Stories that inspired M.R. James

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Episode 73 – Out of the sea by A.C. Benson

December 12, 2019 | Episodes | Comments (8)

A.C. BensonThis episode Mike and Will indulge in murder, moralising and supernatural goat-based mayhem in A.C. Benson’s ‘Out of the Sea’.

Big thanks to our reader for this episode Debbie Wedge, and don’t forget to check out her M.R. James-themed t-shirt designs, ‘No diggin’ ere‘ and ‘Barchestering‘!


  • A.C. Benson (Wikipedia)
    A.C. Benson was one of MRJ’s closest friends throughout his life. They attended prep school, Eton and King’s College together, worked together in later life and remained regular correspondents right up until Benson’s death in 1925.
  • ‘Out of the sea’ (full story – Project Gutenberg)
    You can read this story online, or download as a free ebook at Project Gutenberg. The story features in Benson’s 1904 collection ‘The Isles of Sunset’.
  • Wreckers (wikipedia)
    In this episode we speculated that Mister Grimston might have been involved in ‘Wrecking’, the act of luring passing ships into dangerous waters to sink them so their cargo could be stolen.
  • A.C. Benson and Cambridge (Ged Martin)
    An extended essay about A.C. Benson that touches on his whole life at Cambridge, as well as his relationship with his father and his mental health.
  • Why is the Devil also a goat? (
    This article explores why goats became associated with evil in both religious symbolism and popular culture.

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  1. A Rat in the Wall says:

    If I were to imagine visuals for this story, they’d all look like John Atkinson Grimshaw paintings. Look them up, you’ll see what I mean!

    Arthur Benson isn’t, I don’t think, as formidable a writer as James but he has his moments and this is definitely one of his better stories. He can be a little fusty and formal in his writing but the atmosphere certainly does break through. There’s some stand out spooks in this story:
    -the thing dancing around the room near the end, unable to contain its malevolent joy, made me think of this horrible thing shaking with barely held back laughter about the violence it’s about to commit
    -the line about a spirit calling its fellows into an empty house spooked me too, and the full biblical quote Will pulled up about foul spirits roaming about arid wilderness is very creepy and animalistic

    Now, I actually think there’s something else going on here. First of all, there’s the money, which is said ‘to have been violently come by’. I know Mike said he didn’t like this line, but I do, I think it perhaps implies something more, perhaps that they were smugglers or pirates. Then there’s the line about the goat thing seeking something but not finding it. Something’s up and I think this is it:

    The ship was a foreign smugglers’ ship that got wrecked, carrying illicit goods and money. Maybe the money itself harbours a curse, as the goat seems to hang around it a lot (on the beach and the store room). Grimston and Henry bury the surviving smuggler alive. The goat thing, once trailing onto the smugglers, now latches onto the murderous Grimston duo and the stolen money. It was never after the family, they’re just unfortunate collateral. It’s still out there, looking for the person that originally called it up with their misdeeds, or perhaps, looking for the cursed treasure the dead sailor had, which is now being passed around the town. There’s a sequel to this, I’d bet.

    I can imagine a different of this story where the sailor survives and is brought into the Grimston house, bringing the goatish thing with him before confessing what he is and receiving justice in the form of hoof-stomping.

    And to end this essay, I’d like to say I totally agree that too strong a religious element can harm the threat of a ghost story, much like how a lot of paranormal detective stories really defang their spooks with too much occult technical talk.

  2. Eddie says:

    A nice surprise on my podcast latest-list lads and enjoyed it as always. Downloaded the eBook from show notes as was curious about Benson’s style (not read him before) and found it surprisingly satisfying ; didn’t find the religious theme distracting. Will – re creepy goats, you’d surely agree that Black Phillip from the film “The VVitch” deserves a shout-out! Also looking forward to the Gatiss adaptation. Have a Merry Christmas!

    (PS – the link to your merch store on this episode’s page needs fixing – opens incorrect url https://www./mrjamespodcast)

  3. RK says:

    Thanks for another great podcast. I also found this story a bit too didactic and had some difficulty with the somewhat stilted prose, which seems intended to echo the rhythms of the King James Bible. I believe some of Benson’s contemporaries, like Lord Dunsany and William Hope Hodgson, used a similar style. I imagine it’s meant to give the stories the quality of a myth or fable (or parable in Benson’s case), but I find it rather affected.

    Those complaints aside, I absolutely loved this story. I found the goat to be marvelously creepy and menacing. The scene in which the Father watches it raise itself from its recumbent pose by the fire and dance around the room is unforgettable. Although it lacked the sinister playful quality you point out in the goat, I was reminded a bit of the monkey from Le Fanu’s Green Tea, which was similarly haunting and malevolent. And although the story had the quality of a morality tale and the characters were broadly drawn, there was some real psychological tension. I love the scene in which the Father is staring across the table at Grimston, aware of crime but unable to accuse him. And I felt a real sense of threat throughout that was only partially alleviated by the moralizing ending. Many thanks for introducing me to this gem.

  4. MarkB says:

    The goat-demon featured in the Templar story with Bahomet.

    And don’t forget Pan, with his hooves and horns. And this painting by Goya:

  5. MarkB says:

    I thought I posted here already – hmmmm….. Regarding the goat/demon origin: I’d look to Pan, and to Baphomet.

  6. SRebInNH says:

    Loved this one! I was looking around for more information just on the basic idea of a sea-goat — what qualities such a hybrid would be imagined to have, or what role it would play. Mostly found “Capricorn” pages from astrology site. One mentioned an ancient Near Eastern idea about how the Sun travels under the ocean like a fish all night, then leaps and climbs into the sky like a goat in the morning! And now I’m falling down a Wiki hole of hybrid creatures in folklore…

  7. ABM says:

    Just found this podcast and it took me a bit to catch up but I love it! Just wanted to comment on the fact that I think the addition of a “God “ influence in some horror stories can be a very useful device as, by creating a balance to Good vs Evil, you can either decrease or enhance the power of the individual characters. Also, if you look at the stories By One, By Two and By Three or The Story of the Moor Road for example, where characters were saved from certain death by slightly ludicrous coincidences in timing, “three holy words” might not seem so bad. Can’t wait for the next podcast guys!

  8. David Malcolm Sommer says:

    It’s unfortunate that AC Benson’s aim was not to produce ghost stories but moralistic “edutainment.” Some of it does contain great imagery — there’s a gripping account of a damned soul’s descent into Hell that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Clive Barker novel — but as tales to be read from beginning to end, they are difficult at best. I wish he would have used his considerable talents to write more James-style macabre fiction instead.

    I do like this story, mostly because of the goat and the shockingly nightmarish murder of the shipwrecked sailor. My favorite of AC Benson’s, though, is The Closed Window, partly because it’s just a great story (and nicely short compared with his other tomes) and partly because it falls into one of my favorite categories of fiction: rooms with portals to some mysterious hell-place or other dimension. (See also MR James’s Number 13 and HP Lovecraft’s The Music of Erich Zann, etc.)

    One of the rules of this “mysterious hell-portal” subgenre seems to be that travelers through the portal are forbidden from bringing back reports from the other side — either their accounts are inexplicable, or they are struck mad, killed outright, or simply taken away into the unknown. Knowledge of the Other Place, these authors seem to say, will be forever out of mankind’s reach.

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