Arthur Machen: The Evils of Materialism
Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries
The late nineteenth and early twentieth century saw the emergence of four titanic figures—Arthur Machen (1863—1947), Algernon Blackwood (1869—1951), Lord Dunsany (1878—1957), and M. R. James (1862—1936)—who, with their great disciple, H. P. Lovecraft, transformed supernatural literature in as profound a way as Edgar Allan Poe had done a half-century earlier. Their simultaneous appearance was in some senses an accident, but in other senses was the manifest product of a century or more of weird writing—from the Gothic novels through Poe to the Victorian ghost story writers—whereby the supernatural had become a literarily viable mode that could serve to express a writer’s deepest moods, images, and conceptions in a manner that could not be accommodated by mimetic realism. It is not simply that these four writers produced work that is of transcendent merit; it is that each endowed his work with a philosophical and aesthetic vision that causes it to cohere as a tightly woven unity, thereby expressing a compelling worldview that allows it to become more than the sum of its parts. These writers also expanded the range of supernatural writing beyond mundane ghosts and goblins—tropes that were already becoming hackneyed through overuse—and thereby lent supernatural literature a renewed lease of life that carried it boldly into the new century.
Arthur Machen: The Evils of Materialism
Arthur Machen’s own life is perhaps his greatest creation; for it is exactly the life we might expect a poet and a visionary to have lived. Born in 1863 in the village of Caerleon-on-Usk in Wales (the site, two millennia earlier, of the Roman town of Isca Silurum and the base of the Second Augustan Legion), Machen was fascinated since youth by the Roman antiquities in his region as well as the rural Welsh countryside. He attended Hereford Cathedral School, but in 1880 he failed an examination for the Royal College of Surgeons; he felt he had no option but to go to London to look for work, where he hoped that his ardent enthusiasm for books might land him some literary work.
But only poverty and loneliness were his portion. Dragging out a meagre existence as a translator (his translation of the Heptameron of Marguerite de Navarre  long remained standard, as did his later translation of Casanova’s memoirs), tutor, and cataloguer, he knew at first hand the spiritual isolation that his alter ego, Lucian Taylor, would depict so poignantly in The Hill of Dreams (1907). In his first autobiography, Far Off Things (1922), he speaks of this period with a wistfulness that scarcely conceals his anguish. Although Machen published a few works during this period—The Anatomy of Tobacco (1884), an owlishly learned disquisition on various types of tobacco; the picaresque novel The Chronicle of Clemendy (1886)—they were commercially unsuccessful and are today not highly regarded.
But the death of Machen’s father in 1887 suddenly gave him, for the next fourteen years, the economic independence he required to write whatever he chose, without thought of markets or sales. And yet, one of his first works of fiction of this period—“The Great God Pan” (1890)—created a sensation, especially when it appeared in book form in 1894. It shocked the moral guardians of an enfeebled Victorian culture as the diseased outpourings of a decadent mind; but the reviewers who condemned it as sexually offensive could not know that Machen shared the very inhibitions he seemed to be defying. This tale—as well as the infinitely superior “The White People” (1899)—succeeds largely because Machen himself, as a rigidly orthodox Anglo-Catholic, crystallised his horror of aberrant sexuality by giving it a supernatural dimension.
In “The Great God Pan” we are asked to believe that a scientific experiment performed upon a young woman of seventeen results in her “seeing” the Great God Pan; she instantly loses her mind and becomes an idiot. Some years thereafter a strange woman named Helen Vaughan plagues London society, causing a rash of suicides and destroying the lives of several prominent men about town. In the end we learn that Helen is in fact the daughter of the young woman, born nine months after the fateful experiment.
Without so much as hinting it, Machen has conveyed to astute readers that the young woman had done more than merely “see” Pan; she had been (somehow) impregnated by the great god of Nature. (This is the point of the Latin inscription at the end of the second section: “And a devil was made incarnate. And a human being was produced” [Three Impostors 14].) But the way in which Machen portrays Pan—and, by extension, Nature itself—is interesting, especially in contrast to his great contemporary Algernon Blackwood, a pantheist for whom Nature was pure, uncorrupt, and unadulterated by the pollution of human civilisation. Machen takes a precisely opposite view. For him, the life-principle itself was inherently horrific, and can be made acceptable only by the rigid repression of civilised society This is why Helen Vaughan’s activities cause the greatest disturbance among the refined aristocrats of London. The scientist, Raymond, confesses toward the end that “I broke open the door of the house of life” (Three Impostors 50)—in other words, that he has broken down the barriers that separate human life from all other life on the earth. But the result is only horror; and Helen Vaughan’s death-throes—whereby she transmogrifies “from woman to man, from man to beast, and from beast to worse than beast” (Three Impostors 50)—convey Machen’s own horror of untamed, uncontrolled, uncivilised life.
Throughout the novella Machen hints at illicit sex in a way that to us seems coy but to his original readers would have appeared suggestive to the point of obscenity. The young Helen is once seen in the company of a “strange naked man” (no doubt Pan himself, perhaps in his traditional guise as a man with the legs of a goat). Another young woman, Rachel, is found weeping and “half undressed” (Three Impostors 13) in her room: clearly she has been raped by Pan. Mercifully, she dies shortly thereafter. Helen herself, a young woman in London, is said to be guilty of “nameless infamies” (Three Impostors 41)—no doubt of a sexual nature. All this would have titillated Machen’s Victorian audience, and indeed did so.
All this makes Machen sound like the Erica Jong of his day, but this reaction was only to have been expected in the final decade of Queen Victoria’s reign. H. P. Lovecraft, although at one point heaping scorn on Machen’s horror of sex—“The filth and perversion which to Machen’s obsoletely orthodox mind meant profound defiances of the universe’s foundations, mean to us only a rather prosaic and unfortunate species of organic maladjustment—no more frightful, and no more interesting, than a headache, a fit of colic, or an ulcer on the big toe” (Selected Letters 4.4)—was himself highly reserved and puritanical in matters of sex, so it is no surprise that he adapted Machen’s notion of a “god” impregnating a mortal in his own tale, “The Dunwich Horror” (1928).
Another scientific experiment is at the focus of “The Inmost Light,” written in 1892 and first published in 1894. Here we find that a doctor has persuaded his own wife to allow him to extract her soul and place it in a gem—the “inmost light” in that gem is her soul. The result is that the woman continues to live, but presents—like Helen Vaughan—a visage of mingled beauty and horror. One man who sees her in a window thinks of her as a “satyr” (Three Impostors 56). To one of Machen’s conventional religiosity, a person without a (Christian) soul can only appear as a figure of pagan antiquity.
“The Shining Pyramid” (1895), aside from continuing the adventures of Mr. Dyson, the pseudo-detective who was introduced to us in “The Inmost Light,” is one of Machen’s first expositions of what might be called his “Little People mythology.” Although it features a spectacularly potent scene in which the stunted, primitive denizens of Britain—now dwelling in caves, having been driven out by successive waves of fully human peoples—perform a hideous ritual around a pyramid of fire, “The Shining Pyramid” is perhaps too much of a detective story to be fully effective as a weird tale. But the “Little People mythology” is of some interest in itself. Machen makes it clear that he himself believed in the former existence of just such a race of creatures as he depicts in these stories:
Of recent years abundant proof has been given that a short, non-Aryan race once dwelt beneath ground, in hillocks, throughout Europe, their raths have been explored, and the weird old tales of green hills all lighted up at night have received confirmation. Much in the old legends may be explained by a reference to this primitive race. The stories of changelings, and captive women, become clear on the supposition that the “fairies” occasionally raided the houses of the invaders. (“Folklore and Legends of the North” , Line of Terror 31)
This was written more than two decades before the publication of Margaret A. Murray’s The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921), which gave a momentary stamp of approval to the thesis. But Machen knew that the really adventuresome aspect of his theory—or, rather, the radical extension of it which he made for fictional purposes—was that “the people still lived in hidden caverns in wild and lonely lands,” something he maintained was “wildly improbable” (“On Re-reading The Three Impostors and the Wonder Story” [unpublished ms.], cited in Three Impostors xv).
But behind all this speculative anthropology is the symbolism of the Little People. They are horrible and loathsome, to be sure, but they have at least one advantage over modern human beings: they have retained that primal sacrament (perverted, of course, by bestiality and violence) which links them with the Beyond. There is something of awe mingled with the horror experienced by the narrators when they witness the “Pyramid of fire” (Three Impostors 94) summoned by the Little People in “The Shining Pyramid,” and this signals the truth uttered by the protagonist of “The White People”: “Sorcery and sanctity … these are the only realities. Each is an ecstasy, a withdrawal from the common life” (White People 62).
Probably Machen’s most sustained weird work is The Three Impostors, published in 1895. Also poorly received, it was criticised for being excessively imitative of Robert Louis Stevenson. It is commonly believed that the model for the novel—both in its episodic structure and in its flippant and jaunty style—is Stevenson’s The New Arahian Nights (1882); but the true model is that novel’s sequel, The Dynamiter (1885), written by Stevenson in conjunction with his wife, Fanny van de Grift Stevenson. Machen ultimately acknowledged this criticism, and for the next two years he worked with difficulty, even agony, to hammer out his own style; the result is that luminous novel of aesthetic sincerity, The Hill of Dreams.
What is The Three Impostors? On the surface, it appears to be a random collection of episodes strung together with the flimsiest kind of narrative thread. One episode—“Novel of the Iron Maid”—had in fact been written and published in 1890, and for copyright reasons it and its introductory segment (“The Decorative Imagination”) do not appear in many American editions of the novel. Other episodes—notably the celebrated “Novel of the Black Seal” and “Novel of the White Powder”—have been abstracted from the narrative fabric and reprinted as self-standing stories. This occurred on several occasions during Machen’s lifetime, and he appears to have registered no great complaint; but Machen was scarcely in a position to do so, as the period between 1901 and 1932 (when he received a Civil List pension of £100 a year) was of considerable poverty for him, and he could ill afford to pass up any revenue his writings yielded.
Both the title of The Three Impostors and its subtitle (“or, The Transmutations”—frequently omitted from reprints) may provide the clue to the interpretation of the novel. Who are the “three impostors” of the title? Who can they be but the two men and a woman we encounter in the prologue, who have at last captured and perhaps killed the “young man with spectacles” they have evidently been pursuing? For it is they who, under a series of guises, tell the various “novels” (from the French nouvelle, or tale, especially one of a romantic or fantastic character) scattered throughout the work. Their sole audience is a pair of friends, Mr. Dyson and Charles Phillipps, who wage an ongoing philosophical battle on the nature of reality and the nature of fiction, and it becomes gradually clear that the tales spun by the “three impostors” may be entirely fictitious, being instead somewhat laborious contrivances meant to dupe Dyson and Phillipps into leading them to the spectacled young man.
Toward the end it begins to dawn upon the two gentlemen that the stories they are hearing are perhaps not entirely reliable; Dyson finally resolves to “abjure all Milesian and Arabian methods of entertainment” (Three Impostors 213)—a reference to the Milesian tale (the Greek version of the tall tale) and, of course, to the Arabian Nights. This connects with a theme that runs throughout The Three Impostors and Machen’s work as a whole—the fantastic nature of the metropolis of London. A Fragment of Life (1904), a pensive short novel on the borderline of the weird, conveys this conception poignantly: “London seemed a city of the Arabian Nights, and its labyrinths of streets an enchanted maze; its long avenues of lighted lamps were as starry systems, and its immensity became for him an image of the endless universe” (White People 168).
But what purpose could Machen have in seemingly dynamiting the seriousness and power of the episodes in The Three Impostors by putting them in the mouths of dubious characters? There may be no clear answer to this question, but perhaps some clues can be provided by considering Machen’s general philosophy. I hesitate to call his view of the world a philosophy, for really it was a set of dogmatic prejudices that changed little through the whole of his long life; but at its essence was a violent hostility and resentment at what he perceived to be the growing secularism and “scientism” of the modern world. To Machen, the religious mystic, the triumphs of nineteenth-century science were anything but victories; instead, it seemed to him that science was coming to rule all aspects of life, even those aspects—the spiritual life and its corollary, art—where it had no place.
In The Three Impostors, Phillipps clearly espouses the hard-headed scientific scepticism Machen wishes to combat. It is no surprise that the woman who calls herself Miss Lally tells him the “Novel of the Black Seal”; for in this story it is Professor Gregg who embodies what Machen believes to be the genuinely scientific attitude of open-mindedness to unusual phenomena: “Life, believe me, is no simple thing, no mass of grey matter and congeries of veins and muscles to be laid naked by the surgeon’s knife; man is the secret which I am about to explore, and before I can discover him I must cross over weltering seas indeed, and oceans and the mists of many thousand years” (Three Impostors 143). Indeed, it seems quite likely that Miss Lally tells Phillipps this story only in order to overcome his innate scepticism; for Phillipps “required a marvel to be neatly draped in the robes of Science before he would give it any credit” (Three Impostors 131).
Perhaps the subtitle of The Three Impostors provides a further clue. Exactly what transmutations are in question? To be sure, on a superficial level the various “novels” and other episodes transmute scenery, as we flit from the suburbs of London (“Novel of the Iron Maid,” “Novel of the White Powder”) to the wilds of the American West (“Novel of the Dark Valley”) to the “wild, domed hills” of Wales (“Novel of the Black Seal”). Miss Lally casually notes that “I looked out of my window and saw the whole landscape transmuted before me” (Three Impostors 149). But the reference here is merely to topography; elsewhere there are much more profound transmutations going on. When Professor Gregg finally decodes the cryptic black seal that appears to confirm his theory of the “Little People,” he states with awed solemnity: “I read the key of the awful transmutation of the hills” (Three Impostors 172). Here it is not landcape but Gregg’s entire outlook on life that has been transmuted. The “Novel of the White Powder” confirms this view. Miss Leicester, who tells the tale (and who is presumably identical to the Miss Lally of the earlier narrative), speaks offhandedly of “the transmutation of my brother’s character” (Three Impostors 198) after he begins taking the strange drug from a careless apothecary’s shop. But what really happens to the hapless student is the transmutation of his very being, physically and morally, leading a doctor to write harriedly, “my old conception of the universe has been swept away” (Three Impostors 208). This is the ultimate transmutation.
That doctor, in effect, gives voice to Machen’s own view of the world: “The whole universe … is a tremendous sacrament; a mystic, ineffable force and energy, veiled by an outward form of matter; and man, and the sun and the other stars, and the flower of the grass, and the crystal in the test-tube, are each and every one as spiritual, as material, and subject to an inner working” (Three Impostors 209). It was this view that Machen was determined to convey to his audience over a lifetime of writing.
The final years of Machen’s “great decade” of fiction writing produced several of the works for which Machen is known today. Even excluding the marginally weird novel The Hill of Dreams (written in 1895—97 but not published until 1907), we are faced with such works as “The Red Hand” (1897), the prose poems collected in Ornaments in Jade (1924), “The White People” (the second-greatest horror tale ever written, according to Lovecraft, next to Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows”), and the unclassifiable short novel A Fragment of Life. Had Machen written nothing else, these works alone would be sufficient to grant him a place in weird literature—or in literature as a whole.
“The Red Hand” (written in 1895) is a pendant to The Three Impostors, resurrecting the two central figures in that novel, Phillipps and Dyson, as they continue their intellectual dispute over the nature of reality while becoming involved in what proves to be an exceptionally clever supernatural detective story. Dyson, the mystic (hence the stand-in for Machen), evokes a “theory of improbability” (White People 18) to account for the remarkable series of coincidences that leads him to the solution of the case; but this is less interesting than the overall philosophical thrust of the tale, in which Machen utilises the tools of rationalism (specifically, the forensic analysis of evidence in regard to the murder at the heart of the case) to undermine rationalism and thereby to “prove” to his satisfaction that the matter can only be accounted for by appealing to the supernatural—in this case, the continued existence of “little people.”
Of the prose-poems in Ornaments in Jade it is difficult to speak in detail. These delicate vignettes may in some sense be pendants to The Hill of Dreams—not in terms of plot, but in terms of style and substance. Comparable only to those of Clark Ashton Smith as the finest in English, they complete Machen’s transformation from clever imitator to independent artist. If there is any dominant theme that unites them, it is the constant contrast between mundane modernity and the hoary past—a past that is simultaneously terrifying in its primitivism and awesome in its suggestions of intimate, symbolic connexions with the essence of life and Nature. However brutalised modern people are by the dominant materialism of the age, their sense of spirituality can well up in spite of themselves in the practice of ancient rituals.
As for “The White People,” in a sense it returns to the theme of “The Great God Pan” (1890) in its emphasis on illicit sex. For Machen, the orthodox Anglo-Catholic, sexual aberrations represented a kind of violation of the entire fabric of the universe. This is the substance of the remarks by Ambrose at the beginning of the tale, especially his comment that sin is “the attempt to penetrate into another and higher sphere in a forbidden [my italics] manner” and “the effort to gain the ecstasy and knowledge that pertain alone to angels” (White People 65). This story—in which a young girl unwittingly reveals in her diary her inculcation into a witch-cult and, evidently, her impregnation by some nameless entity—transmogrifies illicit sex into a cosmic sin that will either lift us up into the ranks of the angels or plunge us down into the company of demons. And yet, Machen’s exposition of the details of the matter (especially the sexual element) are so indirect that many readers have been puzzled as to the exact nature of the scenario. One such reader was the young J. Vernon Shea, who asked his friend H. P. Lovecraft to elucidate the tale. Lovecraft did so, concluding: “On account of a sympathetic action like that described in the prologue, the now-adolescent child—though without contact with any creative element—became pregnant with a Horror, to whose birth (knowing what she did of dark tradition) she could not look forward without a stark frenzy far beyond the fear of mere disgrace. Thus she killed herself” (Selected Letters 3.439). In the absence of contrary evidence, this interpretation must be accepted. Machen’s single sentence at the end (“She had poisoned herself—in time” [White People 97]) is the only clue this repressed Victorian writer can provide to the sexual anomalies of the situation.
And yet, Lovecraft was manifestly inspired not by the mechanics of the plot of “The White People,” but by its magnificent allusiveness and subtlety. The diary in which the girl tells of her initiation into the witch-cult is a masterstroke: we know what is happening, but she in her naïveté does not. And those chilling hints of nameless rituals that the girl provides (“I must not write down … the way to make the Aklo letters, or the Chian language, or the great beautiful Circles, nor the Mao Games, nor the chief songs” [White People 70]) carries hints of hideous suggestion that are the more potent for their being so ill-defined.
A Fragment of Life is an altogether different proposition. If this short novel is only on the very edge of the weird, it deserves far wider recognition as one of Machen’s most finished works. The exquisitely gradual way in which the stolid bourgeois couple, Edward and Mary Darnell, slowly awaken to their sense of wonder and abandon London for their native Wales is one of Machen’s great literary accomplishments. Amidst all the mundane details of the small-scale social life of the Darnells, we receive hints that their love of beauty has not been entirely destroyed, as it has for so many who live too fully in the modern world. Machen delivers an unanswerable criticism of the narrowing of vision that such a life engenders: “So, day after day, he lived in the grey phantasmal world, akin to death, that has, somehow, with most of us, made good its claim to be called life” (White People 121). And yet, something so simple as birdsong heard by Edward (“That night was the night I thought I heard the nightingale … and the sky was such a wonderful deep blue” [White People 117]) provides an anticipation of the coming change. Mary, too, although seemingly more hard-headedly practical than Edward, senses the alteration in her being (“one would have almost said that they were the eyes of one who longed and half expected to be initiated into the mysteries, who knew not what great wonder was to be revealed” [White People 132]). The entire novel is a kind of instantiation of the critical theories in Machen’s idiosyncratic treatise, Hieroglyphics: A Note upon Ecstasy in Literature (1902), in which he criticised such writers as Jane Austen and George Eliot for being too closely tied to mundane reality and failing to include that modicum of “ecstasy” which ought, in Machen’s eyes, to inform all literature. We may well believe that Machen was insufficiently attuned to the “ecstasy” that is in fact present in the work of the social realists he disdains, but we can hardly gainsay that he himself has flawlessly embodied his own principles in A Fragment of Life.
After writing this novel (which was itself worked on sporadically over five years, 1899—1904), Machen appeared to lose focus as far as fiction writing was concerned. In 1907 he wrote the curious novel The Secret Glory (a satire on the British school system that was not published until 1922), but that was the extent of his creative output between 1904 and 1914. With his inheritance gone, Machen was forced to produce mountains of journalism; the book publications of his fiction—specifically The House of Souls (1906) and The Hill of Dreams (1907)—brought him fleeting attention, but not much in the way of income. It was only in 1914 that he resumed fiction writing—but he did so in a peculiar way.
Machen had, since 1910, been serving on the staff of one of the leading newspapers in London, the Evening News, as reporter and columnist. At least two of the four stories that comprised The Bowmen and Other Legends of the War (1915)—“The Bowmen” (29 September 1914) and “The Soldiers’ Rest” (20 October 1914)—appeared in the Evening News. The well-known story of how “The Bowmen”—a tale about the ghosts of mediaeval British soldiers who come to the aid of a beleaguered British unit at the battle of Mons in late August 1914—came to be regarded as a real occurrence, with angels rescuing the soldiers and supposedly first-hand accounts by the soldiers themselves testifying to the miracle—need not be discussed in detail; Machen himself recounts the matter in the introduction to The Bowmen and Other Legends of the War. His repeated protestations that the story was entirely a product of his imagination went for naught; the outbreak of the European war—which had commenced less than two months prior to the publication of “The Bowmen”—was so traumatic that the emergence of such legendry was inevitable. Machen himself alludes to Kipling’s “The Lost Legion” as a central literary influence on the tale, although other literary sources reaching back to Herodotus’ Histories have recently been postulated. But what is more significant is Machen’s own attempt to pull off a kind of hoax with “The Bowmen.” The mere fact that it was published in a newspaper—even though newspapers at this time published more fiction than they do now—and the fact that it was written with the plain-spoken sobriety expected of factual articles, suggest that Machen is not wholly blameless in the subsequent furore caused by his little tale.
Much the same could be said for “The Great Return,” which also appeared in the Evening News (21 October—16 November 1915) and was subsequently published in book form by a religious publisher, the Faith Press. Here Machen seeks no more than to present, in the most orthodox repertorial manner, a series of curious incidents in Wales that, to his mind, suggest the actual rediscovery of the Holy Grail. Once again, as in “The Red Hand,” although in a somewhat cruder way, Machen seeks to use the tools of rationalism to undermine rationalism: here the outwardly sceptical newspaper reporter—who is none other than Machen himself, with no attempt made to establish a distance between author and persona—becomes gradually convinced of the reality of the phenomena described. Machen is content to present a scenario whereby something miraculous might have happened: this is sufficient for his current purpose of attacking the godless materialism of his age.
The European war was obviously a highly disturbing event to Machen. Already alienated from his time by his religious mysticism, so much in contrast with the prevailing scientific rationalism of the later nineteenth century, he found his own faith shaken by a war in which Christians were killing other Christians with great gusto. Toward the end of the conflict he wrote a series of sophistical articles attempting to justify the ways of God to man; they were collected as War and the Christian Faith (1918). But Machen’s work of fiction revolving around the war is of course The Terror, a short novel that has inspired a host of imitations of its basic plot—animals turning against human beings.
The Terror reveals several features characteristic of Machen’s later fiction. The first, perhaps, is frank autobiography. Not only does the first-person narrative voice seem to be Machen himself, but he plays upon his own role as a journalist and reporter—something we will find again in the later tale “Out of the Picture.” Indeed, it is not insignificant that The Terror was also first published as a serialisation in the Evening News (16—31 October 1916), under the title “The Great Terror.” Is Machen attempting to pass off the narrative as a “true” story? To be sure, there is no deliberate intent to deceive; but the circumstantiality of his account, and its generally reportorial tone, make one wonder whether Machen is hoping to convey a deeper truth—the truth that the brief, fitful, and ultimately temporary “revolution” of the animals against humanity’s reign over the earth is a signal that human morals are collapsing as a result of the hideous and unprecedented warfare that had broken out two years earlier.
Machen wrote relatively few actual works of fiction in the 1920s, aside from a few stories for anthologies edited by Cynthia Asquith. In the 1930s he resumed somewhat greater productivity in fiction-writing and published two late collections, The Cosy Room and The Children of the Pool, in 1936. The former volume contains stories written over a wide period, but the latter is an original collection of previously unpublished tales. They are, however, a sadly uneven mix, and some stories—such as “N,” “The Exalted Omega,” and “The Tree of Life”—are among his poorest work. But Machen could on occasion still wield the magic that makes his earlier works so shuddersomely memorable. In particular, “Out of the Picture” and “Change” seem to be among the final instalments of the “Little People mythology”; it is possible that “The Bright Boy” also belongs to this cycle.
Then there is The Green Round (1933), a short novel later reprinted by Arkham House. But this insubstantial account of a man who goes to a quiet resort in Wales, only to be plagued by a strange, stunted being whom others can see but he cannot, is a disappointment in more ways than one. It is, really, a novella or even a short story stretched out to novel length, and its thinness of inspiration, verbosity, and failure to come to a satisfying conclusion must condemn it as a false start. Machen himself dismissed The Terror as a “shilling shocker,” but that short novel stands leagues higher than the only other novel-length work of the supernatural that emerged from his pen.
In a career that spanned more than six decades, Arthur Machen produced some of the most evocative weird fiction in all literary history. Written with impeccably mellifluous prose, infused with a powerful mystical vision, and imbued with a wonder and terror that their author felt with every fibre of his being, his novels and tales will survive when works of far greater technical accomplishment fall by the wayside. Flawed as some of them are by certain crotchets—especially a furious hostility to science and secularism—that disfigure Machen’s own philosophy, they are nonetheless as effective as they are because they echo the sincere beliefs of their author, whose eternal quest to preserve the mystery of the universe in an age of materialism is one to which we can all respond.