Archive for E. F. Benson

‘Spinach’ by E.F. Benson

Posted in Book Review with tags , , , , , , on February 2, 2013 by davehurwitz

An man in obvious vascular distress claps his hands to his head. Ow!Despite the image to the right, I’m reading the Carroll & Graff edition of The Collected Ghost Stories of E.F. Benson, which I have called forth from long term storage in the basement of SDPL’s central library downtown.  First published in 1992, this edition is presently out of print.  Clearly E.F. Benson is not a wildly popular reading choice.  Regardless, I’m enjoying Benson’s work a great deal, and anyone who is interested in doing the same is directed to Night Terrors: The Ghost Stories of E.F. Benson, published by Wordsworth Editions in June of last year and still very much available.  If you’re not yet familiar with Wordsworth, they are certainly the best friends any aficionado of gaslight horror ever had.  They publish vintage horror in very affordable trade editions.  For example, at a massive 720 pages containing more than fifty stories, Night Terrors will set you back a mere ten dollars.  I already own their editions of The Casebook of Carnacki the Ghost Finder and The Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James.  Once my renewals expire, I’ll be throwing down my saw-buck for Night Terrors as well.

Ludovic and Sylvia Byron–formerly Thomas and Caroline Carrot–are highly successful full trance mediums with a wealthy clientele.  At the promptings of Asteria, Ludovic’s spirit guide or ‘control,’ brother and sister agree to take a couple of weeks off from their daily seances.  A wealthy widow, Mrs. Sapson, offers them the use of her cottage near Rye, and the two proceed down to the remote costal village.  Ludovic brings along photographic equipment, eager to add spirit photography to the Byron repertoire.

The Byrons do not get much of a rest.  Almost immediately, they are contacted by the spirit of Thomas Spinach–Young Spinach, as the villagers called him–the recently departed soul of one of the cottage’s former occupants.  Young Spinach is desperate for the Byron’s assistance.  Before his own death, Spinach had murdered his uncle, a heavy drinker who had blackmailed his nephew into becoming his servant and laborer.  Having poisoned the old reprobate, Spinach had secreted the corpse in a temporary hiding place and gone out to dig a grave in the vegetable garden, only to be struck dead himself by lightening.  Thrust into the afterlife, Young Spinach found himself haunted by his uncle’s unburied corpse, the location of which he could not now recall.

As the names of the characters suggest, Benson plays this story for laughs.  The opening paragraphs, which describe the Byron’s spiritualist operation, are quite funny.  The humor comes from the combination of earnest belief and practical huxterism the siblings display, as if they simultaneously believe in their psychic abilities and suspect that it’s all bullshit.  The later half of the story settles this question, of course, but maintains the lightness of tone.

For me at least, this became a problem.  The situation Benson sets up–two mediums searching for a dead body in a remote beach house, goaded to the task by the increasingly agitated ghost of a dead murderer–suggests nerve-grinding tension.  The story as written offers none.  Indeed, the corpse is found soon after this situation is established, leaving no narrative space for nail biting.  While I enjoyed Benson’s prose style and his sly digs at Spiritualism, I could not help but mourn the unexploited possibilities for suspense in this story.  ‘Spinach’ is a fun read, but I’d like to see what happens when Benson decides to really turn the screws.

Dave Hurwitz

For more on the subject of Spiritualism, see Chris Kalidor’s post on Vaginal Ectoplasm and Teleplasmic Third Hands.

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“The Step” by E. F. Benson

Posted in Book Review with tags , , , , , on January 9, 2013 by davehurwitz
A somewhat dangerous looking gent wearing a bow tie.

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.

Dave Hurwitz