If you’re a connoisseur of ghost stories you are probably aware that the best reading experiences take the form of individual, pithy narratives rather than book-length efforts. This is true for almost all of the masters, from M. R. James to Henry James, Charles Dickens to Saki, Nathaniel Hawthorne to Ambrose Bierce. Collections assembled as round-ups are frequently patchy, with the mood of several chilling tales intruded upon by a lackluster yarn.
E. F. Benson (1867-1940) was a writer who didn’t suffer this common problem of ghost story scribes—which is interesting, as he wrote so much that you’d think his work would lend itself to unevenness. Benson composed more than 40 novels, the most famous being the Mapp and Lucia series, which sometimes out-Wodehouses P. G. Wodehouse himself—not what you’d expect from a writer who could switch lanes, directions, and means of travel entirely and fashion ghost stories that repay autumnal rereading. Or regular Christmastime reading, as Benson liked to set stories during that season.
That this same man with his love of the macabre was also a champion figure skater is no real surprise when you see the range within a single volume of his ghost stories, such as my favorite, his 1912 collection, The Room in the Tower and Other Stories, the best book of supernatural fiction we have. M. R. James’s Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904) is a strong contender for the title, as is Widdershins (1907) by the wonderfully named Oliver Onions. I could even back a dark horse like Richard Middleton’s The Ghost Ship and Other Stories (1912), which came out the same year as Benson’s Tower, making that something of a banner year for supernatural literature.
M. R. James gets the most praise today amongst ghost story fans. He’s viewed as more frightening than Benson; but there is an overreliance in his stories on a sort of gross-out technique—something fetid and slimy being discovered at the eleventh hour—that works more to provide nausea than the certain unease Benson induces. James will stay with you longer, in the sense that you’ll recall a story to mind, and shudder; but Benson is better at beckoning us back, to return to his pages at all times of day, not just during the witching hours.
Consider, for instance, “Between the Lights” from The Room in the Tower. We are at a Christmas party in England, and the teller of the tale, feeling drowsy as he watches his wife play croquet on the lawn with his friend, takes a nap in his chair and finds himself transported to a cave deep in game territory, where subhuman primitives advance upon him. A bad dream in the middle of the day. Later, on a hunting trip, a storm that is not so much a storm but a low-lying monster of moisture affixes itself to hunter and guide, flesh and soul, compelling our hero to take shelter in a cave and—well, you will not like what he finds there.
He survives, however. Benson almost always lets his characters stay on in the world, in part so they can tell their stories, and also because they are so easy to connect with, in the sense that we’d like to be sitting across from them in some lodge, with the furze and the trees being pelted with rain, as whiskey is brought in for amiable conversation. Place is a very strong concept in stories such as these: You wish to be there, you like the setting, you like people such as the characters in “How Fear Departed from the Long Gallery,” a story of another Christmas party, which features adults playing hide-and-seek and a woman falling asleep in a room where toddler twins were murdered by being pushed into the fireplace. The homeowners are proud of the ghosts throughout their house, but one mustn’t tarry after dark in the Long Gallery, where the twins appear.
“How Fear Departed from the Long Gallery” is that rare thing, the ghost story as happy account, and Benson was skilled at it. But fear not: He can get you when he wants to. “Caterpillars,” a tale of horrific, pincer-mouthed monsters, is like a cross between television horror and M. R. James’s most intensely grotesque imagery. “The Dust-Cloud” is one of the few ghost stories—and certainly the earliest—centered on an automobile, and yet it manages to feel distinctly out of time. The title story, “The Room in the Tower,” is a subtle vampire narrative, with the refrain of “Jack will show you your room” sounded with grave insistence over several passages of time—a room, of course, where none of us would wish to be.
Colin Fleming is the author of Between Cloud and Horizon: A Relationship Casebook in Stories.