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 material