THE DUST CLOUD (1912) – Halloween Month continues here at Balladeer’s Blog with a look at this tale written by British author E.F. Benson. The story deals with a ghostly automobile and for me the 1912 setting and several macabre touches give it a certain charm that makes it irresistible.
Our unnamed narrator is a well-to-do Brit visiting with his much wealthier friend Harry Combe-Martin near Suffolk. The pair are the stereotypical Gearheads of Old, passionate about driving and discussing every type of automobile model that comes along. Given the time period their goggles and long coats when driving are a given.
After-dinner conversation about the finer points of assorted automobiles turns to Harry’s late friend Guy Elphinstone, another car enthusiast. Elphinstone was a singularly unpleasant man and often spitefully drove over chickens and rabbits who got in his way as he flew along the roadways.
One day a few months earlier, Guy Elphinstone’s impatience caused an accident in which he ran over and killed a little girl and crashed into his own manor’s closed park gates, thus killing himself, too. His car – a twenty-five horsepower Amedee Bollee – was totaled in the wreck.
Okay, so most readers can already guess where the story is going, but the execution (as it were) is the main thing, and Benson was very skilled. He made this tale about a phantom auto and its ghostly victim a master class in atmosphere.
First off, the narrator provides an eerie description of the way that a cemetery in the area was so close to the ever-eroding seacliffs that only part of that graveyard is still there, the rest having slid into the sea over the centuries. Human bones and fragments of coffins jut out from the cliff’s edge here and there along with stone crucifixes that look like they’re marking vertical burial plots because of their angle.
One night not long after the fatal accident which killed Guy and the little girl a local saw a ghostly motor-car speeding along the same roadway, making no sound whatsoever and ultimately vanishing as it seemed to hit the aforementioned park-gate at the lodge. Soon, in the same area, another local reported hearing a loud car engine and a child’s scream but nothing could be seen.
The lodge-keeper, kept on by Elphinstone’s surviving family, quits his position after weeks of nightly visits from a spectral auto which blares its horn outside until he gets dressed and goes out to look for it. The lodge-keeper’s wife kept hearing a child’s screams late at night, too, and would rush to check on her own kids. Those children often reported a silent little girl at sundown who would neither talk nor play with them.
Showing rare common sense for a character in a horror story, our narrator refuses to go anywhere near the vicinity of the accident, but fate has other plans. While out on a pleasure drive with Harry and Harry’s cousin Mrs Morrison (no first name given), Harry’s car gets a flat tire. Then after that is repaired, another one. Then ignition problems.
Eventually night falls and a helpful garage owner gets our trio of characters back on the road with repairs completed. The return journey to the Combe-Martin’s residence takes the travelers directly past Bircham, the late Elphinstone’s now-abandoned lodge.
Headlights and a cloud of dust indicate another vehicle suddenly roaring along with the three motorists. Does the entire trio survive what comes next? Do events at least answer their earlier speculation about whether Guy Elphinstone hit the child deliberately?
I won’t give any spoilers, I’ll just mention again that The Dust Cloud is well written and is short enough for a quick Halloween season read. The time period also provides the usual fun details, like the way pedestrians were called “perambulators” back then. Or the way police traps (aka speed traps) were already a common reference.
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18 responses to “THE DUST CLOUD (1912)”
I have to say, seeing the image: today the historic 1000Miglia starts from my city 😊
Wow! What a coincidence!
very old and very beautiful cars participate 😉
It sounds like quite an event!
That does sound an atmospheric read!! I read The Bus Conductor by the same author after I found out it was the inspiration for one of the stories in Dead of Night (a great little horror movie from the 40s) and can see I am going to have to track this one down too!
Thanks! I hope you enjoy it. I need to track down the Bus Conductor, since I’ve never read it! Thanks for recommending it!
You are most welcome 🙂
As ghost stories go this wasn’t too bad.
Those old goggles were so stupid.
I like the type of ghost story this old.
I like ghost stories like this!