Saturday, 30 June 2012

The Shootings at Achnaleish

Fiction ~ short story [AKA: The Shootings of Achnaleish]
Published in two parts, 27th October & 3rd November 1906
5,660 words
(First read 30/06/2012)

Thursday, 28 June 2012

The Corner House

Fiction ~ short story
First published in Woman, May 1926
Collected in Spook Stories (1928)
5,310 words
(First read 28/06/2012) 

Two middle-aged gents, frequent visitors to a remote Norfolk coastal village, are intrigued by the goings-on ~ or rather the seemingly complete lack of life ~ at a particular house on the corner of the square.  By a process of listening to the innkeeper's tittle-tattle and seeing stuff with their own eyes (including a very modest wee ghostie), the mystery and fate of its inhabitants is revealed.
I'd say this is very definitely one of EFB's better spook offerings: he doesn't begin the story by telling you what's going to happen at the end, then proceed to drop so many heavy clues for those who didn't get it at the beginning that it's not worth reading to the end; the ghostly nonsense is kept to a bare minimum: it's really more a who-dun-what than a ghost story.  You can read it online here.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

The Dust-cloud

My grandfather and his sisters, circa 1906
Fiction ~ short story
First published in Pall Mall magazine, January 1906
Collected in The Room in the Tower and Other Stories (1912)
5,350 words
(First read 27/06/2012) 

Now it has to be said that the spook element of this story is a bit negligible ~ it's there but it's not important, and it's not very good anyway.
No, what we have here is a hymn in praise of motoring.  It takes place "in the early days of motors, when there was still the sense of romance and adventure round them" ~ reminder: this was written in 1906!  In those days cars still had what EFB calls a 'syren' as well as a separate 'hooter', could expect to have four or five punctures on journeys of over 50 miles, and broke down with monotonous regularity. 
The same g.dad, all grown up and with a car of his own, ca. 1925

Still, to give him his due, Fred does make the trip described, from Dunwich¹ in Suffolk to Kings Lynn in Norfolk² sound great fun, though obviously having a chauffeur helps.  To do this he employs two very extended metaphors: in the first the car is a horse, in the second (after switching steeds in the blink of an eye) it's a foot-soldier.

There's a certain amount of tedious and garbled 'ghost theory', and a sizeable dollop of what can only be called 'padding', but ignore all that and just enjoy the motor ride.
It's available online here.


¹ See also The Face (1924). 
² Or is it Lincolnshire?  [Looks it up.]  No, I was right: it's Norfolk.  Hunstanton (Norfolk) also gets a few mentions in this story.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

At Abdul-Ali's Grave

Fiction ~ short story
First published under the title A Curious Coincidence in The Graphic, 24th June 1899
Subsequently collected and republished with a few minor adjustments (mostly paragraphing) in The Room in the Tower and Other Stories (1912)
4,855 words
(First read 26/06/2012) 

Online here.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Inscrutable Decrees

Fiction ~ short story
First published in Hutchinson's Magazine, April 1923
Collected in Visible and Invisible (Winter 1923)
5,780 words
(First read 22/06/2012) 

The tale reveals, in a curiously disjointed way, why Lord Archie Rorke didn't marry his cousin's widow Sybil as planned and expected.  It turns out Sybil was Benson Female Type 3a: charming beauty and queen of society ... but one with a psycho lurking in the recesses of her soul ~ the type who gets a kick out of watching little girls drown in sluices.  And do you know how Archie finds this out? ~ Sybil (who just happens to be a medium too ~ did I mention that?) calls up the kiddie's ghost at one of her own séances, the dozy bint.  Unfortunately, Unidentified Narrator has by then thwacked us poor readers in the face with so many richly-painted signposts on his jumbled way to the Big Reveal at the end ... that the revelation comes as no revelation at all.
Something of a dog's breakfast, IMHO.  You can read it online here.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

The Hanging of Alfred Wadham

Fiction ~ short story
Published 21st December 1928
5,365 words
(First read 20/06/2012)

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Bagnell Terrace

Fiction ~ short story
First published in Hutchinson's Magazine, July 1925
Collected in Spook Stories (1928)
5,000 words
(First read 19/06/2012)

One of EFB's London spook stories.  Unidentified Narrator lives in Bagnell Terrace, a place so tranquil that ...
even the cats [...] have caught something of its discretion and tranquillity, for they do not hail each other with long-drawn yells of mortal agony like their cousins in less well-conducted places, but sit and have quiet little parties like the owners of the houses in which they condescend to be lodged and boarded. [this is the high point of the story]
U.N. lusts after the end-terrace house, which is occupied by a mysterious recluse, a man neither young nor old but, in the words of neighbour and intimate friend Hugh Grainger*, 'timeless'.  Well anyway, the long and the short is that after a purely coincidental trip to Egypt, U.N. takes ownership of the house, which, almost forgot to mention, has a 'garden room' exactly like EFB's in Rye, and the place turns out to be haunted ... or possessed ... by the previous owner ... or EFB's Egyptian cat souvenir ... or something.  As usual good old Hughie comes to the rescue and exorcises the place merely by invoking God's name once or twice.
I can't imagine it took Benson more than about 35 minutes to write this garbled twaddle.  Hardly his finest hour.
You can read it online here.


* Renamed Hugh Abbot for this particular outing. 

THE CRITICS
 

In several of [Benson's spook] stories, the lust to possess a particular house forms the fulcrum of the plot (as in Bagnell Terrace) and the unassuaged anger and revengefulness of the dispossessed owner is often what creates the haunt. Reconciliation and Naboth's Vineyard are two of his most successful stories, especially the latter, which has a really blood-curdling climax.
~Joan Aiken in foreword to The Collected Ghost Stories of E. F. Benson 1992

 

Monday, 18 June 2012

Christopher Comes Back

Actually William Dean Howells, another favourite author of mine
Fiction ~ short story
First published in Hutchinson's Magazine, May 1929
Collected in More Spook Stories (1934)
4,385 words
(First read 18/06/2012) 

This spook story has the same basic premise as the novel Alan (1924): the young and youthful wife of an elderly writer is rotting her life away serving as his amanuensis.  The writer (Christopher) in fact:
was not yet fifty [but] appeared an old man; his mouth had a senile droop, his eyes an unfocused watery vagueness, his hands were creased with wrinkled skin.  Fresh from her April thoughts, Nellie suddenly shuddered with a qualm of horror and repulsion at the sight of him ...
Having finished his magnum opus, Christopher promptly falls seriously ill and, rather than face a lifetime of dreary nursing, Nellie helps him on his way to the other side ... where, obviously, he doesn't want to go: he determinedly comes back to wreck his widow's life in toto.  Her lover (Chris' ex-doctor) dumps her, so she tops herself, 'ironically' by exactly the same method she used to bump off her better half.  The End.
A very daft story.  The message ~ if we can call it that ~ is: "Even wives who deserve to be free don't deserve to be free."  It can be read online here.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

James Lamp

Fiction ~ short story
First published in Weird Tales (USA), June 1930
Collected in More Spook Stories (1934)
5,560 words
(First read 17/06/2012) 

In this one our intrepid Unidentified Narrator goes to stay with his retired doctor pal in Rye¹.  The wife of the pal's manservant (James Lamp) has just disappeared; it's known that she was having an affair with a chap from Hastings and that Lamp wasn't best pleased about it.  Pal and U.N. have a few sightings of a mysterious woman; Lamp is jittery.  One night our two gents awake to find the house full of fog and the manservant being coerced out by his revenant old lady.  The twist ~ if you can call it that ~ in this one is that Mrs Lamp's ghost doesn't come back merely to point the finger at the hubby who bumped her off: she comes back to take him with her to t'other side ~ their bodies are found in a sluice the following morning.
A very characteristic EFB spook story in that (1) it's entirely predictable, and (2) the tension level remains firmly at zero throughout.
The one novel thing ~ a house which has uncannily filled with fog ~ is under-exploited.  In fact, it's not exploited at all: it's made to seem positively routine.  HoHum.
It's available online here.



¹ Renamed Trench for this particular occasion.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

David of King's

Fiction ~ novel
Published 1924
Approx. 88,000 words
(First read 12/06/2012)

In which our hero David Blaize goes through university without doing any 'sap' because it's such 'rot'; instead he just 'gasses' and 'rags' and talks 'piffle' with his pals, most notably the 'ripper' Frank with whom he is, by all modern standards, very obviously in love; and everything is 'awfully jolly'.  Unfortunately Blaize is almost entirely a cypher ~ hidden depths are hinted at but never explored.  By the end of this he's no more 'mature' a human being than he was at the beginning of David Blaize (1916); and, apart from developing a vague notion to become a writer, the only thing he's actually learnt is how to study foreign languages without their seeming an absolute bore.  Ah! correction ~ the other thing he's learnt to do is babble exactly like Dodo, with equally unamusing results.  The babble of the minor character A.G., who Benson allows to
be as camp as he pleases (without, of course, ever being 'gay'), is far funnier by comparison.  It's a pity EFB never wrote a whole book about an A.G. figure.  Well, anyway, there's a lot of stuff to enjoy in David of King's, most of it, or rather almost all of it, supplied by the minor characters (A.G., Bags, Crowfoot, even David's still-embarrassing dad); and of course there's all the minutiae of life in early-1920s England.  But I couldn't really rate it higher than 5/10 ~ at the same time as I was quite enjoying it I was wishing they'd all shut the phucque up and go away.

For the same book 30 years younger, and less of an effort, see The Babe, B.A. (1896/97). 




THE CRITICS
This is Mr Benson's original David Blaize, only David is now at Cambridge. David of King's is, in short, the breeziest, happiest and, at the same time, the most convincingly truthful tale of undergraduate life that anyone has written. A real book ~ a remarkable book ~ a thoroughly enjoyable story.
~Hodder & Stoughton publicity blurb, so probably not a review at all, found in The Yorkshire Post for 21/05/1924
The charm of David as a child made Mr. Benson's first story about him delightful. There is charm still left in David the undergraduate, but his college life is described in a breathless and inchoate fashion.
 
~The Outlook (US), 22/10/1924
A pleasant picture of undergraduate life at Cambridge.
~The Bookman's Guide to Fiction, 11/1924


Friday, 15 June 2012

Machaon

Swallowtail butterfly ~ Papilio machaon
Fiction ~ short story
First published in Hutchinson's Magazine, January 1923
Collected in Visible and Invisible (October 1923)
6,055 words
(First read 15/06/2012)

Another ~ frankly ~ idiotic story about a medium and a random message from beyond the grave.  In this one the visitor turns out to be none other than some Very Ancient Greek named Machaon, son of Aesculapius (y'know, the one who invented medicine), who struggles through the ether or ectoplasm or whatever to deliver to our Unnamed Narrator, who just happens to live in a little town named Tilling, in a house with a garden room, the verdict that U.N.'s faithful manservant, currently lying in hospital stricken with cancer, should be treated with X-rays.  [No, I'm not making this up: EFB is.]  The whole thing is so preposterous that I'm not prepared to spend any more time on it.
But maybe you'll have better luck with it: it's available online here

Thursday, 14 June 2012

The Recent 'Witch Burning' at Clonmel

Non-fiction ~ essay [AKA: The Clonmel Witch-burning]
Published 1895
Approx. 2,600 words
(First read 14/06/2012)

The Cat

Fiction ~ short story
First published in Illustrated London News, 27th November 1905
Collected in The Room in the Tower (1912)
5,510 words
(First read 14/06/2012) 

More a psychopathological mystery than a spook story ~ in fact there aren't any spooks at all in it.  Jack Dick Alington Alingham, a portrait-painting toff, is on the rebound from Lady 'Society Hag' Madingley, who jilted him for someone with more dosh, as Bensonian society hags have a habit of doing.  Nevertheless, observes his doctor pal Merwick, he's made a miraculous recovery from the trauma ~ to hear them talk you'd think Dick had witnessed the machete-massacre of his entire family rather than merely being dumped by a worthless cow.  Anyway, Dr Merwick reckons he's in a (kind of) physiopsychiatrical state of shock (or something) and is bound to come a cropper sooner or later.  Confident that he's fully and permanently recovered, our Dick agrees to complete a portrait of the said witch; everything's going fine until ... a cat appears ...
This one has to be read to be believed: apart from 'the shock thing', which probably wasn't new even in 1905, it's entirely devoid of sensible, coherent or even interesting ideas; the 'climax' is laughable; the pace is sluglike, and it is absurdly over-long.
Well, you may think differently: it's available online here.
 

Friday, 8 June 2012

The Bus-Conductor

Fiction ~ short story
First published in Pall Mall Magazine, December 1906
Collected in The Room in the Tower and Other Stories (1912)
3,470 words
(Last read 08/06/2012) 

Unlike rather a lot of other folk, in particular the makers of the film Dead of Night (1945), I'm afraid I don't rate The Bus-Conductor very highly.  In it our old pal Hugh Grainger recounts, to our old pal Unnamed Narrator, the story of the night, eighteen months previously, when he had a premonitory vision ~ or possibly  dream ~ while staying at U.N.'s house; and (obviously, as this is EFB) of the episode a month later when the dream ~ or vision ~ was fulfilled.

Approximately one third of the story's length is preliminary waffle and 'theory', also known as padding.  The apparition itself wouldn't frighten a shellshocked dormouse.  And the big reveal, despite involving yet another of Benson's obsessive omnibus crashes, is thoroughly humdrum.  Its saving grace is that it's pretty short.

Anyway, it's available online here.










QUOTABLES
Hugh to U.N. on their latest expedition:
"... why you go ghost-seeking I cannot imagine [...] because your teeth were chattering and your eyes starting out of your head all the time you were there, from sheer fright."
U.N. on Hugh ~ say no more:
Hugh is about six feet high, and as broad as he is long ...
U.N. to Hugh, who spins a good yarn:
Hugh is an ideal narrator.  I do not care for his theories, or for his similes, but when it comes to facts, to things that happened, I like him to be lengthy. [fnarr fnarr]
"Go on, please, and slowly," I said.  "Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it is the ruin of story-telling.  I want to hear when and where and how it all was, and what you had for lunch and where you had dined and [...]"
Some critics might say this was the precise downfall of too many EFB spook stories: an excess of irrelevant and frankly rather dull detail leading to far more length than the material demanded.
 



THE CRITICS


Other memorable stories [from The Room in the Tower and Other Stories] include […] The Bus-Conductor, which contains the memorable line “Just room for one inside, sir”. This was later turned into an episode of the classic British movie Dead of Night. In his preface Benson “fervently wishes his readers a few uncomfortable moments.”
~Richard Dalby in introduction to The Collected Ghost Stories of E. F. Benson, 1992