Edward Frederick Benson, it’s usually stated in mini-biographies that E. F. Benson is best known for his satirical comedies of manners, the Mapp and Lucia novels. But, of course, to the likes of you and I Benson is best known as that much anthologised author of weird fiction, a name mentioned in the same breath as contemporaries James, Machen, Blackwood, etc. etc.
Published by Panther in 1974, ‘The Horror Horn’ was the first time Benson’s tales had been printed in a collection in over 40 years and we have the poet and novelist Alexis Lykiard to thank for bringing these stories together. I believe Lykiard was in the Panther stable himself at the time, having had a couple of novels published by them and, being a fan of Benson, he approached Panther with the idea of bringing a selection of Benson’s tales together. Happily for us, and as we know, Panther were already publishing many collections of early 20th Century horror authors at the time, so they agreed. And The Horror Horn was born, a fine selection of thirteen E. F. Benson tales spanning thirty years or so of his career, selected and introduced by Alexis Lykiard and, to top it all off, cover art by the wonderful Bruce Pennington (who else? It is Panther and it is the early ‘70s)
It’s always a pleasure to find a Benson short story in an anthology but, as with most authors, you can never really immerse yourself in the mind-set of the author in a single story; for that you need a collection. And what a mind-set we’re immersed in when we read a Benson collection!
Shall we take a minute to talk about his background first of all? Perhaps it may put his themes into some sort of perspective.
T h e F a t h e r
Benson’s father was Edward White Benson. Rather a brilliant man by all accounts, he started his career as a schoolmaster at Rugby, became headmaster at the newly established Wellington College, and ended up as the Archbishop of Canterbury. Quite a career path. He’s also credited with planting the seed of a ghost story into the head of family friend Henry James which went on to become The Turn of the Screw. However, his home life was quite a different story. His wife and children considered him a depressive, stern, intolerant bully. The 21 year old Edward White Benson hints in his diary that he may have homosexual tendencies but supposes that he must marry at some point so, as he gets on well with her, he decides to marry his 2nd cousin, the 11 year old Mary “Minnie” Sidgwick. He becomes engaged to her the following year, when she is 12, and marries her a few years later when she is 18 years of age.
T h e M o t h e r
Let’s move on to “Minnie” now. A young girl with her life mapped out for her with a marriage to her respectable older cousin. But this is a woman who Gladstone was to call “The cleverest woman in Europe”, she was certainly not going to be the type to perform the act of the dutiful and loyal Victorian wife. Throughout their married life, and after her husband died, Minnie had many, many affairs with other women. Some of these ‘Schwarmerei’, as she called them, were long term, including the ones with a thoroughly modern young composer by the name of Ethel Smyth; and Lucy Tait, the daughter of a previous Archbishop of Canterbury. Mary Benson was a complex and fascinating character and the centre of Rodney Bolt’s noted biography with the wonderful title of ‘As Good as God, as Clever as the Devil’.
Although the married life of Edward White Benson and Mary Sidgwick was obviously a troubled one, they did manage to create six children, five of which survived into adulthood. Here they are:
C h i l d 1 :
Arthur Christopher Benson, schoolmaster at Eton, lecturer at Cambridge, respected poet, essayist and short story writer (along with his brother E. F., he penned a decent ghost story). Most famously, he wrote the lyrics to Land of Hope and Glory. A troubled man who is thought to have inherited bipolar disorder from his father, he remained unmarried and child-free.
C h i l d 2 :
Mary Eleanor “Nellie” Benson, devoted her short life to helping to educate young, poverty stricken girls in London. Remember the young composer Nellie’s mother was in love with, Ethel Smyth? Nellie seems to have shared her mother’s love for Ms. Smyth, leading to a complicated love triangle. Nellie died of diphtheria aged 27, she remained unmarried and child-free.
C h i l d 3 :
Margaret “Maggie” Benson, author, archaeologist (along with her lifelong companion, Janet Gourlay) and one of the first women admitted to Oxford University. Also thought to have inherited bipolar disorder from her father. During a particularly troubled period, Maggie fell in love with her mother’s lover, Lucy Tait, and in a single night tried and failed to commit suicide and then attempted to murder her mother. She was then taken to the psychiatric hospital The Priory, where she spent the rest of her days. She remained unmarried and child-free.
C h i l d 4 :
Edward Frederick Benson. At last we arrive at E.F. himself, famed and prolific author and notable figure skater. He seems to be the most stable of the Benson clan and lived to a ripe old age before dying of throat cancer in 1940. He remained unmarried and child-free.
C h i l d 5 :
Robert Hugh Benson, another very well respected author of his day. He followed his father’s footsteps into the church to become an Anglican priest but later converted to Catholicism. Obviously, being a good Catholic priest, he remained unmarried and child-free.
And there we have the Benson family. Quite a bunch. Highly educated and prolific authors, every man jack of them. What would you expect from being brought up in an environment where you weren’t allowed breakfast until you’d asked for it in rhyming couplets?
So, back to the book in question then. Here’s the:
C O N T E N T S
Introduction by Alexis Lykiard
The Room in the Tower
The Thing in the Hall
The House with the Brick-Kiln
The Horror Horn
‘And no bird sings’
The Bed by the Window
Lykiard offers us a selection which spans Benson’s writing career. The first five stories are from his 1912 collection ‘The Room in the Tower’, the following three are from 1923’s ‘Visible and Invisible’, the next two are from 1928’s ‘Spook Stories’, and the final three from his 1934 collection ‘More Spook Stories’.
It’s interesting to see how Benson’s writing style changed over the years. The early tales are written very much in the Victorian style, all long sentences with a very liberal use of the comma. Nothing wrong with that of course, in a skilled hand it can create a very elegant and stately feel. Reading these though, they do seem a tad on the clumsy side with the comma usage sending the prose off on tangential rambles. However, by the time we reach the later stories towards the end of the collection he’s writing with a far more assured pen and we’re treated to some finely crafted short stories.
So, what of the nightmares of Benson? What are the horrors that pervade his pages? His favoured format is a 1st person narrative and the narrator is, more often than not, a thoroughly decent, well-to-do, bachelor, sort of a chap. The horrors come from outside in an attempt to harm the ordered society of the well-mannered. Whether this is a matter of fear on Benson’s part or of wish-fulfilment I don’t know, but he did like to satirise upper-middle class society in his Mapp and Lucia novels so perhaps it’s a little of both. This encroachment doesn’t just come from his horrors, it can be found all through his work, such as the introduction to Mrs. Amworth where the setting is the idyllically quaint village of Maxley, where the heather-clad downs carry warm, scented breezes to the tranquil innocence of the village. However:
The general peace is sadly broken on Saturdays and Sundays, for we lie on one of the main roads between London and Brighton and our quiet street becomes a race-course for flying motor-cars and bicycles.
A notice just outside the village begging them to go slowly only seems to encourage them to accelerate their speed, for the road lies open and straight, and there is really no reason why they should do otherwise. By way of protest, therefore, the ladies of Maxley cover their noses and mouths with their handkerchiefs as they see a motor-car approaching, though, as the street is asphalted, they need not really take these precautions against dust. But late on Sunday night the horde of scorchers has passed, and we settle down again to five days of cheerful and leisurely seclusion.
This was first published in 1923, a world still in the shadow of the very real horrors of The Great War and the Spanish Flu pandemic. Everyone was recoiling from the previous few years, there were those who tried to cling to traditionalism and there were those who embraced modernism, both sides of the coin wrapped up in a neat paragraph.
In the aftermath of The Great War there was also a marked rise in the popularity of spiritualism and psychical research, contemporary mores which Benson regularly addresses with both suspicion and admiration. Benson’s maternal Uncle, the philosopher Henry Sidgwick, was one of the founders and first president of the Society for Psychical Research and his maternal Aunt, Eleanor Sidgwick, became president in 1908. So, Benson had strong links with the SPR and mentions them often in his stories, if a character is not an active member of the society then they invariably have an interest in the spiritual realms. As opposed to an average M. R. James tale, where the central character begins as a cynic and undergoes a conversion (such as ‘Oh, Whistle…’), an E. F. Benson character will be more likely to begin the story as a believer (or at least be open-minded) and have those beliefs confirmed.
The branch of psychic ability which Benson seems to have the most interest in is that of the prophetic dream. Dreams appear, in one way or another, in seven of the thirteen tales in this collection. This tone is set from the very beginning as the opening story, The Room in the Tower, famously introduces itself with a five hundred word discourse on the nature of dreams. Of course, a cynic may suggest that the device is used a little too often by Benson; ensuring the plotline is developed by giving the protagonist a ‘forewarned is forearmed’ status with such a simple construct as a prophetic dream could conceivably be considered as a little lazy. But, I would never say such a thing, it’s obviously a subject close to the author’s heart.
And talking of subjects close to the author’s heart, let’s move on to the horrors which Benson has these brave chaps defending the ordered world against.
In two of the stories we have female vampires, both mature women who invariably suck the life from young men.
We have a lost tribe of savage, mountain-dwelling primitives who rape both their male and female victims.
Most peculiar of all is Benson’s seeming obsession with oversized worm-like creatures. We have them writhing on a four-poster bed:
…covered with great caterpillars, a foot or more in length, which crawled over it. They were faintly luminous, and it was the light from them that showed me the room. Instead of the sucker-feet of ordinary caterpillars they had rows of pincers like crabs, and they moved by grasping what they lay on with their pincers, and then sliding their bodies forward. In colour these dreadful insects were yellowish-grey, and they were covered with irregular lumps and swellings. There must have been hundreds of them, for they formed a sort of writhing, crawling pyramid on the bed. Occasionally one fell off on to the floor, with a soft fleshy thud…
We also have an instance of a grey worm falling onto someone’s shirt-front, seemingly from nowhere and with very little relevance to the story.
But strangest of all is the recurring creature which appears in several of Benson’s tales. It’s usually described as an elemental and it’s rather a Lovecraftian beast; in fact, Benson gets a mention in Lovecraft’s essay ‘Supernatural Horror in Literature’ which gives particular mention to one of the finest in this collection, ‘Negotium Perambulans’. This ‘elemental’ is large and slug-like; it is sparsely haired and rears up when aroused; it is foul smelling and mostly comes out in the dark; it is as thick as a man’s thigh and has a bluntly pointed end with a single orifice; and instead of blood it contains a pale, viscous fluid. Although we do not know where this creature comes from it appears to act as servant to a greater intelligence and has the ability to turn a chap’s mind to brutal and nefarious thoughts; eventually, it will suck the life from whoever it haunts, draining them of bodily fluids and leaving only a limp and flaccid skin behind.
Add to this the final story about a distant family member and his clan indulging in some strange religious practices and we have enough to make any Freudian psychoanalyst think they’ve hit the mother-lode with Benson.
And on that note I’ll leave you with a quote from Benson’s tale ‘The Face’:
Psychologists taught that these early impressions fester or poison the mind like some hidden abscess.