Arthur Machen

by Arthur Llewellyn Jones

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Analysis

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Almost all of Arthur Machen’s works—fiction and nonfiction alike—are touched by his sense of the marvelous, his belief that another, more meaningful world lies behind the facade of routine, everyday sense experience. Sometimes this other world is one of horror—as in the nightmarish events described in “The White People”—and sometimes it is a world of wonder and joy. As a character in his story “The Red Hand” puts it, “There are sacraments of evil as well as of good about us, and we live and move to my belief in an unknown world, a place where there are caves and shadows and dwellers in twilights.”

In many cases Machen’s protagonists use drugs or other medical means to pierce the veil of so-called reality. A theory that Machen dramatized in many of his works—that the folklore of elves and fairies has its origin in the survival of a primitive dwarf race driven underground by the invading Celts—represents an extension of this belief. His interests and subject matter place Machen outside the realistic tradition of British fiction but mark him as an important and highly influential figure in the development of modern fantasy.

Machen’s writings defy easy classification. His best fictional writings inhabit a middle ground between the short story and the novel; his works in the former category are often developed with the indirection and leisurely pace readers associate with the latter. One important volume, The Three Impostors, incorporates several stories into a larger and more complex framework. In addition, many of Machen’s apparently fictional works have the expository tone of nonfiction, and a number of the shorter pieces he wrote toward the end of his career can be read as either stories or essays.

The Great God Pan

Although critics have pointed out its crudity, this early novella is the work most modern readers associate with Machen’s name. It introduced many of its author’s themes and methods, and despite its wayward approach and its reliance on the most outlandish coincidences, it remains a gripping if disquieting reading experience. The story is told from several points of view but deals essentially with an unorthodox brain operation that will allow a young woman to “see” the Great God Pan. Although Pan is ostensibly the Greek god of pastures and flocks, in this case he represents the hideous reality that lies behind our day-to-day world. The patient—Mary Vaughan—ultimately dies, but not before giving birth to a daughter. It is this daughter who, years later, is the cause of a series of suicides in London society. It turns out that she is the daughter of Mary Vaughan and Pan and, when confronted, commits suicide herself and regresses through a series of devolutionary steps to a kind of primeval slime.

The Three Impostors

Machen’s 1895 collection works several stories into a larger framework that defies logical summary but that clearly conveys his belief in a reality underlying the everyday. The stories involve or are told to one or the other of two friends, Dyson and Phillipps, the former a romantic dreamer and unpublished writer and the latter a pragmatic scientist, the two having met in a London tobacco shop. Aside from the work’s obvious horror, it is also surprisingly humorous.

In “Adventure of the Gold Tiberius” Dyson recovers an extraordinarily rare coin after observing a violent pursuit. A young woman tells Phillipps the “Novel of the Black Seal,” in which famous scientist Dr. Gregg pursues the “little people,” much to his subsequent regret. In “Novel of the Iron Maid,” an acquaintance describes to Dyson how a third party is beset by his own instrument...

(This entire section contains 1233 words.)

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of torture. “Novel of the White Powder” is related to Dyson by a young woman (who seems somehow familiar to the reader) and concerns a medical prescription that has unluckily degenerated into a potion that witches once took at their Sabbaths. Through all these strange adventures passes an enigmatic figure, a “young man with spectacles,” who is somehow the key to the entire series of events.

The Everyman edition of this intriguing work (Rutland, Vt.: Tuttle, 1995) contains an introduction by critic David Trotter as well as other valuable supplementary material. Two of the embedded stories, “Novel of the Black Seal” and “Novel of the White Powder,” are regarded as classics of fantasy and are often reprinted individually under shortened titles.

“The White People”

Originally published in 1899, “The White People” is regarded not only as a high point in Machen’s writing career but also as one of the best supernatural stories ever written. The heart of the story, “The Green Book,” is framed by a discussion between two characters about the nature of evil. One of the two, Ambrose, announces a central belief of Machen’s, that “Sorcery and sanctity are the only realities. Each is an ecstasy, a withdrawal from the common life.”

“The Green Book” itself is the diary of a young girl and recounts in naïve, largely unpunctuated fashion the girl’s “ecstasy,” her initiation into Satanism by her nurse. Machen incorporated both authentic and imaginary folklore into the girl’s account and wrote it in a run-on “stream-of-consciousness” style that would later be identified with novelist James Joyce. Looking far beyond the logical (and thus inadequate) utterances of Ambrose and his friend, this fragment illustrates literature’s ability to create a viable world outside the confines of realism.

“The Bowmen”

“The Bowmen” became Machen’s most famous story during World War I. It originally appeared in the London newspaper The Evening News for September 29, 1914, and professed—in an age-old fictional ploy—to be a true account of extraordinary events. During the recent Battle of Mons, Machen said, an inadvertent reference to St. George had resulted in the appearance of phantom bowmen in shining armor who had attacked the Germans. The implication was that the British patron saint of soldiers had summoned the archers from the Battle of Agincourt (1415), where they had saved the day for the British, to fight once again for their descendants. Almost immediately, “witnesses” stepped forward to testify to the reality of these and similar events. Although Machen made it clear after the fact that his brief tale was fiction, he was inspired to write further works on the same theme. These were collected as The Angel of Mons, The Bowmen, and Other Legends of the War. The material of these stories subsequently became part of the folklore of Britain’s wartime experience.

“N”

“N” is Machen’s most important later story, a leisurely and elegiacal variation on one of his favorite themes. It originally appeared in The Cosy Room, and Other Stories, a collection of what were otherwise reprints. The story is set in the London suburb of Stoke Newington and concerns a small group of friends who discover through their idle talk that an interpenetration of two worlds has taken place. This phenomenon results in stories of an unusually pleasant if confoundingly elusive garden somewhere in the area. Machen even coined a term, “perichoresis,” to describe the phenomenon. “N” has been criticized as somewhat diffuse, but it is hard to imagine that a more tightly developed story could have conveyed the fragile wonder that Machen produces in this work. Another of Machen’s works, his novel The Green Round (1933), develops some of the same material, although not so memorably.

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Machen, Arthur