“The Step” by E. F. Benson
Okay, I’ll admit I didn’t actually read this one. I listened to it at Pseudopod.org, which usually confines itself to contemporary horror, but will bust out a classic like this on special occasions. I’ll also admit that I’d never heard of E. F. Benson before, but based on the quality of ‘The Step’ I’ve reserved a copy of his collected ghost stories from the San Diego Public Library.
In his introduction, Pseudopod’s Alasdair Stuart says that Benson was “less scholarly than M. R. James.” I feel this is a good thing, as James seemed to think that the best way start most of his foreign-set ghost stories was with a rousing discussion of church architecture. Benson, in contrast starts us off in medias res, with his protagonist walking a night street in British India.
‘The Step’ is the story of John Creswell. (I’m guessing at the spelling here.) Creswell is a British businessman who makes as handsome living outsmarting his countrymen at cards and practicing usury among the natives. Much of the story involves repeated encounters with a Levantine merchant and his wife, who Creswell has evicted from their home and business mere hours before a redevelopment project doubles the value of the property. Benson depicts Creswell as man of little fellow-feeling, dedicated to his own pleasures and unconcerned with the suffering of others.
Woven between these encounters, and seemingly unrelated to them, are Creswell’s evening walks home from his club, which take him past the precincts of a mendicant Catholic monastery, where hear hears–or thinks he hears–the tread of invisible feet. The story concludes when Creswell finally encounters the owner of that tread.
Regular reader will know that I like a bit of ambiguity in my horror, and Benson leaves it up to the reader to fathom the connection between Creswell’s uncharitable nature and his shadowy follower. All in all, this is one of the better weird tales I’ve encountered, and the Pseudopod reading is well worth a listen.