Horror Before Horror: Arthur Machen’s Nightmares

Horror Before Horror: Arthur Machen’s Nightmares
© Photograph by Darek Szupina

The title on the front cover of ‘The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories’ is set sideways, an inversion that represents perfectly the upside-down weirdness of the Arthur Machen stories collected within.

All of the titles in the OUP’s ‘World Classics Hardback Collection’ are presented this way, but in the case of Machen’s uncanny fiction, the design is a fortunate synchronicity, capturing the aesthetic and ethos of his bizarre supernatural pageantry, his intrusive invocations of the unnameable and the unknown.

This serendipitous title placement is augmented by a mustard yellow cover that references Machen’s debt to the “yellow nineties” of literary Decadence (xv), as well as an evocative symbol that seems intended to represent the horns of Pan but could also be viewed as severed tentacles of the Lovecraftian Weird, to which Machen’s surreal textual landscapes were a seminal contributor.

To an extent, therefore, this book can be judged by its cover. The faery permeability of Machen’s fiction, however, must be encountered directly: the sudden opening of gothic sinkholes in the forest floor of the imagination, the falling into kaleidoscopic abysses that the reader viscerally experiences but only fragmentarily perceives.

The collection consists of a diverse sampling of Machen’s oeuvre. Some of his best-known works, including ‘The Great God Pan’ (1890–94), ‘The Inmost Light’ (1894) and ‘The White People’ (1904), buttress a number of less well-known selections, including six short fragments: ‘The Turanians,’ ‘The Idealist,’ ‘Witchcraft,’ ‘The Ceremony,’ ‘Psychology,’ and ‘Midsummer’ (written in 1897 but not published until 1924).

Lesser known stories also include two written in the context of WWI, ‘The Bowmen’ (1914) and ‘The Monstrance’ (1915), and four from Machen’s late period: ‘N,’ ‘The Tree of Life,’ ‘Change’ (all 1936), and ‘Ritual’ (1937). The collection additionally reproduces the complete text of Machen’s 1895 novel, ‘The Three Imposters,’ more often printed for spare parts, but here presented in its entirety in conjunction with the collection’s primary aim: to assemble texts that connect to Machen’s (largely posthumous) identity as a seminal figure in the development of genre Horror.

Each story is elucidated by a wealth of explanatory notes offering valuable insight and context, translating Machen’s liberal sprinklings of Latin and Welsh phrases, or locating obscure geographical, cultural or scientific references.

The collection is preceded by an introduction by the volume’s editor, Aaron Worth, who smoothly avoids getting lost in biography. The bulk of the introduction deftly situates author, text and theme in relation to particular cultural and generic currents, especially the importance of 1890s Decadence to Machen’s early stories (despite his protestations to the contrary), and the similarly vital context of the fin de siècle surge of interest in Pagan ritual and occultism.

Worth concludes with similarly well-crafted analyses of two currents in Machen’s fiction that have contributed to his important place in the pre-history of genre Horror. The first argues that Machen pioneered a “deep Gothic” sensibility of time (xxvi), following nineteenth-century discoveries that the Earth and human culture were older than previously believed.

In response to this vast shift in chronoperspective, Machen’s landscapes became “charged with deep time” (xxiv), populated with faery races such as the “Little People,” a race of sub-Neolithic troglodytes who have, unlike H.G. Wells’s Morlocks, fallen outside of time, enduring in “changeless evil, coeval with the geologic timescale itself” (xxv).

Worth concludes with discussion of a second important aspect of the author’s fiction: the awful infinities that structure the hieratic spaces in which Machen utters invocations of ritual terror. This is “the Machen of labyrinthine urban spaces, of uncanny repetition, of bounded infinities […] of the alternate, the parallel, the counterfactual, the lost” (xxvii).

Here Worth comes closest to connecting the inchoate madness and fear that creep into many of Machen’s stories with the horror texts that his work would come to influence, either directly or via a web of twentieth-century generic influences.

Yet, Worth does not come close enough. The one significant absence in his introduction is a clear statement of what exactly is meant by “horror” in Machen’s case, and what methodology was used to select the included stories.

Worth situates Machen as a vital influence for later artists working more consciously within the Horror genre, including Clive Barker, Guillermo del Toro and Stephen King (xi).

He also makes clear that it is only through the posthumous construction of genre theorists from H.P. Lovecraft to Brian Stableford that Machen has “become something very like ‘the H.G. Wells of horror’” (x), and quite clearly understands the fluidity of genre boundaries in Machen’s time. Given this understanding, it would ordinarily be unproblematic to proceed with a collection identified as ‘horror stories’ without giving much space to clarification of genre.

However, both Worth’s introduction and the OUP’s marketing material depict Machen as “a foundational figure – for some the foundational figure — in the development of modern horror fiction” (original emphasis, x), an author who “embodies the transition from the Gothic tradition to modern horror” (front matter).

These claims seem to be the raison d’être of the collection itself; thus, it would seem imperative to include at least a brief definition of what, in Worth’s eyes, might constitute Horror as opposed to Gothic or Weird fiction — particularly as Machen’s stories much more clearly orbit around these loci, as admittedly ill-defined as they are.

Even more importantly, the generic identity claimed by this volume calls for a much clearer explanation of Worth’s selection process. This is particularly salient given that not all the stories seem to unambiguously prefigure genre Horror. While stories like ‘The Great God Pan’ and ‘The Inmost Light’ certainly contain flashes of imagery and reader experience that connect directly to the development of Horror fiction, a significant number of others do not, including ‘The Bowmen,’ ‘The Tree of Life,’ and all six of the 1897 fragments.

What the six fragments do very clearly connect to, however, is Machen’s fascination with ritual, the occult, and a landscape-oriented Paganism that continually returned him to the standing stones and faery folk of his native Welsh countryside.

In ‘The Idealist,’ a clerk constructs a being halfway between a succubus and a golem in “occult and private” researches (246); “Change” revolves around the discovery of a cypher for “an initiation rite into some mystery” (345); in “The Ceremony” a young woman takes up witchcraft at a mysterious Celtic stone. There are hints in Worth’s introduction and annotations of a connection between such phenomena and genre Horror.

For example, at one point he notes that of the ten prose fragments produced in 1897, six have been chosen “in part for their greater proximity to the ‘satanic’ rather than the ‘celestial’” (xx; terms quoted from Mark Valentine).

Worth does not expand on these vague terms and, consistent with the volume’s methodological indeterminacy, he does not say why the satanic was preferred to the celestial. It seems relatively clear, however, that the occult ritual milieu of these stories is what has generated their inclusion, and that there exists an unstated connection between this esoteric context and genre Horror.

A second area of further clarity surrounding methodology thus enters the picture: Worth mentions Machen’s involvement with occult ritual magic, notes his reading of esoteric texts for a bookseller’s catalogue in the 1880s, and includes annotations that point to his interest in traditions from Freemasonry to Paganism. However, the analysis applied to cultural influences such as Decadence is absent from discussion of Machen’s occult interests.

This is not problematic in itself, but Machen’s “obsession with ritual” (xx) — with the “deep gothic” of antique esoteric wisdom — seems to have formed part of Worth’s rationale for including particular texts as Horror stories.

This suggests that analysis of the relationship between esoteric phenomena and Machen’s fiction is required, along with, more pertinently, a connection between this relationship and the production of a horror mode. What is it, in other words, that makes us conflate the aura of ritual, gatherings of witches in the wood, the acausal magical act, with terror and the macabre?

These theoretical and methodological concerns aside, ‘The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories’ is an excellent collection.

The inner aesthetic of Machen’s stories is captured by the appealing cover design, and with his annotations, introduction and critical analysis, Worth provides context and elaboration that will prove helpful for the casual reader and professional researcher alike. The lack of genre clarification certainly does no harm to the stories themselves, which continue to saturate the mind with dissolving alleyways, crumbling psyches, magisterial altars, and “the Great God Pan.”

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