Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s sandbox, from those who inspired him to those who were inspired in turn.
Today we’re looking at E.F. Benson’s “The Man Who Went Too Far,” first published in his 1912 collection, The Room in the Tower and Other Stories. Spoilers ahead.
“There will be a final revelation,” he said, “a complete and blinding stroke which will throw open to me, once and for all, the full knowledge, the full realisation and comprehension that I am one, just as you are, with life.”
The village of St. Faith nestles comfortably between wooded hills and the river Fawn. But it also huddles close around its Norman church, as if for protection from the fairies and trolls who may persist in the New Forest. It’s a perfect refuge from the hubbub of modern life. Yet the inhabitants of St. Faith’s don’t venture into forest or heathy upland after dark. Some whisper of a monstrous goat that “skips with hellish glee about the woods and shady places,” and the ghost of a beautiful young man who haunts the last house in the village, where he lived in quite recent times…
Former studio mates Frank Dalton and Darcy haven’t seen each other in the six years since Frank left London. Darcy has prospered as a portrait painter, but a bout of typhoid has put his career on hold, and he’s come to St. Faith’s to recuperate. Frank’s appearance stuns Darcy; though both are in their mid-thirties, Frank looks like a radiant youth of twenty! And what’s up with his rapt ecstasy as he listens to “his” nightingale and whistles over wild moorhens for a cuddle? Wait ’til after dinner, Darcy. Frank will explain.
The garden behind Frank’s house slopes down to a narrow footbridge, and the woods on the opposite bank of the Fawn. Between house and wilderness is a rose-and-wisteria-draped pergola where Frank spends much of his time, even sleeping nights in the hammock. Beneath the fragrant flowering roof, Frank reminds Darcy how they used to lament the decay of joy in the world. Frank’s come to believe that Puritanism, with its antipathy toward joy, is the plague that’s devastated England. He now cultivates joy, away from the distractions and sufferings of towns. No, Frank has gone “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.” Nor is this animal joy the mere sensual pursuit of food and mating. It took Frank months of sitting, Nature’s pupil as it were, patient and receptive and very alert, avoiding all sight of unhappiness, before “a little trickle of the happiness of this blissful world began to filter into” him. And now that trickle’s become a torrent. To exist is enough, and after death, to pass back into the trees and flowers.
Sensible as he is, Darcy catches Frank’s exhilaration—never mind that he’s probably mad.
Ah, and Frank’s gotten more than happiness. One day in a reedy clearing on the riverbank, he heard a flute playing a strange endless melody, indescribably beautiful, passing from climax to climax, never repeating itself. Finally he realized no human musician produced this music. It came from everywhere, the sound of life, the world-melody, Pan playing his pipes. Frank succumbed to terror and fled, stopping his ears. Later, as he emerged from panic, understanding came: “Nature, force, God, call it what you will, had drawn across [his] face a little gossamer web of essential life.” Humbly he returned to the reedy clearing, but paid the price for his fear. It was six months before he heard the pipes again. Now he hears them whenever his soul becomes receptive: never the same tune, always richer, more complete.
There will come a revelation, Frank concludes. A full realization that he is one with life. He will see Pan, which may mean either death or immortality here and now. If the latter, he’ll preach the gospel of joy, showing himself as proof. But Darcy catches the fear in Frank’s eyes when he speaks of seeing Pan.
As June progresses, they continue to discuss Frank’s philosophy. Darcy also sees it in action when they walk through St. Faith’s. A bent old woman greets Frank, calling him “just the sunshine itself” and drinking in his radiance. He kisses her tenderly. But when a child falls and yells with pain and fright, Frank runs away horrified, leaving Darcy to tend the child. Confronted about his callousness, Frank’s unrepentant. He can’t bear any harsh emotion that might delay his hour of revelation. His only business now can be joy.
Darcy spots the “radical unsoundness” of his friend’s theory. Nature isn’t just exultations of larks—isn’t it also red in tooth and claw, crammed full of predation top to bottom? What if this horror is Frank’s final revelation?
Frank, sober, admits the possibility. If seeing Pan means viewing the inconceivable extent of Nature’s suffering, so be it. Today he’s heard the pipes without pause, even seen an inhuman face peer through the bushes. He’s gone too far along this road, and can’t go back now. Whatever he sees, it will be God, that’s certain.
Revelation comes with a midnight storm. Darcy’s startled awake by thunder, roused to action by screams of despairing terror from outside, under the pergola. Frank’s voice sobs, “My God, oh my God; oh, Christ!” Only a mocking, bleating laugh answers.
Darcy and Frank’s manservant rush toward Frank’s hammock. An acrid smell fouls the air. Over Frank hovers a black shadow. It leaps up, skips hard-hoofed down the brick pergola path, then frolics into the shrubbery. Darcy finds Frank half-upright, eyes staring, “terror incarnate and repulsion and deathly anguish [having] ruled dreadful lines on his smooth cheeks and forehead.” When they carry him inside and lay him lifeless on the floor, his face has relaxed to that of a boy “tired with play but still smiling.”
But on his bare arms and chest are bruises like the marks of pointed hooves, as if some monstrous goat had leaped and stamped upon him.
What’s Cyclopean: Gorgeous language this week, from Frank floating “ripple-cradled” to the sun going down “in a glare of coppery thunder-rack.”
The Degenerate Dutch: On seeing how young Frank’s gotten, Darcy accuses him half-jesting of being a “woman of fashion.” Frank vehemently denies anything so shallow.
Mythos Making: “And if, as you think, the final revelation is coming to you, it will be the revelation of horror, suffering, death, pain in all its hideous forms.”
Libronomicon: Frank’s not much of a reader, but he orders his friend “a dreadful daily paper.”
Madness Takes Its Toll: Darcy tells Frank that he’s mad, “but I don’t see that it matters.”
When Lovecraft calls today’s author the “versatile E. F. Benson,” he’s spot on, in a way. Benson can certainly write anywhere along the spiritual spectrum of tea in a proper English garden on an idyllic summer’s afternoon through black despair on a blacker midwinter moor at midnight, with giant demonic slugs for horrific lagniappe; a “versatility” limited in geographical range and character types, sure, but rich within its self-delineated boundaries. Sticking with our theme of dangerous knowledge sought and (uh oh) acquired, we’ve sidestepped from the man who found out to the man who went too far; from Mark Ebor, renowned scientist and New Thought writer to Frank Dalton, promising painter turned reclusive performance artist, with Nature as his stage and himself as its sole ecstatic dervish of a player. Don’t have much in common, do they?
Well, actually, they both hope to look into the Face of God and find It good. No, GOOD, damn it! Ebor expects to find Ultimate Benevolence and Its Plan for Mankind. Frank expects to find Ultimate Joy and become its immortally gorgeous spokesperson. Instead they both get Ultimate Kicks in the Nuts. Ebor’s Scrolls tell a truth too terrible to pass on to the world he meant to enlighten, leaving him a hopeless soul-dead husk. As for Frank’s long-anticipated assignation with Pan, talk about blind dates from hell.
We have only to recall that most charming of Shub-Niggurath’s nicknames, the Black Goat with a Thousand Young, to know that no good can come from monstrous goats that skip about in the shadowy parts of the New Forest, especially when they do so with “hellish glee.” Real genius lies in Benson’s choice of verb and adverbial phrase: to skip with hellish glee! It’s a truly infernal malice that can co-opt to itself words rightly belonging to innocent, childlike pleasure. Infernal and the opposite of innocent: ancient and core-corrupt with it. Is there some Universal Law of Antithetical Pairings (Ironic Subtype) that requires that which is most repulsive and/or terrifying on the inside to be the most seductive on the outside?
This could explain much about the lure of forbidden knowledge. Forbid anything, and it automatically gets a triple coating of 24 karat gold followed by a dip in 72% dark chocolate made of cacao gathered in ancient Aztec groves tended by imported meerkats. Forbidding reminds me, the Puritans. Now, if anyone can beat Lovecraft’s artist Richard Pickman for ragging on the Puritans, it’s Benson’s artist Frank Dalton, and Frank has a lot less excuse than witch-descendant Pickman.
What’s more, Frank could have learned from the Puritans and all those other Christians who fretted through life before them. They had this notion called memento mori (remember, you must die), that whole skull-beneath-the-skin thing. Puritans were big on skulls. Not just on gravestones and mourning rings, but in portraits of the living. People, a good minister might have exhorted the congregation. Do but touch your faces! Grinning DEATH lurks within! Amen, just saying, and don’t forget tonight’s Ladies’ Sewing Circle and Youth Self-Flagellation League.
In Frank’s case, I’d prescribe less face-feeling and more looking under rocks. Had he lived now, all he’d have needed was a steady diet of Animal Planet. For, if he sins, it’s in the manner he acknowledges near story’s end. He travels too far on one road, ignoring the parallel paths. He allows himself to fall into monomania.
No Puritan himself, Benson does look askance at monomania, either in the full-blown form Frank exhibits or in a tendency to follow fads. His Lucia series of social comedies pokes deliciously pointed fun at people who jump from séances to Ouija boards to yoga to vegetarianism to Christian Science in search of Ultimate Truth. Or, as is more likely of Benson characters in this mode, of a Minimally Plausible Truth they can pass off as Ultimate among their envious acquaintances. Such persons are contemptible, if for no other reason than they’re usually such conversational bores. They—we all—should branch out and explore many paths, gaining a more moderate but wider and (ultimately) more useful wisdom.
Last word: Weird, seemingly-sourceless, endlessly changeful music will get you every time, especially pipe music, am I right? You have good Pans, like the one in Wind in the Willows. Baaad Pans, like here. Pied Pipers. The infinitely distant notes that inspire Erich Zann’s wild music. And, most primal, the pipers ’round the throne of Azathoth, endlessly piping. Piping. PIPING. It’s enough to make Pan skip hellishly on any number of preternaturally youthful enthusiasts, just to take off the edge.
Our last dalliance with Benson was relatively gentle: “How Fear Departed From the Long Gallery” made a fine antidote to stories of people acting stupid around ghosts. This week’s selection is almost gentle. It’s pastoral, it’s full of beautiful languid sentences about the glories of nature, it centers on an artist seeking enlightenment through pure joy. Music follows him, birds perch tamely on his hand. He’s practically a Disney princess.
It’s a pity his world belongs to an older sort of fairy tale.
Benson seems irritated with a particular sort of romantic here. In the modern day Frank would be a New Ager, all crystals and positive vibes and flowing skirts. Frank’s propensity for wandering hatless is, one suspects, the precise sartorial equivalent of the Pyramid Collection catalogue—his “old paintings” have apparently made him the sort who can afford to dress entirely out of that catalogue, given how he’s able to spend his time. If I could only quit my jobs and spend all day every day hiking, I would never get cramps or toddler colds. To pick two examples at random. Nice work if you can get it…
But enlightenment without suffering—as Darcy points out, that’s kinda an important aspect of nature missing from one’s worldview. Frank underlines this gap with his facile rejection of Christianity. That religion may fairly earn all manner of critique, but if you wanna fully experience physical existence, you probably do need to suffer. Sorry to disappoint our corporeal readers with bad news.
But is this really a Lovecraftian revelation? The idea that suffering is part of life is a pretty pedestrian observation. Then again, most of us experience suffering in finite quantity. Frank’s joy clearly transcends what most people encounter or understand; so too must his ultimate experience of suffering. Pan isn’t exactly a patron of moderation, in anything. To truly understand suffering as part of life, to become one with it, in a way that balances hearing the music of the spheres while sparrows light on your palm… yeah, that horror could get pretty cosmic.
This makes an interesting contrast to last week’s story, where unbearable and deadly revelation came in convenient tablet form. “The Man Who Found Out” is academic—undeniable knowledge written out in clear form, albeit left entirely to the reader’s imagination. “The Man Who Went Too Far” is visceral—Frank doesn’t learn his revelations, but lives them. The story too is visceral, full of flowing sentences and gorgeous detail. Take away the few paragraphs of bliss-breaking terror, and it could match the opening of “The Willows” for nature writing.
If the story has a flaw, it’s that the seams between the wonder and the horror feel a little jagged. The foreshadowing—Darcy’s pointed explanation of what we’re about to see, the framing description of St. Faith’s ghost stories—feels a bit forced. I’d have preferred more like the sequence where he flees a screaming child. Although that’s perfectly understandable (she says, having finally gotten the child to stop screaming and go to bed), it’s also Frank rejecting a type of suffering that’s not only ubiquitous but absolutely necessary for life to continue. More than a general awareness of the non-pastoral nature of nature, that one scene tells you all you need to know about Frank’s enlightenment.
Next week, Clark Ashton Smith’s “Ubbo-Sathla” is the source and the end, and you’ve probably figured out by now that you weren’t meant to know much more than that.
Ruthanna Emrys is the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, including Winter Tide and Deep Roots (available July 2018). Her neo-Lovecraftian stories “The Litany of Earth” and “Those Who Watch” are available on Tor.com, along with the distinctly non-Lovecraftian “Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land” and “The Deepest Rift.” Ruthanna can frequently be found online on Twitter and Dreamwidth, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.
Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story. “The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her young adult Mythos novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.