Arthur Machen's The Great God Pan: A Two-Minute Summary and a Literary Analysis
When Arthur Machen published his first serious attempt at a supernatural tale in 1890, it would set the tone for his horror fiction for the rest of his life. Nearly all the themes, motifs, and philosophy that would make Machen an icon of fin-de-siècle horror can be found in “The Great God Pan” – the story that he is most famous for, but one to which critics continue to have mixed reactions. “Pan” was a study in Machen’s favorite horror narrative: the story of two worlds touching – barely overlapping, yet long enough for something from beyond to take seed in the world of human affairs. Nearly all of the speculative fiction that he wrote before World War One concerns this idea of spiritual cross pollination. In a sense he was talking about what Ivan T. Sanderson called vile vortices – windows through which the Outside can reach in and grab us. In his stories these vortices are strongest among the rugged Welsh wilderness, but they can be summoned in Westminster parlors, Soho alleys, or West End apartments. Aside from any genuine theories about the supernatural, “The Great God Pan” – and the rest of Machen’s prewar corpus – is primarily invested in reminding us of the nearness of the Beyond. This doesn’t necessarily mean the land of ghosts and fairies, but it does mean the Beyond of the human spirit.
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. Machen wrote at a time when the middle class was surging: the days of a small, educated elite and a massive, illiterate populace dependent on priests and noblemen for their sense of identity was long gone, and while Machen would hardly have wished humanity back into feudal Europe, he was concerned about the rapid strides made and the intoxication of independence. 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. Before the world wars, before the Russian Revolution, before the Holocaust, before the nuclear bomb, Machen had a sense that science, industry, technology, and the era which they were ushering had the potential to unlock the doors which religion and community had kept barred for centuries – the doors imprisoning our potential to destroy ourselves and those around us.
In Greco-Roman mythology, Pan was the deity who embodied chaos. He reveled in lonely nature, terrorized skittish shepherds, indulged carelessly in bestiality, rape, and pedophilia, and defied the order of the villages. Pan was worshipped as the bringer of madness – defiant of civilization, drunk on his liberty, prince of the wild hills, lord of the black void of space. The famous experiment in Machen’s novella uses science and moral relativism to justify the unleashing of Pan on a vulnerable girl, and she – the sexually violated victim of a careless intelligentsia, and a flippantly amoral patriarchy – becomes the vessel which will bring Hell to earth. Not unlike “Rosemary’s Baby,” this tale – often lambasted by critics for its misogyny – is the story of how abuse, sexism, and moral relativism turn a defenseless woman into the surrogate mother of an abomination – a child who will usher in apocalypse if left unchecked. In “Rosemary’s Baby” that child was the spawn of Satan. In Machen’s novella, we can never be sure. Outer forces with archetypal connections to Celtic and Roman paganism – gods or monsters or aliens or elementals that humanity had detected since our retreat into the caves where fire kept the bogeys at bay. Machen is never precise about what impregnates the victim of his amoral scientist, but he implies that it is a force of chaos, virulently anti-human, hateful of innocence and life – a power that uses human beings without loving them, that unfeelingly wrings them dry of life and hope before sending them away to madness and suicide. A vampiric entity that could be a metaphor for the greedy capitalism that would breed the Great Depression, or for the heartless science that would lead to eugenics and the Holocaust. But Machen doesn’t know himself, or doesn’t say. It is enough to know that it is chaos incarnate. It is the great god Pan.
Machen never wrote a story that more perfectly illustrated his personal philosophy than “The Great God Pan”: throughout its pages we sense his skepticism of modern progress, his fear of our vestigial evil, his sense of humanity’s relative smallness. As we close “The Great God Pan,” other problems rise up for our discussion. The most troubling and interested one is Machen’s treatment of sexuality, women, and Helen Vaughn in particular. Machen has frequently been accused of misogyny – a claim bolstered by stories like “The Shining Pyramid” and “The White People.” Indeed, the primary fear that most modern readers note from Helen is her rambunctious sex life. To 21st century readers, a quick read of “Pan” might leave them with the impression that their sexually adventurous sister, polygamous best friend, or bisexual roommate would have inspired Machen with puritanical shudders of terror. I think this is an understandable, but thoroughly nearsighted misreading of the text. Helen’s threat is not in her sexuality – although that is certainly part of it – or even in the way she treats men like so many men of the day treated women (as disposable sex objects). These are parts, but to focus so closely on the sexuality of Helen Vaughn is to miss the whole.
What does Helen represent other than sexually liberated womanhood? She is careless with human life, amused with the corruption of innocence (including the sexual molestation of an underage girl whom she lured to a supernatural orgy), and unsettled by the path of carnage that she leaves in her wake. Helen is not repulsive because she enjoys sex, or even because she is implied to be polygamous, bisexual, or even a hybrid horror from Beyond. She is repulsive because she embodies the opposite of human love, community, and concern: she is the epitome of callous, disconnected indifference that is unconcerned with the plight of the poor, the abuse of the weak, the violation of the vulnerable, or the misery or the hopeless. Compared to dread Cthulhu, who actively seeks the oblivion of mankind, Helen seems tremendously overwhelming, but I would argue –especially today, in a digitally-neutered world where relationships are more splintered and toxic than ever, with anxiety, obesity, loneliness, alienation, bullying, depression, and disenfranchisement at all-time highs – that she is a far more loathsome horror than Lovecraft’s elder things. Oblivion we can stand. We can cling to one another and weep and bid our farewells as R’lyeh rises above us, blackening the sun and breaking our minds. But there is one thing that is even more crippling to the human spirit than the reign of Yog Sothoth and faceless Nyarlathotep: indifference, rejection, and apathy from someone whom we loved and hoped would love us.
Now bear with me: I can see that I’m losing some of you, but you think I’m arguing that your ex-girlfriend is on par with the Crawling Chaos. But see, there again, we’ve gone down a Freudian slippery slope and made this story entirely about sex – which it isn’t. Helen is so much more than a maneater. She despises the greatest emotions of the human experience, turns away from the gang-rape of a prepubescent girl, and despises the dependency of human beings on one another. One of the most disappointing elements of “The Great God Pan” for most readers is Helen’s suicide. Why should she be so easily blackmailed into killing herself? Some monster! She’s afraid of being discovered? She’s embarrassed of being exposed as a libertine? Hardly. Helen Vaughan doesn’t give a flying fuck if she is exposed to society. If anything, she’s bored with humanity: we’re simple, gullible, clingy, sentimental, and too dependent on each other. Helen Vaughan has no room in her life for fear or hope or hate or love or desperation or adventure or peace or thrills. She is a lazy, apathetic villain consumed with her appetite for draining life and hope wherever she goes.
Like her father, Pan, she is everywhere and everything. Her death throes prove that. She isn’t even “she,” or “it” – Helen is “They” and They don’t worry about death or scandal. They don’t worry about human emotions or losses or misery. They simply move on and become Other. She assents to Villier’s request that she kill herself probably more out of boredom and irritation that fear or embarrassment. Due to Victorian standards of sexual decorum, Machen’s vision – which was outrageously scandalous at the time, to his delight – has been read too literally by some. He used the metaphor of sexual liscentiousness to illustrate the absolute depravity, lack of empathy, and disregard for human relationships that epitomizes Helen’d dead soul. For Machen’s audience, it was all the more ghastly because Helen was in female shape, but today she could just as easily be an inside trading stock broker, a parish pedophile, a human trafficker, or a munitions lobbyist.
Helen’s debased sexual appetite is still an essential part of her attractiveness as a villain, but Machen saw far, far, far more in her wickedness than a wild libido. He saw the future of a humanity that tolerated the abuse of the poor by the educated, that allowed the pursuit of technological innovation to be a higher law than human decency, that privileged certain classes of people over others, and that valued profits over lives. Today our world is even more shaped in the image of Helen Vaughan than Machen could have imagined. In some ways we are much better, but in others we have grown less empathic, more brutal, and more monstrous. We live in a society that exults in the humiliation of others, leech comfort from the suffering, and delights in having more, taking more, and being more. We exult in Us. We exult in Me. We exult in the great god Pan.
You can read the whole story HERE,