THE OUTCAST AND OTHER DARK TALES by E.F, Benson
Edited by Mike Ashley
British Library, p/b, £8.99
Reviewed by Pauline Morgan
When there is so much new material to read in whatever genre you prefer, it is not surprising that some authors become neglected and even forgotten. E.F.Benson (1867 – 1940) is probably best known for his Mapp and Lucia stories that were set in Tilling, a fictionalised Rye, Sussex, where he lived. Less well known is that he and two brothers, R.H.Benson and A.C.Benson were at the cutting edge of ghost and supernatural fiction. Many of the ideas that are used by modern writers were fresh and original a hundred years ago.
In this volume, Mike Ashley has pulled together a representative selection from the hundreds that were published, and provides an excellent introduction to the man and his writing, discussing his place in the genre. The stories chosen were originally published between 1886 and 1940 and in a variety of magazines. While most of the stories are first-person narrations those that are not usually signifies that the main character will be a victim of events or that the central character is female. The latter is probably because Benson didn’t feel confident in writing from a first-person female viewpoint. He tended to write about the society he inhabited and was familiar with. As a result, a number of his stories feature haunted houses. An example of this is ‘The Top Landing’ where a room on the upper floor of a rented house, though locked and apparently used for storage though a figure is seen at the window.
The title story ‘The Outcast’ is a supernatural horror. The narrator’s new neighbour, Bertha Acres, seems pleasant, but people find that after a while in her company, they experience discomfort at her presence. When she dies while travelling she is buried at sea. Then her uncorrupted body is washed up on the shore. Attempts to bury the body fail as the earth as well as the sea rejects her.
Not all the ghosts are malevolent but may be unsettling, especially when they are the spirit of a loved one. ‘Dummy On A Dahabeah’ refers to a dummy hand at whist and appears to be being played by the deceased wife of one of the party on a trip up the Nile, while in ‘A Winter Morning’ it is the memory of a dead child that does the haunting. Malicious ghosts feel they have a need for revenge. ‘The Dance’ is both a haunted house story and a vengeful ghost with the dead husband who was cruel in life continues with his persecution. In ‘By The Sluice, the manifestation is trying to point out where his body can be found.
Some ghosts seem motivated by guilt, visiting the place of a crime committed as in ‘The Light In The Garden’ or in the case of ‘The Corner House’ the criminal is haunted by the victim until they confess. Others haunt the place that they died until there is an opportunity for vengeance as in ‘The Passenger’.
A common method of telling a creepy story is to have a group sitting around, often by firelight or after a good meal and regaling each other with ghost stories, as in ‘Between The Lights’. Then, as everyone accepts that this is good fiction, something happens that makes the narrator and reader doubt that it was all a fancy.
Early horror and SF stories were set in a time that allowed for the amateur experimenter. Dabbling in the occult was just as common as the backroom invention. ‘The Thing In The Hall’ has the friend and neighbour of the narrator evoking and elemental that gets out of hand and wreaks havoc. There are dreams that are a kind of Deja Vue – ‘The Face’ – which as the protagonist begins to recognise the places in the visions that turn reality into a nightmare.
An interesting slant on where inspiration comes from is expressed as two stories here. ‘The Secret Garden’ is an account of Benson’s own development of a secluded garden at Lamb House in Rye and the time he caught a glimpse of an unexplained shadowy figure. Rye is a town with many recorded ghostly sightings. Benson converted this incident into the story, ‘The Flint Knife’, also set in a secret garden.
Although the attitudes expressed by the characters may seem outdated in the modern climate, many of the stories are intriguing. They don’t necessarily explain the strange happenings, though they do reflect some of the anxieties and obsessions of the period. This is a book well worth browsing through.