Tales of ghosts and horrors from a renowned literary academic
Arthur Christopher Benson was born in 1862 one of six children fathered by Edward White Benson, an Archbishop of Canterbury. A. C. Benson (as he is usually known) was an academic who became master of Magdalene College, Cambridge and is today possibly best remembered for writing the stirring lyrics to the British patriotic song ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ which is part of Elgar’s ‘Pomp and Circumstance March No 1’. Most of the Benson family were talented, but three brothers, Arthur Christopher, Edward Frederic (E. F.) and Robert Hugh (R. H.) became especially notable in the world of supernatural fiction. There can be little doubt that the literary laurels go to E. F. Benson whose output of supernatural fiction was particularly prolific, although he is also remembered as the writer of many other works including the humorous ‘Mapp and Lucia’ stories of English middle class ‘one-upmanship’. Nevertheless, the fiction of the weird and ghostly penned by the other Benson brothers will appeal to all aficionados of the golden age of the genre. Many of the stories written by A. C. Benson are moral allegories, although ‘Basil Netherby’ has been judged to be of the highest standard among horror stories despite its comparative obscurity. In the past the supernatural stories of A. C. and R. H. Benson have possibly been neglected, underrated or selectively combined to form single volumes, but Leonaur now offers collections of stories by each author separately as they undoubtedly merit.
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Then I suddenly became aware of a strange shadow, of an impenetrable blackness, in the corner of the room under the trapdoor. But Bendyshe strode out straight to the foot of the ladder, and seemed to me for a moment engulfed in darkness. I followed close behind; and there was nothing there. “You see,” said Bendyshe to me in a low tone—“it will all be like that.”
But as we stood together at the foot of the ladder, a stream of ice-cold air came gushing down from the hole in the ceiling, as if coming out of some frozen cave, so cold that I felt my very bones shivering under their covering of flesh. But Bendyshe slipped his hand through the loop of the axe, and then very slowly and deliberately began to ascend the ladder. “Come when I call,” he said, “and not before.”
I looked round; the vicar was on his knees in prayer; but neither that nor Bendyshe’s courage gave me any relief. I just thought of the next thing I had to do. Bendyshe disappeared through the hole, and I heard him step out on the floor of the loft. Then he said, “Now come!” The vicar held his torch up to illuminate the steps of the ladder, and step by step I went slowly up in the icy air.
As soon as my head and shoulders were in the loft, I felt Bendyshe grasp my arm. “Steady,” he said, “step carefully.” Bendyshe raised his torch, which sent a long stream of light down the loft, and then in the silence came a strange tremor and agitation of the empty air. “Now,” said Bendyshe, “it will be all over in a moment! Hold on to the top of the ladder, and keep your eye on me.” He walked slowly along the loft, to a place about twenty feet away, looking carefully at the boards and turning the torch down on them. “Now,” he said, “come up here slowly and hold the torch for me—this is the place!”
Bendyshe bent his head down, and examined the boards. Then he raised his axe and delivered a tremendous blow at the chink between the boards, and then another. The chips of the broken board flew out on the floor; suddenly from the hole he had made there was protruded a dusky thing. It was the head of a great snake; I could see its dull blinking eyes, the black spots that ran in a chain down its forehead, its flickering tongue, and the greenish pallor of its throat.
Bendyshe struck another blow, and the creature came out, reared itself up as though to strike at us, and then as suddenly darted back into the hole again. Bendyshe again raised the axe, and struck fearlessly again. There was now a considerable hole between the boards, and he reversed the axe, inserted the point under the loose board, and putting his foot on the head of the axe brought it down like a lever; the board cracked and split; Bendyshe dropped the axe, and bending down seized the board and tore it up.
A dreadful sight met my eyes. The whole cavity was filled with snakes, entwining, interlocked, writhing; sometimes a head was put up from the mass, and sometimes half a dozen would detach themselves and wriggle over the floor. I must confess that I was now half frantic with horror. But Bendyshe plunged his hands into the mass of snakes, and drew out an old leather despatch-box covered with dust. “This is it,” he said; and I was bending down to look at it, when a thing more dreadful than any of our previous experiences occurred.
The icy air beat upon us, and turning my head, I saw standing beside us, stiff and upright, a corpse, swathed in graveclothes, with pale leaden-coloured hands hanging down; the face was of the same hue, with a fringe of ragged-looking grey hair straggling over the forehead. It had a faint smile, it seemed, on its lips, and its dull eyes, grey like chalcedony, looked fixedly at the opening in the floor; and then a heavy odour of corruption began to spread around us. And then for a moment I wished that I had died rather than have come into this place of horrors. Bendyshe himself turned, and confronted the gaze of the figure. Then he signed to me to pick up the torch and axe, and walked firmly down the loft to the ladder’s head.
“Go down first,” he said,’’ and I will lower the box to you—don’t leave go of it, whatever happens.”
And so, I pushed on. It was no time to hesitate. I climbed hastily down the ladder, and on reaching the floor, saw the vicar standing with his back to me, looking out of the window. But I had no time to attend to anything else, and cried out in a cautious tone, “Now, the box”—and it appeared from the orifice. I seized hold of it, and a moment later Bendyshe began to descend the ladder. But when he reached me, I saw that his strength was failing. At that moment the vicar turned round, and came up to me with outstretched hands as if to receive the box. I was about to hand it to him, when Bendyshe cried out in an unsteady voice, “No, no—keep hold of it, I say—don’t you see?”
And then I hardly knew for a moment what happened. Something seemed to rush towards me in a passion half of rage, half of entreaty. I was fighting with shadows. The figure that I had thought to be the vicar came nearer and looked me in the face—and it was Faulkner himself, in a fury of baffled rage and despair, such as a human mind can hardly conceive; and while I gazed fascinated, I heard Bendyshe come close beside me; and the vicar himself came forward out of the dark corner of the room, and after that I knew no more.