Ghost Stories by E.F.Benson

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Reviewed by Julie Barham

An historical entertainment?

When I was first asked to read E.F.Benson’s Ghost Stories, I was a little concerned as I have got a very vivid imagination, and resolved to read them during daylight hours. I need not have worried. That is no criticism of the writing, as Benson is tremendously skilled and at ease with character and setting, but these are period pieces, not really twenty first century scary. Well, not until you enter a shady passageway alone and smell rotting…

Edward Benson was of course the creator of Mapp and Lucia, that battling gossipy pair of ladies who ran the social scene in the fictional Tilling. These stories also cover small communities and households which become dominated by an unexplained something. There are many somethings to choose from, including the unnerving Caterpillars, a vampire and an Elemental, which I have since discovered in another novel. Benson obviously did his homework, as each tale fits together with the ‘known facts’ about supernatural beings and experiences, far more than a cursory knowledge of bad horror films would furnish him. These are not just tales of ghostly experiences by any means, and they include descriptions of things that can be shot, run away from, or can induce death. The Man who went Too Far pictures a young man (a character type which dominates these stories) who is a bit of a Dorian Gray, and whose every need is met by a servant. This is not a contemporary tale, and the end is a bit too obvious for my taste. The concept of the story of the room in the tower, with its repetitive lines, is more suggestive of The Go Between, but is curiously less shocking. It is difficult within the short story format to set up the situation, the characters, the event and the resolution, but these are perfect little narratives, with loose ends tied up and proper endings. I would almost suggest that they could be more properly called ‘entertainments’ than ghost stories, as none of them are disturbingly frightening or even ghostly.

My favourite story is the first in the collection is ‘Spinach’, which recounts the story of two dubious mediums, Ludovic Byron and his sister Sylvia, who have changed their names from Thomas and Caroline Carrot to further their careers. This is a story of surreal visitations and forgetful ghosts, and we are instantly back in Mapp and Lucia territory as calculations are made as to publicity and profit. The other side which the spiritual guides describe is typified by ‘an industrious ecstasy of spiritual progress’, and very satisfying to those who attended the circle: Fees payable in advance’. Everyone discovers a friend or a loved one, but there are limits to credulity, and it is through a rural retreat that the story’s title emerges from in an excess of spiritual contact. This is just a pleasing story, very much in the Benson style, which I enjoyed.

This is an interesting period piece of a book, not frightening but entertaining, and a must for those who enjoy the surreal if not the properly scary.

Julie blogs at Northern Reader.

E.F.Benson, Ghost Stories (Vintage, 2016). 978-1784871901, 192pp., paperback.

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