H.E. Bulstrode

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The Ghost Stories of M.R. James and E.F. Benson

E.F. Benson and M.R. James, two of the best known writers in the history of the ghost story genre, were near contemporaries from similar upper-middle class backgrounds: Benson’s father was a headmaster who went on to become Archbishop of Canterbury, whereas James’s was an evangelical Anglican clergyman. Both men went to leading public schools, Benson to Marlborough and James to Eton, and both studied at Cambridge, where James would remain for many years as an eminent mediaeval scholar. The two were also confirmed bachelors, although it is commonly considered that Benson did form discreet attachments which, given the prevailing social norms and legal situation at the time, were of necessity concealed.

Of the two, one might be forgiven for thinking, given his reputation, that it was James who was the more prolific author of supernatural fiction, but this was not the case. Benson’s output was both larger and broader in compass than that of James, and that, perhaps, is where one of the reasons for this divergence in association lies, for Benson is more commonly remembered for his satirical Mapp and Lucia novels than for his ‘spook stories’. Moreover, whereas James’s output was spare – he did, after all, work full-time as an academic – Benson was a professional author who experimented more widely with both genre and tone. James’s ghost stories possess the declared aim of inspiring ‘a pleasing terror’, whereas many of Benson’s works – such as Mr Tilly’s Séance and Thursday Evenings – are satirical or light-hearted, with the singularly titled The Psychical Mallards even featuring a pair of clashing levitating mediums which possesses one of the most bizarre and absurd scenes that I’ve ever encountered in a tale of the supernatural.

Whilst there have been many well-received television adaptations of James’s stories such as The Stalls of Barchester (1971),  A Warning to the Curious (1972), Lost Hearts (1973), and A View from a Hill (2005), as part of the A Ghost Story for Christmas strand initially produced by the BBC during the seventies and then revived in 2005, none of Benson’s ‘spook stories’, as the author termed them, have been selected for such treatment. This is something of a missed opportunity, for Andrew Davies’s masterful adaptation of Dickens’s short story The Signalman in 1976 proved that other authors’ works could succeed under this banner. The tradition of A Ghost Story for Christmas only ran into trouble in 1977 and 1978 when the decision was taken to commission two original pieces by new writers which were eminently forgettable. Quite why Benson’s tales have been overlooked in this respect is something of a mystery, for although it would be true to say that there is a greater variation in the quality of his writing when compared to that of James, he did write some first-rate ghost stories that would be suitable for adaptation, such as The Face, In the Tube, Monkeys, or How Fear Departed the Long Gallery.

Today though, some might say that the type of protagonist favoured by these two authors might possess a somewhat limited appeal, given that they tended to be bachelors cast very much in their own mould. Thus in James’s stories we normally encounter a slightly fusty antiquarian of a scholarly bent, whereas Benson’s leads were of a more frivolous type – upper-middle-class chaps of independent means who possessed no greater pleasure than a rubber of bridge of an evening (no, I hadn’t heard of that term either until I read these stories), and renting a house in the country, or at the coast, for a month or two to escape the unclean air of London.

In the unlikely event that you are a reader of supernatural fiction who has not read the ghost stories of either of these authors, then I would recommend that you purchase and enjoy the following inexpensive paperbacks published by Wordsworth: Collected Ghost Stories, by M.R. James, and Night Terrors: The Ghost Stories of E.F. Benson. Both are worth every penny.

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