R.H. Benson’s supernatural fiction has been accused of being nothing more than thinly-veiled Catholic propaganda. This is only half true. For while his ghost stories present and promote an ontology that is rigidly Catholic, it would be churlish to dismiss them as nothing more than mere dogma. In this second collection of uncanny tales, for example, the stories succeed through a carefully heightened sense of unease and mounting horror. Despite the underlying religious certainty, several of the tales also skilfully evoke the ‘cosmic’ horror of the weird fiction tradition, revealing an unseen world in which uncontrollable forces, immeasurably more powerful and more ancient than humanity, are locked in a constant struggle. As well as a writer of essays and fiction, Benson was an ordained Catholic priest and the stories take the form of ‘tales told at a symposium’ of priests, who pool their experiences of the supernatural in order to see if a consensus can be reached regarding the ‘point’ of these experiences in a divine schema. Unsettlingly, such a point is not immediately apparent and the narrators are left only with their faith in a merciful deity working ultimately for the benefit of humankind.
Benson at the time of publication
Another intriguing feature of this collection is Benson’s determination to bring the process of oral storytelling to the fore and to emphasise its relationship to the impact of the stories on the listeners present. All three of the Benson brothers had been present at M.R. James’s ghost story readings, but Robert Benson’s tales differ from James’s in that they make the immediate (although, admittedly invented) context of the tales’ reception an intrinsic part of the tale itself and of its effect. This is an appropriate device given that the ‘ghost’ in many of the tales is not a visible spectre, but rather a malevolent atmosphere, doubt or dread – a lingering emotional response that has somehow become untethered from the events that originally inspired it and has taken on a life of its own…
A Mirror of Shalott [Kindle]
A Mirror of Shalott [Epub]
A Mirror of Shalott [PDF]
The collection first appeared in 1907 and this text is based on a 1912 reprint, which corrects several errors in the original printing and changed the subtitle slightly: the original subtitle was ‘tales told at an unprofessional symposium’.