A Mirror of Shallott, by R. H. BENSON. Burns, Oates and Washbourne, 1928. 251 pp. Blue cloth covers, spine a little faded, pages tanned at the edges, endpapers considerably more so.
This excellent little collection by the youngest brother is unusual in a number of ways, but principally because its author, after converting to Roman Catholicism, had swiftly risen within the ecclesiastical hierarchy to become a fully-fledged Monsignor and Chamberlain to Pope Pius X. Not surprisingly, these finely crafted tales of horror and the supernatural are said to have been narrated to E. F. Benson himself by a range of well-characterised clerics and Catholic laymen in the "upstairs sala of the presbytery attached to the Canadian of S, Filippo in Rome." Even though the first edition dates from the first decade of the twentieth century, they are strongly redolent of that typical fin-de-siècle love of the morbid and the bizarre, as well as being steeped in the fervent and heady species of incense-suffused Catholic piety that converts from Anglicanism went in for in a big way at that time. (Catholics and former Catholics of a certain age will probably recall the same author's historical novel Come Rack, Come Rope, a vivid and well written account of the cruel fate of one of the many priests tortured and executed under Queen Elizabeth.)
To give a flavour of how elegant and stylish the writing is throughout, here is a witty description of that same presbytery room mentioned above: "It had been a large, comfortless room, stone-floored, stone-walled and plaster-ceilinged, but it had been made possible by numerous rugs, a number of armchairs and an English fireplace. Above, in the cold plaster, dingy flesh-coloured gods and nymphs attempted to lounge on cotton clouds with studied ease, looking down dispiritedly upon seven priests and myself, a layman, who sat in a shallow semi-circle round the red logs. In '71 the house had fallen into secular hands, whence issued the gods and nymphs, but in '97 the Church had come by her own again, and had not yet banished Olympus. There was no need to annihilate the conquered." And that's just on the first page!
Every tale is elegant in its way, though not a few are deliberately inconsequential: one of the secrets of a good ghost story is that much should be left unexplained, and much left to the reader's imagination---rather as a great artists's sketches can be more interesting to view than the finished paintings. The drawings leave more out, so that we, correspondingly, have to put more in.
Perhaps the most powerful of all is 'Father Girdlestone's Tale', an intense account of some kind of demonic assault on the faith of a young priest: a wonderfully suggestive insight into the inner world of a devout aspirant towards sanctity besieged by the powers of darkness. Another of the tales, quite masterfully narrated, and every bit as good as the best of anything by M R James.
One impressive feature of the book is the unity imposed upon it, partly by its entirely traditional structure (a series of similarly themed tales by different speakers, one such being told on each successive night), and partly by the serious 'metaphysical' ideas about death and the afterlife that are broached from time to time by this or that priest or layman. Although it's advisable not to read the whole collection all at once, by the time one reaches the end, one does feel strangely moved.
Lovers of other classic ghost stories, such as those by Sheridan Le Fanu, Violet Lee and M R James, will find a space on their shelves for this little volume, and will not be disappointed by its contents.