Algernon Blackwood, Books, Boxing Night, Communication, Death, Dr. Crippen, E. F. Benson, Edward Frederic Benson, Ghost Story, Ghosts, Guglielmo Marconi, History, In the Tube, Julius LeVallon, Premonition, Premonitory Tales, Revolution, Saki, Sir Roger de Coverley, Spiritualism, The Bright Messenger, The Great War, The Terror by Night, Through, Visionary, Visions, Wireless Telegraphy, World War One
Our last instalment distinguished the premonitory tale as a sort of literary parlour game, and it contended that this frolicsome subgenre to the formal ghost story would increasingly identify with Saki’s model of short fiction. We observed that Algernon Blackwood’s relatively ponderous prose and the sincerity of his visionary mysticism prejudiced him against the premonitory tale, but that he nevertheless submitted several modest and qualified examples of such stories. Edward Frederic Benson was, like Blackwood, an industrious writer of popular fiction, and his stories capture a little of the extraordinary and apocalyptic idealism which had characterised their age. Benson and Blackwood both imagined themselves to be reporting from a revolutionary historical moment in which materialism looked more precarious than any relic of the ancient regime, and the distinctions between life and death, bodies and spirits, and the past and the future were apparently destined for immanent oblivion. In Blackwood’s novel Julius LeVallon (1916), for example, the narrator John Mason faces the dawn of “an extended world, of wonder, movement, adventure on a scale immensely grander than anything I found about me amongst known external things.”
Unlike Blackwood, however, Benson emerged as a leading light of premonitory fiction, because his forte was humour and his writing both anticipated and at times equalled that of Saki in its flair, weightlessness, and sharp-eyed observation. Benson’s “How Fear Departed from the Long Gallery” (1911) begins and ends very much in the Saki vein, and Benson may even exceed Saki’s merry brutality in his account of the two toddlers who are burned alive in a fireplace by their wicked uncle. When it came to ghost stories, Benson had learned something of his trade at M. R. James’ knee, in numbering amongst those who were privilege to the first Christmas readings of James’ earliest tales. Yet James posed as an arch-traditionalist and he evokes the modern word only as something to be raided by disturbed spectres, whilst Benson at times sung from a very different hymn sheet, in assuming the mission of science fiction and imagining scenarios which science had yet to formally investigate.
One doubts whether Benson’s particular model of the ghost story would have ever come to fruition without the invention of wireless telegraphy. Whilst the electric telegraph had been around since 1838, telegraphy without wires had only become a serious prospect during Benson’s first decade of authorship, the 1890s, when Nikola Tesla and Guglielmo Marconi successively experimented with the ability to communicate using invisible radio waves. In 1897, Marconi founded his “Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company,” which would go on to pioneer radio and television broadcasting. Benson’s own success with premonitory fiction derived from a striking, if somewhat unlikely, redefinition of human beings as living wireless transmitters and receivers, who could broadcast or pick up psychic messages. There is little more to his ghost stories than this simple idea, and he essentially imagines an easy reconciliation of materialism and spirituality, in which spiritual communication is revealed to occur through an invisible and unspecified, but quite definitely material medium, and one not unlike radio waves.
The most explicit demonstration of such a process can be found in Benson’s “The Terror by Night” (1912), in which the narrator speculates that as “wireless wonders (that act by material laws)… are already beginning to lose their wonder now that we have our newspaper brought as a matter of course every morning in mid-Atlantic, it would not perhaps be rash to conjecture that in some subtle and occult way the transference of emotion is in reality material too.” Blackwood’s LeVallon would likewise contend that “wireless marvels and radio-activity” offered the prospect of telepathic transmissions: “The thought-current was merely a little higher than the accepted wave lengths…” Benson’s narrator adopts “the analogy of wireless telegraphy” to reason that:
we are all of us probably “receivers” to some extent, and catch now and then a message or part of a message that the eternal waves of emotions are ceaselessly shouting aloud to those who have ears to hear, and materialising themselves for those who have eyes to see. Not being, as a rule, perfectly tuned, we grasp but pieces and fragments of such messages, a few coherent words it may be, or a few words which seem to have no sense.
In “The Terror by Night,” a psychic notification of Daisy’s Lorimer’s death in Switzerland is transmitted to her husband Jack in London, and it is additionally received by several bystanders. In a narrative which vaguely references the newspaper coverage of pioneering long distance wireless experiments, such as Marconi’s transmissions across the English Channel (1899) and the Atlantic (1901/2), it is keenly reported how the “message, which for these three days had been twittering in our minds, the receivers, just making them quiver and rattle, came through.” “The Terror by Night” effectively presents itself not so much as a ghost story, but as a public demonstration of a revolutionary new breakthrough. Each of the characters in this story receive a different part of the message: the narrator feels the “keen exhilarating cold of Davos,” where Daisy died; the doctor smells the chloroform which apparently killed her; the family servant spots her ghost; whilst her husband “receives” her death. The narrator pronounces that this exhibition is “interesting, because it shows how different pieces of what no doubt was one message were received and recorded by several different people simultaneously.”
But one is not altogether dazzled by shiny modernity. For one thing, there remains the “terror,” which, although a welcome addition to any supernatural tale, seems a little at odds with the story’s reassuring message that human communication can overcome such apparently oppressive limitations as physical separation and death. It would have been more horrific if Daisy had died without any ceremony, and if her death had been announced only by telegram. Yet Benson was, like Blackwood, impatient with the easy answers provided by spiritualists, and his sharpest comic tales mock those mediums whom, like Mrs Forrest in “Machaon” (1923), promise that “death was no more than the gate of life, and everything would be tremendously jolly.” Perhaps a degree of terror is added to Daisy’s death merely to produce a more palatable aesthetic than the sickly rosiness which was sold for guineas by the spiritualists of Benson‘s day.
Yet Daisy’s death is not merely a sterile display of science, but a neatly-choreographed ceremony which possesses a faintly religious quality, not least by transforming the lonely experience of death into a minor public occasion. If Daisy had sent her husband a warning that they were both going to die, before arriving to collect him, then he would have quietly expired, but his doctor and servant, who have no apparent grounds to merit a psychic notification of Daisy’s death, are roped in as participants for aesthetic effect, rather like the onlookers beneath the Cross.
It occasionally seems conceivable that Benson might have surrendered to the charge of having reduced the power and the glamour of the spiritual by translating it into material terms. In “Sir Roger de Coverley” (1927), Tony compares the supernatural to inventions such as the wireless, which “people of 1827” would deem to be “magical, supernatural,” when it is today regarded as “perfectly scientific.” He anticipates the invention of a “machine that will bring to us what happened many years before in time, or what will happen hence,” but when his attempt at inventing such a device proves unexpectedly successful, the ghosts merely provide a surprising but ultimately inconsequential Christmas decoration to divert Tony’s wife and brother-in-law. We may find the figure of Charles Alington from “The Outcast” (1922) to be far more sympathetic, as he loves mystery, the “material world… is practically unknown to him,” and he had been “intensely concerned… in wireless transmission, until Signor Marconi proved that it came within the scope of practical science.”
Throughout Benson’s fiction, modernity has never been wholly settled: ghostly druids and the goat god lurk in suburban gardens; the motorists in “The Dust-Cloud” (1906) are haunted by the ghost of the savage Guy Elphinstone who tootles along in his monstrous motor car; whilst dwarf cavemen hilariously encroach upon a ski resort in “The Horror-Horn” (1922). One must remember, of course, that Benson was, like Blackwood, hostile towards the very idea of time. Anthony Carling, the hero of Benson’s “In the Tube” (1922), defines time as “the confusion and noise and darkness, which only encompass us for a moment,” and he demands whether, “you grasp the idea that in eternity there isn’t any “after” any more than there is any “before”? It’s all one. Eternity isn’t a quantity: it’s a quality.” Fred Bennet from “Corstophine” (1924) similarly explains that, “When we get out of time, when we die… we shall regard time as just a point, visible all round, so to speak.” With time as discredited a concept as the flatness of the Earth, it is little wonder that Benson struggled to differentiate between barbarism and modernity.
For practical purposes, however, the regulations of human time render necessary a distinction between the three sorts of available transmissions: those from the past, involving the anguish or vengeance of “ghosts”; notifications of ongoing present events such as a faraway loved one’s death; and premonitions of the future. In regard to the latter, Benson wrote at least eleven premonitory tales, and several more which indirectly feature premonitions, but some of his finest and most original stories of the supernatural, such as “The Room in the Tower” and “The Bus-Conductor” are premonitory tales.
Benson’s earliest stories are his best, and by the 1920s he was mostly retelling old tales for readers who he was presumably hoping had no memory of the originals, or else who would not mind encountering them again. “The Face” (1924) and “Corstophone,” for example, respectively resemble inferior drafts of “The Room in the Tower” and “The Bus-Conductor.” Benson was an unapologetically formulaic writer and, from the very beginning, it seemed that he had gathered together several methods of composing a ghost story, based upon an overarching model of spirituality in which supernatural communication was likened to wireless telegraphy, and that he could be always found to adhere to one of his cherished methods. The repeated reappearances of the same characters and motifs at times seem a little like ghostly hauntings themselves.
Within the popular imagination, the new technology of wireless telegraphy had quickly acquired an association with greater questions of death and destiny. In 1910, the murderer Dr. Crippen was apprehended whilst trying to flee Britain on an Atlantic liner which was equipped with wireless telegram. If Crippen was the first criminal to be physically captured (and executed) with the aid of wireless communication, then Benson’s own Charles Linkworth, from the story of 1912, is spiritually released after his own execution by means of a higher sort of wireless communication. In 1912, wireless technology was in the news again, as two Marconi employees radioed for assistance from the sinking Titanic. Lord Samuel, the British Postmaster General, declared that “Those who have been saved, have been saved through one man, Mr. Marconi… and his wonderful invention.”
Yet Benson’s imaginary human wireless receivers could not keep abreast of the innovations within existing wireless technology, and, as a philosophical prospect, they grew increasingly obsolete. Benson’s psychic receivers always remained in the same limited state as Marconi’s first wireless machines, in that they could not be tuned, and such imperfectly pitched receivers could only pick up half-meaningless scraps of message. In “Boxing Night” (1923), for example, the hapless sisters misunderstand their vision and they consequently identify the wrong man as their prospective murderer. Moreover, the administration of the transmissions is complicated and very unsatisfactory: a single random passenger will be invariably plucked from the doomed bus or train; the recipients of messages are often helpless to act upon them; and in some instances it is unclear whether the recipient is being warned from or lured towards their disaster.
Whilst Benson’s finest stories sparkle with delightful tricks and surprises, this essay has contended that they do not wholly conform to Saki’s model of the short story as a frivolous entertainment, but rather that these diamonds reflect similar philosophical ideas and aspirations to those which are found within Blackwood’s fiction. Both ghost stories and the philosophical hopes which they articulated seemed rather less innocent, if not a little tasteless, after the Great War, when the sentimental platitudes of the spiritualists proved insufficient to comfort a society which had witnessed such massive and entirely pointless death. The spiritualists often appeared to be profiting from the grief of those who had lost their loved ones in the war, and one imagines that many of their followers grew disillusioned after the only material results of such an initially promising movement turned out to be guineas.
Perhaps Benson had similarly lost heart in the Great War, for by the 1920s his supernatural fiction is often stale and lustreless. Even the psychics in Benson’s “Through” (1917), which is essentially a sort of fairy story, momentarily utter a deeper truth when reflecting wistfully that although “we seemed on the verge of genuine supernatural manifestations… we never turned the corner… there always seemed a possibility.” But we will leave the final word to Edward Fillery, a spiritual revolutionary from Blackwood’s The Bright Messenger (1921), which is the last of Blackwood’s visionary novels and the only one to be published after the Great War. Although the old world has been drowned in blood, Fillery remains optimistic about humanity’s future:
he remembered the wireless excitement of the instant – and smiled. Not that way would it come. The new order was of a spiritual kind. It would steal into men’s hearts, not splutter along the waves of ether, as the “dead” are said to splutter to the “living.” The great impulse, the mighty invitation Nature sent out to return to simple natural life, would come, without “phenomena” from within…
[Next instalment: W. F. Harvey and more E. F. Benson. You can browse Tychy’s running series on Algernon Blackwood here. Ed.]