January 23, 2020

Arthur Machen, and enjoying ‘mystical’ fiction as an atheist

Arthur Machen (3 March 1863 – 15 December 1947) seems to be one of those writers who is continually referred to as obscure and ‘forgotten’ though many of his works are very much still in print, occasionally gets mentioned in mainstream papers like The Guardian, and is championed by lovers of weird and fantastic literature such as Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and M John Harrison. Plus anyone with a decent appreciation of the work of H.P Lovecraft will most likely have come across Machen’s name (along with that of Algernon Blackwood and Lord Dunsany). Comedian Stewart Lee is also an avowed fan of Machen, having made numerous references to him in his latest book ‘How I Escaped My Certain Fate’, and reading from his Stoke Newington set story ‘N’ at the 2010 Stoke Newington Literary Festival.
Maybe he seems more ‘famous’ to me as I take great interest in thoroughly irrelevant and forgotten writers from a hundred years ago who bang on about nature spirits and the like, when everyone else stopped caring and read Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter instead (Note: this is a joke).
I would like to point out at this moment that I am an atheist who is also deeply sceptical of people peddling spiritual disciplines, and unfortunately I have to side with Richard Dawkins in saying that alternative or forgotten religions or spiritual practices are, ultimately, as much a load of rubbish as Christianity, Judaism or Islam.
Yet this is not to diminish their importance; if I take the idea that ‘God’, the spiritual, whatever, is in fact just an imaginative (and ultimately self-deprecating idea that actually diminishes the achievements of the human race) way of understanding the creative impulse that lies inside so many people, then that is fine. Alan Moore has gone on record numerous times about his communion with intangible beings, under the heavy influence of various substances, and admits that it may very well be something that really is just inside himself, but if it is, that’s pretty cool, right?
Good. Taking this view allows me to enjoy the work of writers such as Machen, Blackwood et al and their heavy interest in the world behind the veil, so to speak, without having to resort to any form of neo-paganism, do yoga or be a hippy in any way. It is true that Nature does have an awesome, almost indefinable power upon the senses, and yes it can be harsh and unforgiving as well as beautiful and serene. The way it affects our senses, and imagination, is a subject that interests me greatly and though I don’t really believe there is a Great God Pan, the idea is fantastic and it is a wonderful symbol for all that is beautiful and dangerous about the natural world.
I take a particular interest in Arthur Machen due to his interest dual placement and the perspective this brought to his writing; born and raised in the Welsh border country of Gwent (then called Monmouthshire), specifically in the town of Caerleon, he then moved to London as a young man to pursue his literary career, spending many years in poverty and hardship before gaining some sort of recognition for his work late in his life. He caused a minor scandal in the 1890’s with the publication of his most well known work, ‘The Great God Pan’, outraging the Victorian mores of the time with its pagan themes, implications of illicit sex and rash of suicides. It’s a great read, not nearly as interesting or as nuanced as some of his later work (to which I shall come to later), but a perfect introduction to Machen’s work. It was described at the time by the Manchester Guardian as “an incoherent nightmare of sex”, which is as good a reason as any to read it, but those looking for titillation will be sorely disappointed; like the best of Machen’s work, the real horror is implied and lies between the lines (which makes me think that particular reviewer was probably projecting his own fantasies on the story, in a sexually repressed Victorian manner).
The themes are all in place that will recur throughout the rest of Machen’s literary career; a curious experience in the Welsh borderlands leads to strange and horrific consequences manifesting in London, and much is left unexplained to play upon your imagination. Read it.
Machen is definitely most well known for his weird/horror fiction, and from this strand of his writing I would particularly recommend the two stories from his patchwork novel The Three Impostors, ‘The Novel of the Black Seal’ and ‘The Novel of the White Powder’. The first of these focuses on the enigmatic and malevolent ‘Little People’, clearly based on the tales of the faery folk that densely populate Celtic folk tales and mythology, and the second a tale of bodily transformation clearly influenced by The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but still powerful and affecting.
Machen’s greatest achievement, in my opinion, in his explorations of the occult and the horrific is his rightly lauded story ‘The White People’. A deeply disturbing tale, presented in first-person diary form, of a young teenage girl’s induction into a mysterious world of pagan rites and occult rituals in the Welsh countryside, it is an absolute classic of the genre and is recommended reading for, well, everyone.
 Machen made a conscious effort to move away from the more overt horror elements in his fiction, and refined his style in attempt to silence those critics who suggested his work was somewhat derivative of Robert Louis Stevenson. This led to his cryptic masterpiece, The Hill of Dreams, that was praised by one American critic as the finest prose to exist in the English language (a bold claim, but the novel certainly has a lot going for it). Clearly semi-autobiographical, the short novel focuses on the character Lucian Taylor who grows up in the fictional Welsh town of Caermaen (obviously modelled on Caerleon), and has a mystical/horrific experience with a ‘faun’ upon the hill of dreams of the title, the ruined Roman hill fort that lies close to the town. Whether this actually happens, or is merely in Lucian’s head, is in debate. It matters not. Aspiring to be a writer concerned only with the aesthetics and beauty of language, Lucian becomes increasingly isolated from his community before moving to London to pursue his literary career, where he exists in poverty and becomes increasingly fearful and disgusted of the poor environs and inhabitants that surround him. That’s about it as plot goes, but this is not where the strengths of the book lie. Revealing Lucian’s artistic/mystical experiences through prolonged passages of wonderful, dense prose poetry, The Hill of Dreams is a phantasmagoric warning against the perils of pursuing ‘art’ to it’s ultimate end; Lucian’s demise is not pretty, a sad slide into madness, drug addiction and poverty which may seem lurid and melodramatic, yet was startlingly close to the truth of the fates of a number of writers associated with the Decadent movement of the 1890’s. It is what could have become of Machen himself, in fact, had events worked out a different way.
On a personal note, I would also highly recommend his short story ‘N’ for anyone who lives in the area of London that I do; for it concerns the search for a lost fragment of paradise, both beautiful and horrific, that exists somewhere in the humdrum Stoke Newington of the 1930’s. A wonderful story from Machen’s later period and a wonderful addition to the long list of ‘weird’ and fantastical London-based literature.
I could go on and on about various other highlights of Machen’s career, but the titles I have picked out are the immediate points of interest for anyone curious about his work. Continuously at odds with the prevailing literary moods of the era, at his best Machen was wonderful at capturing the odd, the strange and the unexplained, tapping into fears that stretch deep back into the pagan, Celtic past of this country. His choice to often put his ancient horrors interacting with the chaos of the modern metropolis of London have surely led to his work having continued interest and relevance, and he has been adopted wholeheartedly by the psycho-geographic school of literary thought as his ruminations on the affect of specific geographical locations on the psyche are powerful, and link his work thematically to that of Iain Sinclair (another Welshman turned Londoner), the weird London fictions of China Mieville, the various works of Alan Moore and many more besides.
Select Bibliography:
Arthur Machen – Tales of Horror and the Supernatural (Tartarus Press)
Arthur Machen – Ritual and Other Stories, (Tartarus Press)
Arthur Machen – The Hill of Dreams (Library of Wales)
Mark Valentine – Arthur Machen (Borderlands) (Seren Press)
and some good links for more about Machen’s work:
A review of Ritual and Other Stories: 
Infinity Plus review of The Hill of Dreams and Tales of Horror and the Supernatural:

The Friends of Arthur Machen:

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