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The Ghosts of E. F. Benson—Jeff baker, Boogieman in Lavender

The Ghosts of E. F. Benson

by Jeff Baker

In that era of over a century ago there was a surfeit of novelists, intellectuals, humorists, archaeologists. As well as writers of otherwise “serious” literary literary fiction who dabbled in ghost stories. As well as families who produced more than one notable writer.

British writer E. F. Benson (Edward Frederic Benson) fit all of those descriptions.

Born in 1867 to an English cleric who later became Archbishop of Canterbury, Benson is best known today for his Mapp and Lucia novels, which have been adapted for radio, movies and Masterpiece Theater. His family includes Arthur Benson, Robert Benson and Margaret Benson, all of whom were writers among other pursuits.

And, E. F. Benson wrote ghost stories.

Like a lot of the writers of “Classic Ghost Stories” of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, Benson’s supernatural figures are usually malevolent, following in the tradition set by the great British ghost story writer M. R. (Montague Rhodes) James. In fact, James and Benson were friends and Benson had been present at several of James’ private readings of his own stories which probably inspired Benson to write his own tales of dread. And while James’ stories mainly involve shades which are frightening and sometimes violent even as the tales are masterpieces of subtle creepiness, Benson’s stories feature not only ghosts but vampires, demons and monsters and there is less subtlety and quiet horror than in James’ work.

What there is, is humor. Not in all the stories, but some of them have a satiric edge bordering on spoofery. In others, the humor is less broad and in others it isn’t there at all.

In what Benson said was his personal favorite of his stories “How Fear Departed From the Long Gallery,” the mood starts out humorous; the ancient family manse is home to a variety of ghosts (like “The Blue Lady”) whose appearances are taken matter-of-factly by the family, and are almost a tourist attraction. But the mood turns dark and tragic when the story shifts to the haunting of the Long Gallery in the house by two infants murdered brutally for their inheritance in the Seventeenth Century. Their sporadic appearances in the nighttime hours inevitably bring horrific death to those who see them. But that isn’t the ending of the story…

Benson was also Gay (so, probably was at least one of his brothers) and had a few serious relationships while remaining intensely closeted. This contradicts Joan Aiken’s assertion that Benson was straight, in her otherwise fine introduction to the Carrol and Graf “Collected Ghost Stories of E. F. Benson.” (Edited by Richard Dalby, published 1992, and actually not containing all of Benson’s stories of what is now called “Dark Fantasy.”)

Benson was what had been described as “discreet” about his gay relationships but he wrote about at least one of them in his diary, describing being “perfectly mad about” one man he was involved with.

That first great era of the intellectuals dabbling in ghost stories for pleasure has passed. As has Benson who died in 1940. But Benson’s serious literary works are still available. And his ghostly tales are readily available in print and digital editions. They still have the power to make the reader shiver or smile.

The smile that skulls know well…

Jeff Baker blogs about reading or writing sci-fi, fantasy and horror and other sundry matters on or about the thirteenth of every month. His fiction has been published in the new quarterly “Orion’s Beau” among other places, and his non-fiction has appeared on the “Amazing Stories” website. He and his husband Darryl know that Robert Guillaume did not portray E. F. Benson. He regularly blogs and posts fiction on his website authorjeffbaker and wastes time on Facebook at Jeff Baker, Author Jeff Baker, Author | Facebook


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2 thoughts on “The Ghosts of E. F. Benson—Jeff baker, Boogieman in Lavender”

  1. Ooo, I love E.F. Benson’s work! I fell in love with The Room in the Tower before I even knew about Map and Lucia. :) I still have The Inheritor. ;)


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