Beyond the Veil: The Fiction of Arthur Machen

H.P. Lovecraft, the American master of supernatural fiction, once described Arthur Machen (1863-1947) as the author of “some dozen tales long and short, in which the elements of hidden horror and brooding fright attain an almost incomparable substance and realistic acuteness.” With his first major story, “The Great God Pan” (1894), Machen mixed together transgressive scientific experiments, pagan survivals, a heartless, only half-human femme fatale, and a fantasmagoric climax involving protoplasmic reversion. To this day, just saying that title — “The Great God Pan” — makes me shiver.

As Philip Van Doren Stern noted in his introduction to the 1948 Machen omnibus Tales of Horror and the Supernatural, the Welsh author “did not write a single ghost story.” Instead, “he wrote of things more ancient even than ghosts,…for Machen dealt with the elemental forces of evil, with spells that outlast time, and with the malign powers of folklore and fairy tale.” His work repeatedly underscores the thin line between the material world of appearances and a darker occult reality. As one of his characters poetically says:

Now I know that the walls of sense that seemed so impenetrable, that seemed to loom up above the heaven and to be founded below the depths, and to shut us in for evermore, are no such everlasting impassable barriers as we fancied, but thinnest and most airy veils that melt away before the seeker and dissolve as the early mist in the morning about the brooks.

In Machen’s central mythology a squat, malevolent race of primordial beings survives to the present day, lurking in hills and forests and caves. Machen describes their characteristics most fully in “The Novel of the Black Seal” when its narrator happens upon an old Latin treatise and makes the following translation:

The folk…dwells in remote and secret places, and celebrates foul mysteries on savage hills. Nothing have they in common with men save the face, and the customs of humanity are wholly strange to them; and they hate the sun. They hiss rather than speak; their voices are harsh, and not to be heard without fear. They boast of a certain stone, which they call Sixtystone; for they say that it displays sixty characters. And this stone has a secret unspeakable name, which is Ixaxar.

When seen, these troglodytes are almost viscerally loathsome — and they are regularly associated with sin and the Fall. For Machen is, in effect, a kind of mystic, what his early champion Vincent Starrett called “a novelist of the soul.” Wickedness itself, says a character in one of his stories, “is like holiness and genius…a transcendent effort to surpass the ordinary bounds.” Again and again, Machen’s fiction depicts people who Go Too Far or Cross Over or Open the Way for Something from Beyond. A foolish scientist performs an operation that will “lift the veil” and allow a young woman to see the world’s hidden reality: It drives her insane. An obsessed doctor leaches the soul out of his wife, leaving behind an empty corporeal shell, “a mist of flowing yellow hair” and “the visage of a satyr.” Over and over, the barriers that keep out dark, unbearable truths prove all too permeable — and there is seepage.

Machen’s fiction generally fosters mounting unease largely through tiny hints and a subtle sense of wrongness. Yet he doesn’t attenuate the old-fashioned shocks and horror. A treasure-seeker learns, to his regret, that the ancient riches he has discovered are, after millennia, still guarded by their “keepers.” In “The Shining Pyramid” (1895), a young woman wanders too far into the misty hills and disappears, only to be glimpsed later as the central focus of a horrific ritual. A scientist realizes that a seemingly half-wit boy is not fully human: “Something pushed out from the body there on the floor, and stretched forth, a slimy, wavering tentacle…”

Most unforgettably, the climax of “The Novel of the White Powder” rises to a particularly viscous gruesomeness. Still, Machen’s art is never crude. In his greatest story, “The White People” (1904), an adolescent girl recalls her early childhood, chattering in run-on sentences of her nurse’s unsettling “fairy tales” and the private games they played, of an eerie place in the hills full of strange stones and circular patterns, of a certain little manikin made out of clay. Writing with a chilling innocence in the pages of her “Green Book,” the guileless girl recalls a series of increasingly disturbing encounters with Otherness:

I am going to write here many of the old secrets and some new ones, but there are some I shall not put down at all. I must not write down the real names of the days and months which I found out a year ago, nor the way to make the Aklo letters, or the Chian language, or the great bountiful Circles, nor the Mao Games, nor the chief songs. I may write something about all these things but not the way to do them, for peculiar reasons. And I must not say who the Nymphs are, or the Dols, or Jeelo, or what voolas mean. All these are most secret secrets….

At times the “Green Book” rises to an intoxicated, dizzying prose poetry, as the narrator reveals…well, I shouldn’t say more, but let me add that Lovecraft counted this the second greatest horror story of all time (after Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows”), and the Machen critic Roger Dobson called it “a Satanic Alice in Wonderland.” The contemporary horror writer T. E. D. Klein once observed that most supernatural stories “merely describe encounters with the dark primeval forces that reign beyond the edge of civilization,” but “The White People” seems “an actual product of such an encounter, an authentic pagan artifact.”

Walter Pater famously maintained that art should aspire to the condition of music, but Machen went further: He argued that it should aspire to ecstasy. Or “substitute, if you like, rapture, beauty, adoration, wonder, awe, mystery, sense of the unknown, desire for the unknown.”  Most realistic fiction, he felt, was nothing more than “dignified reporting.” Instead, Machen contended that “fine literature is simply the expression of the eternal things that are in man, that it is beauty clothed in words, that it is always ecstasy, that it always draws itself away, and goes apart into lonely places, far from the common course of life.” As one Machen character declares, “The whole universe, my friend, is a tremendous sacrament; a mystic, ineffable force and energy, veiled by an outward form of matter.”

Machen further stresses — in Hieroglyphics (1902), his book-length essay on art and ecstasy — that in storytelling “mere incident is nothing, that it only becomes something when it is a symbol of an interior meaning.” Great literature should be intoxicating, mystical, Dionysiac, carnivalesque. A novelist simply shapes an already transcendent vision. Little wonder then that Machen’s prose is so musical and flowing, or that his descriptions regularly transmute the outside world into symbolic inner landscapes of the mind. Here, for instance, a suicidal young woman wanders into the outskirts of London:

In a confused vision I stumbled on, through roads half town and half country, grey fields melting into the cloudy world of mist on one side of me, and on the other comfortable villas with a glow of firelight flickering on the walls, but all unreal…. Now and then I would hear a quick step ringing on the iron road, and men would pass me well wrapped up, walking fast for the sake of warmth, and no doubt eagerly foretasting the pleasures of a glowing hearth, with curtains tightly drawn about the frosted panes, and the welcomes of their friends; but as the early evening darkened and night approached, foot passengers got fewer and fewer, and I passed through street after street alone. In the white silence I stumbled on, as desolate as I trod the streets of a buried city; and as I grew more weak and exhausted, something of the horror of death was folding thickly round my heart.

That description comes from Machen’s tricksy novel-length collection of linked stories The Three Impostors (1895), in which London is swathed in an almost Arabian Nights-like aura of mystery and glamour — and nothing is quite as it seems. Its two most famous sections, often reprinted on their own, are those great standards of horror anthologies, “The Novel of the Black Seal” and “The Novel of the White Powder.” The latter, said Lovecraft, attained “the absolute culmination of loathsome fright.” But the former provides a haunting depiction of the mystery and allure of ancient Welsh hills and forests. In its pages Machen conveys a sense of foreboding and holy dread, all from — as Vincent Starrett wrote in 1918 — “the strange gesturings of trees, the glow of furnace-like clouds, the somber beauty of brooding fields, and valleys all too still.”

Though sometimes published years later, Machen’s most celebrated stories were nearly all written in the 1890s, in the period when the young Welshman came to know the occult scholar A. E. Waite and the champion of Aestheticism, Oscar Wilde (whose Picture of Dorian Gray helped inspire him to try his hand at weird fiction). Aubrey Beardsley even designed the cover for the first appearance, as a chapbook, of “The Great God Pan.” In general, though, Machen lived a life straight out of George Gissing’s New Grub Street. To pay the rent, he catalogued theosophical books for an antiquarian bookdealer, translated Casanova’s memoirs, and cranked out cynical stories a la Maupasssant.

But when his wife died from cancer in 1899, Machen fell into a kind of hallucinatory depression in which he imagined that he was repeatedly encountering the characters from his fiction. With considerable reticence, he hints that a cure was effected through some unnamed occult means. He then gave up writing altogether to become a bit-part actor, a “strolling player” until he married again. When he again took up his pen, he launched a new career as a newspaperman, eventually becoming a regular columnist for the Evening Standard.

In the first year of World War I, Machen produced for that paper what is, in some ways, his most famous story, “The Bowmen” (1914). Totally fictional, it nevertheless inspired the legend of the “angels of Mons,” the wide-spread belief that a desperate English company, outnumbered by the Germans, was miraculously saved from annihilation by calling upon St. George for help. In the heat of battle, the air suddenly rang with ancient voices and whizzing arrows, as enemy soldiers fell by the hundreds. At the darkest hour the long-dead archers of Agincourt had answered the prayer of their countrymen.

Yet another of Machen’s stories from this time, “The Terror” (1917) is structured like a short detective novel. For no apparent reason, ordinary people living alone in the deep country are found dead — an entire family slaughtered outside their home, a man drowned in just a few feet of water, a woman mangled at the bottom of a quarry. In this last case, “there was a dead sheep lying beside her in the pit, as if the woman and the sheep together had been chased over the brim of the quarry. But chased by whom, or by what?” A superb story in its own right, “The Terror” shares its central premise with one of the most famous horror tales of the modern era, and to say any more would be to say too much.  Machen closes, however, with a dreadful warning: “They have risen once — they may rise again.”

Despite occasional periods of popularity and prosperity in his middle years, Machen nearly starved during the 1930s and early ’40s, only being saved by a special government pension. He died in 1947 at the age of 84. His biographers state that near the end of his life, “he became persuaded that there was something in his room, was reluctant to sleep at night because of it, and once even called out of the window for help.” In his work, eerily enough, he used to refer to what he called our “other-consciousness” and to “that shadowy, unknown, or half-known Companion who walks beside each one of us all our days.”

Complementing his tales of terror, Arthur Machen produced a magnificent novel about the loneliness of the artistic soul, The Hill of Dreams (1907), and three exceptional autobiographies, Far Off Things (1922), Things Near and Far (1923) and The London Adventure (1924). He was also a superb literary essayist, in the genial bookman tradition, and could write ingratiatingly about subjects as varied as tobacco, 18th-century crime, and the Holy Grail. All his work is worth exploring, and the Friends of Arthur Machen society continues to champion its beauty and distinction.

The writing itself can be found in multiple editions, from the faded yellow-backed Knopf volumes of the 1920s to various small press compilations of today. Just this fall, Penguin issued The White People and Other Weird Tales, edited by S. T. Joshi; it contains nearly everything — except “The Great God Pan” — that the casual reader might want. (The best and most handsome Machen volumes are published in the United Kingdom by Tartarus Press, under the guidance of R. B. Russell, one of the officers of the Machen society.

Halloween is fast upon us and if you like to read scary stories at this time of year, you really owe it to yourself — and, perhaps, to that invisible Companion beside you — to discover the unsettling work of Arthur Machen. He is one of the half dozen greatest, and most haunting, practitioners of the weird tale:

I heard a noise as of feet shuffling slowly and awkwardly, and a choking, gurgling sound, as if some one was struggling to find utterance, and then noise of a voice, broken and stifled, and words that I could scarcely understand.

“There is nothing here,” the voice said….

Michael Dirda’s most recent book, On Conan Doyle, has just been published by Princeton University Press.

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