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.
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 in this list -- 7 of his very best works -- 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.
7. THE COMING OF THE TERROR
A shortened, tidied up version of the more famous work, "The Terror," Machen wholeheartedly approved of the version of his eco-horror parable as it appeared in a wartime magazine. Famously, this story of man vs. nature provided the inspiration for Daphne du Maurier's "The Birds," made notorious by Alfred Hitchcock's loose-but-stylish adaptation. Brutal murders of civilians during World War One shock and dismay the police, leading to the Army and government becoming involved in the investigation of what at first seems to be the work of German saboteurs. But it eventually prooves to be the work of animals emboldened by the vulgarity of industrialized warfare. Families are found bludgeoned in their front yards by sheep, men are chased off cliffs by swarms of bees, and airplanes are downed by flocks of ravishing birds. While "The Terror" is more frequently anthologized, I recommend the cleaner and clearer "Coming of the Terror" to absorb the full effect.
6. OUT OF THE EARTH / THE SHINING PYRAMID
By themselves neither of these works are stand-alone masterpieces, but tucked into the canon of Machen's "little people" mythos (including "The Black Seal" and "The Red Hand"), they form a disturbing narrative about a primitive race of vicious troglodytes prowling the desolate hill country of rural Wales. Both stories seem to suggest a psychic bond between modern man and these primitive trolls, making the troglodytes the personification of the collective human Id: the embodiment of violence, brutality, selfishness, and chaos. In "Out of the Earth," their mere presence incites a group of children to turn positively feral, horrifying onlookers, while in "The Shining Pyramid," they kidnap a young woman from a country lane, torture her, ultimately burn her alive in a human sacrifice, and are implied to have brutally gang raped her. Machen's message seems to be that like homicidal dwarfs lurking beneath the earth, our own vestigial demons -- war, empire, selfishness, greed, hate, and evil -- lurk beneath the surface of our minds: unevolved, uncivilized, and unbroken.
5. THE INMOST LIGHT
Like Machen's "little people" stories, "The Inmost Light" is fascinated with the concept of unleashing the Id. Inspired by "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," it portrays the mystery of a woman whose autopsy reveals a brain that is less than human: animalistic and stunted. The wife of a suspicious meta-physician, she had suddenly disappeared from society, only to be seen glaring from an upper story window with a face that was unquestionably inhuman. The solution to the riddle is easy to foresee, but the implications are still disturbing.
4. THE RED HAND
Perhaps the best of the "Dyson" detective stories (including "The Shining Pyramid"), "The Red Hand" begins with the vicious murder of a gentleman in a London alley: killed with a flint knife, he is found under the graffito of a clenched fist scrawled in red. At first the police suspect a mob hit: the fist -- with the thumb stuck between the first two fingers -- is making the Italian sign of the evil eye, and the flint knife suggests a ritualistic murder. Dyson, however -- aware of the existence of the "little people" -- suspects a connection to the Welsh hill country. Through his casual detective work, he seeks out the killer and uncovers a story of betrayal, loathing, and revenge.
3. THE WHITE POWDER
Machen's most gruesome tale takes its inspiration from Edgar Allan Poe's icky "Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" -- the story of a man hypnotized at the moment of his death, whose soul dwells for months in a dead body. Tremendously Lovecraftian (both Poe and Machen lent their services to Lovecraft's similarly themed "Cool Air"), it also takes a nod from J. S. Le Fanu's "Green Tea," wherein a parson's regular consumption of green tea (often cut with opium, cocaine, and carcinogens at the time) unwittingly opens up his third eye and drives him to suicide. In this instance, the victim is a workaholic law student who is prescribed a draught for exhaustion by an incompetent apothecary who accidentally gives him -- well, you'll have to read it to find out, but let's just say it involves high pagan rites and the Witches' Sabbath. Rapidly addicted to his prescription medicine (***topical***), the man's sister witnesses his transformation into a demonic mass of loathsome sludge. One of Machen's absolutely best tales.
2. THE BLACK SEAL
Along with "The White Powder," "The Black Seal" left an indelible imprint on the work of H. P. Lovecraft, and was famously the inspiration for the similarly themed "Whisperer in the Darkness" and "The Dunwich Horror." It involves the research of a metaphysical professor who has decided to abandon his respectable career and dive into the study of the "little people" whom he believes to be prowling around the Welsh mountains. Taking with him his female research assistant (an orphan whom he had saved from starvation, educated, and treated as his own daughter), he leaves London and travels to Wales where he tries to decode the significance of a black seal (viz., a cylindrical stone stamp) and its ties to antediluvian subcultures which have prowled the bowels of earth for millennia. Taking in a mentally challenged local boy as a helper (knowing full well that he is the part-troglodyte hybrid resultant from a rape), he sinks further into his obsession until he finally disappears. His assistant's discovery of his final statement (along with an account of the hybrid's boy's monstrous ability to morph into a tentacled horror) helps solve some of the mystery, while leaving other parts appropriately darkened forever.
1. THE WHITE PEOPLE
Best of all -- and the second best weird tale of all time, according to Lovecraft -- is the lurid, stream-of-consciousness diary of a girl relating her gradual seduction by an ancient witch cult. This one isn't for everybody: it has many detractors and is notoriously hard to read (having over a dozen pages without a paragraph break), but hard work will pay off, and listening to recordings of it can help smooth out the formatting issues. Two men in London are discussing the philosophical nature of evil (a fascinating section in its own right), with one arguing that evil can be ugly as well as beautiful. Asked to give an example, he produces the journal of a girl who was found dead (or was she?) in the Welsh woods. The diary details her childhood experiences: being told tales of ancient cults by her nursemaid (seemingly a member of said cult), finding a hidden dimension among the wild brambles, sympathizing very viscerally with the fate of a woman who was burned at the stake after mating with demonic snakes, steadily being drawn back to the hidden dimension with the understanding that she must partake in a ritual, and finally -- having reached puberty -- entering the cult's territory by executing the forbbiden ritual and allowing herself to be absorbed -- body and soul. And the story itself is appropriately absorbing: hypnotic, luscious, and sensual. This is Machen at his most indulgent, his words spilling out like cool, golden wine. Like the young protagonist, we are entranced by the beauty of this seductive evil, and it isn't until the tremendously cryptic ending (which Lovecraft claimed to have solved) that we understand the true profundity of the choice she made.
To read these stories and more, you can find them HERE in our annotated and illustrated collection of Machen's best weird fiction