Sunday, October 22, 2023

'A Borderland of Shadows': The Centenary of 'Visible and Invisible'

E F Benson’s classic ghost story collection Visible and Invisible was published about one hundred years ago in October 1923. The twelve stories include several that have become anthology favourites, especially ‘Mrs Amworth’ and ‘Negotium Perambulans’. Others are perhaps more routine magazine fare, competent professional exercises in thrills, but all have a certain brisk economy in the telling, and a sardonic glee in the macabre.

Benson was 56 when the collection appeared. In complete contrast, he had issued Miss Mapp, one of his popular society comedies set in Rye, Sussex, the year before, and he was already known as a prolific, reliable author. He was the most urbane and worldly of the three Benson brothers, and well attuned to the commercial demands of the literary market. His tone is often detached and sometimes ironic.

However, his back-list also included a significant number of uncanny works, suggesting another side to his imagination, such as The Luck of the Vails (1901) and The Image in the Sand (1905): and there had been an earlier short story collection in a similar vein in The Room in the Tower (1912).

Hutchinson’s catalogue (printed in the back of their books) says: ‘In this volume Mr. Benson, departing from his usual choice of subject, deals with the occult and supernatural, and these stories of engrossing interest are proofs of his versatility and considerable powers of imagination. Between our own and the other world lies a borderland of shadows, which eyes that can pierce the material plane may sometimes see and whose happenings are somewhat disquieting. The writer has subtly caught this vague uneasiness and made it the pervading influence upon his characters in these original and powerful stories.'

As noticed in a previous post, May Sinclair’s Uncanny Stories came out the month before, also from Hutchinson, and the notice for this uses similar phrasing, also evoking both the other world and the borderland (evidently they were the vogue terms for this sort of fiction), though it also notes that her tales have ‘a strong psychological interest.’

Mary Butts came across a copy of Visible and Invisible in the Tauchnitz edition when she was in St Malo, France, in October 1929. She regarded this as a ‘magic town’, which reminded her of Algernon Blackwood’s story ‘Ancient Sorceries’. She felt that here she would fall upon a ghost book, and there it was. ‘There’s magic about’, she added. She noted in particular Benson’s phrase: ‘Eternity isn’t a quantity. It’s a quality.’

In her journal on 21 October 1929 (The Journals of Mary Butts ed Nathalie Blondel, pg 328), she made notes about each of the stories:

‘Fun at the mediums, sense not scepticism, “Mr Tilly’s Séance”

Vampires – here he is least convincing, “The Outreach”, “Mrs Amworth”

A ‘left-over’ of early man, “The Horror Horn”, cf. Buchan

The murderer-haunt, “At the Farmhouse”, “The Gardener”, “In the Tube”

The man of science who goes too far—scientific over-weight, “’And the Dead Spake’”

The blessed dead, “Roderick’s story” & in part “Machaon.” The first a very lovely story, cf. May Sinclair.

The evil elemental, “Negotium Perambulans.”

In all, a good run over the course—Benson’s course. Egypt omitted as an ‘occult’ distributing centre—he generally puts it in.’

She rediscovered it later, when, as before, ‘at need’ for it: evidently there was something talismanic about the book for her. In a journal entry for 23 March 1936, she noted: “Grace & comfort it was & is—but a sense that . . .—it was an advance-guard—a hint of what was to come & to keep . . . –my ‘awareness’ in order,” adding, ‘I wish I knew E.F. Benson.’

When she wrote this, she had moved to Sennen Cove, in the far West of Cornwall, and one story from the collection that may have had a particular resonance for her is ‘Negotium Perambulans’, perhaps one of the most successful in the book. This is set in the same area, on ‘the bare high plateau between Penzance and Land’s End.’ Indeed, the story refers to the notable carved, painted panels at St Creed, which is Sancreed, a place of particular mystical significance to Mary Butts (and to others): she thought the Grail might descend here. It seems likely that Sancreed was partly the inspiration for Benson’s story, because his fictional Polearn has similar carvings and, like Sancreed, an uncanny atmosphere, with a sense of ‘forces, fruitful and mysterious’ that ‘were dwellers in the innermost, grafted into the eternal life of the world.’

This theme would have appealed to Mary Butts. She was convinced, like Machen, Blackwood, de la Mare and others in the field, that there are places where other worlds overlap with ours: this recurs in her stories. She noted that Aleister Crowley had told her that ‘in certain places . . . there is a leak from the astral.’ Further, in another journal entry, she noted that glimpses of the abyss seep through, and gave as an example, some of Aubrey Beardsley’s pictures. Machen also explored this idea of a link between art and occult visions in his story ‘Out of the Picture’. ‘Negotium Perambulans’ suggests this too, in the troubled work of the artist John Evans, whose pictures are ‘inexplicably hellish’, full of ‘flickering shadows’, imbued with malignancy. The story is the most speculative in the book: it is suitably gruesome and outlandish, but it also implies vaster deeps. 

I have a copy of Visible and Invisible in a later edition in a rose-red binding which has an inscription in faded ink on the fixed front endpaper: ‘G.M.H./(a bed book)/24-5-25'. It is to be hoped G.M.H. slept well.

(Mark Valentine)


  1. Excellent article. At the risk of becoming tedious, I will mention that "Cowley", obviously, should possess an "r".