I stumbled upon Robert Hugh Benson’s novel The Necromancers (1909) quite by accident when I went to Amazon to find George W.M. Reynolds’ The Necromancer and Benson’s novel came up in the title search. I instantly was intrigued by the novel, looked up Benson, and wondered how it was possible I had never heard of him. In case my reader hasn’t either, a short biography is in order to understand why The Necromancers is such an unusual Gothic novel.
Robert Hugh Benson (1871-1914) was born an Anglican. Even more than that, he became an Anglican priest. And then he decided to convert to Catholicism in 1903 and was ordained a Catholic priest in 1904. In fact, by the end of his life—he only lived to be forty-two—he was a monsignor. I don’t know enough details about Benson’s life to say whether he belongs to the High Church movement of the Victorian period that led to men like Cardinal Newman converting from Anglicanism to Catholicism, though I wouldn’t be surprised if Newman influenced him—in fact, Newman is referenced in The Necromancers.
But what is most remarkable about Benson is that despite being a Catholic priest, he was very interested in the supernatural in a rather eye-raising way. He wrote ghost and horror stories, a very popular dystopian novel, The Lord of the World (1907), about the coming of the Antichrist, and many other books, including The Necromancers, which takes on the matter of spiritualism.
I believe that most Gothic novels of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries tend to be subversive, promoting an agenda that goes against the conservative status quo, but then quickly returning to it at the end. The Necromancers follows this pattern, although it becomes even more conservative in the end than other works. The novel is also fascinating because, with only a few exceptions (Glenarvon and Dracula among them), most Gothic novels tend to deride Catholicism. Benson really makes Catholicism the champion of the novel to the point that other Christian denominations pale by comparison.
The Necromancers is set in a very modern, daylight England. The title references the Spiritualist movement, equating those who seek to speak to the dead at séance tables and the like with those who try to raise the dead—a sin that goes back to the Witch of Endor raising up the ghost of the Prophet Samuel in the Bible. While spiritualism claims to offer comfort to the grieving, Benson clearly does not buy this excuse for practicing it, as the novel illustrates.
The story opens with Laurie Baxter, a young man who has converted to Catholicism, but who recently lost the girl he loved, Amy Nugent, to death. Laurie lives with his mother, Mrs. Baxter, and a young woman who is her ward, Maggie. One day, Mrs. Stapleton calls on them because she is a type of clairvoyant who was attracted to their house because of the energy that resonates from it. She is invited in for tea, and her talk of spirits, including that she has conversations with the deceased Cardinal Newman, make Mrs. Baxter and Maggie think her full of foolishness, but Laurie’s grief causes him to seek her out.
Before long, Laurie has met the medium, Mr. Vincent, and is attending séances. For some time, he debates upon whether spiritualism is true. His behavior concerns a coworker who thinks spiritualism is all foolishness, but the coworker introduces him to Mr. Cathcart, another man like Laurie, who is a convert to Catholicism and who previously was also interested in spiritualism. Mr. Cathcart warns Laurie that a lot of spiritualism is fraud and foolishness, but not all of it is; some of it can put his soul in peril. Laurie refuses to listen, especially after he has seen the shape of Amy appear to him at a séance. After that event, however, he is also dramatically altered in his appearance, giving Maggie and Mr. Cathcart cause for concern.
Mr. Cathcart, concerned that an evil being is getting a hold over Laurie—Laurie seems “obsessed” but is not yet “possessed” Cathcart believes—warns Maggie that she must save him. What follows is one of the most dramatic and frightening Gothic moments I have ever read. On the night before Easter, Maggie stays up all night with Laurie. He is annoyed by her presence when she takes up praying. He refuses to pray, telling her it will do no good. He even says he cannot stand her praying and gets in her face, trying to frighten her, but she refuses to relent and let the evil being take possession of Laurie. As the night progresses, Maggie feels the presence of the evil in a long and harrowing scene. In the end, Maggie somehow manages through her prayer to free Laurie from the evil.
Benson’s viewpoint that Catholicism is the only true religion is held at bay until near the end of the novel. As Laurie explores spiritualism, Benson provides room for characters to express opposing viewpoints and provide a reasonable discussion of spiritualism and its possibilities. Benson tries not to thrust dogma down the reader’s throat. He also has his spiritualist advocates speak favorably of religion—any religion—except the Catholic Church as the one they do not like. One might see this as the typical prejudice against Catholics espoused in other Gothic novels, but instead, Benson’s point is that none of the other religions are true except for Catholicism, and therefore, it is the only one that the Spiritualists—and evil spirits—need fear.
While the Catholic Church teaches that it is a sin to try to communicate with the dead, at the end of the novel, Maggie confesses that she still doesn’t know what she believes. However, she saw a door open into another world and she did not like what she saw, so she is content not to look again but to have “common sense” and not to try to “find out things beyond us at the present.” In other words, Maggie is speaking out against searching for forbidden knowledge—the search that always leads to trouble in Gothic novels—usually it is in the form of searching for immortality or the philosopher’s stone, but it can also be in seeking contact with the dead—and ultimately, it goes back to the biblical fall of mankind in eating the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge.
I am not sure how to take the end of Benson’s novel, or rather, I should say I am not sure I like it. It is a very orthodox Catholic stance and one that leaves no room for argument or discussion. The argument and discussion is in the pages of the book, but at the end, Benson metaphorically shuts the door on it. If the supernatural world is as the Christian religion has always taught us, then certainly, we are better off not opening the door to things beyond human understanding or a human ability to control, but if the world is not quite how Christianity depicts it, is it true? More modern novels have made ghosts friendly and a source of comfort when they communicate with us, as in TV shows such as The Ghost Whisperer. But if the world is not the dualistic battle of good and evil, then what good is the Gothic novel which seeks to explore the evil part of that battle and in the end, reconfirm the good as the better choice? Despite these novels being fiction, they operate within a Christian framework that asserts there is a spiritual world of good and evil; without that Christian belief, the Gothic novel’s framework falls short, or does it just open it to new ways to explore spirituality and the supernatural?
I do not know the answers, even if Benson believed he did, but certainly, the Gothic novel wants to have it both ways: to give us a place to explore the question of the supernatural and good and evil, while in the end bringing us back to a safe place where we need fear the answers no more.
Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D., is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, the historical fantasy series, The Children of Arthur, and numerous historical novels set in Upper Michigan. Visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com and www.MarquetteFiction.com