This collection comes with an introduction by Mark Gatiss, best known for playing Mycroft in the TV series, Sherlock. I discovered that Gatiss and I share a love of Victorian ghost stories: he made a documentary on the life of the greatest of them, M.R. James, a writer who was Benson’s contemporary and influenced him.
Although I still think no one beats James at creating atmosphere, I enjoyed these stories. One of my favourites is The Room in the Tower. The narrator has a recurring nightmare that he is in a country house with a particular family. The dream always ends with the dreaded words from the hostess, “Jack will show you your room: I have given you the room in the tower”. What is it that lurks in the tower that so terrifies him?
Supernatural goings on lurk in seemingly normal places: in the village of Maxley, “rich in amenities and beauty” a new resident is not really the friendly, outgoing person she seems to be; on a visit to the countryside, on “a golden day that every now and then leaks out of paradise and drips to earth”, the narrator walks through a forest that harbours something very strange and nasty; and the panels in a church in Polearn, a remote village in West Cornwall, tell of a pestilence that walks in the dark. And you will never look at caterpillars in the same way again.
But Benson also pokes fun at mediums and is sceptical of “ghost-hunting” in old creaky houses. In The Bus Conductor, two friends who spend a night in an old house, hoping to see a ghost, come away with nothing but a few scares. (The ghost appears later in a normal London street.)
Benson’s descriptions, especially of the English countryside, are beautifully written: “once out of the shadow of the wood the stream lay in flaming pools of molten crimson of the sunset, and lost itself in the haze of woodland distances”. But there is always a dark side: the forest without woodland animals or birdsong, where a thing moves with a “certain stealthy heaviness”, emitting a foul odour. And for me, the scariest image in the book: the figure haunting the room in the tower, glimpsed briefly in a flash of lightening, watching the narrator as he lay in bed.
Ghost stories tap into our fear of the unknown, and the Victorian writers gave us just enough detail to allow our imaginations to fill in the gap. That is their secret, and that is why some of the scariest, most enduring ghost stories come from that period.