Tales of Horror and the Supernatural Essay - Critical Essays

Analysis

Along with near-contemporaries and contemporaries such as M. R. James, Algernon Blackwood, and William Hope Hodgson, Machen carried forward the tradition of supernatural fiction as developed by J. S. Le Fanu. In the opinion of many, he had written his best work, particularly in the realm of the supernatural, by about 1900, although his later essays and volumes of autobiography have been praised and continue to be reprinted.

The ideal collection of Machen’s works would include not only most of the selections in Tales of Horror and the Supernatural but also the complete text of The Three Impostors and the novel The Hill of Dreams (1907). This study of a sensitive, misunderstood writer is marginally supernatural in content and develops the same themes as Machen’s other fiction; it remains his most familiar mainstream work.

Machen was well known in his time as, variously, an actor, a supernatural writer, a journalist, and an engaging personality. Early in his career he was identified with The Yellow Book, a magazine held to be in the forefront of sexual and aesthetic expression. Such an identification is ironic. Machen’s work never appeared in The Yellow Book, although he was associated with its publisher and some of its contributors. His work, with considerable justification, has been analyzed as embodying a revulsion toward unconventional sexuality.

Thanks to his admirers, Machen was rediscovered, especially in the United States, in the 1920’s. He has served as an inspiration for such supernatural writers as H. P. Lovecraft, Peter Straub, Clive Barker, and T. E. D. Klein, whose novel The Ceremonies (1984) is derived in part from “The White People.” In addition, at least one important composer, Englishman John Ireland, has acknowledged Machen’s influence. His works The Scarlet Ceremonies (1912-1913, based on “The White People”), The Forgotten Rite (1913), Mai-Dun (1920-1921), and Legend (1933, dedicated to Machen himself) are musical embodiments of Machen’s vision.