Unholy Terrors – The horror writings of Arthur Machen

Tom Wootton

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The Terror & Other Tales
Arthur Machen

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A sinister experiment in the Welsh hills. A daughter born of an unholy communion. A peasant boy terrified witless by a strange tableau in the glade of a wood. A prosperous Londoner discovered raving and destitute on the city streets. Disturbing sketches found in a dead artist’s notebook. A series of inexplicable suicides.

‘Un succés fou! Un succés fou!’ declared Oscar Wilde – a raving success. In 1893 The Great God Pan stalked and scandalized the prudish British literary scene, which was disgusted and delighted in equal measure.

The Manchester Guardian called it ‘the most acutely and intentionally disagreeable book … yet seen in English’:

‘We could say more, but refrain from doing so for fear of giving such a work advertisement. ‘

There could of course have been none better. The Lady’s Pictorial called it ‘unmanly’, clearly the worst of qualities, and the Glasgow Herald recommended ‘a smart turn in the brisk air to cleanse the feelings’.

The author was a 30-year-old Welshman called Arthur Machen. Over the next seven years he would produce a small body of work that, in HP Lovecraft’s words ‘stands alone in its class, and marks a distinct epoch in the history of this literary form’.

Like HP Lovecraft, who was heavily influenced by him, Arthur Machen was in many ways not a very good writer; in fact many would I think say this is understating the case. Yet The Three Impostors, The Inmost Light, The Red Hand, The Shining Pyramid and The White People, along with The Great God Pan and in a different way The Hill of Dreams, represent a unique vision of supernatural evil that was to have a lasting effect in its genre and indeed beyond.

Was his vision unique? The position may want defending. He can on superficial acquaintance seem merely a background figure in fin-de-siecle decadence, a second rate hawker of Sex and Death to the drawing rooms of Britain. Yet Machen was largely indifferent to the public scandal of the Yellow Book; they took him up, not the other way round. The tang of wormwood in his writing was close enough to Parisian absinthe to suit the taste of the 90s aesthete, but it came from a different source.

That is not to say that he did not have literary influences. A second charge against originality is that he was too facile an imitator of those he admired; Stevenson especially, but also Swinburne and de Quincey. Yet although his execution is often derivative, the specifics of his vision are as I say original.

This is because Machen was primarily a poet of place; in fact two places: Gwent where he was born, and London where he moved as a 19 year old to earn a living and relieve the burden of his upkeep from a chronically poor clergyman father.

He explicitly wrote The Great God Pan as ‘an endeavour to pass on the vague, indefinable sense of awe and mystery and terror’he had received from the land of his fathers. Growing up in the village of Caerleon, near Newport he had around him a landscape of rolling hills and winding valleys fringed on either side by mountains and sea, which he called ‘an enchanted land’. It had been the site of the important Roman garrison of Isca, and among its imperfectly buried ruins the young Machen found a temple dedicated, so he writes, to ‘Nodens, God of the Depths’. A large part of Machen’s vision of evil is here at the very beginning of his life; its beauty, its Celtic-Roman trappings, its obsession with the recrudescence of an ancient and subterranean past.

Machen’s writing is gilded all over with attractive descriptions of his native countryside, so that his evil is pervaded and surrounded by a peculiar beauty: Pan finds his beginnings above ‘a long, lovely valley’to ‘the murmuring call of wild doves’, scenting ‘a sweet breath, that came from the great wood on the hillside’. In The Novel of the Black Seal, one of his finest pieces, the main character is taken to Wales and surrenders herself

‘wholly to the charm of the country’:

‘Here beneath the deep blue sky and the great clouds rolling, like olden galleons with sails full-bellied, from the sea to the hills, as I listened to the whispered charm of the great and ancient wood, I lived solely for delight, and only remembered strange things when we would return to the house and find Professor Gregg… ‘

This is very different from the typically Romantic coercion of landscape to mood found in Machen’s Gothic forebears. It is not a theatrical backdrop; his pastoral scenery is pregnant with ancient forces; forces too powerful for modern humanity to safely comprehend. Pan is the avatar and conduit of these forces, as is a malignant race of little people, fairies so-called, a prehistoric off-shoot of humankind who populate the shadows of his fiction.

The aura of sinister beauty derived from the countryside is not therefore limited to scenic vistas, but is bound up with the mechanics of his horror. Helen Vaughan’s exquisite features evoke ‘the most vivid presentiment of evil… ever seen’. As with vampire stories, this evil is powerfully seductive. The fertility rites of ancient Rome with the phallic Pan at their centre are relived in acts of psychic sexual communion, resulting in annihilating revelation. This process is explicit in the Great God Pan, strongly hinted at in The Hill of Dreams, and implicit in elsewhere in his works of this period; evil is beautiful, destruction lusted after. Conversely his investigative heroes are chivalrous innocents, living in ascetic solitude, their closest emotional bonds that of friendship; they are hilariously and imperviously earnest in the presence of women.

The revelations produced by these processes are insights into nature, they are not, in any structured sense, religious. It is significant that in his later fiction, the malign pastoral forces were replaced (rather than being defeated by) the Holy Grail and Arthurian legend as vessels of revelation, which this time was supernal rather than infernal, and furnished salvation rather than damnation. Machen’s earlier horrific universe is in all important senses a godless one. Its metaphysical characteristics are described by 17th century fellow Silurian and mystic Thomas Vaughan (twin brother of the poet Henry) in Lumen de Lumine. He writes of a chain of being where ‘beneath all degrees of sense there is a certain horrible, inexpressible darkness. The magicians call it tenebrae activae. ‘This crudely sentient and primal darkness is, once tapped, a canker that infects the flesh. As Jorge Luis Borges has noted in a brief but elegant essay on The Three Impostors, in Machen ‘la corrupción del espíritu se manifesta par la corrupción de la carne’. Helen Vaughan in The Great God Pan, Mrs Black in The Inmost Light, and Francis Leicester in The Novel of the White Powder all end up, to quote from the last, ‘a dark and putrid mass, seething corruption and hideous rottenness, neither liquid nor solid, but melting and changing before our eyes, and bubbling with unctuous oily bubbles like boiling pitch. ‘

So it is that Machen’s manifestations of terror might be better termed infra-natural rather than supernatural. Dr Raymond is making a profound error of judgement when he explains at the beginning of The Great God Pan,

‘There is a real world, but it is beyond this glamour and vision, beyond… them all as beyond a veil. I do not know whether any human being has ever lifted that veil. ‘

His error is that of the progressive – that there is something to be gained from such a discovery. In fact a devastating regression is being risked and there is everything to be lost.

Years later a rather different Machen thought he himself had erred in the portrayal of this error, writing

‘Here then was my real failure; I translated awe, at worst awfulness, into evil.

I think far from being his real failure, this was his real success. It gives his horror the status of cosmic theogony rather than localised derangement or folk tale.

These then are the mechanics of Machen’s horror, his other major achievement was in his description of where this horror operated – the London warp to his Silurian weft, ginned, spun and woven in the Satanic mills of the capital. His early years there, from 1880-1887, were characterised by intense poverty. In the words of Anthony Powell, ‘it is difficult to see how he survived’. His diet consisted of unbuttered bread, green tea, and black pipe smoke, with maybe a currant biscuit at lunch-time. Every two weeks or so he would take meat and beer at an inn. He was very lonely. In a garret in Turnham Green so small he had to store his books out on the landing, he warmed his hands at a gas jet and devoted himself to literary creation. Fired by Cervantes and Rabelais, he loved the rich and strange. ‘I chose mysteries first and I chose them last’he would later write. Even apart from his juvenilia his works are best termed Romances rather than novels, the realist conventions of which he all his life held in great contempt. Language was chiefly important for the quality of its sounds, and he developed a lyrical style, delivered in long, rolling musical clauses, in which some critics have heard the surging, intense Welsh preaching style of ‘hwyl’, inherited from his forefathers. It is worth remembering however the sheer amount of care he took over the music of his language. Having tried and failed early at poetry, poetry never left him; often in the evening he would lay down his pen and embark on vast perambulations of the suburbs and broken countryside of west London, and amid the sulphurous fumes from the brickfields at Acton would search for elusive expressions, lines, single words even, which would transform his prose into a vehicle for magic. All too often he would return to his attic and pick up his pen, only to find that inspiration had deserted him. Time and again he writes ‘one dreams in fire, but works in clay’.

In the strange and melancholy Hill of Dreams Lucian’s rapturous visions of ancient Rome become monstrous nightmares when he moves to London. The capital becomes for him a town

‘great as Babylon, terrible as Rome, marvellous as the Lost Atlantis’. Like the child narrator in The White People he feels trapped in a city of infinite menhirs:

‘… one grey temple of an awful rite, ring within ring of wizard stones circled about some central place, every circle was initiation, every initiation eternal loss… ‘

How much The Hill of Dreams is spiritual autobiography is disputable, there can be no doubt however that Lucian’s experience in some way mirrored Machen’s. His precarious early life in London became the template for his stories; characters are frequently a hair’s breadth from death by starvation, the streets and modern inns, and the monotonous suburbs and labyrinthine rookeries that Machen endlessly patrolled were the settings for his abominations. Industrial smog and petroleum naphtha street lamps light the path to Hell, and the keys to Its gates are held by unwitting drunkards, prostitutes, street artists and tramps.

In other words it is not just the nature of the horror that makes it so effective, but where it takes place:

‘As I glanced up I had looked straight towards the last house in the row before me and in an upper window of that house I had seen for some short fraction of a second a face. It was the face of a woman and yet it was not human…. as I saw that face at the window, with the blue sky above me and the warm air playing in gusts about me, I knew that I had looked into another world – looked through the window of a commonplace, brand new house, and seen hell open before me. ‘

The Inmost Light

Unlike Dickens, London’s greatest poet, Machen specialised in the unexaggerated mundane; Machen’s descriptions do not enliven what is seen, as in Dickens, rather they deaden it, in this lies the fear. The otherwise rather unsuccessful Novel of the Iron Maid perfectly evokes the mood:

‘Before me was the long suburban street, its dreary distance marked by rows of twinkling lamps, and the air was poisoned by the faint, sickly smell of burning bricks; it was not a cheerful prospect by any means, and I had to walk through nine miles of such streets, deserted as those of Pompeii. I knew pretty well what direction to take, so I set out wearily, looking at the stretch of lamps vanishing in perspective: and as I walked street after street branched off to right and left, some far reaching, to distances that seemed endless, communicating with other systems of thoroughfare, and some mere protoplasmic streets, and ending suddenly in waste, and pits, and rubbish heaps, and fields whence the magic had departed. I have spoken of systems of thoroughfare, and I assure you that walking alone through these silent places I felt fantasy growing on me, and some glamour of the infinite. ‘

This is the spiritual location of Machen’s adventure. In infinite streets anything can happen – anything must happen eventually. Those who criticise Machen’s overuse of coincidence proceed from a fundamental error; trying to interpret his writings according to a theory of realism that Machen despised. The events in his works progress as in a nightmare. There is a sense that when his characters wander aimlessly they are part of a hidden process. That whether they choose streets left or right, secluded courtyard or crowded pub, they are progressing down an unalterable path to the heart of the mystery. In an infinite labyrinth everywhere is the centre; Machen’s London as a whole partakes of the mysteries that occur within it.

An appreciation of the potency of Machen’s vision should not blind the reader to his demerits. A proper critical evaluation cannot avoid the fact that his writing is frequently disastrously bad, there is no other word for it. Even allowing for the aesthetic of a nightmare, plot construction is so totally absent, so gimcrack when present, that the reader must totally disregard concerns of narrative. His character drawing is rudimentary in the extreme, so that it is frequently difficult to work out who is narrating anyway. Conversational exchanges become exercises in counting back to work out who is saying what to whom. The way he squanders the build-up of menace in The Red Hand is immensely frustrating and the last line of The Three Impostors is so comically bathetic that it provoked in me a shout of excruciated laughter. The teller of The Novel of the Dark Valley is a monster of slow-witted incuriosity and boredom – even Machen admitted it was ‘to put it mildly, not a very good story’. (This despite the fact it was a blatant copy of Stevenson’s excellent The Story of the Destroying Angel). Names are but imperfectly attached to their owners, so it is not unusual in connected works to find the same name for totally unconnected characters. His lyrical style can have a kind of incantatory power to keep you reading even when the matter seems weak, silly or thin, but it can also be painfully tedious and repetitive, and in these more laconic times, indigestibly gorgeous. Characters, as well as being paper thin, frequently engage in an early version of what would later be known as radio dialogue, gabbling instant information at each other from point-blank range; this from The Three Impostors:

‘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-bye here, before this picturesque but mouldy residence, to my friend Mr Burton, dealer in the antique and curious,’ and so forth.

There is also sometimes a serious problem of tone. The rather chilly blend of farce and seriousness, flippancy and deadliness, Stevenson used in his New Arabian Nights mixes awkwardly with the hot feeling of mystical evil so sincerely felt in Machen’s writing. I must admit that I quite like, however, the grave good humour with which his heroes dash about the page. Without this his horror writing would become a mere exercise in the morbid and a deal less entertaining for it.

It is once again worth pointing out that Machen is not the slightest bit derivative apart from in his faults.

To list the faults is not only to perform a necessary duty, but also to redress an imbalance: Machen has been as ill-served by his admirers, who refuse to admit his failings, as by his critics, who refuse to allow his achievements. Those who best appreciate him are those who are prepared to enjoy a vulgarity of literary taste as they would the vulgarity of a pier-end ice cream, letting the snobbish critics, vain of their prejudices, turn their noses up at the vulgarity, and the equally snobbish fanatics, vain of their preferences, deny the very presence of any such vulgarity. All the basic faults of construction and style should perhaps preclude the expression of higher things and yet they do not. An intangible and potent aura of mystery persists despite the grotesquely malfunctioning mechanics.

To look at his artistic heritage may serve to indicate his position in literary history and reaffirm his literary qualities.

American horror story writer HP Lovecraft simply cannot be ignored. To him is the most obvious bequest, the one most frequently cited. There was a huge but brief interest in America, towards the end of Machen’s life, in his horror writing. Literary pilgrims made their way across the Atlantic expecting to find a rather formidable sorcerer along the lines of Aleister Crowley, instead finding a rather Pickwickian and benevolent Machen, fond of punch and skittles. Lovecraft was part of this slightly morbid swell of interest. He expanded Machen’s cosmic implications to create a mythos of alien gods, in the Egyptian and Mesopotamian mould, and his entertainingly gaudy and tentacled monsters are an extension of the vivid tentacle in The Novel of the Black Seal, from whence is also taken the idea and style of his ancient and indecipherable magical language. His often execrable writing owes something to Machen’s purple periods, although the influence of Poe should not be left off the charge sheet. Lovecraft’s highly coloured terrors were perfectly suited to comics and B-movies, and it may be said that through him Machen’s style of horror entered the bloodstream of popular culture.

Mark E Smith of The Fall has done much to revive the language and landscapes of English horror, stripping and fracturing the overworked seam of Victorian nightmares, conveying the essentials of fear in a way completely different to Machen, but with a similar desire for evocative force. The language had become outdated, the intent remains the same; to frighten. Horror by no means forms the entirety of The Fall’s output, and even in that genre there is a good deal that is original; furthermore, separating out the strands of Lovecraft and Machen is not always easy. Nevertheless Leave the Capitol is explicitly set in Machen’s universe, the ‘Roman shell’of the Capitol, the Welsh camp caravan masquerade, and a reference to a comic book depiction of Pan all seem to have as their epigraph Austin’s comment in The Great God Pan;

‘I shall leave London to-morrow, ‘he said, ‘it is a city of nightmares. ‘

Songs such as The Impression of J Temperance, with their decaying urban setting and protean horrors also have the clear stamp of Machen on them and Pan is a frequent visitor to their music, his offspring contemptuous of mankind and their self-regarding achievements.

On TV Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass and the Pit has considerable elements of Machen, albeit translated into the genre of science-fiction, with a race of gnomish people and investigations into the psychological presence of Satan. Kneale’s TV series Beasts is occasionally reminiscent of Machen’s The Terror, where the natural world rises up against humankind.

M John Hamilton, one of the writers collected under the umbrella term The New Weird, is the most recent popular inheritor of Machen; his short story of dreadful revelation The Great God Pan later became the basis for his novel The Course of the Heart. He successfully updates much of Machen’s machinery but sadly retains little of his charm, his writing to my ears having a rather workmanlike flavour, dull even.

The other legacy is rather more, though not entirely, indebted to Machen’s elegiac and pastoral strain. The composer John Ireland admired him very much, writing to him frequently and meeting him on a couple of occasions, although Machen’s hostility to musical innovation (he would have nothing but plainsong and Ta-Ra-Ra-Boomdeay) meant the warmth was not entirely reciprocal (God alone knows what he would have made of The Fall’s fearsome racket). Nevertheless his admiration gave a disturbing dimension to his pastoral music, withheld contemporaries such as Elgar and Vaughan Williams. The beautiful Legend, with its distant and yearning clarion call, is strongly reminiscent of Machen’s rustic descriptions and was inspired by an experience on the Sussex downs near the site of an old leper colony, where Ireland saw children in white robes performing a silent dance; he looked away briefly and they were gone. ‘Oh, so you’ve seen them too? ‘was Machen’s rather terse response. Mai Dun evokes pagan military rites that haunt the contemporary hills and ruins as the rites of Rome haunted Machen’s Gwent.

Ireland’s friend Jocelyn Brooke, an exceptional and neglected writer, has called Machen’s stories ‘unduly undervalued’, a judgement worth taking seriously from such a fine stylist. His Image of a Drawn Sword evokes a feeling of spiritual dread through vivid rural descriptions, his method rather different and supremely accomplished, but in effect not too dissimilar to Machen’s.

John Betjeman was also in fact a brief acquaintance of Machen and credited his curious novel The Secret Glory, part attack on public schooling, part Grail legend, with him staying in the Church of England at a time when he felt the lure of Rome (no insignificant event considering Betjeman’s writings). He commemorated the event in Summoned by Bells:

I would not care to read that book again.

It so exactly mingled with the mood

Of those impressionable years, that now

I might be disillusioned. There were laughs

At public schools, at chapel services,

At masters who were still ‘big boys at heart’-

While all the time the author’s hero knew

A Secret Glory in the hills of Wales:

Caverns of light revealed the Holy Grail

Exhaling gold upon the mountain-tops;

At " Holy! Holy! Holy! " in the Mass

King Brychan’s sainted children crowded round,

And past and present were enwrapped in one.

Betjeman also said that as a child The Three Impostors ‘frightened me more than any book I read’. But it is Betjeman’s people and places that most remind me of Machen, his hymns to suburbias and provincial hills, his description of the vivid inner lives of city clerks and the unexpected rapture to be found in the mundane.

GK Chesterton feels temperamentally like Machen in many ways. As journalists they can hardly be told apart sometimes, though Machen despised the trade and Chesterton was proud of it. In the fiction Chesterton inherited a portion of Machen’s rolling style, but most significantly his love of London topography and atmospheric effects like the fiery clouds that garland both their works so beautifully. If Chesterton outdid Machen with his remarkable descriptions of the latter, I feel strongly that Machen was the master of the former; he is for me the strongest portrayer of London after Dickens. Interested readers will turn to The Man Who Was Thursday and certain of the Father Brown stories for comparison.

It is in Machen’s strange urban infinities that we find another admirer of his, Jorge Luis Borges, who chose The Three Impostors as one of the books for his personal library, and who has written two excellent, typically brief, sadly untranslated essays on him.

Multiplying the mirrors, that rather formidable spiritual son of Borges, Javier Marias, makes much use of Machen and his friend the poet John Gawsworth, in his books The Dark Back of Time and All Souls.

To list all the names connected with Machen would be mere phatic criticism, but I hope the ones given suggest that Machen’s place in literature is rather stronger than his detractors allow and even his admirers may suspect.

All that is to a certain extent by the bye; to read Machen on a fine day in a quiet sunny glade or the cramped back room of a pub may on occasion be the height of literary pleasure, at other times he will seem just silly. But those who cannot stand his faults debar themselves the rewards he can give. Just the other day, while out for an evening stroll in west London, I looked down a street lined with blossom, and through the windows of a house at the end of it saw a silhouette of a person briefly framed against a sky of blood and orange, and the lyrical and sinister magic of Machen lit the world around me and within.


  1. says

    Readers of Tom Wootton’s essay about Arthur Machen in Spike Magazine may be interested to hear that a thriving literary society exists to honour Machen and his works, The Friends of Arthur (www.machensoc.demon.co.uk). The society publishes a journal, Faunus, and a regular newsletter, Machenalia. Over the years Machen’s admirers have included the film director Michael Powell, Jorge Luis Borges, Hitchcock’s regular composer Bernard Herrmann, Mick Jagger and novelists Peter Ackroyd, Paul Bowles, Iain Sinclair and Alan Moore. Guillermo del Toro’s acclaimed fantasy film Pan’s Labyrinth was influenced by Machen’s tale ‘The White People’ (1904). After years of unaccountable neglect the cinema may be about to discover Machen’s genius. A film based on the Angels of Mons legend is currently in development from a British company, and an American screenwriter is working on a script based on The Three Impostors (1895). Many of Machen’s books have been reissued over recent years by Tartarus Press (www.tartaruspress.com).

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