The Outcast – E F Benson

There can be no denying that Edward Frederic Benson was born into a respectable and well-connected family; by the year of his tenth birthday, his father Edward White Benson would be appointed the Bishop of Truro and would later become Archbishop of Canterbury, while in 1901 his eldest brother would pen the lyrics to Edward Elgar’s Land of Hope and Glory, yet in his life and work E F Benson would return to the idea of the outcast.

A writer of satirical society novels, he found success with Dodo and the sequence featuring the friends and rivals Mapp and Lucia, but his shorter fiction was of another order altogether, depicting a series of haunted people and places, seventeen of which have been gathered by editor Mike Ashley for the British Library’s latest Tales of the Weird collection, The Outcast and Other Dark Tales.

Opening with Dummy on a Dahabeah, the tale of a widower travelling to forget, never mentioning his late wife even as he recreates the voyage of their honeymoon by Egyptian riverboat, it quickly establishes the themes which will repeat, of regret and the past impinging on the present; the premise obvious to the modern reader after a hundred years saturated in such stories, the joy is in experiencing the growing realisation of the characters over their evening card games.

Stepping again into “the vague, shadow-haunted twilight of those grey slopes that lie between the shores of living consciousness and the deeper gulfs of sleep,” A Winter Morning sees another widower in mourning, for both his wife and his son, an abstract longing for things which cannot be replaced, while Between the Lights is a fireside tale of being lost in the mist in the hills and valleys of Scotland, stumbling into a resolution of a precognitive hallucination.

Written with the conviction of someone comfortable in their craft, The Thing in the Hall is more narrative, a piece of ideas and atmosphere concerning the power of suggestion and belief; the manifestation of “an elemental” dismissed as “a vision of diseased imagination,” the narrator’s denial offers no protection.

His work sometimes more focused and precise than the similar tales of Lovecraft, The Passenger is an example of the commonplace ghastly which Benson depicts, a London bus in bleak weather, an impression of a second occupant on the top deck, a growing feeling of dread and apprehension, though the abrupt twist and resolution does not fully satisfy and will recur in the collection.

The inheritance of a house half-forgotten from childhood leads to The Light in the Garden, atmospheric though the foreshadowing is obvious, but more ambitious is the history of Mrs Bertha Acres, a handsome widow whose husband killed himself after only a month of marriage and whose charming companionship nevertheless inspires dread in all who meet her, leading to her becoming The Outcast in one of Benson’s most explicitly horrific tales.

Only a few pages long, two cousins share a holiday let in the country whose grim history is witnessed on The Top Landing, featuring many of Benson’s recurring motifs; similarly, a woman troubled by nightmares holidays by the coast to find they are a premonition as The Face from her dreams manifests in a ruined graveyard, though equally shocking to the gentle reader of 1924 would be the idea of a lady playing rounds of golf.

Built on these repeating themes and images, The Corner House perhaps is not as effective when read in such close proximity to Benson’s earlier stories as it might be in isolation with the reclaimed land of The Face, another holiday let, the vision of the recently murdered of The Passenger, the nocturnal digging of The Light in Garden, and all it offers beyond this is the two men gossiping over games of golf and a grotesque caricature of a wronged wife.

By the Sluice is another variation of the same though with a more complex setup which is not paid off in the resolution, Benson almost inevitably avoiding any form of analysis or explanation of the phenomena which his stories present in order that his often thinly drawn characters can “look through the transient veil of material limitation.”

In the midst of this, Pirates is a welcome surprise as an aging industrialist returns to the former family home outside Truro he has not seen since he was sixteen years old; a very different side of the supernatural, the ghosts represent the happy memories of his childhood, offering a sense of things being set right and put to order and it is the closest Benson comes to addressing the loss of his own family, all five of his siblings having predeceased him.

The Secret Garden is an interlude, purported to be an account of a real “haunting” experienced by Benson and a presumably reputable witness, a brief apparition which vanished just as swiftly but may have inspired The Flint Knife, another story of nocturnal male companionship which parallels the setting but takes matters much further.

The women in Benson’s stories on the whole peripheral and undistinguished among all his men who holiday together, The Bath Chair is a great change of style and direction, a toxic dissection of a brother, a successful but grudging businessman, and his spinster sister who performs the duties of housekeeper and despises him wholly, plotting his downfall and demise with unrepentant glee.

From the same era, The Dance is a sharply observed charade of cruelty in two acts as Sybil and Julian, the wife and secretary of an older man whose age is theirs combined, are first manipulated and then thwarted in their affections, the husband’s downfall echoing into the fate of the newlyweds when they return to the scene of the crime a year later.

Closing the volume is the widow Dorothy Yates, sat at her typewriter and half-listening to the radio when there is a power cut, reminiscing and longing for the possibility that Billy Comes Through the airwaves in what can be considered a very early representation of electronic voice phenomena. Regrettably, the tale of a writer struggling to compose a meaningful story, it seems to dictate its own fate, the promise of the concept unrealised but perhaps still offering an insight into Benson’s own creative process and his persistent loneliness.

The Outcast is available now from the British Library



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