Tuesday, August 13, 2013

2. A Couple of Hauntings from E.F. Benson

“The millstones of justice turn exceedingly slow, but grind exceedingly fine.”  Ghosts, being once human themselves, desire justice and many other things just as we do.  Certainly they long to complete any unfinished business they may have left behind in their almost always inconvenient and untimely departures from life.  However, being insubstantial, they have far fewer means at their disposal.  Even communicating a simple message to the living can be an insurmountable hurdle.

Justice from beyond the grave is the subject of E.F. Benson’s masterful short story, The China Bowl (1916).  The narrator manages to obtain a very good deal on a house in a very desirable neighborhood—often an ominous sign at the beginning of a ghost story.  The previous owner has just suffered the loss of his spouse, and wants to leave the sad memory of her death behind him.  But she begins to appear very soon after the narrator moves in, with a message she attempts to convey to him through ghostly pantomime.  So much depends on a bit of broken porcelain.  What is the message? 

The narrator’s friend Hugh, a criminologist and ghost aficionado spends the night to help him solve the mystery.  Hugh has the best line:  “It’s so difficult to get frightened nowadays.  All but a few things are explained and accounted for.”  The story is short and effective, and without giving the ending away, it should just be said that ‘the millstones of justice turn exceedingly slow…’

Vengeance from beyond the grave is the theme in Benson’s The Passenger (1917), where the haunting takes place on the top of a double-decker bus.  The narrator and the conductor gradually become aware of a mysterious passenger, barely visible in the gloom at the front of the vehicle.  He appears to hold his head forlornly in his hands—and the disturbing reason for this posture is brought to light in the climax of the tale.

The Passenger may remind some readers of Fritz Leiber’s classic urban horror story, Smoke Ghost (1941).  In that story, Mr. Wran is pursued by a “shapeless black sack”, which he can see from his train, getting closer and closer each day as it crosses a grimy landscape of rooftops and chimneys.  (Even though the smoke ghost may have already visited his office.)  Lieber’s ghost seems more like a spirit of evil, a visual sign of the anxiety, restlessness, greed and resentment created by the urban environment.  It is not an individual; if asked, it might say something like ‘My name is Legion…for we are many.’

In The Passenger, the ghost is clearly an individual, and one with unfinished business.  Besides an even worse crime, someone has violated the 7.5th Commandment, as was the case in H.P. Lovecraft’s The Hound, (discussed in a post last month).  That Commandment is:  “Thou shalt not steal what is already stolen.”  Benson effectively sets the story in London during World War I, (as is The China Bowl, above).  There are lighting restrictions and search lights scan the murky skies above for enemy aircraft.  Darkness and gloom are everywhere.  Besides a string of pearls, something even more valuable has been taken.  Peace of mind?  Hope?

Best line from this story:  “You haven’t collected the fare from that man in front there.”

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