[The following is a reprint of a column which originally appeared in the March 23, 2006, issue of Hellnotes.]
A.C., E.F., and R.H. Benson, who all wrote weird fiction, were three brothers who lived in Victorian England. Their father was Edward White Benson, an Archbishop of Canterbury. He was an authority on ghosts and other psychic matters and founded the Ghost Society, which later became the Society for Psychical Research. The family’s social circle included Henry James and M.R. James. Edward most likely told his sons ghost stories as they were growing up, thus fueling their interest in the supernatural. The family also included their mother, Mary Sidgwick; another brother, Martin; and two sisters, Nellie and Maggie.
Arthur Christopher Benson was born on April 24, 1862, and was the first of the brothers to write supernatural stories. He was educated at Eton and King’s College, and he later became a schoolmaster at Eton and a fellow at Magdalene College.
His first book was an thinly veiled autobiographical novel entitled Memoirs of Arthur Hamilton (1886). Most of his subsequent writing was non-fiction.
While headmaster at Eton, he regaled the boys with stories, which he eventually published in the collections The Hill of Trouble (1903) and The Isles of Sunset (1904) (combined into the omnibus Paul the Minstrel in 1911). Some of these stories dealt with the supernatural, many of which were inspired by the vivid nightmares he endured throughout his life. Among these are “The Gray Cat,” a tale of a dark pool in the hills that causes a young man to be plagued by dreams, and “The Closed Window,” which opens onto a dark, bleak landscape and the shape of a crouching man that beckons the protagonist. In 1911 to 1914, seven of his ghost stories, credited to “B,” appeared in the Magdalene College Magazine.
His other literary endeavors included poetry, essays, biographies, and an extensive diary. He earned renown for composing the lyrics for “Land of Hope and Glory,” the national anthem of England, and for editing Queen Victoria’s correspondence.
At various periods in his life, Arthur suffered from depression, which he expressed in his poetry. He died on June 17, 1925.
Edward Frederic Benson, known as Fred, was born on July 24, 1867. He was the most prolific of the brothers and is now the best known of the three. Fred did not do well in his early school years as he was the “class clown,” though he excelled at sports. He attended King’s College, where he was graduated with honors in archaeology. In the 1890s, he worked as an archaeologist in Greece and Egypt.
His first book, Sketches from Marlborough (1888), is a memoir of his school days. He was inspired to write fiction when he sat in on the stories Arthur told at Eton. Fred’s first novel was Dodo (1893), the central character of which is a charming but devious woman. This novel brought him acclaim and success. Most of his supernatural stories were published in the collections The Room in the Tower (1912), Visible and Invisible (1923), Spook Stories (1928), and More Spook Stories (1934). Others appeared in magazines.
Like Arthur, his dreams inspired his stories, and like Hugh, his psychic experiences provided fodder for his pen. He wrote prolifically, but he tended to use the same ideas repeatedly, and his writing varied in quality.
One of his best stories is “The Room in the Tower,” in which the main character has recurrent dreams of entering a room, but the dreams never reach a conclusion. Eventually, he actually finds himself in such a room and, during flashes of lightning, sees a hideous creature watching him. Another is “How Fear Departed from the Long Gallery,” a humorous tale of a family that moves into a haunted house and is delighted by the ghosts living there – until they encounter two cursed ghosts. Fred did not shy away from the gruesome in his stories. Giant worms and slugs populate many tales, including “And No Bird Sings,” “The Thing in the Hall,” and “Caterpillars.”
Among his novels are Colin (1923) and Colin II (1925), which tell of the descendants of a man who had made a pact with the devil to obtain worldly power. A similar story unfolds in The Inheritor (1930), with alternate generations having cloven-hoofed, misshapen children. His last supernatural novel was the demonic Ravens’ Brood (1934).
Besides his supernatural work, he is best remembered for his comic series featuring mischievous social rivals Elizabeth Mapp and Emmeline Lucas (Lucia). Altogether, he wrote about a hundred books, dozens of short stories, articles, and pamphlets. Besides supernatural fiction, his subject matter included humor, history, biography, and sports.
From about 1920 until his death, Fred lived in Rye, in the former house of Henry James. In the 1930s, he served three terms as mayor of Rye. He died in London on February 29, 1940.
Robert Hugh Benson, who went by Hugh, was born on November 18, 1871. He was the last of the three to start writing, but his writing is considered to be the best. He was schooled at Eton and Trinity College, where he studied Classics and Theology.
He was ordained an Anglican priest by his father in 1894. He later questioned the Anglican religion and converted to Roman Catholicism. In 1904, he was ordained a Catholic priest, and in 1911, Pope Pius X elevated him to monsignor.
He actively explored the psychic realm, attended séances, performed exorcisms, and practiced hypnotism. It was rumored that he experimented with drugs. While living in an Anglican community at the dawn of the twentieth century, he was inspired by Arthur’s stories and started composing his own, enriched by his psychic experiences. His stories were published in the collections The Light Invisible (1903) and The Mirror of Shallot (1907). He wrote several other books, including supernatural novels, religious fiction, and non-fiction.
The Necromancers (1909) is considered by many to be his best work. This novel tells of a young man whose fiancé dies before their wedding. He joins a group of spiritualists to try to regain her but becomes possessed by an evil spirit.
Hugh died on October 19, 1914, in Salford, England. He was only 42.