Sometimes dreams do come true. Only sometimes it's better that they don't--especially when the dream is really more of a nightmare. Nightmares make for good fodder when it comes to creepy tales, and tales of the supernatural, however. E.F. Benson's "The Face". written in 1927 and collected in Twelve Tales of the Supernatural (edited by the late Michael Cox) is 'autumnally' creepy and very much on Daphne du Maurier terrain and even has similarities to Elizabeth Jane Howard's short story from two week's ago. It felt familiar in a way, though he gives his own spin to the waking-nightmare tale.
While the story is a perfect one to read in fall (imagine a sunshiny day, though brisk with crisp crunchy leaves underfoot), it takes place in the sultriness of summer. As a matter of fact, it is not only from bad dreams that Hester is trying to get away from, but from the heaviness and oppressiveness of the heat.
"Hester Ward, sitting by the open window on this hot afternoon in June, began seriously to argue with herself about the cloud of foreboding and depression which encompassed her all day, and very sensibly, she enumerated to herself the manifold causes for happiness in the fortunately circumstances of her life."
Why such ominous feelings have been overcoming her she is unsure since she has an adoring husband and adorable children. She is young and leads a comfortable life and is in want of nothing special. But she has been plagues with a recurring dream. The dream began in childhood. First a dream that isn't particularly threatening, but always the dream is followed on the next night by another which "contains the source and core of the horror." From this she would awake screaming. It's been ten years at least since she was visited by it, but just the previous night it once again invaded her sleep. On the surface the dream seems harmless.
"She seemed to be walking on a high sandy cliff covered with short down-grass; twenty yards to the left came the edge of the cliff, which sloped steeply down to the sea that lay at its foot. The path she followed led through fields bounded by low hedges, and mounted gradually upwards. She went through some half-dozen of these, climbing over the wooden stiles that gave communication; sheep grazed there, but she never saw another human being, and always it was dusk, as if evening was falling, and she had to hurry on, because someone (she knew not whom) was waiting for her, and had been waiting not a few minutes only, but for many years."
As her dream continues she comes upon a clearing and a derelict church that seems almost to be falling into the sea so close is it to the edge of the cliff. After a hiatus of so many years all of a sudden the dream begins recurring as if a warning, as if time all of a sudden is pressing on her--like an hourglass tipped over and the sand has nearly run out of the top.
More horrifying, her dream had always been only of the path and the sea and the cliffs and the church. But all was empty. It was a place inhabited by non one. Her dream was as if looking on to an empty scene. And then the dream comes again and with it, a face. Out of the haze of her dream--"a pale, oval light, the size of a man's face, dimly luminous in front of her and a few inches above the level of her eyes." The face is perfect on one side, but the other is deformed and seems to look at her with a sneer and lust. And she imagines him saying "I shall soon come for you now."
Dream and reality come together when at an exhibit of portraits painted by Vandyke she sees the face. Not in the crowd of people in attendance but hanging on the wall. A portrait of Sir Roger Wyburn looks back at her. The same face of her dreams. A portrait of a man who has been dead for more than two centuries. Now she has a name to put to the face. And the dreams seem to come even more frequently. So much so that her husband begins worrying and sends her to a doctor.
"To give way to this evermastering dread, would have been to allow nightmare to invade her waking life, and there, for sure, madness lay."
The doctor suggests time away--in the country away from the heavy heat of the summer which can be doing her and her restlessness no good at all. A complete change is needed and so to the coast with brisk sea air--coolness and complete idleness. Plenty of sleep and no nightmares and after a week alone her husband will find her a new woman. And it does work. The village lay on a lip stretch of land reclaimed from the sea. The nightmares cease and she begins to reclaim her health and vitality. And she even finds that she has a new energy to perhaps explore and see lies beyond this ridge . . .
But oh dear. The coast means the sea is near. And with the sea there are usually cliffs.
If you want to know what happens next . . . read for yourself! Honestly it is October and you should really treat yourself to at least one good, creepy story! And then come back and let me know what you think. I really liked this one a lot. Minimum creepiness from the man who created the Lucia stories!
I think I am going to return to this collection next weekend and give Shamus Frazer's story, "Florinda" a go. Your homework this week? Tell me about one good ghost story you have read--recently or even not so recently. Was it really scary, or just nicely creepy?