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Literary Essays on Gothic Horror, Ghost Stories, & Weird Fiction

from  Mary  Shelley  to  M.  R.  James —

by M. Grant Kellermeyer

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Arthur Machen's Sexually Charged, Mystical Horror Stories

There are sacraments of evil as well as of good about us, and we live and move to my belief in an unknown world, a place where there are caves and shadows and dwellers in twilight. It is possible that man may sometimes return on the track of evolution, and it is my belief that an awful lore is not yet dead.— Arthur Machen With only a few exceptions, Arthur Machen rarely reveled in gore, Gothic clichés, or moments of horror. He hosts no chattering skeletons, moldering corpses, or headless ghosts. Nor does he often turn to the more sophisticated horrors of Lovecraft, Hodgson, or Chambers whose shambling mutants, reeking zombies, and tentacled monstrosities shifted the direction of horror in the twentieth century. On two occasions – both in “The Three Imposters” – he indulged in the Gothic excesses of Poe, but for the most part his horrors are easy to miss, rewarding the attentive, and understated with masterful self-control.

His horrors are not as grandiose as Lovecraft’s, as adventuresome as Hodgson’s, or as romantic as Chambers’. They are rustic, hidden, and lurking, only emerging for a moment – so quick as to be mistaken or unnoticed by the impatient reader. But Machen recompenses the patient with liberality.His fiction is remarkable for its hypnotic voice, emphasis on rapturous horror, and apparent use of shifting dimensions, time holes, and lapses in natural order. Growing up in the hill country of southeastern Wales, Machen was constantly reminded of the relativity of time and space by the very geography that surrounded him. Druid artifacts, Roman fortifications, Saxon ruins, Norman churches, and medieval architecture intermingled in a landscape whose vast wildness defied human industry.

Young Machen was constantly aware of the fleeting nature of civilizations, the immortality of Nature, and the smallness of the human individual. And yet, he remained obsessed with the idea of merging the soul into the great spirit of the cosmos – merging the individual spirit with the tides of space and time, melding the solitary identity with the vastness of eternity. It was a vision that both delighted and terrified him – what one commentator called “the ecstasy of fear” – and which would return time and time again to his fiction, where the pursuit of mystic bliss may just as easily lead to spirit-shredding terror as orgasmic transcendence. Machen’s worldview is almost exclusively unique – a potent blend of Christian mysticism and pagan pantheism – which attracted criticism from both orthodox Christians and secular atheists, but which continues to imbue his literary universe with a combination of moral authority and cosmic chaos. Strongly attracted to the ecstasies (highly erotic experiences of spiritual bliss that introduced the immensity of the universe to physical organs of life) of the saints, he continually drifted away from his father’s rigid Anglicanism (which frowned on the emotional mysticism of rustic Catholicism), embracing a primitive version of Catholicism during his middle age.

Rather than concerning itself with moral behavior – the sexuality, playing cards, drinking that horrify evangelicals – Machen’s faith was a source of inspiration, and it afforded him with mingled bliss and horror. An almost alchemical mystic, he was not dogmatic enough to discount the traditions of Celtic paganism as the hallucinations of savages, and was fascinated by the ancient religions whose pantheism resonated with his ecumenical spirituality. Machen’s first foray into horror was also his most famous, and it also provided a highly represented sample of what the remainder of his supernatural corpus would look like. Written in 1890, “The Great God Pan” introduced the world to Machen’s unique philosophies, his highly mystical spirituality, and his highly antagonistic distrust of Western institutions. The novella (which tells the story of a woman – the hybrid result of a supernatural rape – whose complete spiritual corruption inspires a wave of scandal and suicide through London) was met with instantaneous outrage – much to Machen’s delight – turning him into an icon of the fin de siècle bohemians on par with Stevenson, Hardy, and Wilde.

In the following fifteen years he would produce the vast majority of his high quality work: “The Three Imposters,” “The Hill of Dreams,” and “A Fragment of Life.” In 1904 he would publish what many consider his masterpiece, “The White People,” which combined elements of “Pan” and “The Three Imposters” in the narrative of a young girl’s gradual sexual initiation into an ancient cult. For a period of ten years, Machen’s output of notable speculative fiction was dampened, but he surged back into the public imagination when “The Bowmen” was published in 1914. It was a fictional article claiming that an army of ghosts had interceded on behalf of the B.E.F. during their retreat at the Battle of Mons. The story instantly gained supporters who accused Machen of participating in a government conspiracy to fictionalize the truth, and while he owes his reputation to “The Bowmen,” it rapidly became a thorn in his side (a fact alluded to in “Out of the Earth”). During the early years of the war, Machen created a handful of sentimental ghost stories which highlighted the German’s scientific hubris and misanthropic militarism, but after the ghastly Battle of the Somme, his patriotic pieces quickly faded away. The remaining works of note were either prayerful fantasies like “The Great Return” (imagining the recovery of the Holy Grail and the mystical “restoration of all things”) and direful nightmares like “The Terror” (a haunting tale of animals turning on humanity which presaged “The Birds”). In the following twenty years, Machen languished in obscurity while his pupils – like Lovecraft, Aleister Croweley, and Paul Bowes – endeavored to restore his reputation.

Unlike Lovecraft – secular, cynical, and validated by his own pride – Machen was a quiet seeker, and even his most disturbing tales can be characterized as quiet searches for the hidden side of Nature. Where Lovecraft would burst into a scene with barrels blazing (and subtitles like “Six Shots by Midnight”), Machen was far more akin to Algernon Blackwood – whose wild pantheism mirrored Machen’s own homespun spiritual philosophy – in that his stories were not driven by action and drama as much as by the slow, steady build-up of tension without ever raising the volume. M. R. James, Oliver Onions, and Robert W. Chambers were also known for their extreme self-control, but no one had more restraint than Machen.

His stories can severely disappoint fans of horror because they lack (with those two exceptions) the gore and gothicism that has made writers like Stephen King a household name. Machen’s terror is – as mentioned before – more rapturous, more erotic, and more enticing. And herein lies its power: you want to experience his terrors, you are drawn to them. Unlike Lovecraft (although somewhat like Poe), Machen presents the alluring beauty of the Outer Powers – rivers the look and taste like sweet, yellow wine; waters that encase your feet like warm silk; landscapes made of rich colors that the eye has never before seen. But it is no Wonderland that he has invited you to, merely the diamond-like glitter of the spider’s web; the soothing numbness of poison rushing to your heart; the orgasmic warmth of lungs starving for oxygen. Lovecraft found this to be Machen’s most agreeable trait – his ability to beautifully and melodically unpack a tale of terror. Writing on “Pan” Lovecraft remarked, “the charm of the tale is in the telling. No one could begin to describe the cumulative suspense and ultimate horror with which every paragraph abounds without following fully the precise order in which Mr. Machen unfolds his gradual hints and revelations.”

For all of the beauty that he was capable of suggesting, Machen’s oeuvre does not fail to deliver shudders. Like Blackwood, he deeply felt the material that he was describing: he saw mankind’s spirituality as a genuine gate to a world of unfelt experiences, and – again – like Blackwood (whose tales bristle with spiritual bliss just before the characters are sent plunging into unknown terrors) he understood that touching the face of the Outer Powers would inspire rapture along with fear. But the rapture of Machen’s fiction does little to take the edge off of the fear for the attentive reader – quite the opposite, it lulls them into a false security which makes the experience all the more haunting and unsettling. Machen wrote from a combination of intuition and experience, and his stories glow with genuine passion. They are also haunted by genuine villains and inspired by genuine fears – stalked by the same adversaries that Machen saw draining the life out of his beloved Wales as slowly and steadily as any vampire. But Machen’s antagonists were all too human.

Throughout his literary career Machen was primarily antagonized by two forces: the hubris and intellectual elitism of the scientific community and the forces of industrial capitalism. He credited both with a severe destabilization of British communities – and in many respects he was correct. Machen was born some eighty years after the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, but in the remote hills of southeastern Wales the destabilizing impact of urban flight to the factory towns – Cardiff, Swansea, Bristol, Newport, etc. – was delayed by perhaps half a century. By the time Machen sat down to write “The White People” – wherein a girl is sucked into a witch cult under the nose of her materialistic father – the forces of industrialization had been leeching vitality out of Welsh villages for the better part of fifty years, but its social and anthropological effects were still yet to be felt. In some ways the full force of industrialization – the breaking apart of communities and loss of folk history – wasn’t felt until the 1920s.

Machen, who oversaw the slow depletion of his community’s population, culture, and economy, was deeply disturbed by the impact that English captains of industry in London, Birmingham, and Manchester were having on the rural villages and historic cultures of Wales. Elitists – be they intellectual or socio-economic – would forever raise Machen’s ire. He viewed capitalism, industrialism, and materialism as profoundly destabilizing forces that undermined folk culture and values, dimming the traditions that close communities (whether they are nestled in the hills of Wales, the rice paddies of China, or the hollers of Appalachia) had passed on for generations. As the middle classes continually divorced themselves from communities, traditions, religions, folklore, and history – turning to the democratization of science and capitalism which permitted a man to do as he damn-well pleased – Machen foresaw the perils of a world off the leash.

The greed and materialism that motivated 19th century industrialists also led them – and British culture writ large – to patronize rural communities as backwards, simple-minded, and unsophisticated. As the 20th century dawned and the Edwardian Era – marked by clubbable glamour and panache – moved the country even further towards fashionable cosmopolitanism, there were few things as out of style and unattractive than the family life of a Welsh backwater hamlet. Machen blamed this increase in materialism for the Great War (once he himself had fatigued of patriot zeal, circa 1916), and featured it as a leading force of disunity, hubris, and spiritual deadness in his wartime horror fiction, like “The Terror” and “Out of the Earth.” The conclusion of “The Terror” traces the violent uprising of animal life against humanity to mankind’s abdication of its spiritual birthright – its interest in things higher in worth than money, empire, or materialism. Machen elaborates:

‘Spiritual’ does not mean respectable, it does not even mean moral, it does not mean "good" in the ordinary acceptation of the word. It signifies the royal prerogative of man, differentiating him from the beasts. For long ages he has been putting off this royal robe, he has been wiping the balm of consecration from his own breast. He has declared again and again that he is not spiritual, but rational; that is, the equal of the beasts over whom he was once sovereign. He has vowed that he is not Orpheus, but Caliban. But the beasts also have within them something which corresponds to the spiritual quality in men; we are content to call it instinct. They perceived that the throne was vacant; not even friendship was possible between them and the self-deposed monarch. If he was not king, he was a sham, an impostor, a thing to be destroyed.

Demoralized and disappointed by the intoxicating power of industrial capitalism – and this being years before the horrors of the Holocaust, atomic bomb, and Great Depression, mind you – he chastised mankind for being too concerned with materialism and greed while the world went to hell in a hand basket. But sometimes Machen put pen to paper in an almost therapeutic bid to imagine the possibilities of a culture that focused on spiritual ecstasies over material smugness. In a supernatural work that was far more mystical and horrifying – “A Fragment of Life” – a young couple reject the lure of capitalism, retreating into the country where they live a life of rapturous mysticism. In “The Secret Glory” he describes the adventures of a young boy whose obsession with the Holy Grail leads him to run away from his suppressive boarding school (strong shades of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”) in search of spiritual expression and bliss. In the wartime fable “The Great Return,” the Grail supernaturally returns to Wales where it brings healing, peace, and restoration to war weary citizens once consumed by petty quarrels, greed, and sickness. The closest thing Britons could find to the Grail, Machen believed, was to stop buying the lies of a capitalist culture that valued profits over lives and status over souls.

As previously mentioned, Machen’s second great antagonist was the academic establishment. Machen was by no means anti-science, anti-intellectual, or anti-education. What he did oppose, however, was the cultural arrogance that he inferred in the condescending attitudes that intellectual elites wielded over the same rural communities that were being leeched dry by the Industrial Revolution. The same chauvinistic arrogance that inspired the White Man’s Burden was also critical of and demeaning to homegrown rustics. The academic elites viewed folk culture with the same spite that they held for the traditions, superstitions, and lore of their African colonies. It was, as Machen saw it, an intolerant attitude of superiority that privileged the upper classes, the suburbs, and the elite colleges (not to mention white men, and white men of a very particular background). Science and education became a sort of litmus test that could be used to keep unwanted castes out, and Machen – whose almost feminine search for spiritual rapture – certainly did not fit into their club. Spirituality, religion, intuition, emotion, sensuality, premonition, expressiveness, and awe were traits that the intellectual establishment reviled as womanly, backwards, and uncivilized. Any true “chap’s chap” knew that faith was for old women, spirituality for the feeble minded, and emotion for uncouth rustics.

Since Machen was drawn to the spiritual side of life, he was quickly written off by his intellectual peers – writers, journalists, scientists, and critics – as a confused relic of rural manhood. Scientists and their failures of moral leadership are prominent themes in Machen’s work. The most obvious is the meta-physicist in “The Great God Pan” who uses his young, female ward as a human guinea pig in an experiment to contact the “other side.” When the test results in her lunacy, rape, pregnancy, and death he writes it off as acceptable collateral damage in the war for scientific progress – an understandable oopsy-daisy. Scientists are also instigators of human misery – for the sake of “knowing” – in “The Inmost Light” (this time the victim of a reckless experiment is the academic’s wife), “The Black Seal” (a scholar takes in a mutant boy as a scientific curiosity before disappearing in search of more knowledge), “The White Powder” (here it is a careless pharmacist), and “The Shining Pyramid” (the Holmesian Dyson watches a human sacrifice with remote interest).

Machen resented the hubris, privilege, and elitism of scientists on a personal level, but in a broader sense – as illustrated by his stories – he feared their recklessness, ambition, and deep sense of entitlement. While we today may see the arrogance of lay people (in issues like global warming and birth control) to be far more frightening than the hubris of scientists, Machen was eventually proven right. Chemical warfare, the Holocaust, the atomic bomb, World War Two, the Rape of Nanking, eugenics, and social Darwinism were all made possible by the arguments of the scientific community, who endorsed the scientific superiority of races, encouraged the cleaning-up of the global gene pool, and began the arms race to nuclear war before Hitler had even invaded Poland. In spite of all this, science fascinated Machen and he was both warm and receptive to the cause of human progress. His love-hate relationship with secular academia was no more fraught than his dubious rapport with orthodox religion: in both cases he rejected prideful attitudes and sought to embrace the mystery of life – to be okay with “not knowing.” Critic Damien G. Walter remarked on this issue in an article for “The Guardian”:The qualities which made Machen's work important are the same that have driven the tradition of weird fiction.

From his early story The Great God Pan, through his acclaimed masterpiece The Hill of Dreams to his later work on The Secret Glory, Machen remained determined to take readers into worlds of mysticism and the supernatural. In a society gripped by Christian zeal, he drew on pagan and occult ideology to energise his writing. At a time when scientific rationalism was coming fully to the fore, Machen and other writers of weird fiction continued to argue for the mystical experience as an important tool for understanding the modern world. It is an argument which is still being made today.Throughout his career, Machen found great horror in blurred boundaries, and nearly all of his horror stories involve a monstrosity, mutation, or outrage that fails to tidily comply with scientific or spiritual definitions of being: the chaos of disorder. Like Robert Louis Stevenson, Machen was obsessed with the concept of vestigial evil – a sort of atavistic will-to-wickedness that clung to the back of men’s brains like a hungry parasite in spite of all our science, manners, and political correctness.

He – like so many of his peers in the Late Victorian Era – was fascinated by the implications of Darwin and the possibilities suggested by human evolution. Most if not all of his supernatural fiction explores the idea of mankind’s ability to transmute – to shift in its spiritual or physical identity, going either higher (into heights of spiritual rapture) or lower (into depths of carnal brutalization). The infamous “Little People” – a wicked race of soulless troglodytes who feature in some half-a-dozen of Machen’s tales – are what Machen uses to illustrate the possible degeneration of humanity: this, he says, is what we could become. In “Out of the Depths,” more so than any other tale, he makes it clear that the troglodytes do harbor the infectious ability to corrupt. In “The Inmost Light” – a riff on Poe’s “The Oval Portrait” – he depicts a woman whose soul has been absorbed from her body into a crystal, leaving a leering, abhuman, Mrs. Hyde in her stead. The divorce of spirit and flesh had been conducted, but the spirit was powerless to act without the materiality of the body, and the body was an animalistic abomination without its spirit.

As much as Machen wished to plunge into the intoxicating bliss of the spirit, he was all too aware of the necessary relationship between the physical and the psychical, and he knitted this philosophy into so many of his stories. Nearly all of them involve corruption, destabilization, or mutation of the human spirit. The subtitle of “The Three Imposters” – “Or, the Transmutations” – is a tiny thesis of Machen’s speculative fiction: it nearly always surrounds the concept of transmuting – changing shape or nature – an act that (in “The White People”) one of his characters would claim to be the ultimate definition of sin: the rejection of Nature, the violation of the cosmic laws that prevent chaos from turning us topsy-turvy. The transmutation of order into chaos became the primary theme of Machen’s supernatural corpus. Normalcy is warped into turmoil. Nature is bedeviled by freaks. Natural development is overwritten by mutations. Boundaries are blurred, warped, trampled, and discarded. What is human in one moment is something else in the next.

Machen was both something of a conservative and something of a radical – a man of moderation, restraint, and balance. He wasn’t bound to traditions, he defied bourgeois expectations, and he was nothing if not enamored with “la vie bohème,” but he valued the gentle balance that bohemians and the bourgeoisie gave to one another’s lives, and though he wasn’t a hard-nosed traditionalist, the destructiveness of anarchy was never lost on him. In some way or other, all of Machen’s villains (or victims) are undone by a transmutation of their essential nature. And they are not the puritanical ravings of a dogmatic zealot: Machen was writing to himself more than any one – reminding himself that his desire to break free of his physical limitations could only end in disappointment. It is perhaps advice that he did not heed: when he died in 1947 he was disillusioned, wistful, and hopelessly nostalgic for the powerful feelings of spiritual ecstasy that had inspired him during his youth.This collector’s volume includes the very best of his weird tales and fantasy.

These are stories which investigate themes studied by Poe and Stevenson: corruption of innocence, the power of the will, social hypocrisy, vestigial evil, and hidden sin. Heavily influenced by those writers and by his mystical blend of Celtic Paganism and gnostic Christianity, Machen’s stories plumb the dark unconscious of humanity, seeking and discovering subterranean monstrosities. The tales here include stories of murderous Pagan cults, dark eldritch gods, human sacrifices, witches’ Sabbaths, crossbreeding between humans and evil deities, unevolved races of brutal troglodytes, demonic possession, putrefying zombies, animals declaring war on all humanity, ghostly wartime visions, murder mysteries, and occult detectives. Machen’s works study the Platonic duality of human nature – the good and the evil, the flesh and the spirit – and beckon us to peer behind the veil of daily life at the horrible reality we rarely stop to notice.

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