The Outcast and Other Dark Tales by EF Benson – Review
By Sarah Morgan
During the 19th and early 20th centuries, the British horror genre really took shape. It’s packed with big names, deservedly lauded for their ability to send shivers down the spine with a well-placed word or two.
Montague Summers, Bram Stoker, Algernon Blackwood, MR James, Arthur Machen, William Hope Hodgson, Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle are just a few who rose to prominence and whose work continues to win new fans.
Another whose moniker deserves to be added to that list is EF Benson; indeed, there are some who believe he should be at the very top of it.
I’m not sure I’m one of them, although I thoroughly enjoyed (which never feels as if it’s quite the right word under the circumstances) and admired The Outcast and Other Dark Tales, a collection of some of his key works and the latest entry in the British Library’s Tales of the Weird series.
Benson, or Fred, as he was known to friends and family, was one of six children. All were extraordinary, although some died before realising their potential; the rest – apart from Fred – were dogged by mental health issues and all predeceased him. His two longest-survived brothers, AC and RH, also wrote supernatural tales.
With such a tragic background, it perhaps shouldn’t come as a surprise to find that the Benson brothers were experts in macabre literature. They perhaps also inherited their passion for the subject from their father, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, who had formed Trinity College, Cambridge’s Ghost Society in 1851.
Fred was, however, also a gifted satirist and also the creator of the Mapp and Lucia series of novels. I must admit to preferring his horror stories.
Series editor Mike Ashley has brought together some of Fred’s darkest offerings, including the titular ‘The Outcast’, the tale of a woman with a seemingly poisoned spirit; ‘The Passenger’, about a vengeance-seeking ghost, and ‘The Flint Knife’, which was inspired by a true-life event.
Perhaps of most interest, however, is ‘Billy Comes Through’. It hasn’t been reprinted since its initial publication in The Story-Teller in 1936, and offers an insight into Fred’s tongue-in-cheek view of writers as well as a disarming look at voices from beyond the grave.
Fans of horror stories will not be disappointed by this collection. Unlike some authors in the genre (MR James in particular), Fred manages to avoid repeating himself, so it’s never a chore to read his tales back-to-back.
Indeed, it may even inspire some folk to look for more examples of his work. A TV adaptation (are you reading this, Mark Gatiss?) wouldn’t go amiss either.
‘The Outcast and Other Dark Tales’ by EF Benson is published by the British Library, £8.99 paperback