Beyond the Veil: The Fiction of Arthur Machen–An Essay

Left: An early paperback edition of Machen’s fiction; right: Oxford Univ. Press 2018 edition.

from a 2011 essay by Michael Dirda see link to the full article after the post…

‘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.

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Arthur Machen, the Forgotten Father of Weird Fiction

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Welsh Writer & Mystic, Arthur Machen (1863 – 1947), ca. early 20th century (Public Domain).

Perhaps the most significant but least well remembered writers of what is no being called “The Weird” is the Welsh author of supernatural and occult fiction Arthur Machen (1863-1947). Machen might be little read today, but his ideas lie at the heart of work  by modern horror writers Stephen King and Clive Barker, the most-well-known 20th-century writer of weird fiction, H. P. Lovecraft, and filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro.

Many contemporary authors of weird fiction will see their own struggles reflected in Machen’s life and career. Born into the social hinterland between the privileged upper classes and the poverty of the working class, he received an excellent early education but lacked the money to attend university. Nonetheless he pursued a career as a writer, working as a journalist and tutor and writing through the night, hard work that led in his thirties to Machen establishing himself as an author of what we now classify as the “Decadent” period history when his novella The Great God Pan* was published and soon deemed part of the Decadent movement in art and literature; however, there is enough to support its inclusion today if for no other reason than as a point of historic research or academic study.)

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(Oxford University Press 2018)

*Machen was not pleased with being grouped into this period, and has justified his exclusion from it in a comment, which can be found quoted in introductions to his fiction, especially The Great God Pan (See the recent collection of Machen’s fiction published in a handsome cloth-bound edition by Oxford University Press, the cover of which is shown above).

But this success would turn sour when his association with genre fiction made it impossible to find a publisher for his writing as it grew in sophistication, leading to much of his best work remaining unpublished for many years.

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“The Happy Children”—A Ghostly Little Story of Whitby Abbey & Its Environs by Welsh Writer & Mystic Arthur Machen (1863 – 1947) w/ Intro & Links

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An old glass slide showing the ruins of the Norman abbey at Whitby as viewed through the graves in the churchyard. Photographer unknown. (Whitbypopwatch.blogpost.com)

“I saw the wonder of the town in the light of the afterglow that was red in the west. The clouds blossomed into rose-gardens; there were seas of fairy green that swam about isles of crimson light; there were clouds like spears of flame, like dragons of fire. And under the mingling lights and colours of such a sky, Banwick went down to the pools of its land-locked harbour, and climbed again across the bridge towards the ruined abbey…and the great church on the hill.”

– Arthur Machen, from “The Happy Children”

About the Piece

Welsh author Arthur Machen (1863-1947) is best known as a writer of supernatural and occult fiction. A contemporary of Bram Stoker and Oscar Wilde, he also influenced the likes of H. P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, and filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro (Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark). Machen’s most famous works include the novella The Great God Pan (1894), the novel The Three Impostors (1895) and the novel The Hill Of Dreams (1907), but it was his work as a journalist for the London paper The Evening News that would lead him to visit Whitby in November 1916.

The visit was arranged ostensibly for Machen to write an article on the town’s resurgent jet industry, which had seen a revival due to the wartime fashion for wearing mourning jewellery. But what really fascinated him was the town itself, regarding it as beautiful and unspoilt, he would later compare it favourably to seeing the view of Avignon from Rhone; ‘It was wonderful, but I do not know it more wonderful than Whitby as I saw it a few days ago’. It was this enthusiasm for the place that inspired him to write “The Happy Children”, a ghostly tale set in the town of Banwick.

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Full Audio Reading of “The Great God Pan”—a Horror Story by the late Welsh author Arthur Machen ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Tonight, We Continue w/ Part 4 of Arthur Machen’s 1894 Horror-Occult Novel: The Three Imposters…

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Art by David Streiber (Pinterest).

The Three Imposters (or The Transmutations)

An Occult Novel of Horror

Arthur Machen, 1894


Part 4: Novel of the Dark Valley

I am the son of a poor but learned clergyman in the West of England,—but I am forgetting, these details are not of special interest. I will briefly state, then, that my father, who was, as I have said, a learned man, had never learnt the specious arts by which the great are flattered, and would never condescend to the despicable pursuit of self-advertisement. Though his fondness for ancient ceremonies and quaint customs, combined with a kindness of heart that was unequalled and a primitive and fervent piety, endeared him to his moor-land parishioners, such were not the steps by which clergy then rose in the Church, and at sixty my father was still incumbent of the little benefice he had accepted in his thirtieth year. The income of the living was barely sufficient to support life in the decencies which are expected of the Anglican parson; and when my father died a few years ago, I, his only child, found myself thrown upon the world with a slender capital of less than a hundred pounds, and all the problem of existence before me. I felt that there was nothing for me to do in the country, and as usually happens in such eases, London drew me like a magnet. One day in August, in the early morning, while the dew still glittered on the turf, and on the high green banks of the lane, a neighbor drove me to the railway station, and I bade good-bye to the land of the broad moors and unearthly battlements of the wild tors. It was six o’clock as we neared London; the faint sickly fume of the brickfields about Acton came in puffs through the open window, and a mist was rising from the ground. Presently the brief view of successive streets, prim and uniform, struck me with a sense of monotony; the hot air seemed to grow hotter; and when we had rolled beneath the dismal and squalid houses, whose dirty and neglected back yards border the line near Paddington, I felt as if I should be stifled in this fainting breath of London. I got a hansom and drove off, and every street increased my gloom; gray houses with blinds drawn down, whole thoroughfares almost desolate, and the foot-passengers who seemed to stagger wearily along rather than walk, all made me feel a sinking at heart. I put up for the night at a small hotel in a street leading from the Strand, where my father had stayed on his few brief visits to town; and when I went out after dinner, the real gayety and bustle of the Strand and Fleet Street could cheer me but little, for in all this great city there was no single human being whom I could claim even as an acquaintance. I will not weary you with the history of the next year, for the adventures of a man who sinks are too trite to be worth recalling. My money did not last me long; I found that I must be neatly dressed, or no one to whom I applied would so much as listen to me; and I must live in a street of decent reputation if I wished to be treated with common civility. I applied for various posts, for which, as I now see, I was completely devoid of qualification; I tried to become a clerk without having the smallest notion of business habits, and I found, to my cost, that a general knowledge of literature and an execrable style of penmanship are far from being looked upon with favor in commercial circles. I had read one of the most charming of the works of a famous novelist of the present day, and I frequented the Fleet Street taverns in the hope of making literary friends, and so getting the introductions which I understood were indispensable in the career of letters. I was disappointed; I once or twice ventured to address gentlemen who were sitting in adjoining boxes, and I was answered, politely indeed, but in a manner that told me my advances were unusual. Pound by pound, my small resources melted; I could no longer think of appearances; I migrated to a shy quarter, and my meals became mere observances. I went out at one and returned to my room at two, but nothing but a milk-cake had occurred in the interval. In short, I became acquainted with misfortune; and as I sat amidst slush and ice on a seat in Hyde Park, munching a piece of bread, I realized the bitterness of poverty, and the feelings of a gentleman reduced to something far below the condition of a vagrant. In spite of all discouragement I did not desist in my efforts to earn a living. I consulted advertisement columns, I kept my eyes open for a chance, I looked in at the windows of stationers’ shops, but all in vain. One evening I was sitting in a Free Library, and I saw an advertisement in one of the papers. It was something like this: “Wanted, by a gentleman a person of literary taste and abilities as secretary and amanuensis. Must not object to travel.” Of course I knew that such an advertisement would have answers by the hundred, and I thought my own chances of securing the post extremely small; however, I applied at the address given, and wrote to Mr. Smith, who was staying at a large hotel at the West End. I must confess that my heart gave a jump when I received a note a couple of days later, asking me to call at the Cosmopole at my earliest convenience. I do not know, sir, what your experiences of life may have been, and so I cannot tell whether you have known such moments. A slight sickness, my heart beating rather more rapidly than usual, a choking in the throat, and a difficulty of utterance; such were my sensations as I walked to the Cosmopole. I had to mention the name twice before the hall porter could understand me, and as I went upstairs my hands were wet. I was a good deal struck by Mr. Smith’s appearance; he looked younger than I did, and there was something mild and hesitating about his expression. He was reading when I came in, and he looked up when I gave my name. “My dear sir,” he said, “I am really delighted to see you. I have read very carefully the letter you were good enough to send me. Am I to understand that this document is in your own handwriting?” He showed me the letter I had written, and I told him I was not so fortunate as to be able to keep a secretary myself. “Then, sir,” he went on, “the post I advertised is at your service. You have no objection to travel, I presume?” As you may imagine, I closed pretty eagerly with the offer he made, and thus I entered the service of Mr. Smith. For the first few weeks I had no special duties; I had received a quarter’s salary, and a handsome allowance was made me in lieu of board and lodging. One morning, however, when I called at the hotel according to instructions, my master informed me that I must hold myself in readiness for a sea-voyage, and, to spare unnecessary detail, in the course of a fortnight we had landed at New York. Mr. Smith told me that he was engaged on a work of a special nature, in the compilation of which some peculiar researches had to be made; in short, I was given to understand that we were to travel to the far West.

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Tonight, We Continue w/ Part 3 of Arthur Machen’s 1894 Horror-Occult Novel: The Three Imposters…

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Art by Zdzisława Beksińskiego (Pinterest).

The Three Imposters

An Occult Novel of Horror

Arthur Machen, 1894


Part 3: The Encounter of the Pavement

Mr. Dyson, walking leisurely along Oxford. Street, and staring with bland inquiry at whatever caught his attention, enjoyed in all its rare flavors the sensation that he was really very hard at work. His observation of mankind, the traffic, and the shop-windows tickled his faculties with an exquisite bouquet; he looked serious, as one looks on whom charges of weight and moment are laid, and he was attentive in his glances to right and left, for fear lest he should miss some circumstance of more acute significance. He had narrowly escaped being run over at a crossing by a charging van, for he hated to hurry his steps, and indeed the afternoon was warm; and he had just halted by a place of popular refreshment, when the astounding gestures of a well dressed individual on the opposite pavement held him enchanted and gasping like a fish. A treble line of hansoms, carriages, vans, cabs, and omnibuses, was tearing east and west, and not the most daring adventurer of the crossings would have cared to try his fortune; but the person who had attracted Dyson’s attention seemed to rage on the very edge of the pavement, now and then darting forward at the hazard of instant death, and at each repulse absolutely dancing with excitement, to the rich amusement of the passers-by. At last, a gap that would, have tried the courage of a street-boy appeared between the serried lines of vehicles, and the man rushed across in a frenzy, and escaping by a hair’s breadth pounced upon Dyson as a tiger pounces on her prey. “I saw you looking about you,” he said, sputtering out his words in his intense eagerness; “would you mind telling me this? Was the man who came out of the Aerated Bread Shop and jumped, into the hansom three minutes ago a youngish looking man with dark whiskers and spectacles? Can’t you speak, man? For Heaven’s sake can’t you speak? Answer me; it’s a matter of life and death.”

The words bubbled and boiled out of the man’s mouth in the fury of his emotion, his face went from red to white, and the beads of sweat stood out on his forehead, and he stamped his feet as he spoke and tore with his hand at his coat, as if something swelled and choked him, stopping the passage of his breath.

“My dear sir,” said Dyson, “I always like to be accurate. Your observation was perfectly correct. As you say, a youngish man, a man, I should say, of somewhat timid bearing, ran rapidly out of the shop here, and bounced into a hansom that must have been waiting for him, as it went eastwards at once. Your friend also wore spectacles, as you say. Perhaps you would like me to call a hansom for you to follow the gentleman?”

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Tonight, We Continue w/ Part 2 of Arthur Machen’s 1894 Horror-Occult Novel: The Three Imposters…

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(Pinterest)

The Three Imposters (or The Transmutations)

An Occult Novel of Horror

Arthur Machen, 1894


Part 2: Adventure of the Gold Tiberius

The acquaintance between Mr. Dyson and Mr. Charles Phillipps arose from one of those myriad chances which are every day doing their work in the streets of London. Mr. Dyson was a man of letters, and an unhappy instance of talents misapplied. With gifts that might have placed him in the flower of his youth among the most favored of Bentley’s favorite novelists, he had chosen to be perverse; he was, it is true, familiar with scholastic logic, but he knew nothing of the logic of life, and he flattered himself with the title of artist, when he was in fact but an idle and curious spectator of other men’s endeavors. Amongst many delusions, he cherished one most fondly, that he was a strenuous worker; and it was with a gesture of supreme weariness that he would enter his favorite resort, a small tobacco shop in Great Queen Street, and proclaim to any one who cared to listen that he had seen the rising and setting of two successive suns. The proprietor of the shop, a middle-aged man of singular civility, tolerated Dyson partly out of good nature, and partly because he was a regular customer; he was allowed to sit on an empty cask, and to express his sentiments on literary and artistic matters till he was tired or the time for closing came; and if no fresh customers were attracted, it is believed that none were turned away by his eloquence. Dyson, was addicted to wild experiments in tobacco; he never wearied of trying new combinations, and one evening he had just entered the shop and given utterance to his last preposterous formula, when a young fellow, of about his own age, who had come in a moment later, asked the shopman to duplicate the order on his account, smiling politely, as he spoke, to Mr. Dyson’s address. Dyson felt profoundly flattered, and after a few phrases the two entered into conversation, and in an hour’s time the tobacconist saw the new friends sitting side by side on a couple of casks, deep in talk.

“My dear sir,” said Dyson, “I will give you the task of the literary man in a phrase. He has got to do simply this: to invent a wonderful story, and to tell it in a wonderful manner.”

“I will grant you that,” said Mr. Phillipps, “but you will allow me to insist that in the hands of the true artist in words all stories are marvellous, and every circumstance has its peculiar wonder. The matter is of little consequence, the manner is everything. Indeed, the highest skill is shown in taking matter apparently commonplace and transmuting it by the high alchemy of style into the pure gold of art.”

“That is indeed a proof of great skill, but it is great skill exerted foolishly, or at least unadvisedly. It is as if a great violinist were to show us what marvellous harmonies he could draw from a child’s banjo.”

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Tonight, I Begin Arthur Machen’s 1894 Horror-Occult Novel: The Three Imposters—Won’t you join me? (I will post in daily parts…so stay tuned!)

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(Pinterest)

The Three Imposters (or The Transmutations)

An Occult Novel of Horror

Arthur Machen, 1894


Part 1: Prologue

“And Mr. Joseph Walters is going to stay the night?” said the smooth clean-shaven man to his companion, an individual not of the most charming appearance, who had chosen to make his ginger-colored mustache merge into a pair of short chin-whiskers.

The two stood at the hall door, grinning evilly at each other; and presently a girl ran quickly down, the stairs, and joined them. She was quite young, with a quaint and piquant rather than a beautiful face, and her eyes were of a shining hazel. She held a neat paper parcel in one hand, and laughed with her friends.

“Leave the door open,” said the smooth man to the other, as they were going out. “Yes, by——,” he went on with an ugly oath. “We’ll leave the front door on the jar. He may like to see company, you know.”

The other man looked doubtfully about him. “Is it quite prudent do you think, Davies?” he said, pausing with his hand on the mouldering knocker. “I don’t think Lipsius would like it. What do you say, Helen?”

“I agree with Davies. Davies is an artist, and you are commonplace, Richmond, and a bit of a coward. Let the door stand open, of course. But what a pity Lipsius had to go away! He would have enjoyed himself.”

“Yes,” replied the smooth Mr. Davies, “that summons to the west was very hard on the doctor.”

The three passed out, leaving the hall door, cracked and riven with frost and wet, half open, and they stood silent for a moment under the ruinous shelter of the porch.

“Well,” said the girl, “it is done at last. I shall hurry no more on the track of the young man with spectacles.”

“We owe a great deal to you,” said Mr. Davies politely; “the doctor said so before he left. But have we not all three some farewells to make? I, for my part, propose to say good-by, here, before this picturesque but mouldy residence, to my friend Mr. Burton, dealer in the antique and curious,” and the man lifted his hat with an exaggerated bow.

“And I,” said Richmond, “bid adieu to Mr. Wilkins, the private secretary, whose company has, I confess, become a little tedious.”

“Farewell to Miss Lally, and to Miss Leicester also,” said the girl, making as she spoke a delicious courtesy. “Farewell to all occult adventure; the farce is played.”

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