The Collected Ghost Stories of E.F. Benson by E.F. Benson
I had read E.F. Benson’s The Horror Horn to start with (a collection of 13 of his best ghost stories), after seeing that it was considered one of the Top 100 Horror Books of all time in Newman & Jones’ excellent overview volume. Each of those 13 stories was so good that I just had to have more, and so picked up this collection — The Collected GhostStories of E.F. Benson (2001) — of every single one of Benson’s spooky tales, 54 in all. This collection certainly did not disappoint; I loved every single one of these ghost stories, and was riveted for the full 640-page length of this generous book.
The tales in this volume are extremely varied. Most deal with ghosts of the conventional kind: the spirits of the deceased with grudges against the living or unfinished business here on the material plane. Unlike the ghosts of Oliver Onions — another great English supernatural writer of the early 20th century, whose ghosts can often be seen more as the mental aberrations of the protagonist — the ghosts of E.F. Benson are decidedly and objectively REAL. There’s no question that these occult manifestations are really happening, and not just in the mind of the main character. This — for me, anyway — makes for a more chilling experience.
Other tales in this volume deal with vampires, cancer-inducing caterpillars, devil worship, elementals, ghostly slugs, witches and seances. The fact that a character is sympathetic is no guarantee of his or her survival in these Benson stories; anyone is capable of being offed! Indeed, in “The Face,” one of the scarier stories of the bunch, a kindly woman, a mother of two and a good wife, meets a pretty horrible end for no particular reason. Benson never married, and may have been something of a misogynist; the women in his stories, anyway, are usually given a rough time, or are presented as rather repellent creatures. Take the levitating lead character in “Mrs. Amworth,” a nice English biddy who just happens to be a blood-sucking vampire; or the bloated and horrible husband killer of “The Corner House”; or the female, yetilike creature of “The Horror Horn”; or the sadistic Sybil Rorke of “Inscrutable Decrees”; or Bertha Acres of “The Outcast,” a woman so vile that the very earth spits out her coffin. Then there are the dueling witches of “The Wishing-Well” and the vampire witch of “The Room in the Tower.” Yes, Mr. Benson surely didn’t have too much use for the ladies!
However, in the bulk of these stories, the main characters are single, unattached, scholarly, middle-aged men — like Benson himself — who go on long summer holidays to Cornwall, Norfolk or Sussex, rent homes and get involved with all sorts of ghostly mishegas. (Modern-day readers will no doubt feel twinges of envy at the extended summer vacations that all these characters seem able to take!) Of course, space doesn’t permit me to rave about each of the wonderful 54 tales in this volume, but I would like to single out for special mention a few of my favorites. “Pirates,” for example, is an incredibly beautifully written tale of a man who is haunted by the spirits of his youth when he revisits his old home. “Mr. Tilly’s Seance” is a very unique story, in that it is a seance tale told from the point of view of the spirit. I’ve never read another one like it. “The Man Who Went Too Far” tells of a man who gets just a wee bit too close to Mother Nature; fans of Algernon Blackwood should especially like this one. “And the Dead Spake—” deals with a scientist who invents a device that enables him to play the brain cells of a corpse like a phonograph! It’s a story that H.G. Wells himself might have written. And then there’s “How Fear Departed From the Long Gallery,” Benson’s favorite tale of the bunch, and one of mine, too. In this one, a house is haunted by the spirits of three-year-old twins; just to see these ghostly children spells sickness and death for the viewer. It is a lovely story, actually, well told and suspenseful. But then again, all the tales herein are well told and suspenseful, and elegantly written. Benson certainly deserves his place in that pantheon of great English supernaturalists that includes M.R. James, Sheridan LeFanu, Oliver Onions and Algernon Blackwood. Read this book, and you’ll see that he was indeed one of the greats.
“… or Bertha Acres of “The Outcast,” a woman so vile that the very earth spits out her coffin. ” Yikes!
This sounds like a book I’d like to browse rather than read cover-to-cover. Thanks for the insightful and funny review, Sandy!
My pleasure, Marion!