As Monday was Memorial Day here in the States, I felt that the Horror Monday I had planned would best be put off for a few days. Wednesdays boast their own horrors, don’t they? (For all our lovely new readers, a sincere and warm welcome. As a note, Katherine and I like to have fun with alt-text in our images so don’t forget to mouse over the pics for random nuggets of randomness.)
Today we celebrate the work of Arthur Machen, Welsh author and mystic extraordinaire. I was introduced to him in my Victorian Gothic class back in graduate school and immediately fell in love with his engrossing and macabre tales of the supernatural. As one already bound in love to Edgar Allan Poe, Sheridan le Fanu, and Bram Stoker, Machen was a dark, delicious cherry on the top of my literary gothic cake.
The great H.P Lovecraft, in his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature“, named Machen as one of the four “modern masters” of horror (the others being Lord Dunsany, Algernon Blackwood, and M. R. James, whom I discussed in the very first Horror Monday). Lovecraft described Machen’s most famous work, The Great God Pan, in the aforementioned essay as follows: “No one could begin to describe the cumulative suspense and ultimate horror with which every paragraph abounds”; and that “the sensitive reader” reaches the end with “an appreciative shudder.”
The Great God Pan, published in 1894 and reproduced here in its entirety, was my first introduction to the glories of Machen. You open with the familiar, comforting strains of Victorian first-person narration and gradually get drawn into a tale of mythology versus science, ancient versus modern, known versus unknown, purity versus libido, god versus man. You find yourself growing more and more uneasy without being able to put a name to your fears; it eludes you, like the sinister Other that pervades the majority of his tales. It is a horror that creeps up on you quietly, hiding behind the smooth, engaging prose and vivid descriptions.
His fascination with his own Welsh countryside and local Roman antiquities served as fuel for his imaginative stories and his explorations into our mystical and spiritual past. His stories have a distinct preoccupation with an unknowable and ancient Other; without being explicit, Machen teases the reader into imagining unspeakable horrors and darkness just on the outer limits of our reach and understanding. He built upon fears and superstitions of the time, creating a sensation and shocking his readers by hinting at illicit sex and supernatural transgressions (i.e., “nameless infamies”) that act at the heart of the narrative’s conflict. We 21st century readers might not bat an eye at the subtle restraint of his descriptions but to a Victorian audience, it would have approached the ragged edge of obscenity. A critic for the Westminster Gazette described it as “an incoherent nightmare of sex and the supposed horrible mysteries behind it, such as might conceivably possess a man who was given to a morbid brooding over these matters, but which would soon lead to insanity if unrestrained.” (Don’t you want to read it already??) As is the norm in these cases, what enraged the critics also titillated and thrilled the Victorian reader and continues to thrill and inspire us to this day.
Wicked frontispiece art above for the Great God Pan by the inimitable Aubrey Beardsley.
Stephen King, in an interview on his personal website, described it as “one of the best horror stories ever written. Maybe the best in the English language.” Think about that for a second and then go curl up with the Great God Pan and a warm pot of tea (or perhaps a Scotch old enough to order its own Scotch) and dive right in. I recommend the collection that first got me hooked: The Three Impostors and other Stories: Volume 1 of the Best Weird Tales of Arthur Machen, available right here on Amazon. Go. Now. Read. Shoo.