(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

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 entire section is 1233 words.)