The Ghost Stories of E.F. Benson

What Ho! The Pestilence that Walketh in Darkness: On reading E.F. Benson instead of M.R. James at Christmas

What would Christmas be without a good ghost story? Tales of haunted houses, vengeful revenants, and, for the more delicate constitution, spiritual redemption, are as much a part of the Christmas ritual as Midnight Mass, the Queen’s speech, presents, carols, and the occasional small sherry. And whether one chooses to worship the Holy or Commercial Spirit during the festive season, chances are you will find yourself drawn to supernatural stories whether you like it or not. There will be readings of M.R. James on the radio and in libraries; the BBC will repeat one of Lawrence Gordon Clark’s terrifying ‘Ghost Stories for Christmas’ from the 1970s and Mark Gatiss will do a new one. The big TV channels will also wheel out The Innocents, The Others, and more adaptations of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol than you can shake a stick at. There will, in fact, be just as much scary stuff around as Halloween. More so if you count your credit card bill.

There’s a reason for this which goes way further back than M.R. James reading a new tale of terror aloud to his students in his rooms at King’s College each Christmas Eve by the light of a single candle, or middle-class Victorian families sharing Dickens’ latest Christmas story around the hearth. Just as Halloween is built upon the foundation of Samhain, the pagan festival of the dead, our Christmas celebrations stem from the winter solstice, the ancient feast celebration that heralded the onset of the ‘famine months’ (January to April in the northern hemisphere), a period of mass starvation for Neolithic humanity. Death was in the air, from the mass slaughter of livestock to conserve resources to the brutal Darwinism of malnutrition and disease, and sacrifices to the old gods of death and resurrection. What the Celts called the ‘Otherworld’ must have felt very close around the communal campfires at night, birthing a rich oral tradition of midwinter horror as a way of dealing with the very real threat of the season. As the heir to Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, wrote in his seminal essay ‘Supernatural Horror in Literature’ (1927):

Cosmic terror appears as an ingredient of the earliest folklore of all races, and is crystallised in the most archaic ballads, chronicles, and sacred writings. It was, indeed, a prominent feature of the elaborate ceremonial magic, with its rituals for the evocation of dæmons and spectres, which flourished from prehistoric times…

Christmas ghost stories are part of our collective unconscious; they might as well be encoded in our DNA. They’ve certainly existed a lot longer than Christmas.

With this in mind, might I suggest an alternative to Dickens and M.R. James this year, brilliant though their stories are? I refer to the short fiction of E.F. ‘Fred’ Benson OBE (1867–1940), a contemporary of James who as a student attended the very first of ‘Monty’s’ Christmas Eve readings at Cambridge. If you’ve not read him, I promise that Benson at his best will match the thrill of reading James whenever you first encountered him, before his stories became as familiar as old friends, especially at this time of year. There’s that same sense of the long Edwardian summer between the wars, of upper class social and scholarly gatherings, all leading to a satisfying and very nasty epiphany. And if you do know Benson, why not reacquaint yourself? You might discover a new story.

Benson’s name is most closely linked to his enduringly popular ‘Mapp and Lucia’ series, published between 1920 and 1937, comic novels gently but unerringly satirising the mores of the upper-middle-class provincial English. The series represents an ongoing struggle for social prestige in the fictional seaside town of ‘Tilling’ (based on Rye in East Sussex, where Benson lived and, like Lucia, served as mayor) between appalling snobs Mrs. Emmeline ‘Lucia’ Lucas and Miss Elizabeth Mapp. There have been several TV and radio adaptations, the most recent by the BBC in 2014. Benson’s combination of humour and social commentary is reminiscent of P.G. Wodehouse and Ivy Compton-Burnett and the so-called ‘camp novel’. His first novel, the fashionably provocative Dodo (1893), had been an immediate bestseller and his early literary success allowed Benson to live in comfort and do nothing but write, travel and play. He thus found time to write 64 other novels, three autobiographies, and 30 works of nonfiction, including biographies of Charlotte Brontë, Queen Victoria, and Edward VII, and A Book of Golf.

What is perhaps less well known nowadays is that Benson wrote literally dozens of what he called ‘spook stories’. These were originally published in magazines like Pearson’s, Hutchinson’s and the Pall Mall and then reprinted in the collections The Room in the Tower and Other Stories (1912), Visible and Invisible (1923), Spook Stories (1928), and More Spook Stories (1934) – all collected chronologically in the Wordsworth Editions’ Night Terrors: The Ghost Stories of E.F. Benson edited by David Stuart Davies. His story ‘The Bus Conductor’ (1906), in which the hero is haunted by a hearse driver in premonition of a fatal crash, was adapted in Basil Dearden’s segment for the 1944 Ealing anthology horror film Dead of Night. The story’s chilling mantra ‘Room for one more’ became a national catchphrase and when Bennett Cerf included it in his Famous Ghost Stories it spawned an urban legend that persists to this day. In his own era, Benson was as famous as a horror writer as he was a humourist. H.P. Lovecraft considered him a writer ‘of singular power’ and praised his stories as ‘lethally potent’ in their ‘relentless aura of doom’, rating Benson alongside Wells and Conan Doyle, H.D. Everett, May Sinclair, and William Hope Hodgson – not quite up there with the ‘Modern Master’ M.R. James, but a pretty fair second place. In structure, there are similarities with James’ stories, but what distinguishes them from those of the antiquarian academic is the setting. Unlike James’, Benson’s supernatural world is utterly contemporary: that of the inter-war gentleman of means and confirmed bachelor (like James, Benson was discreetly gay); with manservants, motorcars, summer leases, property envy, bridge, golf, brisk walks, and plenty of huntin’, shootin’, and fishin’. In short, it is the same world as that of ‘Mapp and Lucia’. Benson’s jaunty narrators, who are often writers clearly based on himself, combine, as did he, the easy confidence and breezy enthusiasm of his class, an open mind, and a fierce intelligence. They are invariably rich single men drifting from one let, holiday home, or long visit to the next, who, mostly in company with another male friend, meet an elemental monster in the woods or find themselves in a haunted house. Imagine a Bertie Wooster figure, only with the intellect of Jeeves. And then shove him towards something terrible.

It must be admitted that the prolific Benson was a much more versatile writer than James, whose primary output was academic and whose only fiction was the Christmas Eve ghost stories. As Clive Bloom has argued, ‘the ghost is innately conservative’. This is because, writes Bloom, ‘ghosts tell us of stability and permanence’, like the (haunted) stately homes of England, the ruling elite and governing class to which James and Benson both belonged, and the literary aesthetic James treasured. This was a scholarly blend of Christian theology, Renaissance drama, and Victorian realism that had no time for contemporary fiction or Modernist experiment. The Provost of King’s was not at all impressed with Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw for example. With its roots in folklore, the ghost story was always an aberrant sub-genre within both gothic and horror fiction, difficult to categorise and complicated by belief, Spiritualism having become a formal religion in the US in 1883. Benson’s range seems to revel in this ambiguity in a way that James’ antiquarian ghost stories did not. He didn’t experiment with form, but with content. While far from being a modernist, Benson nonetheless pushed the creative boundaries much more than James, blazing a trail later twentieth century horror writers would follow. Benson put vampires in a modern setting, for example, decades before EC comics, Richard Matheson, and Stephen King, while bloodsucker ‘Mrs Amworth’ (Visible and Invisible) floating outside the window of an adolescent boy at night feels a lot like the Danny Glick scene in Salem’s Lot which gave everyone who saw the 1979 TV version nightmares. Similarly, the experiments of physicist Sir James Horton on the dead tissue of First World War soldiers in ‘And the Dead Spake –’ (Visible and Invisible) reminds one of Lovecraft’s ‘Herbert West – Reanimator’ (West was a medic in Flanders), the common root for both stories, which were written around the same time, being Frankenstein.  

This range is apparent in Benson’s first collection, The Room in the Tower and Other Stories, published in 1912. There are a few conventional ghost stories – all beautifully done, mind – and the influence of James is apparent in ‘The Other Bed’, a premise not a million miles from ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’. The Kiplingesque ‘At Abdul Ali’s Grave’ belongs in the tradition of the imperial gothic; ‘The Terror By Night’ follows the Victorian stereotype of the apparition of a loved one appearing at the moment they die elsewhere, ‘The Bus Conductor’ is a warning from beyond, and ‘The Cat’ feels like Poe and Le Fanu in an updated setting. But there any hint of cliché ends. The title story, ‘The Room in the Tower’, is a surreal tour de force concentrated upon a recurring dream that has haunted the protagonist since childhood. And as he ages, so do the figures in the dream, the unifying factor being the voice of a schoolfriend’s mother (even after her death in the dream narrative). ‘Jack will show you your room,’ she always tells him, ‘I have given you the room in the tower.’ The dreamer never reaches the tower; all he knows is that a thing of nameless dread and malignant evil awaits him there. Then, on a visit to a friend in the country, he realises that this is the place he’s been dreaming of all those years. I won’t tell you what waits in the tower. You’ll just have to read it.

The other stories are similarly fresh, imaginative, and horrible. ‘Gavon’s Eve’, ‘The Shootings of Achnaleish’, and ‘Between the Lights’ draw on Scottish folk tales of witchcraft, fairies, and were folk. ‘Outside the Door’ and ‘The House with the Brick-Kiln’ suggest that the fabric of buildings can record and replay intense emotional experiences, such as the act of murder or being murdered, decades before Nigel Kneale popularised the theory in the 1972 BBC ghost story The Stone Tape. As a friend tells the narrator of ‘Outside the Door’, in which an Elizabethan woman eternally staggers across a landing and down the stairs in a vain attempt to evade her killers after being fatally stabbed:

‘The atmosphere has somehow been charged with the scene, and the scene in whole or part repeats itself, though under what laws we do not know, just as a phonograph will repeat, when properly handled, what has been said into it.’

This is a theory that clearly fascinated Benson, and he returned to it in many stories, often using the metaphor of radio: ‘these wireless messages to the receivers that were in tune with them’. He was also refreshingly broadminded about mediums and seances, neither swallowing the whole thing as had Conan Doyle, or discounting it completely as a fraud. Sometimes he sent up Spiritualists, sometimes he proved them right. Sometimes, as in his story ‘Spinach’ (Spook Stories), he does both, when two naïve and unknowingly fake mediums find themselves briefly channelling the real thing. ‘The Confession of Charles Linkworth’ and ‘The Dust Cloud’, meanwhile, juxtapose new technology with the supernatural through a haunted telephone and a hanged man, and the apparition of a fatal car crash. Then the stories get really weird…

‘The Thing in the Hall’, presented as the transcript of a psychic experiment by two scientists which goes increasingly wrong, anticipates the creeping horrors of Lovecraft:

It was like the shadow of some enormous slug, legless and fat, some two feet high by about four feet long. Only at one end of it was a head shaped like the head of seal, with open mouth and panting tongue…

My hand touched something cold and slimy … and the touch of it was horrible, unclean, like a leper. 

Slug-like creatures from the abyss – elemental and demonic rather than spirits – appear in several stories, including Lovecraft’s favourite, ‘Negotium Perambulans’, the title paraphrasing the 91st Psalm: ‘the pestilence that walketh in the darkness’. My guess is that Benson felt the same way about slugs as M.R. James did spiders. Worse even than this are the ‘dreadful insects’ of ‘Caterpillars’, yellowish-grey and ‘covered with irregular lumps and swellings’ that infest an Italian villa in a horrible allegory of cancer. Then there is the pagan transgression of ‘The Man Who Went Too Far’ which seems to nod towards The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen and, finally, ‘How Fear Departed from the Long Gallery’, the latter being Benson’s personal favourite ‘spook story’.

‘How Fear Departed from the Long Gallery’ showcases the flexibility of Benson’s style, by turns atmospheric, darkly comic, violent and tragic, and oddly uplifting. (It’s set at Christmas too.) The posh and cheery introduction always reminds me of Psmith and Bertie Wooster:

Church-Peveril is a house so beset and frequented by spectres, both visible and audible, that none of the family which it shelters under its acre and a half of green copper roofs takes psychical phenomena with any seriousness. For to the Peverils the appearance of a ghost is a matter of hardly greater significance than is the appearance of the post to those who live in more ordinary houses. It arrives, that is to say, practically every day, it knocks (or makes other noises), it is observed coming up the drive (or in other places). I myself, when staying there, have seen the present Mrs. Peveril, who is rather short-sighted, peer into the dusk, while we were taking our coffee on the terrace after dinner, and say to her daughter:

‘My dear, was not that the Blue Lady who has just gone into the shrubbery. I hope she won’t frighten Flo. Whistle for Flo, dear.’

(Flo, it may be remarked, is the youngest and most precious of many dachshunds.)

This delight in the great house and the regular appearances of the ‘august and villainous dead’ is then overwritten by the one occult phenomenon about which the family never joke. In fact, they try hard not to mention it at all. They just quietly make sure no one is ever left alone in the ‘long gallery’ after dark. The backstory, which I won’t spoil, is monstrous, and Benson builds Hitchcockian levels of suspense as a guest who has sprained her ankle takes her ease on a sofa in the long gallery one afternoon, drifting in and out of sleep as the clock ticks on. Climax and denouement, when they come, are completely unexpected but in retrospect perfect. It’s easy to see why the author was proud of this one.

For early stories, this collection is remarkable, and Benson’s bar remained high for the rest of his career, culminating in his final story, ‘The Psychical Mallards’. This is an apparently light-hearted tale of telekinesis that covers a deeper allegory of a homosexual boy struggling to fit in at Eton despite powerful forces he is unable to control. ‘There’s nothing which wholesome English boys dislike so much as queerness,’ counsels his father, continuing, ‘Get over your queerness, my dear, and do credit to the great middle class from which you come … there’s nothing that so goes against a man as queerness.’ 

Benson’s relationship with his own father was not much better, and like his siblings he spilled a lot of autobiographical ink trying to come to terms with it. Fred was the fifth child of the formidable Edward White Benson – one of Queen Victoria’s favourite Archbishops of Canterbury – and Mary ‘Minnie’ Sidgwick, the younger sister of the utilitarian philosopher Henry Sidgwick, once described by William Gladstone as the ‘cleverest woman in Europe’ and a militant and flamboyant lesbian. Edward had married Minnie, his second cousin, when she was 18, but he’d first proposed when she was 12 and he was 24. Possessed of a restless energy now attributed to his probable bipolar disorder, Edward’s career trajectory was stellar although at home his violent mood swings made him a tyrant. Having attended King Edward’s School and then Trinity College, Cambridge, Edward became a master at Rugby in 1852. He was ordained as a priest five years later and chosen personally by Prince Albert to be the first Master of Wellington College. He was appointed Bishop of Truro in 1877, becoming Archbishop of Canterbury in 1883. He wrote widely on theological matters, and thrashed the importance of education into his children, all of whom grew up brilliant but broken.

The surviving four Benson children (two died young) were all prolific writers. Between them they published a shade under 200 books. (If Hugh’s four plays are added it’s an even 200.) After teaching at Eton, Arthur Benson (1862-1925) became 28th Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge. The author of numerous rather saccharine scholarly monographs through which he acquired a considerable Edwardian readership, he contributed the lyrics to Elgar’s Coronation Ode, including ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, and edited Queen Victoria’s letters for publication. Like his sister, Margaret ‘Maggie’ Benson (1865–1916), the noted Egyptologist, Arthur was dogged by mental illness, probably inherited from their father, and suffered depressions that could last years. Maggie was one of the first women to be admitted to Oxford University, and the first woman to be granted a government concession to dig in Egypt. She excavated the Temple of the Goddess Mut in Karnak with the Scottish Egyptologist Janet Gourlay and the two became lifelong companions. Her bibliography is short but impressive, comprising books on archaeology, politics, philosophy, and religion. She also published a couple of collections of what she termed ‘fanciful stories’ about animals. She suffered a massive nervous breakdown in 1907 and attempted to stab her mother to death for her affair with her childhood friend, Lucy Tait, the daughter of Archibald Campbell Tait, the previous Archbishop of Canterbury. Since her husband’s death in 1896, Minnie had been living openly with Lucy, adopting the name ‘Ben’. Maggie spent the rest of her short life in various asylums, dying at the age of 50. Hugh Benson (1871-1914), originally an Anglican priest, rebelled against his father by converting to Catholicism, becoming a fiery orator and ultimately private chamberlain to Pope Pius X in Rome. In addition to his theological writing, he wrote fiction across genres including historical, horror, children’s, and science fiction. His 1907 novel Lord of the World is an early example of dystopian fiction. He was a close friend of Oscar Wilde’s fatal lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, and for two years had a chaste but intense relationship with the eccentric homosexual novelist Frederick Rolfe (‘Baron Corvo’). After they broke up, each bitchily wrote a satirical portrait of the other in novels. None of the Benson children married, and like the House of Usher the family line died with them. Benson outlived all of his siblings, and in his poignant later story ‘Pirates’ (More Spook Stories), the protagonist returns to his ghostly family, all patiently waiting for him in the house where they grew up: ‘Oh, Peter; here you are!’

Ghosts were a regular topic in the Benson household. With Brooke Foss Westcott, Edward was the founding member of The Cambridge Association for Spiritual Inquiry – known informally as the Cambridge Ghost Society – in 1851. Henry James later noted in his preface to the 1908 edition of The Turn of the Screw that it had been Edward Benson who provided the inspiration for the tale during a dinner party at Addington Palace in 1895 by relating a rather inconclusive anecdote about ‘a couple of small children in an out-of-the-way place, to whom the spirits of certain “bad” servants, dead in the employ of the house, were believed to have appeared with the design of “getting hold” of them’. The forerunner of the Society for Psychical Research, the ‘Ghost Society’ collected and investigated reports of hauntings, and this is likely the source of Fred Benson’s open-minded scientific interest in the supernatural. Hugh was also interested in real hauntings and wrote in the Pall Mall Gazette that it would be ‘foolish’ to ignore the ‘overwhelming’ amount of evidence for the existence of ghosts. What better qualification can there be for writers of ghost stories?

Fred was not the only Benson child to write ghost stories. Arthur, a lifelong friend and colleague of M.R. James – they had met as schoolboys at Temple Grove – regularly attended James’ readings and also read ghost stories to his students. These were written to convey moral lessons but were often quite disturbing for all that. These were published in two collections, The Hill of Trouble (1903) and The Isles of Sunset (1905). He also wrote the psychological study Where No Fear Was: A Book About Fear (1914), another subject that preoccupies Fred in his stories in the ways his protagonists cope with pure terror. Arthur’s darker stories remained hidden and unpublished during his lifetime until Fred discovered and edited the manuscripts, publishing them in 1927. Inspired by Arthur’s school readings, Hugh turned his hand to ghost stories in the collection The Light Invisible published in 1903. Like everything Hugh wrote, the stories were a celebration of his Catholic faith, but despite this impediment (like Arthur’s morality), he produced some genuinely scary stuff. Like Le Fanu’s Purcell Papers, the stories are framed as anecdotes by an elderly priest. The book sold well, and he followed it with another gothic collection, The Mirror of Shalott, this time framed as ghost stories told by a group of priests in Rome. His final foray into the supernatural was his novel The Necromancers (1909), a warning against the evils of Spiritualism which was filmed in 1941 as Spellbound before being retitled The Spell of Amy Nugent to avoid confusion with the Hitchcock movie of the same name. If you can find them, Arthur and Hugh’s ghost stories are well worth reading, although they don’t hold a candle to Fred’s.

Fred Benson, of course, was not interested in religious tracts or moral improvement. He wrote his ghost stories for profit and entertainment and, if at all possible, to scare himself as much as his readers. As he wrote in his autobiography Final Edition (1940): ‘The narrator, I think, must succeed in frightening himself before he can think of frightening his readers,’ and he signs off his preface to The Room in the Tower by wishing his readers ‘a few uncomfortable moments’. This dark benediction still holds true. As Benson hoped himself, should you read these tales before bed when your house is quiet and still, don’t be surprised if your gaze is drawn to the corners and shadows just to make sure there isn’t something dreadful lurking there.

So, this Christmas, if you have a taste for the mad and the macabre, or have a friend or relative that is similarly inclined, why not pop a copy of E.F. Benson’s ghost stories in the old stocking? These are as fresh today as they were in the roaring twenties, and as a long-time reader of such things, I can vouch for their effectiveness as short sharp shockers. Next to M.R. James, you’ll find nothing better in the history of the English ghost story. 


Image: Krampus mask – Tarvisio, Italy Credit: Panther Media GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo