Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s sandbox, from those who inspired him to those who were inspired in turn.
Today we’re looking at E.F. Benson’s “How Fear Departed From the Long Gallery,” first published in his 1912 collection, The Room in the Tower and Other Stories. Spoilers ahead.
“Church-Peveril is a house so beset and frequented by spectres, both visible and audible, that none of the family which it shelters under its acre and a half of green copper roofs takes psychical phenomena with any seriousness.”
In the competition for Britain’s most haunted house, Church-Peveril beats Hogwart’s Shrieking Shack by several lengths of shrouding linen. Master Anthony, for example, still rides his mare up the front staircase many a night, while great-great-grandmama Bridget occasionally conducts “vague business” by a bedroom fireplace. Don’t speak to her, for she led a “sultry” life, cutting relatives’ throats and disemboweling herself with the axe used at Agincourt.
The present day Peverils are more inclined toward country sports and merriment than the nefarious deeds of their ancestors. They’re fond of their spectral progenitors and often place guests in bedrooms where they may enjoy their antics, unless (like our Bensonian narrator) they claim to have hearts too weak for such entertainment. But there’s one ghost—or rather three—whom even the Peverils fear.
In 1602, handsome Dick Peveril enjoyed the favor of Queen Elizabeth, who remarked that it was too bad his brother and infant nephews stood between him and inheriting Church-Peveril. Before long Dick rode north to correct that situation. He arrived to find his brother dead but the twins still a problem. One bitter cold night, Dick crept into the nursery, strangled the nurse, and made off with the babies. He thrust them into the great blazing fireplace in the long gallery, stomped them down, and threw on more logs, laughing all the while. But he’d lord it over Church-Peveril only one year. After his death, anyone in the long gallery after sunset risked seeing the twins’ tiny phantoms and falling prey to their curse. Some died swiftly and terribly. They were the lucky ones—better a quick and terrible death than a drawn out one….
A famous victim of such slow agony was Col. Blantyre, who took a shot at the twins. His fate “is not to be recorded here,” presumably because too dreadful. Another was the great beauty and wit Mrs. Canning, friend of Voltaire and sharer in his skepticism. She defied Peveril warnings to sit nights in the long gallery. At length the twins appeared to her; she mocked them, saying it was time they got back in the fire. Weeping, the twins shuffled away. Two weeks later it was Mrs. Canning’s turn for consternation, for a gray patch appeared on her flawless cheek. Cosmetics and physic alike failed to halt its growth. New patches appeared. Worse, they began to sprout lichen-like tendrils. A growth inside her eyelid sent out fungal filaments to blur her vision. Others attacked tongue and throat, and suffocation finally ended her suffering.
The long gallery’s otherwise one of the manse’s most pleasant rooms. The Peverils use it cheerfully during the day, hurrying off before nightfall. A portrait of handsome Dick smiles over the fatal fireplace, and sometimes his cruel laughter rings out of the gallery. None investigate his nocturnal doings, and even blithe Blanche Peveril flees from the sound of his unholy mirth.
A large party gathers for the Peverils’ New Year’s Eve ball. Many go out skating all morning and again after lunch, but Madge Dalrymple, Blanche’s equally blithe cousin, hurts a knee on the ice and remains behind in the long gallery, reclining on a sofa before the fireplace. She means, of course, to leave well before dark. However, the heaviness of impending snow sets her drowsing. She dreams the lichen-gray velvet of her couch has engulfed her hands and threatens to render her nothing but a lumpy velvet cushion. Waking in panic, she panics further to find night nearly upon the long gallery. Handsome Dick leers from above the fireplace. Sure the twins are coming, she lies paralyzed with terror.
Struggling at last to her feet, she stumbles blindly against furniture. The glint of a doorknob leads her toward escape, but too late. Two little white-clad figures toddle toward her!
Madge falls to her knees to beg for her life. Then “her tender girl’s heart thought no more of herself but only of them, those little innocent spirits on whom so awful a doom was laid, that they should bring death where other children brought laughter.”
Far from mocking the ghosts, Madge blesses them. And far from looking upon her fiercely, the twins give her “shy little baby smiles” before fading away. Madge remains kneeling, wrapped around with “a wonderful sense of peace.” When she leaves the long gallery, she tells a horrified Blanche she’s seen the twins but is certain she has nothing to fear.
And indeed, her pity seems to have annihilated the curse of the long gallery. The next time our Bensonian narrator visits, arriving after dark, he meets Blanche coming out of the gallery. “I’ve just been seeing the twins,” she announces, “and they looked too sweet and stopped nearly ten minutes. Let us have tea at once.”
What’s Cyclopean: The language is delightful throughout, from the “defunct” family members to the “ill windlessness that blows no good.”
The Degenerate Dutch: Much is made of Mrs. Canning’s vanity… which, while not a delightful character trait, doesn’t seem hugely relevant to her poor treatment of the twins. Women who care about their appearances, y’know, they’re always gonna be mean to baby ghosts and they’ll get what’s coming to them. (Though between Madge and great-great-grandmamma Bridget, one can’t actually accuse the story of being misogynist.)
Mythos Making: This story contains some remarkably disturbing fungous growths.
Libronomicon: Madge is reading “an attractive book” when she dozes off in the Long Gallery.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Not in this story, it doesn’t.
Lovecraft doesn’t mention this story in Supernatural Horror’s scant quarter-paragraph devoted to “the versatile” Mr. Benson. I suppose he might have found the ending rather cloying, what with its redemption-via-tender-girl’s-heart uplift. And perhaps like Benson’s own Georgie Pillson, he found little children annoyingly sticky, especially after tea. Even, or particularly, ectoplasmic children.
Me, I’m terrified of ghostly or monstrous children. Ray Bradbury nearly killed me with his “Small Assassin,” and then there was the 1974 horror flick It’s Alive, which featured a mutant baby truly born to kill, as it polished off the whole delivery room staff before escaping the hospital through a skylight. I couldn’t even stand the TV commercial for this one, in which a darling crib slowly rotated around until you saw—the hideous taloned claw dangling out of it!
Not that Benson’s baby specters look scary, I mean, once you get over the fact they’re long dead and therefore understandably a bit misty and insubstantial. All they do is toddle and sob and retreat when shrieked at or taunted. They’re too young to be anything but innocent, too young to be sinners like so many of the old-time Peverils. No, they’re the ones sinned against, and with the spectacular cruelty of a makeshift crematorium.
Yet they’re the carriers of the only curse the much-haunted Peverils fear. Unwitting carriers, still innocent, deadly. It’s significant, I think, that the baby ghosts first appear on the night when handsome murderous Dick dies before he can receive absolution. Dick’s evil is therefore not forgiven, not dispelled. His ghost lingers in the long gallery, laughing, perhaps because the moral dissonance he created has centered itself in his victims and strikes the living through them. Yeah, Dick was probably the sort to appreciate such gross irony. Including the sub-irony that it’s the people who respond to the twins with mockery or violence who suffer most from their curse. Mrs. Canning’s licheny death strikes me as so horrible that maybe it’s just as well the Bensonian narrator doesn’t tell us about the even worse thing that happened to trigger-happy Col. Blantyre. (Given the Colonel’s implied hypermasculinity, I imagine his doom involved his boy-bits. Ouchies.)
Full disclosure: I’m one of those Yankee Anglophiles who has long fallen under the spell of Benson’s wit, urbane yet domestic, razor-honed yet fond. The best known examples of his comedic genius nowadays, and his masterpieces, are the Lucia and Mapp novels. As well-known, to the horror aficionado, are his many ghost stories. These range from the black eeriness of tales like “Negotium Perambulans,” “Caterpillars,” “The Man Who Went Too Far,” “The Room in the Tower,” and “The Face” to the spoofs of spiritualism like “Mr. Tilly’s Séance.” “How Fear Departed from the Long Gallery” is one of my Benson favorites, because it masterfully combines the humorous and the terrifying. Brilliant opening, starting us out with the lighter side of the Peveril ghosts, poor addled Aunt Barbara (aka the Blue Lady), who has apparently forgotten whatever story she lingers to tell and who’s incapable of scaring even a very young dachshund like Flo. (Although she does scare a whole stable full of horses later. Skittish, those highbred hunters.) We move on to the darker ghosts, like Master Anthony and Great-Great-Grandmama Bridget, murderers both, but how can we not smile at Anthony’s habit of clopping up the front staircase and the fact that Bridget disemboweled herself not on any old axe but on the one some illustrious Peveril swung at Agincourt?
With handsome Dick, we slide swiftly into a dead black villainy at which it should be impossible to laugh, Mrs. Canning aside. Infanticide by furnace bleeds into a centuries-enduring curse of ineluctable death, sometimes uniquely horrific. Sure, the modern Peverils have learned to avoid the long gallery after sunset, can enjoy its comforts during the day, but always the tension of approaching danger haunts the room’s users. Next Benson ratchets up the tension by putting one amiable character in the gallery, Cousin Madge who knows to get out before dark but who strikes the reader as only too likely to fall asleep on that nice velvet-soft couch and so overstay her welcome. Sure enough she dozes. Sure enough sunset comes, and with it panic, disorientation, the advent of the deadly twins.
By now the reader may have forgotten that the title promises the long gallery a release from its fearfulness. The twins have caught Madge. She’s going to die, and she knows it. Her first impulse is to beg an impossible reprieve. Her second, the saving one, springs not from fear but from compassion; by blessing the curse-bringers, she dispels the moral dissonance Dick caused. Though the Peveril clan strikes me as constitutionally pagan, Madge’s is a profoundly Christian act, a true imitation of Christ, Lamb of God who taketh away the sins of the world. Only Madge is not sacrificed, like most heroines that redeem some accursed dude, and I’m looking at you, Wagner, that’s right, don’t try to hide under the piano.
Anyway, I love you, Madge, and I love all the modern Peverils, and I’ll be glad to spend the Christmas holidays at Church-Peveril anytime, all cozy and merry in the long gallery, late into the night. If the twins visit, all the better.
I just wish Master Anthony would lay off the horseback parkour while I’m trying to sleep.
When I begged for one story, just one, where no one does anything seriously stupid, Anne recommended this. And oh my, thank you Anne, you were absolutely right. This is the most wonderfully sensible, matter-of-fact ghost story. No one misses obvious clues, or flings themselves into the plot with great and irrational force—it’s a fact that 85% of haunted house stories are caused by some idiot insisting, “Darling, I simply must spend tonight in a mysterious manor house* that has killed all previous tenants.” Benson’s gossipy narrator, in contrast to these usual guides, makes a point of avoiding the house’s most ectoplasmic bedrooms. I can’t even blame Madge for dozing off. It’s not like I’ve never taken an ill-advised nap.
The story walks a fine line between comedy and horror, shifting back and forth with a finesse that works better than I would have expected—actually, it reminds me a great deal of the 21st century Ghostbusters in its perfect cocktail of humor, creep, and sensible enthusiasm. I think Abby and her colleagues** would enjoy sitting down for a spot of girl talk with Madge (who I like to imagine is still hanging out in the Long Gallery a century later, taking care of the twins).
Occasional commenter RushThatSpeaks happened to be in the room while I was reading this, and pointed out (correctly, as usual) that Benson uses this shift in modes, very deliberately, to support an ending that’s much more pleasant than a ghost story can usually get away with. We’ve covered quite a few hauntings here, from Stoker’s wicked judge to Lovecraft’s homes ruined by poor summoning safety practices. And in general, the best you can hope for once you fall into such a story is to defeat the nasty thing. “Hugs all around” is a tough sell—Benson makes it work by reminding you early on that he can creep you out with the best of them, and that he’s deliberately choosing the non-creepy ending. The fate of Voltaire’s lover is sufficient to confirm that. Conversion to fungus is a terrible (and terribly Lovecraftian) fate—and then, of course, we get the guy whose death we simply don’t discuss.
Even Madge herself, we see at her most terrified. The couch-inspired nightmare, followed by her terrified groping through the dark gallery, induce as many shivers as anyone could desire. These ghosts can’t be defeated by determined rationalism, like Bulwer-Lytton’s—but like Bulwer-Lytton’s, overcoming terror is the key to surviving their presence. For Madge, though, there’s no clever mystery-solving, no object that can be destroyed to break the spell. There’s simply seeing the twins for the children they are, and treating them as their nature truly deserves. It could come across as glurge—but at least to this parent, it rings truer than any number of irredeemably creepy child ghosts.
And then everyone gets to take care of the ghost babies! As long as I’m bringing up delightful comedic-horror movies, the other one brought to mind by this week’s selection is Beetlejuice. Sometimes, the right thing to do with your haunts is simply to make them part of the family.
*Note for people who actually read our bios: my mysterious manor house isn’t haunted and to the best of my knowledge hasn’t killed any of its historical tenants. Even though some of them deserved it almost as much as Dick Peveril.
**For the record, Holtzmann is absolutely welcome to come and check my mysterious manor house for ghosts any time.
Next week, John Langan’s “The Shallows” offers a very personal apocalypse. You can find it in the Cthulhu’s Reign anthology, among others.
Ruthanna Emrys is the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, including Winter Tide and Deep Roots (available July 2018). Her neo-Lovecraftian stories “The Litany of Earth” and “Those Who Watch” are available on Tor.com, along with the distinctly non-Lovecraftian “Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land” and “The Deepest Rift.” Ruthanna can frequently be found online on Twitter and Dreamwidth, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.
Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story. “The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her young adult Mythos novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.