The Transformation of E F Benson

The Horror Horn by E F Benson (Panther 1974)My lunchtime reading of late has been The Horror Horn, a collection of ghost stories by E F Benson, published in 1974 by Panther, with a typically excellent cover by Bruce Pennington. In the 70s, Panther seemed to be engaged in a project to bring back into print, or package into new collections, every writer mentioned even in passing by Lovecraft in his essay, “Supernatural Horror in Literature”. A worthy pursuit.

Lovecraft called Benson “versatile”, and “an important contributor” to the weird short story. But approaching E F Benson (the initials are essential in differentiating E F from his brothers A C and R H, both of whom dabbled in weird fiction) by way of Lovecraft can lead to a certain disappointment. Much of the supernatural element in E F Benson’s short fiction, as typified by the thirteen stories in this book, is conventional. All too often we have the ghosts of murderers, or suicides, or generally evil people, returning to menace the protagonist out of revenge, or mere wickedness. When Benson departs from the ghostly for the more demonic, he has a tendency to want to explain his (usually slug-like) entities away using the spiritualist terminology of his day, taking pains to identify them as “Elementals”, as if that goes, in any way, towards explaining them. (In fact, to me, it only deflates their mystery and menace. The whole point of supernatural horrors is that they are beyond understanding, not easily classifiable or quantifiable.) Most important of all, once the “Elementals” in question are defeated (in one case by the use of a shotgun), or have had their specific revenge, they depart, and all is once again right with the world. This is in stark contrast to the Lovecraftian approach, where the demon entity is only ever a signifier of far worse — a glimpse of a dark, alien order to the universe quite at odds with mankind’s self-satisfied, self-regarding unquestioned beliefs (as Lovecraft would have it). In E F Benson’s fiction, the fact that his ghosts and Elementals exist comes with no frisson of itself, no wider cosmic significance. As a result, his supernatural horrors, though horrifying to the individuals facing them while they are facing them, leave no residue of deeper, background horror in the reader’s mind, which is an essential part of the “poetry” of weird fiction.

To enjoy E F Benson’s ghost stories, then, you have to look for some other quality than inventiveness in his use of the supernatural.

Because of this, the first few stories in The Horror Horn, aside from their interest as part of the wider tapestry of the history of weird fiction, didn’t really interest me as fiction. But something happened about halfway through the book, with the start of one of Benson’s more well-known weird shorts, “Negotium Perambulans”:

The casual tourist in West Cornwall may just possibly have noticed, as he bowled along over the bare high plateau between Penzance and the Land’s End, a dilapidated signpost pointing down a steep lane and bearing on its battered finger the faded inscription ‘Polearn 2 miles’, but probably very few have had the curiosity to traverse those two miles in order to see a place to which their guide-books award so cursory a notice.

Contrast this to the start of “The House with the Brick-Kiln”, which appears earlier in The Horror Horn. The comparison is illuminating because both stories start by painting a picture of a location:

The hamlet of Trevor Major lies very lonely and sequestered in a hollow below the north side of the south downs that stretch westward from Lewes, and run parallel with the coast. It is a hamlet of some three or four dozen inconsiderable houses and cottages much girt about with trees, but the big Norman church and the manor house which stands a little outside the village are evidence of a more conspicuous past. This latter, except for a tenancy of rather less than three weeks, now four years ago, has stood unoccupied since the summer of 1896, and though it could be taken at a rent almost comically small, it is highly improbable that either of its last tenants, even if times were very bad, would think of passing a night in it again.

Although the above passage ends with a fittingly ghostly hook, it’s the start of “Negotium Perambulans” that’s by far the more intriguing. Both passages are trying to create an air of mystery around the locations they’re describing, but the “Perambulans” one succeeds while the “Brick-Kiln” one doesn’t. Why?

First I should say that this change isn’t just present in “Negotium Perambulans”, but, to a lesser or greater extent, is in most of the stories following it. A quick check on the copyright page provides an explanation. “The House with the Brick-Kiln” and the rest of the first five stories in The Horror Horn were published in Benson’s early collection, The Room in the Tower, in 1912. (Issued by Mills & Boon, in their pre-specialisation days.) “Negotium Perambulans”, however, comes from Visible and Invisible, a collection from 1923. It seems that something happened to E F Benson, as a writer, between those two dates.

The “Brick-Kiln” opening suggests an attempt to create a spooky atmosphere about the hamlet of Trevor Major — it is “very lonely and sequestered”, and the particular house in question has, since the events to be related, “stood unoccupied” — but these are a classic case of the writer telling rather than showing. That “very” in “very lonely and sequestered” in particular seems like a writer begging his readers to appreciate the effect he’s trying to create.

Polearn, in “Negotium Perambulans”, is a similarly fitting location for a ghostly (or in this case Elemental) encounter, but we’re introduced to it in quite a different way. Benson turns what was mere description in “The House with the Brick-Kiln” into mystery and story. Instead of just describing his location, he starts by saying, effectively, “Imagine you’re a traveller in West Cornwall, and you see this broken-down, half-unreadable sign pointing to some nowhere village on the coast. You might easily miss it — most do…” Nowhere does he use the words “lonely” or “sequestered”, but you know instantly that’s exactly what it is. In addition, you want to know why, whereas you don’t with “Brick-Kiln”‘s Trevor Major.

Again, why? Because Trevor Major seems a cliché, a stock setting for a gothic story, straining for an effect. Polearn is much more like a real village, if an odd one — its oddity, in fact, makes it seem more real, as well as serving the needs of the story. Benson goes on to describe Polearn, always emphasising its lonely oddity, without stating explicitly that this is what it has. We learn, for instance, of the peculiar arrangements the Post Office has to deliver mail to this remote village, and how the village’s remoteness has produced an isolation in its individual inhabitants as well — and all this before there’s even a hint of the supernatural the story is building up to. Yet I kept reading — and enjoyed doing so — because the setting seemed so very much alive. It had a definite character, yet seemed so oddly individual that it had to be real. It has, in fact, remained in my imagination, where Trevor Major hasn’t.

It seems that, between The Room in the Tower in 1912 and Visible and Invisible in 1923, Benson learned to relax into his writer’s role, and to work realities, rather than conventionalities, into his stories. He learned to stop straining to tell ghost stories, and instead to tell what were simply stories — interesting stories, some of which simply happened to be ghostly.