Saturday, November 19, 2005

Robert Hugh Benson - the Anti H.P. Lovecraft!

You may have seen announcements from Michael Greaney or Deal Matthews (a pseudonym of Greaney's) about http://www.benson-unabridged.com/, the project to reprint the fiction of Robert Hugh Benson. Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson (1871–1914) was a Catholic priest, a convert from the Anglican Church, who wrote a series of popular short story collections and novels at the beginning of the 20th century.

I just bought The Light Invisible and A Mirror of Shalott from this new collection of reprints. I am reading The Light Invisible right now, and what a discovery.

I would character Msgr. Benson in The Light Invisible as the Anti-H.P. Lovecraft. I love Lovecraft's work, his supernatural horror stories are chilling and eerie. He writes of the Old Ones, Cthulu (sp) and such, the Necronomicon, a whole mythos about creatures who lurk at the edge of our universe trying to find their way back in to a world they once ruled.

But much as I like Lovecraft, his stuff is unremittingly distant and chilly. Not really nihilistic, more like hellish. His characters are neither evil nor good, so their encounters with the things that move behind the walls of reality and scrabble for purchase in our world have no tragedy or pathos, just a thrill of horror and loneliness.

It is a pleasure to read Benson, and see what the mysterious world of the unseen looks like through anti-Lovecraftian eyes.

The Light Invisible is a series of stories, interconnected. He writes in the format in which Lovecraft often wrote, common to late 19th-early 20th-century fiction, especially horror, gothic and supernatural fiction. That is, each story is framed by an encounter between an old priest and a younger man, in which the old priest winds up recounting a strange story from his earlier years.

Here is the excerpt that captivated me, from the first story in the book, The Green Robe:

"I stood on the border of a vast robe; its material was green. A great fold of it lay full in view, but I was conscious that it stretched for almost unlimited miles. This great green robe blazed with embroidery. There were straight lines of tawny work on either side which melted again into a darker green in high relief. Right in the center lay a pale agate stitched delicately into the robe with fine, dark stitches; overhead the blue lining of this silken robe arched out.

I was conscious that this robe was vast beyond conception, and that I stood as it were in a fold of it, as it lay stretched out on some unseen floor. But clearer than any other thought, stood out in my mind the certainty that this robe had not been flung down and left, but that it clothed a Person. And even as this thought showed itself a ripple ran along the high relief in dark green, as if the wearer of the robe had just stirred. And I felt on my face the breeze of His motion. And it was this I suppose that brought me to myself."

Not all of the unseen presences that the old priest catches glimpses of in the visions and adventures he tells the young man are good presences. Evil things abide just beyond our everyday life also.

Anyone who is Catholic and likes Lovecraft ought to love Benson. Or at least The Light Invisible. I don't know how A Mirror of Shalott compares.

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