Another frequently anthologized excerpt from The Three Imposters, “The Novel of the Black Seal” leant its pacing and style to M. R. James as well as H. P. Lovecraft. For James’ part, it has an uncanny resemblance to some of his most respected ghost stories (specifically “Count Magnus,” “A Warning to the Curious,” “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas,” “Oh, Whistle…,” and “A View from a Hill”), virtually inventing the trope of the loner academic whose discovery of a mysterious artifact – and propensity for wandering off into the country by himself – puts him in harm’s way. Lovecraft was even more famously inspired by the tale, which heavily influenced “The Whisperer in the Darkness” and “The Call of Cthulhu,” among other stories about ill-starred scholars and their relationships with eldritch relics. James, Machen, and Lovecraft were united in their views on the human vices of curiosity, hubris, and self-alienation.
Although there was very little more that they would agree on (a conservative Anglican, mystical Catholic, and militant atheist), all three saw disaster written in the future of any man who made the twin mistakes of alienating himself from his fellow Man and delving into the secrets of Nature. James foresaw an almost Greek tragedy – a cosmic comeuppance – awaiting the hubris of the academic who chose to play God. Lovecraft, less averse to science, was less afraid of being punished for playing God and more concerned about the coalescing information that science (as it increasingly seemed to be peeling back the mysteries of Nature) would uncover – the ultimate truth of humanity’s insignificance (and perchance the existence of the callous, misanthropic forces behind Creation).
Machen – not as conservative as James, nor as clinical as Lovecraft – was more concerned about the monomania that consumed the curious mind. He was not as worried about being punished by God as he was concerned about being overwhelmed with obsession, and he was not as worried about “figuring it all out” as he was about being sucked into a vortex of discovery that would gradually alienate him forever from society. Like the protagonist of this story – an eccentric academic desperate to uncover the hidden roots of humanity – Machen frequently had one foot in cultivated, English society and one firmly planted in the mystical, Welsh countryside. He was frequently torn between the gas lit streets of Stevenson’s “New Arabian Nights” and the lonesome hill country of southern Wales where he claimed to have had an encounter with the supernatural as a child. At times he adored his place in London’s cigar-smoking intelligentsia, and at other times he longed for the loneliness of a well-packed pipe smoked in the tangled wilds of the Monmouthshire woodlands. Like Lovecraft and James, however, he was constantly reminded that if he let go of the rope connecting him to his present place and time, there was always a chance that he might not be able to recover his grasp – that he might fall from the face of the earth into eternal night.
Excerpted from “The Three Imposters,” the story is told by the female “imposter” (a cult member desperately trying to find and murder “the man with the spectacles,” a hapless academic who has made the mistake of pocketing an Ancient Roman coin which connects the modern cult to its Bacchanalian origins) and it is uncertain whether she is telling the truth or inventing a mystical parable.
This aside, her story begins with her as an unemployed orphan, starving on the streets of London, before being rescued by the kindly-but-eccentric Professor Gregg, an anthropologist who uses her Classical education (her father, Mr. Lally, was poor but devoted to arcane learning) to make her his academic assistant. Throughout the years she becomes devoted to him and his unconventional study of ancient, subterranean cultures, and is fiercely loyal to him while the rest of intellectual London scoffs at what they consider his faith in fairy tales.
He shows Ms. Lally his collection of evidence that a hidden civilization exists in the wilds of Wales: a series of etchings in a strange language found near a lonely place where a girl disappeared without a trace, and an odd stamp, or seal, made from a black stone, with the same inscription. Soon after this, they travel to Wales’ Gray Hills where he begins searching for the subterranean culture near the historical camp of a Roman legion – albeit alone and in secret. By combing through ancient texts, he finds a description of the seal (called the Sixtystone in a Latin manuscript) which connects it to a misshapen race of sun-loathing troglodytes who hiss in a harsh language and worship the name of the god engraved on the stone. Excited by the connection, he informs her that he is hiring a local boy to help around the house although she can think of no reason why extra help is needed. The boy he has in mind, Jervase, is a mentally retarded fourteen year old with swarthy, olive skin, shaggy black hair, and a loathsome, croaky voice. His mother, she learns, was found in the hills in a shocking state one night and never recovered her sanity. Nine months later Jervase was born, the implied product of a brutal rape.
One day she is watching Jervase do chores when he falls down in a sort of fit: his face blackens and contorts, and he begins hissing in a hellish language. While she is horrified, Professor Gregg is elated. He convinces the Ms. Lally to stay with him in spite of her terror, but she begs him to explain what is happening or what “is going to happen.” One night she is waiting for him while he is on one of his many walks in the Gray Hills when she notices a bust of William Pitt sitting on his desk – noteworthy because the bust had been at the top of a fifteen foot cupboard and is covered in a strange slime. When asked about its inexplicable appearance, Gregg nervously denies having brought it down and storms off. The servants deny this, too, but remember finding it, along with a sickening, zoo-like odor that filled the room. Soon after, Gregg announces that he is off on an unusually long walk and doesn’t wish to be followed. Ms. Lally is filled with forebodings, and begs him to stay, but he shakes her off and promises to be back in a day or so. He is never seen again, and when he fails to return by morning, the gardener delivers her a letter which Gregg instructed him to hand her if he wasn’t back by the morning.
The letter explains that if she is reading it, Gregg expects that he is now dead and that his secrets may as well be known. He has hypothesized that Celtic legends of the fearsome little people were not supernatural tales, but references to a subterranean civilization of hedonistic troglodytes, and has been hunting them for years. Upon connecting the black seal to the Sixtystone described in the Latin document, he decided that he was on the right track and came to the Gray Hills to uncover their whereabouts. Stories of vanished or brutalized local girls supported his thesis, and he took Jervase on for a servant to test his hypothesis that Jervase was in fact the hybrid of his mother’s gang rape by these creatures. She had been found at night near one of the limestone rocks with the strange etching on it, apparently ravished by someone or something. Indeed, Jervase’s harsh voice, lapses into a strange language, hatred of the sun, and unusual appearance supported this theory, but the truth wasn’t fully revealed until one night when Gregg discovered him contorting in a violent seizure. Curious to observe, it he brought the boy to his study where he witnessed the following transmutation:
“I saw his body swell and become distended as a bladder, while the face blackened before my eyes; and then at the crisis I did what was necessary according to the directions on the Seal, and putting all scruple on one side, I became a man of science, observant of what was passing. Yet the sight I had to witness was horrible, almost beyond the power of human conception and the most fearful fantasy; something pushed out from the body there on the floor, and stretched forth, a slimy wavering tentacle, across the room, and grasped the bust upon the cupboard, and laid it down on my desk.”
Absolutely positive of his thesis, Gregg makes the decision to meet with the Little People (his studies have revealed to him their location, culture, and rituals) and is hopeful that they shall not find him “wanting” – he is armed with the black seal and his knowledge of their civilization – but if she is reading the manuscript in her hands, then clearly his fate has been a gruesome one which he begs her not to ponder.
Certain of Gregg’s death, Ms. Lally heads into the hills for the limestone rock the next day where she finds his personal possessions (a watch, ring, purse, and gold chain) wrapped in a parcel, tied in crude gut. The bizarre alphabet of the Little People is scrawled on the crude package, and she knows that her beloved father figure is dead. The press report that Gregg must have drowned in a river and his body swept out to sea, and Ms. Lally is left with her terror of the Little People.
The primary theme of “The Three Imposters” – as the subtitle implies – is the transmutation of order into chaos. 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 “The Black Seal,” Machen presages the typical Jamesian protagonist: a solitary man in a traditional occupation who finds himself obsessively fixated on forces that represent the ultimate in lawlessness and disorder. M. R. James’ characters frequently go afield, seeking understanding of the dark outer forces of the universe far from the hustle and bustle of their universities, churches, and cities. They journey deep into the country or far from prying eyes where they can encounter these anarchic goblins in privacy. But with that privacy comes vulnerability, a loss of control, and danger. They pry into the shocking secrets of Nature’s liminal zones out of misguided curiosity, a hope for adventure, or a desire for completeness (a dearly long-for balm to a life spent playing nicely, coloring inside the lines, and speaking with an inside voice).
These academics – not unlike Machen or James – are drawn inextricably to the nightside of Nature as a form of massaging that wild instinct to rage and defy, to dance and mock. In James’ “Number 13,” a travelling loner is fascinated by his next door neighbor at an inn: he watches the silhouette that his window casts on a wall opposite to them – the silhouette of a man dancing wildly like a maniac. Inspired by this rebellious expression, he finds himself instinctively jotting down the following poem: “When I return to my hotel, At ten o’clock p.m., The waiters think I am unwell; I do not care for them. But when I’ve locked my chamber door, And put my boots outside, I dance all night upon the floor. And even if my neighbours swore, I’d go on dancing all the more, For I’m acquainted with the law, And in despite of all their jaw, Their protests I deride.” He admires the man in spite of his strange behavior, and wonders what his life is like. In a startling climax, the narrator discovers – in the nick of time – that his jolly neighbor is the malevolent ghost of a damned alchemist: dancing in hell. James was aware that his impulse to misbehave was natural, but recognized the dangers of seeking company with the mad ones and bad ones.
Machen, like James, well understood the danger of the moth flying to close to the candlelight. Professor Gregg meets with the Little People fully aware that it will probably result in a grisly demise – but he cannot help himself but to seek out better understanding of this hidden civilization. Within the context of “The Three Imposters” Machen uses “The Black Seal” to deepen the mystery around the trio of malicious story-tellers, and to create a sense of ominous dread. The ending lines highlight the clueless, carefree world of men that buzzes heedlessly around the crust of the earth, entirely ignorant of the terrors that may dwell below them. Similarly, Jervase’s gruesome transmutation from human idiot to something above, below, and beyond human intelligence is a startling illustration of the horrid potential for the most unassuming people, objects, and places to be camouflaged shelters for the prowling perversions and the crawling chaos of a heartless universe. Gregg’s ultimate fate is unimportant. In fact, Machen wisely prevents us from knowing what became of him as a means of piquing our curiosity and luring us into similar destruction.
Machen probes the basic human traits of curiosity, restlessness, and discontent. One of James’ most famous tales is called “A Warning to the Curious,” and while “Count Magnus” and “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas” are more similar to “The Black Seal,” Machen’s work shares its thesis with “A Warning to the Curious”: our restless inquisitiveness has been the source of great human victories – in the sciences, arts, and politics – but can also be responsible for our very undoing. Like most Jamesian protagonists’ Gregg’s demise is the inevitable result of the inexorable magnetism of a curious spirit: a spirit which longs to dance and defy – a spirit which longs to probe and pry – a spirit which peaks into the dark secrets of Nature, and finds itself falling helplessly into the chasm.