E.F. Benson’s The Outcast and Other Dark Tales

The Outcast and Other Dark Tales is editor Mike Ashley’s latest collection of dark fiction by E.F. Benson. Containing a number of short works, this collection attempts to give a survey of the disturbing genre fiction Benson produced over the course of his life. These stories cover a range in terms of year of publication, complexity, and subject matter.

The introduction takes the form of a short biography. Covering important details of E.F. Benson’s life and family history, with a focus on the little uplifting events and the darker moments that might have influenced his work. It is a most useful resource, and readers will be glad for it. Benson came from a somewhat accomplished generation of his own family, and maintained connections to some of his siblings late into life. How one interprets this influence is up to them.

“The Outcast” was chosen to be the title story, and is indeed a most disturbing tale. It centers on a man discussing a woman he knew, a Mrs. Acres. She was pleasant enough both in behavior and in appearance, yet somehow remained innately off-putting, with even a gold-digging husband agreeing to leave and not take any money if he could get a divorce from her quickly,  The concept of reincarnation had been discussed earlier, and the narrator attempts to make nice with the woman, providing an example of both his wife instinctively hating her and the dog running away in fear as soon as it sees her. It is an effective enough sequence, perhaps slightly more stereotypical now than then, but more than serviceable. The woman dies at sea some little time later, and that is the point at which the material becomes something truly interesting. There are a series of improbable and impossible events, each a little more disturbing for the buildup, culminating in a set of dark realizations. Truly it is an impressive piece, sad and horrifying at once in a way few pieces of dark fiction succeed in combining those emotions.

As ghost stories go “The Outcast” is debatable in fitting the genre, yet as horror it is a magnificent example dealing in the simple question of a person the world seems to subconsciously disapprove of. The imagery starts out merely a bit odd and grows slowly and steadily into something downright disturbing yet not entirely with fault. The questions of reincarnation are possibly the least necessary aspect of the story, but do serve to make the last moments and revelations all the more chilling.

Included in this volume is the never before reprinted “Billy Comes Through.” This rare piece by Benson features a pair named Dorothy and Billy, a loving couple who write fiction together for a living, and like to leave the wireless (radio) on when they do. There is some philosophical discussion about the odd unknowns in the world, and an increasing number of coincidences about what exactly might be out there on the same frequencies or nearby that the two of them cannot consciously detect. It is, for Dorothy, mostly an academic curiosity at the time she speaks with her husband about it. A year later however Billy has passed on after a long illness and Dorothy continues to write alone, with the wireless on in the background. Her progress is steady, and her editor comments upon the similarity to the work she did along with her husband.

“Billy Comes Through” is an excellent example of a ghost story that is chilling but not traditionally what one would call “scary”. Indeed, while there is an eerie atmosphere, the overall mood is quiet and contemplative, very atmospheric and thoughtful. The attempts to provide some scientific explanation of the ghostly happenings through radio make this arguably an early example of science fiction, albeit one that uses the fact much is unknown about a specific area to take great liberties. The result is a very nice story, one where obsession with a lost loved one’s advice could be seen as a portent and simultaneously a major disruption to a life.

At the end of the book comes a series of comments as to the origins of each story and its publication history. These are interesting, though not downright necessary inclusions in many cases. The sources of the least often republished works are the most useful: knowing the first publication for any of them can be helpful to a researcher.

This volume is worth acquiring for fans of the genre, if only for the previously forgotten “Billy Comes Through” which helps to illustrate the odd range of E.F. Benson’s stories. Yet for those whose collections are not exhaustive, this volume is quite a little treasure in its own right, including a variety of tales that range from unsettling to horrifying and show the range of Benson’s talents. The extra material is helpful to the scholar, and largely interesting for a casual reader. Easy to recommend.

(British Library; Kindle edition, March 19, 2020; paperback edition, November 1, 2020)

About Warner Holme

Born in the mid-south and keeps getting dragged back there. Warner Holme is well studied in fantastical and mysterious fiction.