Sunday, 7 June 2015

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

Following on from last week's post about the first half of E. F. Benson's wonderful collection of spook stories, this post is about the second half. E. F. Benson is one of my favourite writers of spooky tales, so you can take it as said that I think every one of these tensely atmospheric stories is excellent.

In 'The Cat', after a terrible two-month bout of depression, brought on by being jilted, the artist Dick Alingham, whose work was previously merely mediocre, experiences an alteration in his perceptions of the world around him, a sudden surge of artistic in-spiration and a dramatic increase in ability. His friend, Jim Merwick, a rising young doctor, is concerned for the artist's mental health, especially when he agrees to return to painting the portrait of the woman who threw him aside for another man. And he's perfectly right to worry.

In 'The Bus-Conductor', the narrator and his friend, Hugh Grainger, have just returned from two days' ghost hunting in the country. Dining together the evening after their return, the conversation turns naturally to the subject of ghosts, and Grainger tells the story of his own experience with the supernatural which took place eighteen months earlier... an experience involving an empty hearse which left him 'a mere quivering mass of disordered nerves'. 

'The Man Who Went too Far' is set in the village of St Faith's in the county of Hampshire. Darcy visits the house of Frank Halton, a friend he hasn't seen for six years, and is surprised to find that he looks younger than ever before. Halton explains that his youthful appearance and physical vigour are the result of spending years contemplating nature and focusing solely on the cultivation of joy. But there are consequences to obsessively pursuing nothing but personal happiness.

In 'Between the Lights', Everard Chandler is sitting on the croquet lawn on Christmas Eve when the view before him is replaced by an interior scene from 'some epoch of dim antiquity', where the atmosphere is foul and oppressive and its inhabitants are scarcely human. For months he is haunted by his vision, and his doctor suggests a change of air. So, he travels to Glen Callan, in Sutherland, for a spot of stalking, but whilst out shooting he gets lost in the mist in unfamiliar territory. He spies a light coming from an opening in the wall ahead of him and, passing through it, finds himself in a circular enclosure. But once there, the vision returns.

In 'Outside the Door', Mrs Aldwych suggests a theory that explains certain supernatural phenomena, then tells a ghost story to illustrate her point. A month earlier, whilst home alone, she awoke suddenly in a state of terror. A little while later she heard the sound of someone descending the stairs towards the landing on which her room was situated, groping about in the dark as they tried to find their way. This, I think, is the weakest of all the tales in this collection, due to its explanatory nature and Mrs Aldwych's response to encountering a ghost. It's still a good story, just not as good as the rest.

In 'The Other Bed', the narrator is in Switzerland at the Hôtel Beau Site, in a first-floor room with two beds in it. He feels a distinct repugnance at the idea of occupying the bed prepared for him, so moves to the other one. But his mind begins to dwell on that other bed, and he starts to fear it. He feels a presence in the room, and more than once he wakes to find that the covers of the other bed have been disarranged during the night, as though it has been occupied. 
'The electric light was burning brightly, and there seemed to me to be a curious stain, as of a shadow, on the lower part of the pillow and the top of the sheet, definite and suggestive, and for a moment I stood there again throttled by a nameless terror. Then taking my courage in my hands I went closer and looked at it. Then I touched it; the sheet, where the stain or shadow was, seemed damp to the hand, so also was the pillow.'
'The Thing in the Hall' is the account of Dr Francis Assheton regarding the events which took place prior to the death of his old Cambridge friend, Louis Fielder. Fielder, who liked to try everything, had been trying his hand at spiritualism and had thrown open the door to his soul and invited something in. Wanting to discover more about the strange phenomena occurring in Fielder's home, the two men held regular séances and interest turned to obsession, until the Thing materialised before them.

The narrator of 'The House with the Brick-Kiln', along with Jack Singleton, travels to the Manor of Trevor Major, which stands in a lonely spot in the vicinity of Lewes in Sussex, in the hope of doing some dry-fly fishing. The fishing is good and the manor is comfortable, but the place has a dark history, and the narrator begins to feel 'something unseen and unheard and dreadful' near to him. And that sensation intensifies as time passes, until 'unseen' becomes decidedly 'seen'.

'The Terror by Night' is a story about precognition. The narrator and his old friend Jack Lorimer find themselves troubled by feelings of apprehension, as though something is about to happen, though they know not what. No matter what they do, they cannot shake the ominous feeling that something is about to unfold.

The first edition of The Room in the Tower is a very rare book, and a copy in fine condition would cost several hundred pounds, but it's very difficult to find one in that condition. At the moment, a good copy goes for about £150, but they're not all that common either at present.

Ash-Tree Press published The Terror by Night in 1998, and that contains all but two of the tales from The Room in the Tower: 'The Room in the Tower' and 'The Confession of Charles Linkworth'. A fine copy with like dust jacket sells for around eighty to a hundred pounds ($120~150) at the moment. There's a Kindle version, and that's available for a little over five pounds.

There's also the paperback Night Terrors: The Ghost Stories of E.F. Benson, published in 2012 by Wordsworth Editions. That contains all of the stories from The Room in the Tower, plus many more besides. There's a Kindle edition of that too, for a mere £1.49.

Photograph at top of post: Edward Frederic Benson, 1st of August 1926, by Lafayette Ltd. ©National Portrait Gallery, London.

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