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