Friday, 29 May 2015

The Room in the Tower & Other Stories ~ E. F. Benson

Edward Frederic Benson (1867~1940) is probably best known these days for being the creator of Mapp and Lucia. His acute satirical novels about warring upper middle class Sussex ladies during the inter-war years never seem to wane in popularity. The TV series of the 1980s had a cult following, and the BBC aired a new adaptation only last year. But Fred, as he was known to his chums, had several strings to his bow and was a prolific writer; he was also an archaeologist, memoirist, and writer of excellent and unsettling weird short stories. His tales are genuinely creepy and sometimes pretty horrific, so it's best not to read them when you're home alone, in the dark... not a soul to hear you scream for help, etc.

Benson's first collection of weird tales, The Room in the Tower and Other Stories, was published by Mills & Boon in 1912. It contains: The Room in the Tower, Gavon's Eve, The Dust-Cloud, The Confession of Charles Link-worth, At Abdul Ali's Grave, The Shootings of Achnaleish, How Fear Departed from the Long Gallery, Caterpillars, The Cat, The Bus-Conductor, The Man Who Went too Far, Between the Lights, Outside the Door, The Other Bed, The Thing in the Hall, The House with the Brick-Kiln, The Terror by Night.

As there are seventeen tales in this collection, and I don't want to just skim over them to avoid writing an overly long post, I'm going to split this post into two. I'll cover half of the stories in this post and the other half in a second post next week.

Over a period of fifteen years, the narrator of 'The Room in the Tower' repeatedly dreams of visiting the home of Jack Stone and his mother Julia. Each time, he is given the room in the tower. The dream develops over the years, but it always ends in the same way - with a feeling of mounting terror. Then the narrator goes to stay with his friend, John Clinton, at his home in Sussex, and he finds himself in the house of his terrible dreams, where he is once again given the room in the tower.

'Gavon's Eve' falls on the 15th of September. On the bank of a pool in the vicinity of the village of Gavon in Sutherland stand the ruins of a Pict castle, 'built out of rough and scarcely hewn masonry'. At the hour of midnight in this location, 'the evil and malignant spirits which hold sway on Gavon's Eve are at the zenith of their powers', and the narrator and his friend Hugh Graham decide to go and see for themselves what ungodly things take place in that remote, wild place.

'The Dust-Cloud' put me in mind of Stephen King's Christine. The narrator's host, Harry Combe-Martin, tells the story of a ghostly automobile, a twenty-five horse-power Amédée... a brute of a car that ran over a child and killed its owner, Guy Elphinstone, a savage driver who ran over his own dog rather than brake or swerve to avoid it.

In 'The Confession of Charles Linkworth', Charles Linkworth is facing execution for having murdered his mother, but even when his appeal is rejected he refuses to confess his crime to Dr Teesdale. He continues to assert that he is innocet... at least, he does as long as he is alive.

'At Abdul Ali's Grave' is set in Luxor, Egypt. Abdul Ali, the oldest man in the village, has died, but his cache of money is nowhere to be found. During his last days, he was attended by the notorious Achmet, a practitioner of the dark arts who is partial to robbing the bodies of the recently deceased. The narrator and his friend, Weston, have a servant, Machmout, who is clairvoyant. Wanting to confirm the accuracy of one of Machmout's visions, the two Englishmen go by moonlight to the grave of Abdul Ali, where they discover just how far Achmet is willing to go to get his hands on the riches of the dead.

'The Shootings of Achnaleish' is one of my favourites of this collection. The narrator and his wife, with Jim and Mabel Armitage, rent a farmhouse in Achnaleish, in Sutherlandshire, for fishing and shooting during the summer. En route to their holiday home, as they speed through the dark landscape, enormous black hares dash before their car, one of which they run down, much to the horror of the locals. To make matters worse, Jim is determined to bag some hares when he goes out shooting. But nobody shoots hares at Achnaleish... not if they value their own lives.

In 'How Fear Departed from the Long Gallery', Church-Peveril is a house that is 'beset and frequented by spectres, both visible and audible'. Generally speaking, the Peverils are proud of their defunct family members and find them amusing, but there are two ghosts which they never laugh at - the ghosts of twin-babies, murdered by Dick Peveril in 1602, who appear in the long gallery. None who see the twin spectres live long afterwards, and the long gallery is avoided at all costs after nightfall. But Madge Dalrymple has had a bad fall and is left reading in the long gallery, where she nods off... and she is still sleeping there when the light fails.

'Caterpillars' is set in the Villa Cascana, which stands on a hill not far from Sestri di Levante on the Italian Riviera, looking out over the sea. The narrator and Arthur Inglis are staying there with Jim Stanley and his wife. But there is something not quite right about the place. During the first night of his stay at the villa, the narrator is unable to sleep and goes downstairs to fetch a book. The door to an empty bedroom lies open, so he looks inside... only to find that the bed is far from unoccupied. Personally, I've always found caterpillars to be rather cute; at least, I did until I first read this story.

To be continued...

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