Stories that inspired M.R. James

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Episode 75 – The Traveller by R.H. Benson

February 9, 2020 | Episodes | Comments (9)

R.H. BensonThis episode explores some ecclesiastical terrors in R.H. Benson’s ‘The Traveller’. It was ‘too ecclesiastical’ for M.R. James, but will Mike and Will find something to enjoy in this tale of perturbed priests, creepy confessionals and historical haunting?

Thanks to our reader for this episode Debbie Wedge!

Show notes:

  • Robert Hugh Benson (
    Benson was ordained a priest by his Archbishop father in 1895 before sending shockwaves through the church by converting to Catholicism in 1904, the year after this story was published.
  • The Light Invisible by R.H. Benson (Gutenberg)
    The volume that this story appears in can be read in full online at Project Gutenberg.
  • Frederick Rolfe (wikipedia)
    Benson’s close friendship and literary collaboration with the eccentric Frederick Rolfe (the self-styled ‘Baron Corvo’) threatened to derail Benson’s religious career.
  • Thomas Becket (wikipedia)
    Becket was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162 until his murder in 1170. During his life he quarreled with King Henry II over the rights of the church, and was made a saint after his death.

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  1. MarkB says:

    This priest-based series of stories reminds me of Chesterton’s Father Brown. both writers were Catholics using short stories to have their say about society.

    Regarding the author’s stammer – Many stammmerers/stutterers have notices that when they (that is, we) speak in a ‘performed,’ alternative voice, our speech breakdown goes away. Thus some can take part in plays (because the voice is ‘in character’). This also accounts for the story I read in an academic book on speech pathology of a young man who found that if he spoke in a ‘French accent,’ he did not stutter. And so, every time he met a new person away from home, he would use his false voice and speak fluently. It’s a funny kind of pathology, no doubt.

    Finally, since this is the latest comment thread, I though I’d make note of this interesting silhouette puppet version of Count Magnus on Youtube: Abbreviated, but quite well done.

  2. RogerBW says:

    Rolfe is probably best known for “Hadrian the Seventh”, a self-insertion fantasy about an Englishman who is turned down for the priesthood but becomes Pope nonetheless – and promptly metes out revenge to all those people who laughed at him. He was writing this at about the time he was friendly with Benson…

  3. I enjoyed your Podcast, and reading the tale itself. It’s ironic that Monsignor Benson is today best remembered for his ghost stories — to the extent that he is remembered at all — because in his own day he was the most prominent author of popular Catholic theology. He also achieved a post-mortem fame among Spiritualists, as the spirit world author of The World Unseen trilogy, in collaboration with his friend, the medium Anthony Borgia.

    Frederick Rolfe has been regarded by some as the role model for the nefarious Karswell, in M R James’s Casting the Runes, which we will be discussing on 13 February on our Facebook Group, The M R James Ghost Stories Discussion Group. Paul Chapman wrote an excellent article on Rolfe-as-Karswell a few issues ago in Ghosts & Scholars.

  4. Lemuel Gonzalez says:

    I liked this story. Thank you for covering it.

    An empty church, despite its function, can be a creepy place. I think that Walter De La Mare captured it well in, “All Hallows.” Vast spaces, echoes of whispering voices, mournful statuary.

    I like, “A Mirror of Shalott.” Benson was a careful writer, one who builds excellent word pictures. In that collection he tells a story, “Father Meuron’s Tale,”that works up a very disturbing atmosphere.

  5. A Rat in the Wall says:

    I do agree with James about the ecclesiastic-ism being a little overbearing regardless of agreement or non-agreement with the sentiments, and I actually like the church-y stuff in James, it’s cozy in a weird way.

    I don’t think R.H. was as good a writer as Fred, but even still, there’s some really good atmosphere in this one. The whole confessional scene, with the sharp whispering of the ghost, the dark winter night, the hooves, he ramps up the atmosphere really well. The confessional is an underused setting for creepiness for sure. But at the same time, the story overall isn’t too flashy or overt and retains the right amount of Jamesian reticence. It feels almost believable.

    Looking forward to seeing what you guys cover next, might I suggest ‘The Everlasting Club’ by Arthur Gray aka Ingulphus for a future episode?

    • Mike says:

      Ingulphus is definitely on the menu! We received a beautifully illustrated edition from a press on Cambridge years ago and have been itching to talk about Arthur G. Next up is another Fred Benson.

  6. MarkB says:

    I have a little nugget to add. Regarding Benson’s vigorous sermon delivery: he seems to have shared his style with Beethoven, of all people. I’ve recently read a biography of LVB, and it seems that when he conducted his own music, his delivery was very similar. When he wanted the music soft, he would crouch down so low that the musicians couldn’t see him. And then he would jump up like a jack-in-the-box. Apparently, the musicians thought he was a nut-job. The description of Benson given here sounded almost identical.

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