Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Collected Ghost Stories of E.F. Benson, ed. Richard Dalby

0786709804
Carroll & Graf, 2002
672 pp

paper

"...we are all of us probably 'receivers' to some extent, and catch now and then a message or part of a message that the eternal waves of emotion are ceaselessly shouting aloud to those who have ears to hear, and materialising themselves for those who have eyes to see." 

The blurb on the back of my copy of this book states that this edition is "one book that no fan of Benson or of good storytelling can afford to miss."  Since this is a book of ghost stories, I'll add that this volume is a definite no-miss if you are a fan of the well-told, classic ghostly tale.  At 672 pages, this book became my leisurely go-to, late-night, under-the-covers read to be enjoyed once the house was quiet rather than a one-sitting kind of thing, and thinking back on it, I see a great deal of merit in approaching the book this way.

There are 54 stories in this collection that encompass ghostly visitations, physical manifestations of evil, devil worship, revenge, vampires, spiritualism, and my perpetual favorite category in ghost stories, haunted houses. None of these tales are your garden variety ghost story --  many, as Richard Dalby states in his introduction, have an "autobiographical thread" that runs through them, an important notion to consider as you read.  For example, some of his stories feature domineering women or women who, for no apparent reason, were the perpetuators of evil; Joan Aiken's foreward explains that Benson had an "underlying fear and dislike of  ... "the large, bossy, dynamic, interfering, knowing kind of women." In making one woman a vampire, for example, his contempt and fear become obvious. In others the main character is a bachelor happiest in the company of a good male friend; still others feature men who limp who may also represent Benson, who later in life suffered from arthritis severe enough to require the use of "two sticks" to walk.  The thing is, even if you don't really care about the sources of Benson's inspiration, the stories alone are enough to keep you interested in his work.

While a few of the stories here failed to make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up straight, and while some were just kind of silly (mostly those dealing with mediums and spiritualism), I found a number of disturbing tales that I really liked and which got a second read:  "The Dust Cloud," which first appeared in 1906 and reflects anxiety about the new technology of motorcars that seem "to possess an independent life" of their own; "The Shootings of Achnaleish" (1906), where modern hunters clash with the traditional beliefs of highlanders in a remote village; "Negotium Perambulans," (1922) set in an isolated village in Cornwall; "Mrs. Amworth," a vampire story; "Reconciliation," and "Expiation,"  both haunted house stories; "The Face," a definite chiller, as is  "The Step," probably one of the creepiest in the entire collection. I also liked "The Temple" for its menacing atmosphere.   The problem with putting together a volume such as this one is that Benson's stories are often formulaic, especially in the ones where a man goes to spend time with a friend at a country house that is the site of strange, ethereal events, but I found that my piecemeal approach helped to break up some of the sameness.  Overall, it is an excellent collection and like most any other anthology, you have some stories that really work for you along with those that don't.  With only a few exceptions, especially in those stories  where evil is manifested in giant, disgusting slugs, the horror in this volume is cerebral, geared to those who prefer to experience the disturbing dread in their minds rather than see it spelled out and splashed out onto the pages.  If you are an avid reader of the old, classic ghost story, you'll definitely want to add this to your reading list.  Benson was a master craftsman of the genre, and deserves to be more widely read. 

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