E.F. Benson’s The Witch-Ball (1928) shares several similarities with an earlier ghost story of his, The China Bowl, (1916). The latter was discussed in a post last August, (“A Couple of Hauntings from E.F. Benson”). Both employ relatively common objects—a bowl, a colored glass ball—as conduits for justice from beyond the grave. One underlying assumption seems to be that the spirits of the recently dead—that is, the recently murdered—can maintain communication with the living through everyday objects they used while on this side of the veil. Another assumption is that what the dead most want to communicate to those of us who are still temporarily alive is a cry for justice.
Benson’s talent is evident in both stories, but his experience and achievement as a writer is more evident in the later story. Characters are more finely drawn, and there is considerable attention to setting and detail. So much depends on a line of recently planted willows that form a border between a kitchen garden and the marshland behind. As in other Benson stories like The Face and The Passenger, as well as his famous Negotium Perambulans, the fate of the characters is preordained—in fact, almost predestined in a Calvinist sense. They arrive at exactly the right place and the right time for their unanticipated encounter with the supernatural.
Margery, her cousin Dick, (who is the narrator), and Margery’s husband Hugh are vacationing in a rural area of Sussex. In an old curiosity shop Margery and Dick squabble good naturedly over a blue “Witch-Ball”, which Margery wins with a coin toss. But Hugh does not like the item. “What a marvelous piece!” he says, “But I don’t like it, Margery: there’s something uncanny about it”. We learn from the narrator that Hugh, though a practical man of business, has clairvoyant tendencies.
Margery cleans and polishes the strange blue globe and displays it in the house. The object immediately begins to have a disturbing effect the moods of the three friends. At one point Huge and Dick gaze into the ball and see an image of a house, a garden and a woman. Not only is Hugh clairvoyant, but the two men have a telepathic link that seems to amplify each other’s powers—they have evidently gazed into crystal balls together before. There is some oddness here—why is this not the case when Margery looks into the witch-ball? Some sort of triangulated relationship seems implied here.
On another jaunt, the trio later discovers a charming cottage, recently abandoned by its owner, with a sad, neglected kitchen garden. Fans of Benson’s ghost stories will recall that in The China Bowl, another piece of attractive real estate was similarly abandoned under mysterious circumstances. Margery loves the place, but her husband is uneasy—something is wrong despite the idyllic setting. Dick realizes with a shock that he has seen this place before—in the blue glass globe. Readers will not be too surprised when Margery does some research and discovers that the witch ball was one of the items auctioned off when the cottage was closed down.
Now the trio has the witch-ball in hand and has been to the house where it originated. Object and location have drawn the three—the two men in particular—into a supernatural corner of the world where a mystery will be revealed. The climactic scene is one of Benson’s more gruesome moments.
Several of E.F. Benson’s stories have been discussed in this blog; fans of this wonderful author may be interested in these earlier posts: