Arthur Machen Machen, Arthur - Essay

Arthur Llewellyn Jones


(Short Story Criticism)

Machen, Arthur 1863-1947

(Born Arthur Llewellyn Jones; also wrote under pseudonym of Leolinus Siluriensis) Welsh short story writer, novelist, essayist, autobiographer, translator, and journalist.

Machen is best known for his tales of bizarre occurrences and supernatual horror. In his short stories he explores the ways in which occult forces reveal the opposing elements of good and evil within human nature. Machen's characters were drawn from the occult and supernatural, such as demons and witches, malignant fairies, evil gods, and creatures speaking unintelligible languages.

Biographical Information

Machen was born the only son of a clergyman in Caerleon-on-Usk, Wales. He spent a lonely childhood exploring the somber grandeur of the countryside in Gwent, and his youthful fascination with the beauty of the countryside is reflected in his critically admired descriptions of natural phenomena. Machen studied in London to become a surgeon, but failed the examination; subsequently, he began a career in journalism. In 1894 his first collection of short stories, The Great God Pan and the Inmost Light, was published to modest critical and commercial attention. Machen never achieved financial security from his work and in order to supplement his income, became a member of Frank Benson's Shakespeare Repertory Company as an actor. Several years later, he returned to writing journalism and fiction full-time, publishing stories and short novels in many English periodicals. Machen died in 1947.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Machen's all-embracing theme was the transformation of the world of everyday reality into a world of magic and wonder. One of his first stories, "The Great God Pan" concerns a woman undergoing experimental brain surgery that enables her to see the god Pan. She later gives birth to a daughter and then dies in a state of hopeless idiocy. Her daughter, Helen Vaughan, grows up to be an evil, mysterious woman. Villiers, whose friend had been married to Helen and had committed suicide, learns her true nature, confronts her, and gives her a rope to kill herself. In the process of dying, Helen converts from sex to sex, beast to man, man to beast, and beast to hideous protoplasm—a process that indicates the reversion of evolution. To his extreme disappointment, Machen achieved his greatest literary success with "The Bowmen," a relatively trivial piece of fiction concerned with divine aid received by English soldiers at the battle of Mons, during World War I. The story was widely believed to be true, and Machen was compelled to publish a disclaimer stressing that he had invented it.

Critical Reception

Although Machen achieved little critical and popular success in his own day and eventually abandoned writing, he influenced other writers of the horror and fantasy genres, notably H. P. Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury, and Daphne du Maurier. Though Machen remains a minor author, he has become something of a cult figure among followers of the occult and supernatural horror.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Short Fiction

The Great God Pan and the Inmost Light 1894

The Three Imposters 1895

The House of Souls 1906

The Angels of Mons: The Bowmen and Other Legends of the War 1915

The Great Return (novella) 1915

The Terror (short novel) 1917

Ornaments in Jade (prose poems) 1924

The Children of the Pool and Other Stories 1936

The Cosy Room 1936

Other Major Works

The Anatomy of Tobacco [as Leolinus Siluriensis] (burlesque) 1884

The Chronicle of Clemendy (novel) 1888

Hieroglyphics (essay) 1902

The Hill of Dreams (autobiographical novel) 1907

Far Off Things (autobiography) 1922

The Secret Glory (novel) 1922

Things Near and Far (autobiography) 1923

Precious Balms (criticism) 1924

The Nation (essay date 1917)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Marvels to Measure," in The Nation, New York, Vol. CV, No. 2730, October 25, 1917, pp. 456-57.

[In the following excerpt, the reviewer outlines the plot of Machen's short novel The Terror.]

In a recent number of the Yale Review was an entertainingly irresponsible paper by Katharine Fullerton Gerould, with some such title as "British Novelists, Ltd." The performance was, in fact, in the best manner of the current British skit-writer, or literary skitterer. Its target was an alleged uniformity of style and substance in the work of the best-praised younger Britons of this period. Almost any one of them, complains Mrs. Gerould, might have written any novel by any other of them. Undeniably, there is strong family likeness: as witness three recent stories, The Wonder, by J. D. Beresford, The Coming, by J. C. Snaith, and The Terror, by Arthur Machen. The similarity begins with their titles; but every season has its mechanical fashions in titles. More remarkable are their points of resemblance in style and substance. In each instance we are confronted with a portent, some phenomenon beyond the range of ordinary human experience, by the use of a humdrum setting and a brisk and matter-of-fact style—a reporter's style. The method goes back, of course, to Defoe and the beginnings of the English novel: Mr. Wells has brought it to date. . . .

The Terror is .. . a fantasy of the Great War. Again the scene of our portent is laid in the rural byways of England, for the most part in a remote and sparsely peopled county of Wales. This, however, is merely the fore-scene, since we are to understand that much the same kind of thing is happening everywhere...

(The entire section is 719 words.)

J. W. Krutch (essay date 1922)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Tales of a Mystic," in The Nation, New York, Vol. CXV, No. 2984, September 13, 1922, pp. 258-59.

[Krutch is widely regarded as one of America's most respected literary and drama critics. Noteworthy among his works are The American Drama since 1918 (1939), in which he analyzes the most important plays of the 1920s and 1930s, and "Modernism" in Modern Drama (1953), in which he stresses the need for twentieth-century playwrights to infuse their works with traditional humanistic values. A conservative and idealistic thinker, he was a consistent proponent of human dignity and the preeminence of literary art. His literary criticism is characterized by such concerns: in The Modern Temper (1929), he argues that because scientific thought has denied human worth, tragedy had become obsolete, and in The Measure of Man (1954), he attacks modern culture for depriving humanity of the sense of individual responsibility necessary for making important decisions in an increasingly complex age. In the following review of The Terror and The House of Souls, he argues Machen's lack of popularity results from the hermetic quality of his fiction.]

Arthur Machen expressed once the opinion that Poe had been influenced by Baudelaire. From this one may judge that he has no great familiarity with the history of modern literature and hence he has perhaps never heard the remark which Henry James made apropos of Les Fleurs du Mal. The disappointment of the reader of that work, said James, was exactly the same as the disappointment which he would feel if, having been promised the Flowers of Good, he was presented with a lollipop; and whether or not Mr. Machen has ever heard of this remark it would interest him profoundly, for his own concern is exclusively with transcendental Sin and transcendental Virtue—not with particular sins or particular virtues which, as James realized, have a way of turning out to be disappointingly petty, but with Good and Evil themselves, considered as the only mystic realities. Not even the Unforgivable Sin of Hawthorne's lime-burner would satisfy Machen, I suspect, for that sin was pretty definitely an anti-social sin, and Machen has a mystic's contempt for any attempt to interpret evil in human or humanitarian terms; what he seeks is something like that dark blasphemy which for the medieval mind was embodied in the Black Mass. "I have no doubt," says one of his characters, "but that many of the very highest among the saints have never done a 'good action' (using the words in their ordinary sense). And, on the other hand, there have been those who have sounded the very depths of sin, who all their lives have never done an 'ill deed.' . . . We think that a man who does evil to us and to his neighbors must be very evil. So he is, from a social standpoint; but can't you realize that Evil in its essence is a lonely thing, a passion of the...

(The entire section is 1214 words.)

R. Ellis Roberts (essay date 1922)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Arthur Machen," in The Bookman, London, Vol. LXII, No. 372, September, 1922, pp. 240-42.

[In the following essay, Roberts briefly compares Machen's short stories to those of Edgar Allan Poe.]

There are authors who are more to us than any individual book of theirs, just as there are authors who seem less than their masterpieces. Paradise Lost or Areopagitica mean something more magnificent to the mind than John Milton; but Charles Lamb is more than all his essays, and Johnson bigger than his own works or Boswell's biography. It is to the latter class that Mr. Machen belongs. Of living authors he alone, with Mr. Chesterton, furnishes the sensation...

(The entire section is 2079 words.)

A. Donald Douglas (essay date 1923)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Shining Pyramid, in The New Republic, Vol. XXXV, No. 453, August 8, 1923, p. 300.

[In the following review, Douglas offers a favorable assessment of The Shining Pyramid.]

Men ask for bread, and Mr. Arthur Machen gives them the Sangraal. We all do seek our meat from Shaw, and Mr. Machen asks that we feed on dreams. His heroines faint to the echo of elfin horns blown by the little people of the mist. His heroes wander in search of la belle dame sans merci on spectral meadows, or in the secret caverns of abominable gnomes.

If Mr. Machen has now come into his literary own it has been at an untold cost of loneliness and...

(The entire section is 1151 words.)

The New York Times Book Review (essay date 1924)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Mr. Machen Alchemizes in Print," in The New York Times Book Review, August 10, 1924, p. 11.

[In the following review, the commentator emphasizes the singular nature of Ornaments in Jade, contending that the reader "with a mind receptive and swept bare of all previously conceived notions of what a book should be, and how one ought to write, will find the subtleties and the refinements of Machen 's alchemy have a meaning. "]

It will be recalled that Arthur Machen is one of England's recent literary discoveries, although the bulk of Mr. Machend work was done during the last decade of the preceding century. And we say "discoveries" advisedly. It...

(The entire section is 1302 words.)

H. P. Lovecraft (essay date 1927)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Supernatural Horror in Literature," in Dagon and Other Macabre Tales, edited by August Derleth, Arkham House Publishers, Inc., 1965, pp. 365-436.

[Lovecraft is considered one of the foremost modern authors of supernatural horror fiction. Strongly influenced by Edgar Allan Poe, Lord Dunsany, and early science fiction writers, he developed a type of horror tale that combined occult motifs, modern science, and the regional folklore of his native New England to produce the personal mythology on which he based much of his work. As is evident from his own fiction, Lovecraft was well versed in the history of Gothic writing, and his Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927) is one of...

(The entire section is 2851 words.)

John Dixon Carr (essay date 1948)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Tales of Horror and the Supernatural, in The New York Times Book Review, August 1, 1948, p. 10.

[Highly regarded for his mystery novels, Carr was an American editor, biographer, and short story writer. In the following essay, he offers a positive assessment of the short stories collected in Tales of Horror and the Supernatural.]

Machen died last December. For most of his long lifetime (he was over 80) his work had been neglected or forgotten. Now honor has been done. His Tales of Horror and the Supernatural, admirably edited by Philip Van Doren Stern, contains the best of his short stories, from "The Novel of the Black Seal" to a brief novel...

(The entire section is 403 words.)

Philip Van Doren Stern (essay date 1948)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: An introduction to Tales of Horror and the Supernatural by Arthur Machen, Alfred A. Knopf, 1948, pp. vxvi.

[Stern is an American editor, historian, and author. In the following essay, he provides an overview of Machen's fiction.]

Most of the stories in this book [Tales of Horror and the Supernatural] were written forty or fifty years ago. Arthur Machen had a long career; he was born in 1863 and lived until December 15, 1947, but he did his best work while he was still fairly young. Carl Van Vechten and Vincent Starrett introduced his work to the American public in the twenties, and for a brief while he became an author whom it was fashionable to read....

(The entire section is 4202 words.)

William Francis Gekle (essay date 1949)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Machen's Magic," in Arthur Machen: Weaver of Fantasy, Round Table Press, 1949, pp. 128-43.

[In the essay below, Gekle examines the supernatural quality of Machen's fiction and places his work within a literary context.]

Of recent years there has been a tendency to regard the novel as something it has become rather than what it should be. Most novels that do not fall neatly into one of several categories created by the critics and reviewers are judged to be poor novels indeed. As a matter of fact, the whole of fiction, as well as of poetry, has come to be judged according to standards which, while they may be excellent standards when applied to journalism or...

(The entire section is 4267 words.)

Aidan Reynolds and William Charlton (essay date 1963)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Arthur Machen: A Short Account of His Life and Work, John Baker, 1963, 202 p.

[In the following excerpt, Reynolds and Charlton discuss thematic and stylistic aspects of Machen's short stories, maintaining that his fiction is "something not particularly profound, not even, at times, very skilfully executed, but of an imaginative sophistication which could be pressed no further."]

[A distinctive style and manner] make their appearance in the story that first brought [Machen] into the public eye. This was called "The Great God Pan" and it is certainly true that the scenes set in the author's native land are far the most convincing. It was not on this...

(The entire section is 7126 words.)

Wesley D. Sweetser (essay date 1965)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: An introduction to A Bibliography of Arthur Machen by Adrian Goldstone and Wesley Sweetser, University of Texas Press, 1965, pp. 9-14.

[Sweetser is an American educator and critic. In the essay below, he discusses the defining characteristics of Machen 's fiction.]

Of all the fields in which Man vies for immortality the literary field is perhaps the most competitive. Time, readers, and publishers determine the final answer as to who has survived and who has not. In Machen's case, it seems likely that since his major productions are of the '90's, enough time has elapsed to allow for a sound judgment. Hundreds of publications by him, about him, or mentioning him...

(The entire section is 2978 words.)

Berta Nash (essay date 1967)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Arthur Machen among the Arthurians," in Minor British Novelists, edited by Charles Alva Hoyt, Southern Illinois University Press, 1967, pp. 109-20.

[In the essay below, Nash analyzes Arthurian elements in Machen 's The Great Return and contends that the short novel also contains themes characteristic of Machen 's supernatural tales.]

Arthur Machen, in his own words "the descendant of a long line of Welsh priests," has been classed by a modern scholar with the twentieth-century Arthurians, Charles Williams, T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis and T. H. White. He was born at Caerleon-upon-Usk and was acquainted from his earliest years with Welsh landscape and...

(The entire section is 3984 words.)

T. E. D. Klein (essay date 1988)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Arthur Machen: The House of Souls" in Horror: 100 Best Books, edited by Stephen Jones and Kim Newman, Carroll & Graf, 1988, pp. 64-7.

[Klein is considered one of the leading American authors of supernatural fiction. In the following tribute to House of Souls, he assesses the influence of Machen's "The White People" on his own work.]

One of my longest-held ambitions—not a particularly lofty one, but the sort that all too easily gets put off, decade after decade, until one suddenly discovers it's too late—is to spend a year or so motoring around the British Isles, from Penzance to John o' Groats, stopping wherever I please. The back seat of...

(The entire section is 1251 words.)

Donald R. Burleson (essay date 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Arthur Machen's 'N' as Allegory of Reading," in Studies in Weird Fiction, Vol. 7, Spring, 1990, pp. 8-11.

[In the following essay, Burleson provides a deconstructionist interpretation of Machen's short story "N."]

There is something remarkable at the outset when the title of a story consists of a single letter of the alphabet, a seemingly simple grapheme, as is the case with Arthur Machen's "N" (Tales of Horror and the Supernatural), a tale earlier belonging to the collection The Cosy Room (1936). The titular "N", by the most facile explanation, reflects the fact that the events of the story revolve around the Stoke Newington area...

(The entire section is 3498 words.)

Jill Tedford Owens (essay date 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Arthur Machen's Supernaturalism: The Decadent Variety," in The University of Mississippi Studies in English, n.s. Vol. VIII, 1990, pp. 117-26.

[In the following essay, Owens examines "The Great God Pan, " "The Inmost Light, " and "The Novel of the White Powder, " maintaining that the stories are influenced by the work of "decadent" writers of the 1890s.]

The links are numerous between Arthur Machen and that rather ill-defined group of writers and artists in the 1890s known as "decadents." In 1894 John Lane at the Bodley Head published Machen's The Great God Pan and The Inmost Light in his Keynotes series, complete with an Aubrey Beardsley cover. Machen...

(The entire section is 3760 words.)

S. T. Joshi (essay date 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Arthur Machen: The Mystery of the Universe," in The Weird Tale: Arthur Machen, Lord Dunsany, Algernon Blackwood, M. R. James, Ambrose Bierce, H. P. Lovecraft, University of Texas Press, 1990, pp. 12-41.

[An American editor and critic, Joshi is the leading figure in the field of H. P. Lovecraft scholarship and criticism. As an editor, his publications include several volumes of Lovecraft's previously uncollected or unpublished works, critical editions of Lovecraft's major fiction, a collection of essays surveying Lovecraft's critical reputation, the journal Lovecraft Studies, and the definitive bibliography of Lovecraft's life and work as well as a full-length biographical...

(The entire section is 8246 words.)

Adrian Eckersley (essay date 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Theme in the Early Work of Arthur Machen: 'Degeneration,'" in English Literature in Transition 1880-1920, Vol. 35, No. 3, 1992, pp. 277-87.

Arthur Machen achieved notoriety as a writer through a series of short stories he wrote in the 1890s which, perhaps more than any other literary material, are a bridge between the supernatural tale of the nineteenth-century and the twentieth-century genre of the horror-film. Stories such as "The Great God Pan" (1894), "The Inmost Light" (1894) and "The Novel of the White Powder" (1895) achieved both fame and opprobrium for their author through the powerful sense of evil which is realised in them.

Though Machen was by no means...

(The entire section is 3906 words.)

Martin T. Willis (essay date 1994)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Scientific Portraits in Magical Frames: The Construction of Preternatural Narrative in the Work of E. T. A. Hoffmann and Arthur Machen," Extrapolation, Vol. 35, No. 3, Fall, 1994, pp. 186-200.

Hoffmann's tale Der Automate and Arthur Machen's The Three Imposters seem firmly footed in the world of nineteenth-century romanticism. On these foundations the elements of the fantastic, or the supernatural, work within the narratives by the invocation of what [Viktor] Shklovsky termed [in Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader, edited by David Lodge, 1988] the technique of "estrangement" (ostranenie); defamiliarizing the commonplace by placing the everyday in...

(The entire section is 2223 words.)

Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Danielson, Henry. Arthur Machen: A Bibliography. New York: Haskell House Publishers, 1970, 59 p.

Primary bibliography. Includes biographical and critical notes by Arthur Machen.


Reynolds, Aidan, and Charlton, William. Arthur Machen: A Short Account of His Life and Work. London: John Baker Publishers, Ltd., 1963, 202 p.

Comprehensive biography of Machen.

Sweetser, Wesley D. Arthur Machen. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1964, 175 p.

Critical study of Machen's work that includes biographical information.


(The entire section is 357 words.)