Luca Fumagalli

Ghost stories enjoyed wide circulation in England in the late nineteenth century. At a time when positivism was trying to overthrow traditional religion, a craving for the supernatural spread, especially in high society circles, manifesting itself in séances and magical experiments. Literature, a faithful mirror of the times, could not remain impermeable to the new trend – as exemplified by the famous case of Arthur Conan Doyle – and it is thus that even in Catholic circles in the early years of the twentieth century those tales that had ghosts and sorcerers as protagonists abounded.

Mgr. R. H. Benson was among those who particularly appreciated horror stories. In Cambridge he was famous for entertaining the students of whom he was spiritual guide with gruesome stories. Like his brother Edward Frederic, also a writer, the monsignor also showed a great passion for spiritism (apparently he even tried to conduct some experiments in white magic). Between the two, however, there was a big difference: while Fred wanted to fully understand psychic phenomena related to it, Benson was predominantly interested in warning others about the dangers associated with this practice. For him it was not in fact mere nonsense, but a serious threat to the health of souls. This is perfectly demonstrated by the novel The Necromancers (1909), in which the young protagonist, a regular frequenter of séances, inevitably falls into the clutches of the devil.

A Mirror of Shalott (1905) is Benson’s most famous collection of ghost stories, the transcription of a series of supernatural phenomena that several priests had witnessed. The spiritual struggle of the various characters is an almost Manichean battle between the forces of Good and those of Evil. Moreover, the monsignor did not believe in modern diagnoses of a psychological nature. According to him, ghostly manifestations, like possessions, always had something to do with those forces which exist beyond the sensible world and which are dramatically real.

Dom Roger Hudleston, who wrote under the nom de plume of Roger Pater, was by contrast a more delicate prose writer. Many of the stories contained in Mystic Voices (1923) are descriptions of a past – that of criminal laws, anti-Catholic persecutions and martyrs – which suddenly bursts into the present. The events can be traced back to particular places or objects with which the characters of the stories interact, unleashing in their minds visions of frightened torturers and priests forced to celebrate Mass clandestinely. Other favorite themes of Pater are: the attempt of the souls in Purgatory to communicate with the living; possessions and witchcraft.

Shane Leslie’s Ghost Book (1955), which tells stories that are supposed to have really happened, was the last breath of the somewhat gullible attitude of many who converted to Catholicism at a young age. In the book Leslie reports the ghost tales he stumbled upon during his life: almost always they are second or third hand sources. Exceptionally, the author shows doubts about the veracity of certain transcribed facts, but the rule is their total acceptance, even of the most blatantly exaggerated ones. And Leslie, who was a friend of Benson, similarly did not fail to warn the reader of the pitfalls of spiritism, capable of unleashing evil entities.

The writers cited, although followers of a certain English tendency, nevertheless did not represent the entire Catholic intellectual world. G. K. Chesterton, for example, in The Incredulity of Father Brown (1926) revealed his skepticism towards what he considered to be nothing more than childish superstitions; others preferred the calmer shores of mysticism, but there were also those who, like the eccentric Reverend Montague Summers, threw themselves with frenzied passion into improbable archival research on vampires, werewolves and black magic.

Sources: R. GRIFFITHS, The Pen and the Cross, Continuum, London, 2010; J. PEARCE, Catholic Literary Giants, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2014; J. PEARCE, Literary Converts, Harper Collins, London, 2000.