And No Bird Sings, Aristocracy, Bagnell Terrace, Book review., Books, Bourgeoisie, Conservatism, E. F. Benson, England, Evil, Ghost Story, Ghosts, Hugh Grainger, Joan Aiken, Marxism, Naboth, Naboth's Vineyard, Nationalism, Property, Reconciliation, Servant, Sir Roger Wyburn, Spook Stories, The Face
Two comfortable middle-aged bachelors retreat to a sweet and sleepy corner of England, say Cornwall or Norfolk, for a month’s “holiday,” although neither of these men appear to have a job of any description to get away from. They are as thick as schoolboys, but as innocent too. Sex is something which a little man brings the coal in. They procure a fascinating old house – almost always of Queen Anne’s vintage – at a bargain rate. Here they flop about, idling on the nearby beach, and playing piquet in the evenings. But something begins to intrude upon their peace in little steps. The telephone rings at certain hours, but the caller’s voice is hopelessly garbled. Opening a mysterious door, the men feel an inexplicable presence sucked past them. Finally, a terrifying spectre materialises in the dead of night and this giddy climax quite knocks the men off their feet. The ghost exposes the dark secret of a skulduggerous servant who came with the house, but the servant kills himself and the cosmos is thereby satisfied.
This is the essential formula for a “spook story” by E. F. Benson, although he had two alternative scenarios up his sleeve which concern a pair of fraudulent mediums who inadvertently contact a real ghost and a man who receives a premonition of approaching death. Otherwise, Benson holidayed from his main job of writing novels of elaborate pettiness about Mapp and Lucia in these short holiday tales about haunted holiday homes. And the point of these stories is very much their holiday atmosphere: the luscious English shires, those beautiful old mansions and cottages, the charming gardens, the agreeable companionship at cards. The ghostly climax is invariably an anticlimax, and merely a courtesy to readers of less refined taste who believe that they are owed a ghost. Indeed, one pines for abbreviated versions of these stories in which the spooks are banished and the perfection is rendered complete.
Spook Stories (1928) is perhaps the least distinguished volume of Benson’s ghostly tales (which were typically first published individually in literary monthlies), but it is richest in the glamour and enchantments of an English country garden. Curiously, the novelist Joan Aiken‘s faintly aggravating Forward to the 1992 edition of Benson’s Collected Ghost Stories (which boasts that she was an affirmed fan of Benson by the age of six) immediately singles out Spook Stories for attention, slagging it off for being “tamer” than M. R. James‘ tales, before admitting that “there was something very likable about the collection,” namely its evocation of “a comfortable, definite, and instantly recognisable world.” Yet this model of England as a fund of holiday destinations may strike one as being highly idealised rather than “instantly recognisable.”
Tychy opposes any sort of nationalism, deeming it to be a banal and fundamentally provincial ideology, but Spook Stories could almost make one lose their heart to England. Take, for example, the country house setting of the opening story “Reconciliation“:
…never in all the first sights of the various splendours of the world that have since then been accorded to me have I felt so magical and potent a spell as that which caught the breath in my throat when on the evening of that hot August day I first saw Garth [Place]… its air of antique and native tranquillity. It seemed an incarnation of the very soul and spirit of England… Like its oaks, like the velvet of its lawns, the house had grown from the very soil, and the life of the soil still richly nurtured it. Venice was not more authentically born from the sea, nor Egypt from the mystery of the Nile, than Garth was born from the woods of England.
There is little politics to this. Benson does not cling to the nation because it provides a spurious sense of certainty and belonging, but he is instead a connoisseur of the English character, its manners and traditions, and the towns and shires from which it emerged. His is an England so pure that anybody would find themselves exiled from it. Benson’s fellow troubadour P. G. Wodehouse, for example, wrote his own love songs to the same Muse whilst living overseas for most of his life. But Benson had keenly observed the England which he dreamed about: he had dined with the burghers of his home town of Rye, rifled its antique shops, and disappeared to the nearby coast to peep at the local birdlife through his binoculars.
The English countryside could not be realistically portrayed as idyllic when millions of modern workers had lately fled to the cities, but there are no happy peasants in Benson’s England, merely a distant, dusty world of tradesmen and servants. We are left to survey a genial suburban Camelot of knightly bachelors, the sort of men who would regard a lawyer or a doctor as a servant.
The majority of Benson’s spook stories contain the same characters: the cheerful narrator, his chatty companion, and occasionally a chatty decorative wife. Almost all of the narrators’ companions are variations upon Hugh Grainger – the hero of Benson’ 1906 story “The Bus-Conductor” – whose jolly, sturdy John Bull-like character will not distort or complicate the “facts” of a ghost story. But Benson could never manage to standardise these characters’ names, and they differ from story to story, their functional, throwaway quality often suggesting that they were the first to come into his head. “And No Bird Sings” even features an alternative Hugh Grainger, spelled without the i, whilst in “A Tale of an Empty House” we find ourselves in the company of one Jack Granger.
We may be considering an unfortunate effect of literary mass production, but Benson was happy to have his stories collected in volumes. The careful arrangement of Spook Stories particularly draws attention to the sameness of the contributions, and suggests that the sum may be more interesting than its parts. We are invited to observe the destiny of a social class rather than merely those of the indistinguishable, forgettable Gra(i)ngers who happen to belong to it. The sole exception is provided by the penultimate story “Corstophine,” an indifferent retelling of Grainger’s premonitory experience in “The Bus-Conductor,” but this gentle break in the sequence of haunted houses may strike us as necessary to prevent the repetition from becoming too obvious. This tale is also the only one to be set in the North, a distant world of mill towns and industrial disasters.
The thematic unity of Spook Stories partly arises from its founding myth of Naboth, whose name is evoked in both “Bagnell Terrace” and “Naboth’s Vineyard.” Naboth, it should be remembered, would not sell his vineyard to King Ahab because it was his birthright. Ahab was persuaded to procure the land by using some rather underhand means, only to incite a prophet’s curse and the death of his own son. Ahab had violated the mystical connection between land and blood, and, even though he was a king, he should have accepted his allotted place.
Whilst Ahab was cursed for coveting the land of a lowly and powerless neighbour, Benson was altogether happier to imagine covetous social inferiors. If M. R. James’ ghosts penalised the “curious,” Benson imagines the spiritual world as revolving around the need to check human ambitions for the redistribution of property. The Naboth myth is overturned completely in “Bagnell Terrace,” in which the narrator reclaims a delightful suburban residence from a foreigner who does not justly belong there. The narrator nicknames the foreigner “Naboth” only because he personally “coveted” this fellow’s house, but Naboth will sell his house as a trap, unleashing a curse which the narrator will have to defeat. Yet the inferior Naboth is sent packing, allowing the virtuous king to enjoy his new vineyard.
“Naboth’s Vineyard,” on the other hand, is a little more in tune with the original myth. The lawyer Ralph Hatchard blackmails a bent solicitor, Wraxton into selling his home, Telford House, with the threat that he will otherwise expose his criminal past to the neighbours. Wraxton promptly expires from a heart attack, but once Hatchard has procured his home, Wraxton’s ghost returns to wreak a murderous vengeance. The property dispute between these two shabby lawmen has merely spilled over on to an otherworldly plane, and it is gently insinuated that neither man is truly worthy of the beautiful Telford House.
Garth Place from the opening story “Reconciliation” is more akin to Naboth’s vineyard in being purportedly obtained from the original owners with the help of “loaded dice and marked cards.” The invader is a jumped-up tenant-farmer who had made “a lot of money in a very short time,” but no curse will swoop down to crush him. It instead waits for centuries, until Garth Place comes to be haunted by the mildly bothersome ghost of the original squire. Suddenly, the latest of the invader’s brood Hugh Verrall is forced to sell the property, and its purchaser turns out to be both a descendant of the original Garth squire and the very picture of the “ghost” of this ancestor.
In a conservatism in extremis, a few generations may have wandered, but this aristocratic family remained fundamentally “at home” throughout the centuries when their manor house was under temporary bourgeois occupation. But we witness both a Restoration and a “reconciliation.” Where once his ancestor had seized the house via a revolutionary plot, Hugh Verrall marries into the Garth family, and his own inferior strain laps peacefully into the great tarn of Garth blood out of which their house rises.
Thomas Spinach, the spectre from “Spinach” whose name is comically “common-as-garden,” likewise obtains another’s rightful home, but this time by murder. Whilst Spinach may have done the world a favour by ridding it of his ghastly adoptive uncle, the consequences of his failure to know his place and keep to his station will follow him into the next world. “A Tale of an Empty House” concerns the unsuitable ambitions of the despicable “day-labourer” Alfred Maldon, whose fate is to inherit the story’s abandoned and unwanted property as a clause of his damnation. In difference circumstances, one could imagine the unfortunate Labsons of “The Corner House” as a pair of happy peasants, with Mrs Labson as a plump rosy-cheeked landlady, but their disaster is to end up in a house to which they are not entitled. Damningly, Mr Labson “had been speculating on the Stock Exchange…”
“Home Sweet Home” recounts the dastardly doings of a murderous gardener, who only inherits the home of his victim in the sense that he still physically remains there. But Miss Ellershaw returns to ensure that he is removed from her property for good. “Home Sweet Home” and “Expiation” refer less directly to the Naboth myth: the haunted properties are both as idyllic and as cursed as Naboth’s vineyard, but they have yet to truly change hands. In “Expiation,” the ghost has “succeeded to the property here, which is considerable, only two years before his death,” but this presence is permanently established in the house, whilst the invaders from London have only temporarily rented it. They will pass on to the next world (London), whilst the ghost remains unexorcised and at home (even if Hearne’s unspecified perversity renders him akin to such evildoers as the vanquished Naboth from “Bagnell Terrace” and the victorious Sir Roger Wyburn from “The Face.”)
The significance of the blank spectre in “Reconciliation” lies in his display of the Garth face, which essentially provides the homecoming family with the deeds to their family home. In the following story, “The Face,” however, an aristocratic physiognomy exacts a terrible revenge upon the bourgeoisie and its diabolical return symbolically threatens an entire suburban civilisation. At the beginning of the tale, Hester Ward is wholly at home in modernity:
She was young, she was extremely good-looking, she was well-off, she enjoyed excellent health, and above all, she had an adorable husband and two small, adorable children… she could not accuse herself of a want of appreciation of her blessings; she appreciated enormously, she enjoyed enormously, and she thoroughly wanted all those who so munificently contributed to her happiness to share in it.
Hester’s doom lies in her stubborn adherence to materialism. Whilst she is steadily consumed by horror and death, in the same way that the sea encroaches upon the church in her nightmare, she meets the approaching spectre of Sir Roger Wyburn with passivity, denial, and all of the useless accrued wisdom of rational science. She consults with a doctor rather than an exorcist, and, quite bizarrely considering that her nightmare is set beside the sea, she flees to a coastal resort to recuperate. The story ends with Sir Roger’s ancient corpse “untouched by corruption or decay,” whilst Hester, the accomplished modern woman, has been snatched from the gentle and loving modern world and pulled back through the centuries to die a virtually feudal death at the hands of her liege. She will disappear into obscurity like generations of forgotten serfs.
Unlike the uniquely Gothic disaster of “The Face,” the subsequent contributions “And No Bird Sings” (which features an estate rather than a house), “Bagnell Terrace,” and “The Temple” are jolly frontier tales in which the bourgeoisie successfully impose their suburban will on to a place which is still haunted by ancient forces. Significantly, after the monstrous spectral slug is exterminated in “And No Bird Sings” (even this is more of a gardener’s nuisance than a mythical dragon), Daisy spies a pair of robins and she chirps that they are “Evidently house-hunting.” Perhaps songbirds are the original little middle-class citizens, or else we have found the bourgeois desire for pleasant houses which recurs throughout Spook Stories residing in the bosom of Mother Nature herself.