Tuesday Terror! The Man Who Went Too Far by EF Benson

If you go down to the woods today…

Having been cooped up inside for so long, the porpy and I thought it would be nice to go for a little walk in the woods. This week’s story comes from Weird Woods, edited by John Miller, a new anthology in the British Library’s Tales of the Weird series…

The Man Who Went Too Far
by EF Benson

EF Benson

The little village of St. Faith’s nestles in a hollow of wooded hill up on the north bank of the river Fawn in the country of Hampshire, huddling close round its grey Norman church as if for spiritual protection against the fays and fairies, the trolls and “little people,” who might be supposed still to linger in the vast empty spaces of the New Forest, and to come after dusk and do their doubtful businesses.

At the end of the village is a little house, where an artist, Frank, has come to live in isolation, communing with nature. Today, however, he is awaiting the arrival of an old friend, Darcy, whom he has not seen for several years. But when Darcy sees him, he is astonished at his appearance…

“Frank!” he exclaimed.
“Yes, that is my name,” he said, laughing; “what is the matter?”
Darcy took his hand.
“What have you done to yourself?” he asked. “You are a boy again.”

It’s not simply Frank’s physical appearance that has changed, though. He seems to have become all mystical, and has developed an uncanny intimacy with nature and all her offspring…

He paused on the margin of the stream and whistled softly. Next moment a moor-hen made its splashing flight across the river, and ran up the bank. Frank took it very gently in his hands and stroked its head, as the creature lay against his shirt.
“And is the house among the reeds still secure?” he half-crooned to it. “And is the missus quite well, and are the neighbours flourishing? There, dear, home with you,” and he flung it into the air.

Later, they talk, and Frank explains that…

“…when I left London, abandoned my career, such as it was, I did so because I intended to devote my life to the cultivation of joy, and, by continuous and unsparing effort, to be happy.”

He had found humanity to be too Puritan, too downright dismal, to enable him to find joy among them.

“So I took one step backwards or forwards, as you may choose to put it, and went straight to Nature, to trees, birds, animals, to all those things which quite clearly pursue one aim only, which blindly follow the great native instinct to be happy without any care at all for morality, or human law or divine law.”

Darcy is a bit cynical about all this, but he looks at Frank’s youthful, joyous face and wonders. Frank continues…

“I looked at happy things, zealously avoided the sight of anything unhappy, and by degrees a little trickle of the happiness of this blissful world began to filter into me. The trickle grew more abundant, and now, my dear fellow, if I could for a moment divert from me into you one half of the torrent of joy that pours through me day and night, you would throw the world, art, everything aside, and just live, exist.”

Eventually, one day, as he lay in a deep state of contemplation of joyfulness, he heard the sound of music, from some flute-like instrument.

“It came from the reeds and from the sky and from the trees. It was everywhere, it was the sound of life. It was, my dear Darcy, as the Greeks would have said, it was Pan playing on his pipes, the voice of Nature. It was the life-melody, the world-melody.”

And now Frank hopes that soon he will be allowed into the presence of Pan and through him learn the true meaning of life.

“Then having gained that, ah, my dear Darcy, I shall preach such a gospel of joy, showing myself as the living proof of the truth, that Puritanism, the dismal religion of sour faces, shall vanish like a breath of smoke, and be dispersed and disappear in the sunlit air.”

* * * * *

Pan seems to be a mysterious god: sometimes, as Frank thinks, a kind of pagan offshoot of the Christian religion (as he also appears a few years later in The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame); sometimes a force of ancient Satanic evil, to be avoided at all costs (as he appears earlier in The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen). Since the prologue hints at the ending, it comes as little surprise to the reader to find which version of Pan appears here! It’s the ancient forces of paganism that carry this story out of straight horror into “weird” territory.

The beginning is full of gorgeously lush descriptions of the natural world – so lush I felt Benson was overdoing it until I realised he’s deliberately showing it as an enchanted, almost fairy-tale place. But the story gradually darkens, and we see that Frank’s anti-Puritanism stance barely conceals a hedonistic, narcissistic view of life. So there’s a feeling of this being a morality tale of a kind – a dark kind. It made me briefly feel quite pro-Puritan!

The story is a little longer than usual. It took me around forty minutes to read, I think, but it was time very well spent. Here’s a link if you’d like to read it, and I found this audio version of it too online. I’ve only listened to the first minute or so, but the narrator sounds good.

(The porpy will be fine just as soon as I coax him out of hiding…)

Fretful Porpentine rating:   😮 😮 

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

38 thoughts on “Tuesday Terror! The Man Who Went Too Far by EF Benson

  1. This really does sound interesting, FictionFan! A nice balance between commentary and telling a good story. And that mystical forest sounds so beautiful! Interesting, too, that you saw hints of the morality tale in it as well. I often think that some of those early horror stories had their focus on that aspect as well as on the horror aspect. I like that better than horror stories that just aim to scare (although I have read some of those that are quite good).

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    • Yes, I think there was a lot more of the good v. evil in older horror than there is in a lot of contemporary stuff, and also much more religion. All three Benson brothers seem to have been “preaching” in their stories, but EF does it very subtly, so that you don’t feel as if he’s hitting you over the head with it. I like a morality element in a story too – horror for its own sake alone rarely really satisfies me.

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  2. I can’t help thinking of The Wind in the Willows and the encounter with Pan there. Glad you are finding so many good stories to read! Though Porpy looks frightened peeking through the hole.

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    • Yes, I think the Pan in WotW became how I think of Pan, so I’m still always a bit discombobulated when he turns up as a Satanic figure in a lot of horror. Those goat hooves are a bit of a giveaway, though… 😉

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  3. As a neighbour to the New Forest, I can report that their small villages do indeed have a slightly weird, creepy feeling if you are there any time other than peak tourist season – so it sounds like a very effective setting for a story like this.

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    • I’m ashamed to say I’ve never visited the New Forest, though I can’t imagine why not! A strange omission that I should really put right some day. But in general I do find woods and forests spooky – all those fairy tales when I was young, I expect, and all that mysterious rustling that goes on in them… 😱

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  4. Poor Porpy. He looks pretty frightened to me! This sounds like a good story, but I’m going to have to come back and check it out later. Thanks for the links. Something a bit creepy about returning to one’s youth in appearance (though wouldn’t it be fun to try for a week or so?!?)

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    • I think the porpy’s got very cowardly over the summer months – I’ll need to toughen him up with some truly terrifying tales! 😉 Yes, I wouldn’t mind giving it a try, but I think I’d rather keep my older brain – don’t want to go back to all those raging hormones, thank you very much!

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  5. I remember references to Pan in the Wind in the Willows of course, but I think it is now cut from some versions. It does sound as though there could be an interesting contemplation within this story about the point to which a desire for peace and harmony becomes something much more evil and sinister. Thanks for posting the audiobook, I’ll have a listen.

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    • DO NOT get me started on them butchering The Wind in the Willows! Haha, long before you became a visitor, I reviewed a new edition of it that had omitted that chapter, and boy, was I furious! I clearly wasn’t alone either, since to this day that post still gets visited all the time and people link it to outraged Facebook groups, and so on. Grrr!! How dare they? Yes, I thought the change from seeking joy to becoming selfishly narcissistic was quite subtly done in this. Hope you enjoy the audio version – the guy sounds good, and has done lots of Benson’s stories, so I may well listen to some of them myself.

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    • Indeed! He did the change from seeking joy to becoming a selfish narcissist quite subtly, I thought. Haha, the porpy seems to have developed extreme cowardice over the summer months – I’ll need to find some really terrifying tales to toughen him up a bit…

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    • I’m loving their horror anthologies – in fact, I’ve reached a point where about half the books I read are from the BL! I find the little intros are great for helping to explain what’s weird and what Gothic, and so on. Makes reviewing so much easier… 😉

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  6. Hmm sounds a little like William Wordsworth gone wrong! The idea of hiding out in the woods always SEEMS like a good idea, but becoming a hermit almost never ends well. This sort of reminds me of Claire Fuller’s Book Our Endless Numbered Days. It always starts with good intentions…

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  7. I read the story and like you found the early descriptions so lush that they had to be a portent of danger in paradise. I did enjoy the nature descriptions but mostly found this a story of ideas for me – that harmony is about balance and not extremes (even of so called good things). An interesting read (but no frights for me), the author was very kind to the reader in leaving the protagonist with a smile on his face!

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    • Benson and his two brothers, who also wrote horror stories, always had a religious theme underlying them as far as I can see, and they’re quite often morality tales. AC Benson wrote some wonderful fable-like allegories which I enjoyed a lot. The other brother, RH, batters you more over the head with the religious messages, and that doesn’t work for me at all. This one was quite subtle, I thought – the way he changed it from glorifying the search for joy to something darker and more selfish…

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  8. It’s funny, whenever I imaging fantastical goings-on in the woods or forest, it never seems that it would be in our forests – I don’t know how different our forests are from British or other European ones, but a lifetime of reading fairy and folk tales and children’s fantasy such as Anthony Browne picture books, has left me with a real sense of magic in the forests ‘over there’.

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    • Interesting! Did you see that I’d been chatting about this with Karissa, from Canada? She also felt that it was British and European woods that are spooky. I have two theories – one, that most of the fairytales we know today were collected by the Grimms, and were therefore located in and around the Black Forest region of Germany; and two, that our early Christianity absorbed a lot of the old pagan traditions, so that our ancient churches still have pagan symbols on them, like the Green Man – a very wood-y deity. Paganism seems to be very connected with nature in general, and with trees and water. So we’ve probably just absorbed old legends and superstitions about ancient places, perhaps. You guys may well have absorbed superstitions and legends about places from the First Peoples of your countries?

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      • I thought that about when I wrote my comment above, as I don’t have an awareness of supernatural creatures from Māori mythology in our bush. I wonder if it has to be the stories we hear when we are young that plant these heightened sensibilities about settings such as forests. When I was young practically all my book stories were set outside NZ. It wasn’t really until authors like Margaret Mahy and Elsie Locke started writing stories based in an NZ setting that we had an NZ story land (and these weren’t folktales). For instance, there are patupaiarehe (kind of fairy folk) in Māori mythology, but I didn’t learn about them until adulthood, and I don’t sense any resonance of them in the bush (though it’s likely those who grew up with these tales do).

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        • I’ve just spent a bit of time trying to track down anthologies of NZ or Canadian horror stories, but with no result so far. Maybe it’s a British/American obsession, though I did read some French ones last year. I suppose we take for granted a written tradition – we were lucky that some folklorists collected the old oral stories before that tradition died out. If you come across any NZ collections, either of ghost stories or Maori folk tales, I’d be interested to try them. There’s an interesting looking one on Amazon called Purakau, which is apparently a collection of retelling of Maori myths by modern Maori writers – now on my wishlist!

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          • I’ll have a think and let you know. What comes to mind immediately are some round the campfire stories from the goldfields, but what stories there are, I think are fairly under-developed as literature. There’s been discussion about when NZ started to have its own literature rather than imported perspectives, and that’s relatively late.

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            • Yes, I think the strength of English-based English literature means it has dominated all the other English-speaking countries. As you know, I’ve struggled to find great Scottish literature, since so many Scottish writers chose to write in the English tradition. And still do! It’s sometimes hard to tell how much of any English-language literature is divorced from the English-based tradition – not much, even yet, I suspect. I’m grateful England has provided such a wonderful literary legacy, though, even if I am a bit jealous…

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