation that looks forward to Hitchcock, but perhaps Fred was just teasing his brother the Monsignor? There's another ecclesiastic in his tale of Cornish witchcraft, 'The Wishing Well', and a hint of lesbian necrophily, while 'Christopher comes back' continues the theme of evil women. Elsewhere, the misogyny prevails and women become the victims - as in The Bed by the Window'; 'James Lamp'; and the title story, one of the last macabre tales Fred published, 'Sea Mist'. Memorably nasty imagery involving flies may be found in 'The Flint Knife', and in The Sanctuary' too (which hints, besides, at paedophilia and paederasty), while in 'Monkeys' the cold vivisectionist gets a singularly unpleasant comeuppance. As for animals, openminded readers will surely be interested to read of that suicidal canine, featured by Fred so long ago in 'Sea Mist' — especially in the light of Fortean Times 196 (May 2005) which lists a whole recent spate of such inexplicable dog-deaths.
In fact, this terrific final volume maintains the extraordinarily high standard of the earlier quartet, and like the others, has been meticulously edited by the tireless Jack Adrian. (Perhaps Adrian's remark that "Fred had the research habit even as a young man" might equally apply to himself?) Throughout, his editorial comments are judicious and illuminating, and it seems appropriate to end by quoting a couple of them, which certainly gave me — both as writer and Benson enthusiast — pause for thought. Fred's stories, so often excellent as agreed (and his own speculative essay on ghost stories notwithstanding), almost equally often express "a cavalier disregard for the rules". And yet, as a fanatical sportsman, Fred invariably kept his eye on the ball: he demonstrated, with that deceptive ease which comes of much practice, that, among so much else "the biographer's art... should under no circumstances turn into the hagiographer's artifice".