Sunday, 23 December 2012

Monkeys

Fiction ~ short story
First published* in Weird Tales, December 1933
Collected in More Spook Stories (1934)
6,240 words
(First read 23/12/2012)

Monkeys/apes, an ancient Egyptian mummy and the curse that inevitably goes with it, a London surgeon who experiments on live animals (among them, obviously, monkeys) ~ all the ingredients for ... well, a routine Benson spook/horror story in which the author cannot resist the temptation to tell you, around the halfway point, what's going to happen in the end, making it not worth your while to read to the end.
It's available online here.  

*Apparently. 

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

The Bath-chair

Fiction ~ short story
First published in More Spook Stories, 1934
6,270 words
(First read 19/12/2012) 

The story is available online here.













THE CRITICS
 
Women very rarely feature as the central figures in Benson's ghost stories. When they do, their role is both potent and ominous.
[…] consider the sister, Alice Faraday, in The Bath-Chair, who housekeeps for her brother and is bullied by him: “There was glee and gusto in her voice” (she is talking about her brother's increasing lameness) “And how slovenly and uncouth she was, with that lock of grey hair across her forehead and her uncared-for hands. Dr. Inglis … wondered if she was quite right in the head.” And what happens in that story? Alice, who detests her brother, conspires with the limping ghost of their father, dead already, to perpetrate a kind of supernatural murder; the brother is ultimately found lying dead in the father's wheelchair. Suppressed sibling rivalry is plainly evident here, as well as a strong patricidal wish. In fact when Benson's characters do step off the sidelines, stop merely observing, and take part in the action, they engage in the most ferocious kind of family warfare.
[…] the underlying fear and dislike of women ~ some women, at all events, the large, bossy, dynamic, interfering, knowing kind of woman. Benson must have been acquainted with some fearful examples of this type; or, at least, he must have known one. Perhaps, like Mrs Amworth, she preyed on adolescent boys.
~Joan Aiken in foreword to The Collected Ghost Stories of E. F. Benson, 1992

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

The Wishing-well

Fiction ~ short story
Published in Hutchinson's Magazine, February 1929
5,620 words
(First read 12/12/2012) 

Interestingly-named Cornish pub
A tale of superstition and magic, with no real spooks to speak of, The Wishing-Well starts like others of EFB's stories set in Cornwall with a lengthy description of the setting: the remoteness of the spot and the superstitiousness of the locals.  Yes, despite being set in the present, the Cornwall of Benson's imagining is still grubbing about in the Middle Ages¹.  I forgive him, but half a million Cornishmen in 1929 might not have.
Anyway, the long and the short is that an inhabitant of the village of St Gervase, a 40-year old gentlewoman² spinster by the name of Judith Eusters³, falls in love with a strapping young local lad, and makes a bit of an ass of herself.  When she finds out he only has eyes for a buxom wench his own age she [yawn] puts a curse on him using the tried-and-tested wishing-well method ... the curse backfires ... or she ends up counter-cursed ... or something ... I forget the rest.
Despite my dismissive tone I really quite liked The Wishing-Well ~ yes, it's as daft as it sounds, but it's fun.
You can read it online here.



¹ See The Inheritor (1930), amongst others.
² Well, as much of a gentlewoman as it's possible to be in the backwoods of Cornwall.  Her father, the vicar, appears to be the only other person 'of breeding' around.  Oh that reminds me: Benson pulls what I can only call a dazzlingly brazen cheap literary trick by having her father a devotee of folklorey stuff, with a particular interest in wishing-wells, enabling him (EFB) to explain the 'theory' behind the story by getting the Rev. Eusters to dictate a big chunk of it to Judith for the book he's writing on the subject ...
³ A name apparently unique to EFB ~ where he got it from I've no idea.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Pirates

Fiction ~ short story
First published in Hutchinson's Magazine, October 1928
Collected in More Spook Stories (1934)
7,115 words
(First read 06/12/2012)

Pirates isn't just my favourite of Benson's spook stories, it's one of my favouritest of all his stories.  In truth, to call it a spook story at all is fairly misleading: there's a lot more to it than that.  It's a story about nostalgia and loneliness and longing and belonging.
It is, furthermore, by far the most autobiographical of EFB's stories, spook or otherwise.  The protagonist, Peter Graham, is a widowed gent of 56 years; Benson was 61 when Pirates was published, and, as we all know, a lifelong bachelor.  Both spent parts of their childhood in Truro, Cornwall: the Graham family home was named Lescop, the Bensons' Lis Escop ['The Bishop's House'].  Both came from largeish families: the Grahams totaled five siblings, the Bensons six, though the eldest of
Truro
Fred's (Martin) died shortly after they settled in Cornwall.  Graham's childhood memories centre on his sisters rather than brothers, as did Benson's; they even have a memory in common ~ that story of the stickleback recounted in 
Our Family Affairs and Once reappears here.  Anyway, here it is in a nutshell:
there was another loneliness which neither married life nor his keen interest in business had ever extinguished, and this was directly connected with his desire for that house on the green slope of the hills above Truro. [...] the youngest but one of a family of five children, he alone was left.  One by one they had dropped off the stem of life.  [...] None of that brood of children except himself, and he childless, had married, and now when he was left without intimate tie of blood to any living being, a loneliness had gathered thickly round him. [...] sometimes he ached with this dull gnawing ache of loneliness, which is worse than all others, when he thought of the stillness that lay congealed like clear ice over these young and joyful years when Lescop had been so noisy and alert and full of laughter ...
Graham pays a brief visit to Truro after an absence of 40 years, during which he walks round the town and sees sights which seem to be 'echoes' of a particular day in his own childhood; he also goes to look at the old family home, now abandoned and falling into disrepair ~ here too he seems to hear echoes of the past.
Lis Escop, Truro.  (Very poor image, I'm afraid)
He resumes his everyday life and time passes.  One day his doctor tells him he has a heart condition and needs rest in a warm climate.  "Would Cornwall be warm enough?" he asks.  And so it comes to pass that, after having from the house agent the merest hint of a hint that Lescop has stood empty for so long because it might be 'haunted', he moves back into his childhood home and continues to reconstruct his memories of that idyllic time.  And the hauntings ~ if, indeed, such they were ~ ... stop.  I won't give away the ending, though it's fairly easily guessable.

The major factors that differentiate Pirates from most ~ if not all ~ other Benson spook stories are these:
(1) It's a third-person narration.  While this distances the reader somewhat from the protagonist (and, more importantly, the protagonist from the author), at the same time it gives you a better view of Graham as an in-the-round person, and one with emotions!  It also helps that he's a businessman, not just some amateur dabbling toff whose name you don't even know.
(2) The genuineness of the autobiographical detail ~ from the game of pirates that the kiddies used to play, to the attic stairs the young Peter would take in one jump ~ make it all feel peculiarly real.
(3) And ~ the biggest of the lot ~ EFB leaves it entirely up to the reader to decide whether there are any ghosts in it at all, whether the extremely level-headed Mr Graham is imagining things, or 'conjuring' things ... and if there are ghosts, why are they there? what are their intentions? and, most interestingly for me, have they conjured him?   

Well, anyway, I can't recommend this one highly enough.  And luckily it's available online here


 

Monday, 26 November 2012

The Dance

Rupert Grint (not relevant)
Fiction ~ short story
First published in the collection More Spook Stories, April 1934
5,290 words
(First read 26/11/2012) 

The Dance shows EFB at his most gleefully sadistic and (I have to add) morally censorious.  The 'hero' of the piece is Philip Hope; his description is worth quoting in full:
In person he was notably small and slight, narrow-chested, with spindle arms and legs.  He leaned on a stick as he walked, for one of his knees was permanently stiff, but he was quick and nimble in spite of his limping gait.  His clothes were fantastic; he wore a bright mustard-coloured suit, a green silk tie, a pink silk shirt, with a low collar, above which rose a rather long neck supporting his very small sharp-chinned face, quite hairless and looking as if no razor had ever plied across it.  His eyes were steel grey, and had no lashes on either lid: whether they looked up or down, they gave the impression of a mocking and amused vigilance.  They saw much and derived much entertainment.  He was hatless, and the thick crop of auburn hair that covered his head could deceive nobody, nor indeed did he intend that it should.
(The only elements missing from this rundown are his goatlike laugh and prominent ears.)  And he is, dear reader, a sadist ~ there's no other word for it.  At his clifftop house near Cromer (Norfolk) his wife [Benson Heroine Type A] who's less than half his age and who married him out of pity, and his secretary [Benson Hero Type A] have just fallen in love and for a week or so Philip delights in tormenting them at every available opportunity.  Then one day he and
Cromer lighthouse (has small part)
the sec, Julian, go for a walk along the cliff and, just after Phil's told him to sling his hook, the inevitable ~ okay, the predictable ~ happens and over he goes.  A year passes; Julian and the young widow are now married; they come to stay at the Norfolk house ...  You can pretty much guess the rest.

Now admittedly Philip is the great star of the show, and when he dies the story does sag a little ~ but his return is well worth the wait.  Of course The Dance is utterly daft, and EFB's habit of punishing all those who commit adultery or even think about it*, regardless of how loathsome the intended cuckold, rather sticks in the craw these days ~ but it's fun, it's not too long, and the bit just before the climax is actually rather good.  It's available online here.

* See also Christopher Comes Back (1929).

 

Friday, 16 November 2012

The Bed by the Window

Fiction ~ short story
First published in Hutchinson's Story Magazine, July 1929
Collected in More Spook Stories (1934)
4,470 words
(First read 16/11/2012) 

The story is available online here.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

An Autumn Sowing

Fiction ~ novel
Published November 1917
Approx. 80,000 words
(First read 13/11/2012)

I had such good memories of An Autumn Sowing first time round that I've just taken the unusual step of reading it again after an interval of less than a year and a half.  I wasn't disappointed: I still consider it one of Benson's best novels, of the 33 I've read to date¹ [02/04/14].
It tells the story of a 50-year old provincial businessman's doomed love for his 30-ish secretary.  (As a matter of fact, the age gap isn't an issue here; EFB apparently only considers it an issue when it's older-woman/younger-man.)
Thomas Keeling's business ~ The Stores in Bracebridge ~ is a roaring success; he has more money than he knows what to do with; he lives in comfort, even luxury, in a suburban villa with his odious wife, vacuous daughter, and (sadly) rather invisible sons; he goes to church; he goes to work; his life isn't unhappy, but nor is it happy.  His one pleasure in the world is his book collection, but he's not
interested in first editions or medieval manuscripts; instead he collects brand-new deluxe editions of old works, Omar Khayyam and the like, especially illustrated ones.
He's put the overseeing of this hobby in the hands of The Stores' book buyer, a young chap named Propert.  When Keeling finds himself in need of a shorthand-typist, Propert proposes his sister Norah, who is duly employed.  At first he finds her somewhat cold and aloof and she finds him a cad, but his feelings for her gradually change, as do hers for him.  After much soul-searching he declares himself; Norah reciprocates; he plans to throw everything up and run away with her; she, however, like many another Benson heroine and hero, is made of nobler stuff, and rather than (a) wreck his home, and (b) embroil the pair of them in a frightful scandal, throws him up and leaves him, at the end of the novel, in exactly the same situation we found him in.
Boiled down to its bones like this it doesn't sound much unlike a lot of Benson's other somewhat tedious romantic melodramas (Sheaves, Rex, Juggernaut ...).  But there's so much more to it.  Where to start?
EFB's job on Keeling is not at all far off being a masterpiece of characterization: he's very skilfully and subtly drawn, and utterly unlike any other Benson protagonist I've yet come across ~ totally human, entirely believable, alternately quite likeable and a bit exasperating, with flaws and failings but principles too; in short, he's a man, not to be ranked among that endless Bensonian parade of stuffed plaster saints²; and not only that ~ he's a common man of the 'self-made' variety, not a gentleman with some vague 'post' at some ministry or other and 35,000 acres in Berkshire, not some golden-haired tofflet who quite fancies being a poet or a playwright and whose daddy happens to be the Earl of Limpsfield.  [You're raving now, Ewie.]  Thomas Keeling is a fully-rounded 3D character: you can walk all the way round him and view him from every angle; he's different from front and back; there are no gaping holes in him; unlike such a lot of EFB's characters, he makes sense.





¹ Only another 30 to go ...................
² Oops, there's no such thing as a 'stuffed plaster saint', is there? ~ ah well, we'll leave it. 


THE CRITICS

The author's skill in character-drawing is shown at the outset of the book, and there is a good deal of humour in the narrative, as for instance the man who, being struck with the type in an édition de luxe of Omar Khayyam, suggests that it might be enlarged and used as an advertisement of a summer sale! It is one of the most interesting of E F Benson's stories, and is sure to be in great demand […].
~Hastings and St Leonards Observer, 17/11/1917
Mr E F Benson has selected for the chief personage of his novel An Autumn Sowing a successful tradesman of middle age and his lady typist. The man has prospered owing to the force of his character and his marked ability; he has become wealthy as the result of his enterprise, and possesses literary interests that help him to rise above mere business concerns. His wife is far inferior to him with her outlook and attitude towards the world around her. The best in the man finds no sympathetic response in the woman. There comes along the typist ~ a lady by instinct and training, and one who is able by her influence to help in the development of her employer's character. Such a relationship, however pleasant, has its perilous side, and possibly it has been Mr Benson's purpose in writing the book to illustrate this aspect of woman's intervention in the affairs of the business world. The two afford an interesting study, but readers may become impatient of the pettiness of some of the other personages in the story.
~Western Daily Press, 24/12/1917
Mr. Benson has no longer any surprises for us, but this is a very good example of his work, altogether the best thing he has done lately. I could not feel that he himself took his Oakleyites with any sort of seriousness. In that and others among his later novels he has seemed to be spinning his yarn languidly and perfunctorily, out of habit, and with no strong impulse to begin anywhere or get anywhere. Sometimes he has seemed to be merely yielding to the stream of his fluency, often lapsing into dilution and sheer garrulity, and lulling or disgusting with his amiable babble, according to the mood and intelligence of his hearers—of whom he appeared to expect little. Traces of this laxity and rather insolent nonchalance appear in the present narrative; but they are relatively few. There is a story to be told here. On the surface it looks stale enough: the middle-aged, married man falling in love with his stenographer. The self-made Mr. Keeling, with his universal stores, his dull marriage, his smug success, is fair game for a romancer who likes to try his hand at homely materials. What we are really to watch here is the spectacle of a smug fellow, a Philistine and a cad, being remoulded and made a man of by a profound experience of the heart. And this does not mean that he is to have his way of love, for better or for worse. One knows how Mr. Wells would have handled the situation (he must have handled it somewhere by this time!)exulting in the triumph of personal liberty over convention—or Mr. Bennett, in a vein of whimsical comedy with an inconclusive and ironic curtain. Mr. Benson would not do that. He is still thought of, to be sure, as the author of Dodo, which is vaguely recalled as a rather daring little story. But he is essentially a conservative and a man of sentiment. He has, let us say, an old-fashioned belief in character as the really significant and determining thing in life. When poor Keeling and his Norah reach the moment of decision, as to whether they shall take their happiness in the face of all other things, they are not turned back by cowardice or a feeble habit of conformity. What decides matters is something in them, some force or spirit which they both resent and rely upon and cannot go on without. “We belong to each other,” cries Keeling, after his discovery that Norah loves him too, “that's all I know. I have you now. You needn't think I shall let you go. You will leave that damned place this evening with me … There is no other way.” Even as he spoke, that silent, inexorable tug, that irresistible tide of character which sweeps up against all counter-streams of impulse which do not flow with it, began to move within him.' The stronger tide in her is needed for the final conquest: the point is that for them it is to this conquest that Something, the greater good or the greater happiness has called them. Victorians? Very well (this storyteller would seem to admit smilingly): perhaps the world still needs a few of those worthies 'in its business.'
~H. W. Boynton in The Bookman, 06/1918
Although Mr E F Benson's new novel, An Autumn Sowing, has a commonplace theme ~ the love of a married merchant prince for his typist ~ the author has made his people so real and has described their characters with such penetrating insight that the book will take a high place among Mr Benson's work.
~Birmingham Gazette, 07/12/1917
 
An Autumn Sowing (1917) shows E. F. Benson at his very best, the satirist with insight and the stylist with sparkle. It is every bit as perceptive and amusing as the Lucia books, and it is with good reason that this delightful romp was republished in 1988. Fred has realised that the story must be subservient to the characterisation, if his sharp and saucy view of human follies is to be allowed room to flower instead of being constrained by too rigid a plot. Thus, what happens in An Autumn Sowing is not memorable and aims at no compelling point of view. But its characters are glorious, drawn with wit and precision, especially Mrs Keeling and Mr Silverdale. As one might expect, their glory resides in their being perfectly insufferable.
~Brian Masters in The Life of E. F. Benson, 1991





Sunday, 4 November 2012

The Step

Fiction ~ short story
Published in the Windsor Magazine, December 1926
Collected in More Spook Stories (1934)
5,505 words
(First read 04/11/2012) 

The Step is unusual for being set in Egypt (Alexandria), and for leaving the reader on the edge of his seat, literally staring into the face of an unspeakable and inexplicable horror.  It also contains a very large well-baked red herring, not something EFB generally went in for much.  These make it, in my opinion, a decidedly superior spook offering¹.
The moment we learn that the protagonist John Cresswell is 'a big plethoric man' we suspect things won't end well for him; when Benson goes on to tell us he practises that absolute-bottom-rung-of-the-ladder profession of money-lending², we know he's doomed.  Anyway, the plot: After a particularly profitable bit of usury, the result of which is his being cursed by the victim's crone of a mother, our 'hero' Cresswell finds himself being followed through the dark streets of the city.  Given that the story has a genuinely surprise twist (for once), I'll say no more about it.
It's available online here.

¹ Mind you, that's not to say it doesn't suffer from the usual defects: it's overlong, the pace is too leisurely, and it's a tad repetitive.
² See also The Money Market (1898). 

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

The Temple

Fiction ~ short story
Published in Hutchinson's Magazine, November 1924
Collected in Spook Stories (1928)
6,655 words
(First read 30/10/2012) 

A distinctly long, leisurely, rambling journey into the wilds of northern Cornwall, not far at all from Ravens' Brood and The Inheritor country.  Unnamed Narrator, who's a writer, and his chum Frank Ingleton, who's an archaeologist, tip up in the village of St Caradoc's for one of those work-cum-golf-cum-piquet holidays of which U.N. was such a fan, provided he could find the right chap to accompany him.  Anyway, they eventually stumble across a vacant cottage; they rent it so as to avoid the hotel crowds; they discover it stands in the centre of a prehistoric stone circle (the temple of the title), and that it and the house come with one of those barmy curses Benson specialized in.  Still, it all ends happily.
Though the idea at the heart of The Temple is singularly gruesome (the yarn is more 'horror' than 'spook'), the story itself sadly contains about as much tension as a pan of spaghetti you've accidentally left on the boil for an hour and three quarters.
It's available online here.



QUOTABLES
There is, I feel, a certain air of unseemly relish in U.N.'s description of the temple's sacrificial stone:
It was on that stone that young boys and maidens, torn from their mother's arms and bound hand and foot, were laid, while the priest, with one hand over the victim's eyes, plunged the flint knife into the smooth, white throat, sawing through the tissue till the blood spurted from the severed artery ... 
"Does it come with chips?"

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Corstophine

Fiction ~ short story
First published in Hutchinson's Magazine, September 1924
(Collected in Spook Stories, 1928)
5,315 words
(First read 07/10/2012) 

EFB makes one of his exceedingly rare forays into the world of the North of England ~ Yorkshire, to be precise.  His Yorkshire has towns with names like 'Corstophine' and 'Helyat', but is otherwise more or less fairly authentic-ish.  Our Unnamed Narrator's pal Fred Bennet tells the tale of a vision he had of himself stranded for an hour between trains in a backwoodsy Northern town: the place is totally without any sign of life (other than the station porter) but he goes for a stroll which ends in a cemetery at a certain recent grave.  I'll not give the plot away, though it's pretty guessable for anyone who's ever read one of EFB's vision yarns.
On the plus side: the description of the 'netherworld' Yorkshire town is very nicely done.  On the other side: the story is far too long ~ there's really only enough material for a story half this length; too much of it is repetition; the plot is 'corseted' into the idea rather than flowing out of it; and the final 'sewing-up' robs it of all its power, as well as being a tad on the incoherent side.  Verdict: good stab, wide miss.
It's available online here.  TIP: read as far as "He paused, and I supposed the story was over" then stop.   Nah, just kidding.

QUOTABLE:
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?

P.S. Fans of the Titanic might enjoy EFB's references to that ship in Corstophine.
 

Sunday, 30 September 2012

'And No Bird Sings ...'

Fiction ~ short story
Published in Woman, December 1926
Collected in Spook Stories (1928)
5,225 words
(First read 30/09/2012) 

Our roving Unnamed Narrator goes to visit his old pal Hugh Granger, his dogs and his wife (yes, in that order).  In a stroke of typically Bensonian good fortune, the cove Hughie has just inherited a delightful little Queen Anne manor-with-estate in Surrey¹.  Within the bounds of his demesne stands a (pardon the terminology) doughnut-shaped wood which, we soon discover, harbours something live, vile and evil which, so as to put his dogs' and wife's (in that order) minds at rest, Hugh resolves to destroy with the aid of the trusty if somewhat lily-livered U.N.  So they do.  The End.
Even the inclusion of Granger's theory² about what the beast actually is³ doesn't do much to dispel the story's essential humdrummery.
It's available online here.





¹ Current [2014] estimated market value £35bn.
² He does like his theories, does Hughie.  See also (e.g.) The Bus-Conductor.
³ As usual, H.G. is far more clued-up on this kind of twaddle than U.N.  It should really have been him writing the spook stories.



THE CRITICS
[Benson's ghost] stories are extremely varied in content, ranging from the horror of vampires, homicidal ghosts and monstrous spectral worms and slugs (in the classic Negotium Perambulans and 'And No Bird Sings') to the satire of humorous tales which poke fun at charlatan mediums and fake seances (Spinach and Mr Tilly's Seance). 
~Richard Dalby in introduction to The Collected Ghost Stories of E. F. Benson, 1992

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Home, Sweet Home

Fiction ~ short story
Published in Woman, June 1927
Collected in Spook Stories, 1928
5,605 words
(First read 23/09/2012) 

Really the only interesting thing about this story is that the unnamed narrator actually turns out to have a name ~ he's called Ted.  He goes to visit his sister Margery and her husband Walter¹ at their rented house on an isolated stretch of coast in Sussex².  Walter is convalescing after a near nervous breakdown.  There are ghostly things going on in their music room, and a fishy gardener.  In the end the mystery is solved neatly, to this reader's infinite boredom.
The story's available online here.


¹ Absolutely no relation to the hero and heroine of Juggernaut (1911).  See my forthcoming essay* "Hi Jack, this is Jack, how's little Jack and your wife Jack?": On the Curious Lack of Imagination in E. F. Benson's Character Names.
² Well, one assumes it's Sussex ~ the nearest town is 'Hastings' ~ though I find it difficult to imagine any part of that coast being isolated, even in 1927.

*Not reeely.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Expiation

Fiction ~ short story
Published November 1923
6,850 words
(First read 09/09/2012)

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Naboth's Vineyard

Fiction ~ short story
First published in Hutchinson's Magazine,  December 1923
Collected in Spook Stories, 1928
5,935 words
(First read 02/09/2012) 

Seven years after failing to acquit a client of embezzlement, solicitor Ralph Hatchard retires to Scarling*.  He hankers after a particular house there but the female occupant isn't interested in selling, or even talking to anyone.  Shortly afterwards her husband returns from 'India'; Hatchard goes to see if he'd be willing to sell up; discovers that the old chap is none other than his embittered embezzler newly released from prison; and extorts the house out of him; the old chap drops dead of a heart attack the same day and Hatchard promptly moves into his new home ...
If you can't guess what happens next, you've obviously never read a ghost story by E F Benson.  This is humdrum beyond your wildest imaginings, and the whole thing could've been told in 2,000 words max, and been the better for it.
It's available online here


*I've absolutely no idea where this place is based on ~ it could be pretty much any coastal town in the south of England.

P.S. The title relates to an Old Testament story which appears to have been something of a favourite with EFB as I've come across it several times in his writings.  I should warn you, though ~ as Bible stories go, it's pretty dull.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

The Tale of an Empty House

Fiction ~ short story [AKA: A Tale of an Empty House]
Published in Hutchinson's Magazine, June 1925
Collected in Spook Stories (1928)
5,170 words
(First read 23/08/2012) 

Hohum.
On his way to a golfing holiday with his pal Hugh Grainger, here bearing the very thin Bensonian disguise 'Jack Granger', our Unnamed Narrator stumbles across what sounds to me like an utterly ghastly place on the Norfolk coast.  He thinks it's wonderful, though, so invites Hugh-I-mean-Jack to come and join him there.  On a desolate spit of land stands an empty house, where our duo of chums are forced to shelter from a storm, and wherein Jack has an extremely close encounter with an invisible ghost-with-a-limp.  Apart from the climax, which is over in 18 lines, the whole thing is pretty yawny and, as happens all too often, the final sewing-up left me simply reeling with boredom.
It's available online here


THE CRITICS
A Tale of an Empty House concerns the unsuitable ambitions of the despicable 'day-labourer' Alfred Maldon, whose fate is to inherit the story’s abandoned and unwanted property as a clause of his damnation.
~James Mooney at “Tychy”, 25/07/2011. Quoted from here.

 

Friday, 17 August 2012

Spinach

Fiction ~ short story
Published in Hutchinson's Magazine, May 1924
Collected in Spook Stories (1928)
6,570 words
(First read 17/08/2012) 

So-called automatic writing
Spinach is one of EFB's rare comic spook stories¹.  Or rather, it starts off promisingly as a comic story, degenerates into a humdrum spook story, and only comes alive again in the last paragraph.
Brother and sister Ludovic and Sylvia Byron are a couple of phoney mediums ... oh don't listen to me, here's Fred's opening paragraph, the best in the story:
Ludovic Byron and his sister Sylvia had adopted these pretty, though quite incredible, names because those for which their injudicious parents and godparents were responsible were not so suitable, though quite as incredible.  They rightly felt that there was a lack of spiritual suggestiveness in Thomas and Caroline Carrot which would be a decided handicap in their psychical careers, and would cool rather than kindle the faith of those inquirers who were so eager to have séances with the Byrons.
Spinach (not actually relevant)
EFB has great fun describing their methods and results, as he always does when poking fun at fake spiritists.  Anyway, one of their top customers, Mrs Sapson ('a large, emphatic widow'), arranges for them to go and spend a holiday at her recently vacated cottage near Rye².  There they discover that they have genuine mediumistic powers and are actually able to photograph the extremely 'fresh' ghost that besieges them, though one suspects he would have manifested himself to pretty much anyone who happened to be available.  I'll not give away the climax ~ just say that I found it only mildly amusing.
So: starts well, long saggy middle section, ends well.  It's available online here.

¹ For the others click on the 'comic spook' tag.
² Yes, actually named as such, for once.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

The Face

Fiction ~ short story
Published in Hutchinson's Magazine, February 1924; collected in Spook Stories (1928)
5,510 words
(First read 12/08/2012) 

The Face differs from the vast bulk of EFB's spook stories in two respects.  Firstly, the protagonist is a woman and, scarcely credible though it may seem, she's a perfectly ordinary, normal, level-headed, even admirable young woman.  Secondly, the story is left very much hanging at the end: if you put your mind to it, you could sit and puzzle over the mystery for a good three quarters of an hour.
Hester Ward seemingly has everything: good looks, dosh, excellent health, adorable husband and kiddies.  The only nasty black speck in the cold cream of her existence is that she's been having the one recurring and terrifying premonitory nightmare since she was a child and not only are the occurrences growing more frequent, the dream itself is becoming more threatening.  In her dream she encounters a hideous face on a lonely stretch of coast she's never visited in real life.
All Saints, Dunwich, Suffolk*
Her doctor, seconded by her husband, tells her she's overwrought and needs a break.  So they send her off ... to a lonely stretch of the East coast she's never visited before.  The rest is (0bviously) guessable.  At the end Hester proves to have spunk as well as all her other qualities ... but alas! it's too late.  I can pretty much guarantee that the ending will have you scratching your head and going, "Eh? huh? what? but how? ... who? ... why?" etc.
So ... so the main reason The Face stands out from the crowd is for what it doesn't contain rather than what it does.  It features no middle-aged betweeded, whisky-and-soda-supping, picquet-playing gents in search of ghosties; nor does the mystery end up gift-wrapped in a neat little box with a pink bow ~ it ends, instead, in unfathomable oblivion.  But, as so often, it's at least twice as long as it needed to be, and the dénouement can be seen standing out on the horizon from the middle of page 2.
It's available online here.

* Benson may well have been thinking of this church when he wrote The Face.  The last bits of All Saints, Dunwich fell into the sea in 1919 or 1922, depending on who you ask.
For a 'pre-visit' to Dunwich see The Dust-cloud (1906).
  

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Reconciliation

Fiction ~ short story
Published in Hutchinson's Magazine, July 1924
Collected in Spook Stories (1928)
5,590 words
(First read 08/08/2012) 

Reconciliation is EFB's hommage to his favourite novel, Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights.  Luckily for us he doesn't set it in the wastes of Northern England¹ but in an unspecified location in the South, possibly Hampshire or Dorset, though it could equally well be Cornwall or Kent.
Hugh Verrall's family have owned Garth Place since the time of Queen Anne², when his ancestor and namesake took it in payment of gambling debts from the previous owner, a wastrel named Francis Garth.  The latter died in penury shortly thereafter and proceeded to haunt the place for some time but, at the time our story happens, the hauntings have been in abeyance for some while³.  Now then, when our Unnamed Narrator comes to stay, the ghost makes a reappearance and hangs around right up until the time⁴ when, for unrelated reasons, Hugh is forced to sell the house ... and sells it to a direct descendant of the original Francis Garth.  Obviously the ending is a happy one.
Verdict: Far more interesting as a take on Wuthering Heights than as a ghost story ~ U.N. (as lily-livered as ever) seems to be the only person actually afraid of the spook, which does nothing more significant than ... well, hang around a lot ~, Reconciliation is a pleasant if somewhat long-winded read.  It's available online here.


¹ Unlike, for example, Corstophine (also 1924). 
² Which is to say circa 1700.
³ For some mysterious reason Benson, usually the stickler for precise time periods, is very reticent on the numbers here.
⁴ Sorry, I'm making a gash of this but the time frame is a pain to describe: U.N. starts in the present, recalls his first visit to Garth Place, during which he was told the Garth/Verrall story that happened 200 years previously, then returns to the visit, and finally back to the present.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Roderick's Story

Fiction ~ short story
First published in Hutchinson's Magazine, May 1923
Collected in Visible and Invisible, October 1923
5,690 words
(First read 04/08/2012) 

Lamb House, Rye, in EFB's day
I have only one good thing to say about Roderick's Story but I'll say all the others first.  In it EFB displays all his worst habits as a writer: the 'plot' is absurd, risible, ludicrous; the 'characters' are nothing more than pawns to be shunted this way and that, stricken with mysterious but oh so convenient diseases, and/or prematurely culled; the dénouement is signposted well in advance; the 'emotions', including a sizeable dollop of Victorian sentiment, are stereotyped, phoned in from Sentiments'Я'us; the whole is a clumsy, garbled mess.
I'll not trouble you with the storyline (you'd think I was making it up anyway) but here are one or two of Roderick's most salient features: (i) a minute description of Lamb House (not named thus or at all) in Rye (named Tilling) which belongs to Unknown and Featureless Narrator ~ more of him soon; (ii) a case of such extreme stiff-upper-lip that it's actually tipped over into insanity; (iii) a typical Bensonian love-hate triangle: a woman suffers nobly while her horrid husband lives and ~ for reasons known only to EFB ~ continues to suffer after his death; (iv) two handsome lads (18, 19) dying in the European War; (v) a certain amount of uncertain thinking re spiritism; (vi) some golf ~ as if we weren't already miserable enough!; and (vii) I repeat: a plot so preposterous that I can't think of adequate terms to describe it.
Anyway, the one good thing I mentioned earlier is this: Our Unknown Narrator has asked his pal Roderick to read and comment on some of his (U.N.'s) ghost stories for a forthcoming volume.  Quote Roddy:
"[...] you will make a book that not only is inartistic, all shadows and no light, but a false book.  [...] You play godfather to your stories, you see: you tell them in the first person, [...] and that, though it need not be supposed that those experiences were actually yours, yet gives a sort of guarantee that you believe the borderland of which you write to be entirely terrible." [etc.]
Now that I come to look at it again, Roderick's thought is about as clear as U.N.'s ~ or E F Benson's ~ thinking on spiritism and revenants, so even the thing I thought was good isn't.
Enough!
It's available online here.
 

Thursday, 2 August 2012

In the Tube

Fiction ~ short story
Published December 1922
5,720 words
(First read 02/08/2012)

Friday, 20 July 2012

Mr Tilly's Séance

Fiction ~ short story
First published December 1922¹
Collected in Visible and Invisible (1923)
5,875 words
(First read 20/07/2012) 

Mr Tilly's Séance, which is firmly in the comic vein, stands out among the massed ranks of E. F. Benson's spook stories in being² the only one that tells a tale from the point-of-view of the ghost.  Mr Teddy Tilly is a gentleman of indeterminate age, obviously a seasoned bachelor, a tad prissy and tetchy.  On the way to a séance one day he slips under an oncoming steamroller and is comprehensively killed.  Having (as it were) gained his bearings 'on the other side' he decides to go ahead and attend the séance, which is
presided over by his favourite medium, a lady pleased to go by the preposterous name of Mrs Cumberbatch³.  Like all EFB's other mediums, Mrs C isn't just a fraud: she's a fraud who turns out genuinely to have 'the gift'⁴.  He makes contact ~ or whatever it's called ~ but finds to his horror that her mind is something like a swimming-pool full of mud: any message he may want to pass on has to be filtered through her ... and comes out sounding like all her usual fraudulent mediumistic guff.
I'm sure Fred set out to make mock of mediums ... but couldn't quite bring himself to go all the way.  Still, it's a fun story.  It's available online here.


¹ I'm not sure where this first saw the light of day ~ possibly in the American Munsey's Magazine.
² As far as I can remember / As far as I know.
³ Really you couldn't make names like this up, could you?
⁴ Because, in the immortal words of whoever-it-was-who-said-it, Benson wanted to believe.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

At the Farmhouse

Fiction ~ short story
Published in  Hutchinson's Magazine, March 1923
Collected in Visible and Invisible (1923)
6,770 words
(First read 15/07/2012) 

Available online here.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

The Outcast

Fiction ~ short story
First published in Hutchinson's Magazine, April 1922
Collected in Visible and Invisible (1923)
6,625 words
(First read 11/07/2012) 

Tony and Madge are a comfortable middle-aged couple living in the town of Tarleton¹.  Into the house next-door to them moves a youngish widow named Bertha Chase, who comes with a bit of 'history' to her: her late husband was a fortune-hunter who committed suicide.  The house next-door is reputedly haunted, but it turns out the ghosts are merely of red herrings.  Where was I?  Ah yes, so Madge does her neighbourly duty and finds Mrs Chase 'charming and witty and good-looking and friendly' but with a very large but attached:
But behind all her agreeableness and charm and good looks I suddenly felt there was something else which I detested and dreaded. [...] I felt a horror ~ nothing vivid, nothing close [...] but somewhere in the background.
Anyway, the long and the short of it: with the expert diagnosis of Lord Charles Alington (Madge's brother), Mrs C is revealed to be Benson Type 3, all charm and wonderfulness on the outside, but on the inside irredeemably and irremediably evil.  There ensues a lot of ridiculous hokum which I won't bother to describe, but it all turns out fine in the end.
A story which manages to be both very daft and very dull (it's massively overlong) at the same time.  It's available online here.

¹ It's extremely unlike EFB to set a story in an actual place, least of all one in Lancashire, so I'm assuming he didn't bother to check on this occasion.  Besides, EFB's 'Tarleton' is on the coast; the real one isn't.