"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Sunday, June 4, 2017

An uncomfortable quarter of an hour: Sea Mist by E.F. Benson

SEA MIST E. F. Benson Edited by Jack Adrian (Ash Tree Press 2012)

This is a fine collection of Benson spook stories, and well worth the modest ebook price. Benson's tone usually begins with charming politeness: the reader is soothed and flattered. But then the atmospherics grow colder, and the elements of a sweating panic begin to coalesce.

A few underlinings:

Sir Roger de Coverley

‘I begin to see,’ I said. ‘You want to martyrize us all with an old-fashioned Christmas, and games and gluttony to make an atmosphere. Don’t deny it. You’ve got the snow and the frost outside, and you think that if you complete it within you’ll have the stage set. I never heard such nonsense in my life.

The Box at the Bank

‘But I’ve long given up mediums,’ she said. ‘I don’t like sitting in the dark with a man or a woman who presently goes into a trance and is made the spokesman for an Egyptian princess or Cardinal Newman. Mediums are usually inspired by such terribly distinguished people.


....But I call it odd. It’s as if something from those days hung about here still. . . .

The Witch-Ball

....There was something seething far down in the dark pool of the ball: it was as if clear black water were beginning to boil from below and break into bubbles. These bubbles bursting on the surface were slightly luminous, and, as they multiplied, the darkness in the ball cleared as if with the approach of dawn or night. It grew rapidly brighter, not with its native blue but with a greyish twilight.

The Hanging of Alfred Wadham

‘“And whatever you suffer, my son,” he said, “be sure that you are suffering not from

having done wrong, but from having done right. Placed as you are, your temptation to save an innocent man comes from the devil, and whatever you may be called upon to endure for not yielding to it, is of that origin also.”


....Just now ‘Ad Astra’ was clad in its neat serge travelling-suit, and placed on the seat next me in the train that was taking me to the old Cinque Port town of Tillingham, where I was to spend a weekend with my friend Harry Armytage in his house called Mayor’s Orchard. He had just bought this house, I had never been there before, and knew nothing whatever of it and its surroundings, except that I was aware that the sea had retreated, and that Tillingham, which was once a port, was now a couple of miles inland.

The Wishing-Well

....Never yet had she felt so strong an emotional excitement as that afternoon when Mrs Penarth, talking of those old beliefs of her girlhood, had somehow revealed Judith to herself. All that narrative about the wishing-well was already familiar to some secret cell in her brain: she needed only to be reminded of it to make it her own. On the top of that had come Steven’s entry, and her heart had leaped to him. Some mixed brew of these two was at ferment within her now; sometimes a bubble from one, sometimes from the other rose luminous to the surface. She felt restless and tingling with stored energy, and she paused for a moment at the gate of the garden uncertain how to spend it.

Christopher Comes Back

....She went upstairs to change her walking attire, and on her way down again, as she passed the door of the room where he had died, she found that it was open. She could not imagine who had gone in there . . . or was it that someone had come out?

The Bed by the Window

....one evening I was brushing my hair before dinner, a white featureless face peered over my shoulder, and then, with an arrested shudder, I saw that this was only the reflection of the oval looking-glass on the ceiling. Or, as I lay in bed, before putting out my light, a puff of wind came in through the open sash, making the striped curtain to belly, and before I could realize the physical cause of it, there was a man in striped pyjamas bending over the bed by the window. Or a wheeze of escaping gas came from the coals on the hearth, and to my ears it sounded like a strangled gasp of someone in the room. Something was at work, using the trivial sounds and sights for its own ends, kneading away in my brain to make it ready and receptive for the revelation it was preparing for it.

The Shuttered Room

....An odd drowsiness invaded her, and she saw a shadow come across the red field of her closed eyelids. She thought to herself that the two men were approaching her, and that it was they who had come between her and the sun, and she waited for the sound of their voices or their steps. Perhaps Hugh thought she was asleep, and meant to give her forty winks or so: if that was in his mind, she wished he would stand aside, for with him cutting off the sunlight from her, the air had become very cold.

The Flint Knife

....There was light enough to see, when we got there, that it stood in the centre of the garden; it was as if the altar was one with it. Then a near and vivid flash of lightning burst from the pall overhead, and showed every corner of the high-walled plot. It was absolutely empty, but the stillness was now broken by the buzzing of innumerable flies.

James Lamp

....‘So now you’ve got to come with me, James Lamp,’ it said, ‘and take me where you took me before. You’ll drive me down in the car, as you drove me before, and you’ll come down into the water where you threw me, and I’ll be waiting for you there, so close and loving.’

The Step

....‘So you understand English,’ said Cresswell. ‘Now I’ll thank you to take that shawl off your face, and let me see who it is that’s been dogging me.’

The man raised his hands and threw back the shawl. The moonlight shone on his face, and that face was just a slab of smooth yellowish flesh extending from ear to ear,

empty as the oval of an egg without eyes or nose or mouth. From the upper edge of the shawl where it crossed the forehead there depended a few wisps of grey hair.

The Sanctuary

....it was as if pieces of jigsaw puzzle were calling for their due location. But their shapes were too fantastic. . . .


....My brain, he explained, had rebelled against its slavery, and had hoisted a red flag with the device of a monkey on it. I must show it that I wasn’t frightened at its bogus monkeys. I must retort on it by making myself look at dozens of real ones which could bite and maul you savagely, instead of one little sham monkey that had no existence at all.

Sea Mist

....What could be a better way of fighting the terror that had manifested itself in visible form that morning, and was stirring somewhere in the core of consciousness, than to go out once more to the castle, and vanquish it on the spot from which he knew it sprang. It was putting out its tentacles again, and feeling for him, and he must cut them off at the root, or he would never be at peace. The sea mist was still only thin; he would run no risk of losing his way in

it if he went now, and calling to Harriet that he was going out for half-an-hour’s walk, he set forth.

Dives and Lazarus

....Juno and her young Marchese played cat’s cradle in a sequestered nook at the stern and got their fingers much entangled: presently they went below to disentangle them. Two middle-aged women were much taken up with each other, but the balance of the sexes was not thereby disturbed. Dives paired off with the Marchese’s mother, who only wanted his lovely pearl tie-pin and got it.


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