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


 

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