Monday, February 18, 2013
A MIRROR OF SHALLOTT by R. H. Benson
R. H. Benson was a priest in the Anglican church but had a crisis of faith and ended up converting to Catholicism in 1903. He became a priest and also a noted author of the time, although aside from his ghost stories he's largely forgotten today.
A Mirror of Shallott is very, very obviously written by a fervent Catholic, which makes sense as it was published in 1904, a year after his conversion. There's a sort of "born-again Catholic" intensity in this book which is occasionally off-putting. The title is a reference to a Tennyson poem, in which a woman under a curse cannot actually look at the world, but only view it through a mirror. One wonders what sort of reference Benson was making with this...is this a mirror that shows the weird part of the world? Or is it a reference to Catholic priesthood being apart from the world?
The framing device of this collection of short stories is a conference of Catholic clergy, each recounting their adventures with the unknown. And they're not really always ghosts. This is often closer to be a collection of miracle stories rather than actual ghosts, and some are brief and not well resolved.
Monsignor Maxwell tells a tale of a pious man who fears for his brother who is deserting the faith, and eventually dies faithless himself, and possibly possessed. Father Meuron tells of an exorcism where a plate of food turns to worms before his eyes. Father Brent has an encounter with a young boy who may be having prophetic dreams, or visions of the past.
The Father Rector recounts a meeting with an artists whose salvation comes at the expense of his inspiration and talent. (Hardly inspiring!) Father Girdlestone's lengthy tale is of meeting evil spirits in the moors. Father Bianchi's was interesting to me, in which an elderly woman thinks she's having visions of a church's patron saint, but it's really a pagan god over whose temple the church was built. (The story is unresolved, a rather interesting take for such intense faith.) Father Jenks...well, his story rambles and didn't have any impact. Something about a possible ghost and a woman who might be turning her house over to the church.
I could recount more, but you get the idea. Every story has to do with a Catholic priests' work, and all have spiritual implications and sometimes are very moralistic. The final story is of a house haunted by an inexplicable emptiness..."Like a Catholic cathedral in Protestant hands," it's described, which sums up this book's prejudices rather succinctly.
There are print editions out there, but also cheap electronic versions for your Kindle or other e-reader. This isn't very highly recommended, unless you're intensely Catholic, or a Benson Brothers completist, or perhaps simply fascinated by issues of faith in supernatural fiction. The general public might get bogged down by the religiosity so be warned.