“Mrs Stone: Sussex Vampire, Revenant or Both?” – The Room in the Tower (1912) -by E. F. Benson

‘The Room in the Tower’ can be found in Night Terrors: The Ghost Stories of E. F. Benson (Wordsworth Editions) 2012 .

23/06/2020 – Craig Thomson

I knew you would come to the room in the tower.’ it said. ‘I have been long waiting for you. At last you have come. Tonight we shall feast; before long we will feast together.’

-E. F. Benson, The Room in The Tower (1912)

Of all the famous Late 19th and early 20th Century ghost story writers, E.F. Benson (Edward Frederick Benson) stands as one of the most well-known of their ranks. Born in 1867 as the fifth child to Mary and Edward White Benson (the latter, would later go on to become Archbishop of Canterbury), Benson was brought up among a group of hugely talented siblings. His older brother of Arthur wrote the words to “Land of Hope and Glory“, while his younger brother Robert would be a novelist of his own doing. Alongside this, his sister Margaret Benson (Maggie), would also become an author as well as a noted amateur Egyptologist. Benson was later educated at King’s College, Cambridge, becoming not only a member of the Pitt club, but also the Chitchat society, which would become famous for its association with M. R. James’s famous ghost stories, which he regularly performed at Christmas time. A gifted sportsman who was also at the same time an intensely private individual, many scholars have since presumed Benson to have been homosexual, with many of his diaries alluding to romantic feelings for some of his fellow students. A prolific writer of over 60 novels (including the famous Mapp and Lucia series), Benson would eventually pass in 1940 from Throat Cancer at the age of 72.

While Benson’s writing was substantial in other genres, it is perhaps his short horror stories that he has since become more well known for, with many of them being the frequent subject of later horror anthologies such as ‘The Bus Conductor’ (1906). As a relative neophyte when it comes to the work of E. F. Benson, I had only a passing experience of his work, having read not only the aforementioned title, but also ‘Caterpillars’ (1912) and ‘The Man That Went Too Far’ (1912). All of these titles were included within Benson’s 1912 collection The Room in the Tower, and it becomes clear upon just looking upon these texts how varied his stories could be. From vengeful, malicious spouses as in ‘The Man That Went Too Far’, to otherworldly, almost Lovecraftian insects as in ‘Caterpillars’, Benson’s material ranges from standard supernatural fare, all the way to early science fiction and weird literature.

The collections title work, ‘The Room in the Tower’ only further outlines this versatility within Benson’s imagination. The narrative starts almost with a vague and dreamlike tone; one that follows an unnamed narrator recounting a recurring dream that he has had since he was a youth. Within the dream, he visits the home and family of an old school acquaintance, led under the matriarchal gaze of the boy’s tyrannical mother, Mrs Stone. After dining with them, the narrator would be sent to sleep overnight in a room housed within a nearby tower, where he would behold something so terrible, he is unable to describe it to the reader. Over time, the dream changes, with its various characters becoming visibly older over time. Having finished recounting the dream, the narrator then tells the reader of a visit he made to his friend who has since moved into a house near Ashdown Forest in Sussex [1], with a remarkable resemblance to the home in his dream. While there, he is given a room in the nearby tower to stay the night, where he happens upon the portrait of the very same Mrs Stone of his dream. Needless to say, the night does not end necessarily well for the narrator, with him encountering what appears to be the undead form of Mrs Stone, who it appears has returned from the grave to feed on his blood.

There’s a lot to unpack within ‘The Room in the Tower’, not least the various psychoanalytic readings that might be perceived within the story; particularly in reference to Benson’s alleged sexuality, the narrators inability to articulate the trauma of what he encounters within the tower during his dreams, as well as the narrative’s dreamlike almost illogical tone. Yet, while this is all certainly of interest, as a folklorist interested in monstrosity there is equally much to glean from the tale, particularly with the figure of Mrs Stone, who appears as a kind of vampiric revenant that returns to feed on the very victim whose dreams she has terrorised for so many years. On viewing the picture in the room, Mrs Stone is described as a possessing ‘an exuberance wholly malign’, with a ‘demon-like mouth’ and whole face that was ‘instinct with some secret and appalling mirth’ [2]. Already, Stone is described in malevolent, evil terms, so it comes as no surprise that the picture forewarns us of her new supernatural form.

Benson appears to play with the Folkloric and popular beliefs associated with the vampire or the revenant within his tale [3], mirroring such traditions, while at the same time playing with them for maximum effect. For instance, the vampire Mrs Stone, appears to have all the hallmarks of mythology linked to Slavic vampire and even Anglo/French revenant mythology. Not only is Mrs Stone the victim of a suicide, something that was considered in some Slavic traditions as a possible explanation as to the creation of the vampire [4], but when she awakens, she is resplendent in mould covered burial clothes, smells of ‘corruption and decay’ and spotted with earth – traits found in both Slavic and North Western European myths regarding the vampire, though without the traditional ‘ruddy’ blood gorged appearance. Not only this, it is said at the conclusion of the story that Mrs Stone herself was buried three times unsuccessfully at a local churchyard, before eventually being placed in unconsecrated ground near her home. Inevitably, it is here where she rises, and just as was reported in the vampire epidemics in eastern Europe during the early 18th century, where the corpse is traditionally found filled with fresh blood, here the coffin itself is found to be ‘full of blood.’ Benson therefore digs deep into both folkloric belief and historical reporting, when presenting the terrifying Mrs Stone to the reader, though not afraid to tinker and change where he sees fit. Written well after both John Polidori’s The Vampyre and even Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Benson’s ‘The Room in the Tower’, therefore dispenses with the aristocratic, Byronic portrayal favoured by both Stoker and Polidori to instead focus on a more traditional representation of the vampire, as an unkempt grave-ridden horror – one similarly seen in previous stories such as Alexis Tolstoy’s The Family of the Vourdalak.


‘Le Vampire’ lithograph by R. de Moraine (1864) showing townsfolk burning the exhumed skeleton of an alleged vampire.

Alongside this largely more folkloric portrayal, Benson also merges these with similar tropes as found within popular fiction. Not only does Benson reflect Stoker’s Dracula in that the vampire has ability to influence animals (as seen through Mrs Stone’s connection with the Clinton’s cat [3]) but the story also presents a kind of dark inversion to a famous scene from Le Fanu’s Carmilla (and even arguably Stoker’s infamous “This man belongs to me!” scene from Dracula). Here the vampiric invasion of the narrator’s room is presented not as erotic, but grotesque. The smell of rot surrounds them as the female predator shambles into the room and stands at the narrator’s beside. Again, this scene becomes all the more potent when considered through a psychoanalytic lens and with reference to Benson’s sexuality.

Finally, Benson is not afraid to add his own ingredients to this representation of the folkloric entity. While not explicitly stated, Mrs Stone appears to have been awakened for the first time in fifteen years by either the narrator’s very arrival to the house, or by his interaction with her portrait, in that when they move it, both he and his friend find their hands covered in blood. Both appear ambiguous, leaving it for the reader to come up with it themselves.

Mrs Stone therefore appears as an brilliant representation of the ‘Folkloresque’ vampire or revenant within popular literature, one that merges folk beliefs and popular images of the undead with Benson’s own invention to create a type of monstrous vampire that appears different from many of the other more generic vampire stories within its genre. So, the question remains, what are the possible reasons for such invention within Benson’s tale? Might it be that Benson, wished to move away from the growing stereotypical portrayals of Vampirism? That in returning to the past, Benson is able to present a fresh depiction of vampirism that was different from the standard appearances most readers were becoming accustomed to? Perhaps the use of folkloric belief only enriched his tale, adding authenticity, while also perhaps delving it further into the dreamlike subconscious, offering an uncanny revenant from a past long since forgotten. In this sense, folklore is the repressed history that has been buried away, just like Mrs Stone. Whatever the reason, the terrifying Mrs Stone stands as an intriguing example of the folkloresque, presenting one of the most satisfying and interesting interpretations of the vampire within Horror Literature. A treat for both the literary scholar and folklorist alike, whilst at the same time showing the versatile talent at the heart of Benson’s vast body of work.

Have you read ‘The Room in the Tower’? Are there any examples of the folkloresque that were perhaps missed in the article? Sound off in the comments and please feel free to get in touch with any queries!

NOTES:

[1] ‘The Room in the Tower’ would not be the only instance of a vampire tale set in the English County of Sussex. In 1924, Arthur Conan Doyle would famously write ‘The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire‘ as a new case for his famous detective Sherlock Holmes.

[2] Benson’s descriptions here may also link it to the Albanian Shtriga mythology. Such beliefs are generally more in line with stereotypical depictions of witches within popular culture.

[3] Debates are still ongoing as to whether the French or English ‘revenant’ might be used interchangeably with the word vampire, or that the term ‘revenant’ is just another term for the undead. In as far back as the 12th Century, historians such as William of Malmesbury and William of Newburgh would explain that such undead ‘revenants’ are generally presented as the devil’s servants who are revived to walk the earth and do his bidding. For the sake of simplicity for this blog post, I am using both interchangeably within this article, but would like to acknowledge the subtle differences between the two.

[4] In accordance with English law from as late as the early 1800s, many suicide victim’s corpses were impaled through the chest with stakes made from Ash and buried at crossroads. As Nick Groom suggests in his book The Vampire: A New History, such efforts were seen less as a way of preventing the body from returning back from the dead, and more to do with the punishing of what was considered a criminal act, with suicides noted as ‘felos de se’ (felons to themselves).

[5] The text also refers to Warpulgis night when speaking of the cat, a Christian festival where bonfires were traditionally burned to ward off witches. Warpulgis Night would also be later referenced in Stoker’s 1914 short story Dracula Guest.

Published by cthomsonphd

Craig Thomson is a PhD candidate from Birkbeck, University of London whose research interests include: Horror/Gothic literature, Monster Theory and Folklore Studies. His current research focuses on the re-emergence of the cultural figure of the Werewolf within the popular Gothic literature of the late 19th and early 20th century.

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