Pseudopod 300: The Step


by E.F. Benson

“The Step” was originally published in 1925 and later collected in MORE SPOOK STORIES (1930)

Edward Frederic Benson (1867-1940) was the son of the Archbishop of Canterbury and member of a distinguished and eccentric family. After attending Marlborough and King’s College, Cambridge where he studied classics and archaeology, he worked at the British School of Archaeology in Athens. One of our greatest humorists, he achieved great success at an early age with his first novel, DODO (1893). He was a prolific author writing over a hundred books: serious novels, ghost stories, plays and biographies. But he is best remembered for his MAPP & LUCIA comedies written between 1920 and 1939 and other comic novels such as PAYING GUESTS and MRS. AMES. He became mayor of Rye, the Sussex town that provided the model for his fictional Tilling, from 1934 to 1937.

Benson was also known as a writer of (mainly grisly, though occasionally humorous) ghost stories, which frequently appear in collections. Not as scholarly as M.R. James, Benson captures life in a rapidly modernizing Edwardian age, but one still prey to spirits and monsters. H. P. Lovecraft spoke highly of Benson’s works in his SUPERNATURAL HORROR IN LITERATURE most notably of his story “The Man Who Went Too Far.” A critical essay on Benson’s ghost stories appears in S.T. Joshi’s book THE EVOLUTION OF THE WEIRD TALE (2004).

Your reader this week is the Frank Key who was last heard here reading Pseudopod 261: Widdershins. You really should give his community radio show Hooting Yard On The Air a listen!

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“”Nice night, let’s walk,” said John. “Nothing like a walk when there’s liquid on board. Clears the brain for you and I must have a final powwow tonight, if you’re off to-morrow. There are some bits of things still to go through.”

Bill acquiesced. The cafes were all dosed, there was nothing very promising.

“Night life here ain’t a patch on Cairo,” he observed. “Everyone seems to go to bed here just about when we begin to get going. Not but what I haven’t enjoyed my stay with you. Capital good fellows at your dub and brandy to match.”

He stopped and ruefully scanned the quiet and emptiness of the street .

“Not a soul anywhere,” he said. “Shutters up, all gone to bed. Nothing for it but a powwow, I guess.”

They walked on in silence for a while. Then behind them, firm and distinct to John’s ears, there sprang up the sound of the footsteps, for which now he knew that he waited and listened. He wheeled round.

“What’s up?” asked Bill.

“Curious thing,” said John. “Night after night now, though not every night, when I walk home, 1 hear a step following me. 1 heard it then.”

Bill gave a vinous giggle.

“No such luck for me,” he said. “I like to hear a step following me about one of a morning. Something agreeable may come of it. Wish I could hear it. ”

They walked on, and again, clearer than before, John heard what was inaudible to the other. He told himself, as he often did now, that it was an echo. But it was odd that the echo only repeated the footfalls of one of them. As he recognized this, he felt for the first time, when he was fully awake, some sudden chill of fear. It was as if a cold hand closed for a moment on his heart, just pressing it softly, almost tenderly. But they were now close to his own gate, and presently it clanged behind them.”

About the Author

E.F. Benson

Edward Frederic “E. F.” Benson (24 July 1867 – 29 February 1940) was an English novelist, biographer, memoirist, archaeologist and short story writer.

Benson’s first book published was Sketches From Marlborough. He started his novel writing career with the (then) fashionably controversial Dodo (1893), which was an instant success, and followed it with a variety of satire and romantic and supernatural melodrama. He repeated the success of Dodo, which featured a scathing description of composer and militant suffragette Ethel Smyth (which she “gleefully acknowledged”, according to actress Prunella Scales), with the same cast of characters a generation later: Dodo the Second (1914), “a unique chronicle of the pre-1914 Bright Young Things” and Dodo Wonders (1921), “a first-hand social history of the Great War in Mayfair and the Shires”.The Mapp and Lucia series, written relatively late in his career, consists of six novels and two short stories. The novels are: Queen Lucia, Lucia in London, Miss Mapp (including the short story “The Male Impersonator”), Mapp and Lucia, Lucia’s Progress (published as The Worshipful Lucia in the United States) and Trouble for Lucia. The short stories are “The Male Impersonator” and “Desirable Residences”. Both appear in anthologies of Benson’s short stories, and the former is also often appended to the end of the novel Miss Mapp.

The last three novels were produced as a television series by London Weekend Television for the recently-initiated Channel 4 during 1985–6 with the series title Mapp and Lucia and featuring Nigel Hawthorne and Prunella Scales; the first four have been adapted for BBC Radio 4 by both Aubrey Woods and (most recently) Ned Sherrin; the fifth, Lucia’s Progress, was adapted for BBC Radio 4 during 2008 by John Peacock. During 2007, the television series was rerun by the British digital channel ITV3. A new 3-part adaptation written by Steve Pemberton was broadcast during three nights on BBC One; 29th, 30th, and 31 December 2014.

Benson was also known as a writer of atmospheric and at times humorous or satirical ghost stories, which were often first published in story magazines such as Pearson’s Magazine or Hutchinson’s Magazine, 20 of which were illustrated by Edmund Blampied. These “spook stories”, as they were also termed, were then reprinted in collections by his principal publisher, Walter Hutchinson. His 1906 short story, “The Bus-Conductor”, a fatal-crash premonition tale about a person haunted by a hearse driver, has been adapted several times, notably during 1944 (for the movie Dead of Night and as an anecdote in Bennett Cerf’s Ghost Stories anthology published the same year) and for a 1961 episode of The Twilight Zone. The catchphrase from the story, “Room for one more”, created a legend, and also occurs in the 1986 Oingo Boingo song, “Dead Man’s Party”.

Benson’s story David Blaize and the Blue Door (1918) is a children’s fantasy influenced by the work of Lewis Carroll. “Mr Tilly’s Seance” is a witty and amusing story about a man flattened by a traction-engine who finds himself dead and conscious on the ‘other side’. Other notable stories are the eerie “The Room in the Tower” and “Pirates”.

Benson is also known for a series of biographies/autobiographies and memoirs, including one of Charlotte Brontë. His last book, delivered to his publisher ten days before his death, was an autobiography entitled Final Edition.

H. P. Lovecraft spoke well of Benson’s works in his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature”, most notably of his story “The Man Who Went Too Far”.

Further “Mapp and Lucia” books have been written by Tom Holt, Guy Fraser-Sampson, and Ian Shepherd.

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About the Narrator

Frank Key

Frank Key is a British writer, blogger and broadcaster best known for his self-published short-story collections and his long-running radio series Hooting Yard on the Air, which has been broadcast weekly on Resonance FM since April 2004. Key co-founded the Malice Aforethought Press with Max Décharné and published the fiction of Ellis Sharp.

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