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Adventures in Bookland: Night Terrors by EF Benson

This book might well qualify as the perfect bedtime read: the stories are all around 10 to 15 pages, so ideal for a twenty-minute read, then lights out, lie down and suddenly jerk awake as the house creaks and some presence enters the room… So, maybe not ideal bedtime reading, if you’re prone to nightmares. I, though, am not, so I really did take this as my nightly read for a couple of months, working my way through these morbidly satisfying stories. EF Benson is a rare beast: a writer whose work survives him in two wholly different genres: these tales of the supernatural but also with his stories of Mapp and Lucia, comedies of middle-class snobbery. Reading up on the author, it turns out that Benson was a member of an extraordinary family: his father, Edward White Benson, was the Archbishop of Canterbury who devised the festival of Nine Carols and Readings now said throughout the world before Christmas, and his siblings included Arthur Benson, master of Magdalen College and author of the words to ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, and Robert Benson, Catholic convert and priest who wrote the early dystopian novel Lord of the World.

None of Edward Benson’s children married and, indeed, the typical protagonist of these tales is an unmarried male in his middle-age, comfortably off in the peculiarly comfortable manner that seems to have been possible for the English upper middle classes in the early 20th century, where it appears to have been normal practice to take a three-month break in the summer at some rural getaway (having dispatched one’s servants there the day before to make everything shipshape). Having fetched up at some idyllic country retreat – Benson’s descriptions of the English rural idyll are a delight and underwrite the deep vein of nature mysticism that threads through English patriotism – some incongruous detail begins to hint that behind the perfect appearance something strange and sinister might be lurking. By the end of the story, the strange has crept forward into the twilight, and the idyll has been lost, although usually our bachelor hero escapes relatively unscathed. So, yes, you could say the stories tend towards the fomulaic, but Benson spins enough variations to keep the reader interested, as well as every so often changing the formula entirely, for particularly effective results.

So, highly recommended for readers of supernatural fiction and, unusually, fans of English country fiction.

 

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