Tag Archives: supernatural fiction

Night Terrors: The Ghost Stories of E.F. Benson

The fatness of this volume, clocking in at over 700 pages, bears testimony to E.F. Benson’s prolific output of ghost stories and supernatural tales. Their range, in terms of both subject matter and tone, is wider than that of most who have written in the genre, which should not be surprising given that he was a highly-successful author of the satirical Mapp and Lucia novels, amongst others.

Perhaps the best known of the short stories included in this anthology is The Bus-Conductor, an unnerving tale that was included in the classic 1945 portmanteau horror film Dead of Night, but many readers may well also have encountered his chilling The Face and In the Tube in horror anthologies alongside the works of other authors.

In a collection of this size, the reader is bound to encounter stories that grip the imagination, whilst others may fall a little flat, but this economical Wordsworth edition is worth every penny for those that do hit the mark, and of them there are many. To enumerate all of the titles included would be tedious for any reader of this review, but I shall mention those that I found particularly appealing.

Benson drew heavily upon Scottish folklore in both Gavon’s Eve and The Shootings of Achnaleish, with the latter in particular possessing a notably folk-horror vibe, prefiguring elements of The Wicker Man and Straw Dogs. How Fear Departed the Long Gallery, on the other hand, is a charming ghost story set in an old country house, whose many spectral inhabitants are largely harmless but for those who perished as a consequence of a dastardly act at the close of the age of the Virgin Queen. Perfectly delicious with a touch of whimsy. The House with the Brick-Kiln is quite murderous, whereas Monkeys would appear to have been informed by Benson’s sister’s expertise in the field of Egyptology, and possesses a most chilling twist. Humour comes to the fore in stories such as Mr Tilly’s Séance, Thursday Evenings and the singularly titled The Psychical Mallards, with the latter featuring a pair of levitating mediums who reach the heights of absurdity. Benson thus proved himself to be equally adept at raising a smile and a shudder, and this is to his credit.

Like M.R. James, Benson’s protagonists are more often than not of a particular type, with both men tending to favour bachelors like themselves. Whereas James’s fellows normally proved to be of a scholarly bent, Benson’s 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 for a month or two to escape the unclean air of London. Whilst all of the stories in this volume may be viewed as period pieces, firmly embedded within the social milieu that was familiar to the author, their ability to entertain the reader remains undiminished. This is a volume to be savoured by any lover of ghost stories, and tales of the supernatural.

Click on the following title to view on Amazon: Night Terrors: The Ghost Stories of E.F. Benson

Is Alison Littlewood the New Queen of the Yorkshire Gothic?

Having just read The Crow Garden, an enchanted brew of mesmerism, madness and the parting of the veil, I am left pondering the following question: is Alison Littlewood the new Queen of the Yorkshire Gothic? Could Kate Bush one day find herself penning, and performing, another wild and windy Yorkshire ditty by way of tribute? We shall have to see. One thing, however, is for certain: the author has found her forte in the world of the Victorian Gothic.

In mood and tone, this novel shares much in common with Littlewood’s previous book, The Hidden People, in which another young male London protagonist finds himself lost amongst the darkness of rural Yorkshire. This time, however, the young Victorian gentleman in question does not quite find himself away with the fairies, although he too is possessed of an equally powerful, and destructive, idée fixe. Also, as with The Hidden People, the figure of an alluring and yet unobtainable woman stands at the heart of this story. She is an enigma, and she not only holds Nathaniel Kerner in her thrall, but the reader too.

Séances, abduction, mesmerism and hysteria make for a heady concoction, served up in a dense descriptive prose, very much in keeping with the time in which the novel is set: the 1850s. It is something to be savoured, rather than rushed, but if a pacey read should be what you’re looking for, this is not a book for you. There is a certain sickening twist near the end of this tale which made me almost wish to gag. I really didn’t see it coming.

I shall say no more, for to do so would risk spoiling the shocks, and surprises, that lie within. The question is, will you dare take a step inside the doors of Crakethorne Asylum? Doctor Chettle awaits, with his calipers and a curious gaze. Has no one previously made mention of what a fascinating skull you possess?

The Crow Garden may be viewed and purchased here. Readers might also find the following Yorkshire-set Edwardian occult mystery to their taste: Upon Barden Moor.  

Review of ‘The House of Doctor Dee’ by Peter Ackroyd

All fades into obscurity. 

It has been many years since I first read this novel, and upon rereading it recently what struck me the most was not the book’s supernatural element, but the coldness of the contemporary protagonist – Matthew Palmer – for whom I was unable to conjure up the least smidgen of sympathy. In fact, there is a chilliness that pervades the whole of the book that left me, for all of its merits, to a degree cold. ‘Behold the world without love,’ enjoins the shade of Dee’s late wife at a critical juncture of the story, and the same may be said to the reader of the tale as a whole, but this feeling of emotional sterility was doubtless intentional on Ackroyd’s part, for he is too good a writer for it not to have been. The protagonist, his mother, and father are each deeply estranged from each other, with their set of alienated relationships being echoed in the dysfunctional relationships between Dee, his wife, and his dying father, but beyond this it is the physical fabric of the house – or what remains of Dee’s dwelling – that unites them all. 

In terms of its structure, this tale, like a number of others penned by Ackroyd, involves the interweaving and interpenetration of two distinct periods, in this instance the Tudor London of Elizabethan magus Dr Dee, and the capital that you may have known some quarter of a century or so ago. Neither London, of course, is with us today, for it has in many respects been rendered as unrecognisable as its sixteenth-century incarnation. It is, however, in his conveying of the ambience of the latter that Ackroyd excels, along with his measured updating of Elizabethan speech for a modern readership; in this respect, he is a conjuror of spirits, and raises Dr Dee, or a version thereof, from his slumber of centuries. His ghost is made to speak. 

Alas, however, as a story it has its flaws. Whereas I rather enjoyed that part of it that was set during the sixteenth century, I did not care for the chapters set some four hundred years later, which it would have been better to have dispensed with. As for the book’s concluding chapter, it was a confused and muddled mess that seemed jumbled up with the author’s reflections on the writing of history and fiction. This second reading will therefore, I think, be my last.  

H.E. Bulstrode’s latest novel – Upon Barden Moor – an occult mystery centring upon a single summer’s day in Edwardian England, is now available on Kindle and in paperback.    

To sign up to H.E. Bulstrode’s newsletter, please click here.

Bram Stoker’s Ventriloquist

Such could be the honorific title that deserves to be bestowed upon William Meikle in the penning of this short, restrained, and engaging story, in which the author takes upon Stoker’s persona in its writing. The conceit of this tale, and others in the collection from which it is taken, is that it is but a rediscovered piece by one of the leading lights of the late-Victorian literary firmament, all of whom gather to tell each other tales of the uncanny, and the supernatural, in a gentleman’s club: the Ghost Club. Who should preside over this fictitious entity, but none other than Henry James himself. 

This was the era in which supernatural fiction, particularly the ghost story, flourished, and reached its apogee, and Meikle’s decision to produce a compendium of tales employing the voices of some of its foremost exponents, is an appealing one. With respect to In the House of the Dead itself, the author’s prose strikes the right tone for its period, and the story is related with a commendable restraint. Its central theme of loss and yearning is an eternal one, as is the understandable, and yet delusional, desire to bridge the divide that separates the living from the dead. It is, in a sense, a dilemma that is here resolved, but be warned: death dominates this tale; it stalks every page.

To purchase a copy of In the House of the Dead, please click on the image above.