Sunday, 12 August 2012

The Face

Fiction ~ short story
Published in Hutchinson's Magazine, February 1924; collected in Spook Stories (1928)
5,510 words
(First read 12/08/2012) 

The Face differs from the vast bulk of EFB's spook stories in two respects.  Firstly, the protagonist is a woman and, scarcely credible though it may seem, she's a perfectly ordinary, normal, level-headed, even admirable young woman.  Secondly, the story is left very much hanging at the end: if you put your mind to it, you could sit and puzzle over the mystery for a good three quarters of an hour.
Hester Ward seemingly has everything: good looks, dosh, excellent health, adorable husband and kiddies.  The only nasty black speck in the cold cream of her existence is that she's been having the one recurring and terrifying premonitory nightmare since she was a child and not only are the occurrences growing more frequent, the dream itself is becoming more threatening.  In her dream she encounters a hideous face on a lonely stretch of coast she's never visited in real life.
All Saints, Dunwich, Suffolk*
Her doctor, seconded by her husband, tells her she's overwrought and needs a break.  So they send her off ... to a lonely stretch of the East coast she's never visited before.  The rest is (0bviously) guessable.  At the end Hester proves to have spunk as well as all her other qualities ... but alas! it's too late.  I can pretty much guarantee that the ending will have you scratching your head and going, "Eh? huh? what? but how? ... who? ... why?" etc.
So ... so the main reason The Face stands out from the crowd is for what it doesn't contain rather than what it does.  It features no middle-aged betweeded, whisky-and-soda-supping, picquet-playing gents in search of ghosties; nor does the mystery end up gift-wrapped in a neat little box with a pink bow ~ it ends, instead, in unfathomable oblivion.  But, as so often, it's at least twice as long as it needed to be, and the dénouement can be seen standing out on the horizon from the middle of page 2.
It's available online here.

* Benson may well have been thinking of this church when he wrote The Face.  The last bits of All Saints, Dunwich fell into the sea in 1919 or 1922, depending on who you ask.
For a 'pre-visit' to Dunwich see The Dust-cloud (1906).

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