Friday, November 22, 2013

Another of Benson’s Ghost Stories

E.F. Benson (1867-1940) is probably best known for his short story Negotium Perambulans (1922), which often shows up in anthologies of early twentieth century horror.  But he also wrote several effective ghost stories, of which The Face (1924) is typical.

In The Face, Hester, a middle class matron who seems to have a lot of time on her hands, suffers from recurring nightmares, very similar to ones that she had as a child.  The dream is always the same:  near the ruin of an ancient seaside church, whose cemetery and walls are gradually toppling into the sea, she sees the image of a sinister young man.  The man calls out to her and says, ominously, “I am coming for you.”

Lately the dreams have changed in quality.  Time seems to have passed, even in the dream world, and less of the church grounds remain, having succumbed to the erosion of the cliff.  Portions of the wall and monuments have fallen down into the sea and washed away.  The evil figure now says “I am coming for you soon.” She becomes increasingly anxious about her nightmares, which appear more and more real to her.  While visiting an art gallery with some friends, she discovers a portrait of the young man she has seen in her dreams—and now the horror has a name.   

Hester initially tries to forget or explain away the disturbing vision, and consults her “robust” and rational husband, as well as her doctor.  What can she do to regain peace of mind?  What can she do to free herself of this premonition?  She decides to go on a vacation trip to of all places, a seaside resort.  While exploring the scenic terrain she discovers—you guessed it—an old church high up on a ridge, overlooking the sea and the resort town.

As is typical of a horror movie, typical too of a nightmare, she is drawn to the site and explores the ruins.  At the very edge of the cliff, perched precariously over the water, she finds a gravestone.  The name on the gravestone is that of the young man in her dreams.  She flees the ruins and returns to her room, where she seems for a time to be safe.  But you know that she is not.  Her dream and her reality have bled into each other in this ‘thin’ place by the sea.  She telephones her husband to join her soon—quickly, darling! 

There is a knock at the door, a bit earlier than expected.  She answers it eagerly, and…

Since none of the other characters in the story is really privy to what Hester knows and observes, there may be a question about her sanity.  Is what she experiencing real or some kind of delusion?  The author provides enough ambivalent detail to leave the question somewhat open, although an investigation of the ruins later on reveals some weirdness that may have a bearing on her fate.  A disturbing aspect of the story is the sense that Hester is already doomed even at the beginning, that her dreams tap into a prophecy she dimly perceived even as a child.

By way of context, E.F. Benson published this story around the time that H.P. Lovecraft wrote such stories as The Tomb, The Festival, The Doom That Came to Sarnath, and The Lurking Fear.  Benson’s Negotium Perambulans was also published around this time.  All of these stories share a pervasive feeling of inescapable and foreordained disaster.   Perhaps this was the influence of World War I, just concluded—a catastrophe no one wanted yet so many were driven to bring about.   

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