Retro Review: “The Hanging of Alfred Wadham” by E.F. Benson

Weird Tales August 1929
“The Hanging of Alfred Wadham” is a short story by E.F. Benson, which was first published in the December 1928 issue of the magazine Britannia and reprinted in the August 1929 issue of Weird Tales. The story may be found online here. This review will also be crossposted to Retro Science Fiction Reviews.

This story is another one which caught my eye via Hugh Rankin’s striking interior art under his Doak pseudonym (Doak was Rankin’s middle name). For some reason, Rankin did several drawings of hangings and executions under the Doak name, such as the interior art for “In a Dead Man’s Shoes”, which I reviewed recently. As before, Rankin also supplied to striking Art Deco cover art for this issue, illustrating the The Inn of Terror by Gaston LeRoux.

Hugh Rankin's interior art for "The Hanging of Alfred Wadham"

Though the standout story in this issue is not the cover story, but “The Shadow Kingdom” by Robert E. Howard, the story which introduced Kull of Atlantis as well as the Serpent Men to the world and is widely considered to be the first sword and sorcery story. I should probably do a Retro Review of that story eventually, especially since it’s also a very good story.

Many authors who published in the pulps are completely forgotten these days and we know little to nothing about them. I feared this might be the case with E.F. Benson, but on the contrary, Benson was actually a very well-known British writer from a family of well-known people. His father was the Archbishop of Canterbury, one of his brothers wrote the words to “Land of Hope and Glory”, another brother was also a writer as well as a priest and his sister was a writer and Egyptologist. To make matters even more impressive, E.F. Benson was a member of the Order of the British Empire. He was also gay and by necessity, given the time during which he lived, closeted.

E.F. BensonBenson’s most famous work is the Mapp and Lucia series, a series of satirical novels about upper class people in a small town and their petty rivalries. I have to admit that I have never heard of those books, even though they spawned several sequels by other authors, two TV-adaptations, including one as late as 2014, and a lobster dish.

In addition to satirical novels about upper class people being jerks, Benson also wrote a lot of ghost stories and this is what brought him to the attention of H.P. Lovecraft, who wrote admiringly about Benson’s work in “Supernatural Horror in Literature”, and finally to Weird Tales.

But enough about the man. Let’s talk about the story.

Warning! Spoilers beyond this point!

Compared to the other 1929 Weird Tales story featuring a hanging and interior art by Hugh Rankin, “The Hanging of Alfred Wadham” starts off slow with the unnamed first person narrator discussing a séance he attended with one Father Denys Hanbury. The medium conveyed some messages from a recently deceased friend of the narrator and the narrator is certain that the séance proves something, though whether it is communication with the dead or telepathy he is not sure. Father Denys, true to his profession, believes communication with the dead and impossible or demonic, though he is remarkably open-minded with regard to telepathy.

The narrator then explains that the medium talked about something that she could not have gotten from his mind, because the narrator did not know about it, but which was later confirmed by the dead friend’s diary. Father Denys, however, still believes that communication with the dead is dangerous and shares a story of his own.

Such “take within a tale” framing devices were very common in the nineteenth and early twentieth century and pop up quite often in Weird Tales. What is notable about this one is that it’s not only dull – we only ever get vague details about séance and what the medium said – but also written in a very stilted style. The (male) narrator also spends two paragraphs describing the beautiful hands of Father Denys. Even if I didn’t know by this point that E.F. Benson was gay, that paragraph pretty much confirms it.

Shudders, edited by Cynthia AsquithOnce Father Denys of the beautiful hands starts his story, I hoped things were finally about to get good. Alas, Father Denys, who is a Catholic priest by the way, starts rambling on about the sacrament of confession, why it is important and why a priest may never ever repeat anything he heard in confession, even if remaining silent will have terrible consequences.

Next, we get an description of the crime allegedly committed by the titular Alfred Wadham. Alfred Wadham was the manservant of a “man of loose life” named Gerald Selfe. That “loose life” was the fact that Selfe was having an affair with a married woman. Someone found out about the affair and started blackmailing Selfe. Selfe went to the police, who investigated the case and quickly zeroed in on Alfred Wadham as a suspect.

The police have set a trap for Wadham, when Selfe is found with his throat slit one morning. Wadham is gone, but stains of human blood are found in his room. The police quickly apprehend him. Wadham proclaims his innocence of the murder, though he does admit to the blackmailing. Wadham declares that he realised that Selfe and the police were on to him and therefore fled. Alas, the judge and jury don’t believe him and so Wadham is sentenced to death for murder.

Wadham is Catholic and so he meets Father Denys, who just happens to be the prison chaplain. True to his profession, Father Denys urges Wadham to confess to the murder and repent, but Wadham keeps insisting that he didn’t do it. Since Wadham confesses plenty of other sins and crimes, Father Denys starts to believe him.

Father Denys is troubled by this case – not because an innocent man is about to be executed, but because he is not sure whether he should grant Wadham absolution for his other sins, since Wadham flat out refuses to confess to the murder.

More Spook Stories by E.F. BensonNow it’s worth remembering that E.F. Benson’s father was an Anglican clergyman and Archbishop of Canterbury and that one of his brothers was an Anglican priest who converted to Catholicism, became a Catholic priest and wrote religious texts, so I probably shouldn’t be surprised to see a theological argument in a story written by someone from such a background. However, as I’ve repeatedly said, I’m not religious, I dislike too much religion in my fiction and theological arguments literally make my eyes glaze over. And in this particular case, I had even less patience for theological arguments, because Alfred Wadham is about to be hanged for a crime he probably didn’t commit, so who cares whether a priest absolves him from his sins or not? Never mind that granting absolution for sins is part of Father Denys’ job.

On the night before the execution of Wadham, an former acquaintance named Horace Kennion visits Father Denys. Father Denys wants nothing to do with Kennion, because Kennion is a wicked man – more wicked than usual, because Father Denys reminds us that all humans are wicked and that “the life of us all is a tissue of misdeeds”. Father Denys’ hands must be very beautiful indeed for the narrator to willingly hang out with such a killjoy.

However, Kennion is very insistent to speak to Father Denys, because he needs to make a confession right now and his usual priest is not available. So Father Denys reluctantly hears his confession. Surprise: Kennion is the one who killed Gerald Selfe over a quarrel about a game of cards (though there was no mention of cards or a card table in the earlier description of the crime scene). After stabbing Selfe, Kennion went up to Wadham’s room (Selfe had rung for Wadham earlier, but Wadham had already left, so Kennion knew the room would be empty) to wash off the blood – that’s how the blood stains came to be found in Wadham’s room.

Father Denys of course immediately entreats Kennion to go to the police and confess, so Wadham can be saved. However, Kennion has no intention of going to the police. And when Father Denys threatens that he will call the police, Kennion just grins and points out that he can’t, because his faith forbids it. And besides, who would believe a priest who violated to sacrament of confession?

Father Denys now demands why Kennion felt the need to confess his sins at all and why to him specifically. Once again Kennion grins and tells Father Denys that he was very hurt when Father Denys broke off all contact with Kennion. And so he decided to get revenge by putting Father Denys in a terrible situation where there are no good choices. “I daresay I’ve got Sadie tastes, too, and they are being wonderfully indulged,” Kennion says.

Now the vibes that I get from this exchange is that Father Denys and Kennion were lovers and that there may well have been some kink involved. But then Father Denys broke off the relationship and Kennion wants revenge. It’s also notable that Kennion calls Father Denys by his first name, something which was extremely uncommon among upper class British men in the early twentieth century. Even Kennion’s disdain for the doomed Alfred Wadham and his claim that Wadham has it coming for his other crimes – “Blackmail is a disgusting offence” – fits in with this, because gay men were often the target of blackmailers, back when gay relationships were still illegal. In fact, I wonder whether Kennion and his victim Gerald Selfe did not have a relationship, too. After all, it is explicitly stated that Kennion went up to Selfe’s room.

The Benson brothers

These are not actually the characters from this story, but E.F. Benson (on the right) and his brothers Arthur Christopher Benson (on the left, wrote the lyrics to “Land of Hope and Glory”) and Robert Hugh Benson (the priest).

I have to admit that though he is a murderer (double murderer to be exact) and generally horrible person, Horace Kennion is the most interesting character in this story. The narrator is a cypher, the victim Gerald Selfe is merely a prop required to get the story going and Alfred Wadham is more moral dilemma than character. As for Father Denys, he is an insufferably sanctimonious prick.

Case in point: Father Denys spends a few paragraphs detailing the terrible torment and suffering he experiences – a suffering that is not even “a needful and salutary experience to burn his sins away”, but empty torment. Meanwhile, the actual victim here is not the moping priest with a crisis of conscience, but Alfred Wadham who is about to be executed for a crime he did not commit.

Though at least Father Denys does take some action rather than just sit around feeling sorry for himself. First, he goes to see the Cardinal, who basically tells him that he cannot violate the seal of confession. Then he goes to see the Home Secretary and tells him that Wadham is innocent, because the real murderer just confessed to him.

The Home Secretary is sympathetic, but tells Father Denys that he cannot pardon Wadham without more evidence. He also tells Father Denys to put the fear of God into the real murder to get him to confess and also gives the priest his phone number, just in case.

However, Father Denys doesn’t need the phone number, because instead of putting the heat on Kennion, he goes straight to the prison, tells Wadham that he believes in his innocence and finally grants him absolution for all his other sins. Then we learn that Wadham went without flinching to his death. There is also a brief one sentence description of the trapdoor opening and the rope jumping and creaking. But otherwise, the hanging that Hugh Rankin drew so evocatively happens mostly off page.

This is rather disappointing, particularly compared to the visceral description of a hanging in Harold Markham’s story “In a Dead Man’s Shoes”, published a few months before in the April 1929 issue of Weird Tales. Of course, Markham was describing a public hanging in the eighteenth century rather than a prison hanging in the early twentieth century, but there are plenty of much more evocative descriptions of twentieth century prison hanging than the single sentence that Benson gives us.

But then, the story isn’t really about the hanging of Alfred Wadham at all, in spite of the title. It is about Father Denys and his moral dilemma. And now Father Denys finally comes to the point of his tale, namely why séances are bad and do not convey messages from the dead, but from some “evil and awful power impersonating them”.

After the execution, Father Denys goes home and Benson gives us more description of the weather than of the actual execution. However, mostly we get yet more musings from Father Denys. Even though he has just watched a man been hanged for a crime he did not commit, Father Denys feels serene and peaceful. After all, in Father Denys’ view, it doesn’t much matter that Alfred Wadham was hanged. After all, he had all his sins forgiven and still has his immortal soul and getting hanged for a crime he didn’t commit is just like martyrdom.

Meanwhile, Father Denys makes it clear that the most important thing to him is that he kept his precious vow and did not commit the worst crime a Catholic priest can commit. This was the moment where I went from, “What sanctimonious bore” to “What a fucking arsehole – I hope something awful happens to him.” Thankfully, something does.

Once he gets home, Father Denys lies down for a nap – after all, he has been up all night. He has a bad dream of Wadham screaming at him and begging him to save him. He wakes up to the sound of someone calling his name in Wadham’s voice. Yes, apparently Wadham has returned to haunt Father Denys and highly deserved it is, too. Honestly, Wadham, haunt the shit out of that jerk of a priest.

Father Denys now keeps hearing Wadham calling his name, he feels Wadham’s presence. he sees him on the street and once sees Wadham’s body swinging in the wind outside his window, which is the scene Hugh Rankin’s interior actually illustrates.

The haunting of Father Denys – which would be a much better title for this story, come to think of it – culminates when he sees Wadham – with the noose round his neck, face purple and eyes protruding – sitting in a pew at the front of the church, while Father Denys is preaching. However, Father Denys is still convinced that he made the right choice and concludes that the one sending the apparitions is the devil rather than one very pissed off ghost.

The story ends with the ghost of Alfred Wadham – or the devil pretending to be the ghost of Alfred Wadham – reappearing in front of the narrator’s and Father Denys’ eyes. We get some nice, if conventional description of a ghostly apparition such as the room growing chill and the lights turning dim and then we get a manifestation of Alfred Wadham’s hanged body, complete with swollen and purple face and lolling tongue. Alas, Father Denys wards off the evil spirit with his crucifix and appears radiant as he has never seen another human being before to the smitten narrator.

Finally, almost as an afterthought, almost as if Benson had forgotten that Father Denys couldn’t possibly tell this whole story to the narrator without breaking his vow, Father Denys reveals that Horace Kennion committed suicide that morning and that he left a full confession behind, which is why Father Denys is no longer bound by the seal of confession and can share his story with the narrator.

I have read a lot of stories from Weird Tales over the years, both for the Retro Reviews project or in general. But “The Hanging of Alfred Wadham” is definitely the worst Weird Tales story I have read to date.

This is a pity, because the seeds for a good story are all here. The scenario of a priest who hears about a crime during confession and struggles to find a way to expose the criminal or prevent the crime without violating the seal of confession is a well-worn one, but it can work, when done correctly. The fact that Alfred Wadham will be executed, if Father Denys can’t find a way to bring Kennion to justice adds a ticking clock to the proceedings. This scenario might have made for a neat thriller – and indeed there have been many thrillers with this exact premise. Alfred Hitchcock’s 1953 movie I Confess, which in turn is based on a French play from 1902, is probably the most famous example, but there are several others.

However, this isn’t the story that Benson told. Of course, the story of a priest haunted by the ghost of an executed man he could have saved by breaking the seal of confession, but didn’t, might have made for a compelling ghost story as well, but that’s not really the story Benson tells either. Or at least, he doesn’t tell it very well.

Instead, we get what appears to be a theological argument in the form of a short story. Which is probably my least favourite type of fiction, because as I said above, I’m not religious and theological debates make my eyes glaze over. Plus, I come from a majority Lutheran-Protestant area. And Lutherans, at least in Germany, have massive issues with the Catholic sacrament of confession, which they view as hypocrisy, because you can literally commit a murder and then be forgiven your sins, just because you confessed and said a few prayers. It all goes back to the sales of indulgences, which were one of the issues that caused Martin Luther to nail the ninety-five theses to the door of the Wittenberg castle church.

Of course, it’s quite possible that Benson intended “The Hanging of Alfred Wadham” as a critique of the Catholic sacrament of confession and its inherent issues. After all, Benson’s father was Archbishop of Canterbury and therefore Anglican, even though one brother converted to Catholicism. And Father Denys is not a likeable character. However, if criticising the issues inherent in the sacrament of confession was Benson’s intention, he doesn’t do it very well either.

Because “The Hanging of Alfred Wadham” also has massive craft issues. The framing device and the unnamed narrator are completely unnecessary – just let Father Denys narrate the story and maybe end with him seeing Alfred Wadham’s executed corpse in the church pew. It would certainly have made for a stronger story.

The murder mystery is also sloppily executed (pun fully intended), because it seems the police ignored crucial clues such as the fact that Selfe and Kennion had played cards and that there was a card table set up, which would suggest that Selfe had a visitor on the night he was killed. The blood stains found in Wadham’s room also don’t add up. For starters, they’re explicitly described as human blood stains, though I have no idea if 1920s forensic science could tell the difference between human and animal blood from a few traces. Also, there are any number of ways the blood could have gotten into Wadham’s room such as Wadham accidentally cutting himself while shaving. This may sound nitpicky, but by 1928/29, the so-called Golden Age of Mystery was in full swing, most mysteries were so-called fair play mysteries and plenty of predominantly British authors knew how to plant clues and red herrings. So there is really no excuse for Benson’s sloppiness. Read some Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers, will you.

The writing style is also stilted, ponderous and dull throughout. “The Hanging of Alfred Wadham” is short, only nine pages, but it feels much longer. Benson also has the tendency to overfocus on Father Denys’ internal conflict and underdescribe the murder, the execution and the supernatural events, i.e. the sort of thing Weird Tales readers were probably far more interested in than in a theological argument and a priest’s mental torment.

Furthermore, the story also feels very old-fashioned, more like something that might have appeared in the nineteenth century alongside a Sherlock Holmes or Edgar Allan Poe story than something that appeared alongside Robert E. Howard’s “The Shadow Kingdom”. Of course, Benson was not a young man, but already 61 when this story was published and so his style and sensibilities likely were more Victorian.

The one thing about this story that is interesting is the glimpse into closeted gay life in the early twentieth century. Because make no mistake, this is a very gay story. Father Denys, the narrator, murderer Horace Kennion and his victim Gerald Selfe are implied to be closeted gay man, while wrongful execution victim turned vengeful ghost Alfred Wadham was a blackmailer who blackmailed men about their indiscretions. And yes, Gerald Selfe’s sexual indiscretions are said to have been with a married woman, but I suspect Benson just added that tidbit to make the story more palatable in a world, where LGBTQ themes could only be hinted at.

The cover of this fairly recent edition of E.F. Benson’s collected ghost stories actually illustrates “The Hanging of Alfed Wadham”

Another thing that’s notable is that this is a fairly rare example of a pulp story that’s explicitly religious. Because contrary to what certain folks say, religion in general and Christianity in particular do not play a big role in pulp SFF and pulp fiction in general. Especially in pulp SFF, religion is either a scam or for aliens or it involves sacrificing nubile virgins to Cthulhu. Yes, there are exceptions such as Robert E. Howard’s Solomon Kane, but they are few and far between.

And come to think of it, Solomon Kane, Howard’s fanatical Puritan avenger and scourge of all that is evil, is a much more interesting and compelling portrait of an intensely religious person in moral distress, though in Kane’s case is moral dilemma is that he is a violent man who kills a lot of people, believing himself to be on a mission from God. Only that both Kane’s religious and moral  dilemma and his adventures are a lot more exciting and better written than “The Hanging of Alfred Wadham”. This is particularly interesting since three Solomon Kane stories, “Red Shadows”, “Skulls in the Stars” and “Rattle of Bones” had already been published by the time this story was published. So Weird Tales had already published much variations on the theme of “An intensely religious person is confronted by the supernatural and has their faith tested”.

In fact, if you come across explicitly religious SFF from the 1930s and 1940s, it usually hails from Britain and was published outside the pulp magazine ecosystem. C.S. Lewis is probably the best known example, though E.F. Benson also fits the bill. Now I make no secret of the fact that I intensely dislike C.S. Lewis’ fiction, but much as Lewis’ religious blathering annoys me, there is no doubt that Lewis could write. E.F. Benson, at least based on this example, couldn’t.

“The Hanging of Alfred Wadham” was my first exposure to E.F. Benson’s work, but based on this story, I certainly won’t go seeking out more of his work. In fact, I am baffled that Benson is famous enough to have a Wikipedia entry, plenty of reprints of his work and film and TV adaptations. Maybe his satirical small town tales are better or maybe this story is just a dud. It definitely is proof that even Weird Tales did publish duds on occasion, though they are still a lot more consistent than other pulp magazines.

If you want a Weird Tales story featuring an execution, read the much superior “In a Dead Man’s Shoes” by Harold Markham. If you want a story about an intensely religious person having their faith and personal morality tested by encounters with the supernatural, read Robert E. Howard’s Solomon Kane stories. If you want religious blathering but well written, read C.S. Lewis. If you want to read a great story from the August 1929 issue of Weird Tales, read “The Shadow Kingdom” by Robert E. Howard.

But don’t bother with “The Hanging of Alfred Wadham”, unless you are a fan of E.F. Benson’s or really like religious blathering and theological arguments in your fiction or are doing a study of early LGBTQ speculative fiction.

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4 Responses to Retro Review: “The Hanging of Alfred Wadham” by E.F. Benson

  1. Fraser says:

    Benson’s “The Room in the Tower” is creepy enough I bought a used collection of his supernatural shorts. They suffer from similar problems to this one, wordy, overlong descriptions that deaden the chills.
    I suspect his social satires are a lot better because the ghost stories that touch on that, like the phantom culture snob of “Thursday Evenings” are much better than Benson’s average. But if you never read him again, you aren’t missing much.

    • Cora says:

      Thanks for the comment. I suspect part of the problem with this story is that Father Denys is such an unpleasant character it’s simply hard to connect with him. But good to know that issues like the wordiness and stilted writing creep up all over his supernatural fiction. Also, it’s worth remembering that an author of Benson’s statue likely didn’t send his top tier stories to a 1 cent/word market like Weird Tales.

      I suspect his social satires might be better, too, especially since the best scene in the story is the confrontation between Father Denys and Horace Kennion, where the dialogue is actually good.

      That said, I find it fascinating that I’d never even heard of Benson in spite of studying English at university.

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  3. Steve Wright says:

    E.F. Benson did write some much better weird stories, including “The Room in the Tower”, as mentioned by Fraser, “Negotium Perambulans”, and “Caterpillars”.

    He is rather a loquacious and mannered writer, which makes his social satire in the “Mapp and Lucia” novels very effective – I haven’t seen the later TV adaptation, but the 1985 “Mapp and Lucia” series, with Geraldine McEwan as Lucia, Prunella Scales as Miss Mapp, and Nigel Hawthorne as Lucia’s friend Georgie, is a joy to behold. (And, yes, there is a whole load of gay subtext in there.)

    The Bensons were all firmly part of the High Church movement in the Church of England – the part which has basically Protestant theology but really likes the Catholic ritual. And yes, the High Church people do like to bang on about it, at length. (I’m much more of a Latitudinarian myself – what they call the Broad Church. And the Evangelicals are the Low Church. These are the main divisions of the Church of England, although the Church is divided against itself along many other fault lines besides. I often say, I don’t believe in organized religion, I’m in the Church of England. But I digress.) I know I’ve read “The Hanging of Alfred Wadham”, but I don’t remember much about it, and an excess of Anglo-Catholic maundering may well be why.

    Forensic science, at the time, was certainly up to identifying human blood (they would do things like measuring the size of blood corpuscles.) And, technically, it’s a bit of a libel on Catholicism to say that you can just say a few prayers and get absolved of your sins – the sacrament of confession has certainly been abused that way, but the official stance is that you have to say you’re sorry, and mean it, and demonstrate it with an appropriate act of contrition. If you’re confessing to a crime, this act of contrition should normally involve repeating the confession to the appropriate authorities, and the priest is entitled to withhold absolution until you’ve marched down to the police station and turned yourself in. This is the official position, as I understand it. How many priests live up to it, I wouldn’t know.

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