Arthur Machen has the paradoxical status of being a revered writer’s writer but still an obscure figure in the literary field. He was referred to as a mystic because he saw a sense of mystery in the world that lay beneath the surface of what we experienced in everyday life. This conviction inhabits most of Machen’s work. He caused a stir with one of his early tales “The Great God Pan”. The story begins with a doctor performing a simple operation on a young woman to open her senses to another dimension so she could see the pagan god Pan. She does not have the chance to recount what she saw because she was driven to madness, impregnated by the god. The story develops from that incident into the events surrounding the half-god offspring Helen Vaughn and the horror she brings to London. This story was controversial for its time because its themes dealt with sex. To this day it is a classic but doesn’t receive the same kind of recognition that Dracula or Frankenstein do. Peter Straub credits this tale as inspiration for his novel Ghost Story.

One of Machen’s best tales is “The White People”, and no this story doesn’t have anything to do with race. This actually deals with the “fair folk” but they aren’t benevolent by any means. The tale begins with a dialogue between two men about the nature of true evil then unfolds into a non-linear account of a girl who was initiated into witchcraft. She details her experiences, the creatures she communes with, and the lore she picks up. It is a dizzying read, hypnotic, atmospheric and eerie. It defies simple summarizing but there is a reason why H.P. Lovecraft called it the second best tale of weird fiction ever written.

Machen wrote numerous stories in the fantastical/horrific vein including “The Novel of the White Powder,” “The Novel of the Black Seal,” and “The Shining Pyramid.” His novel The Terror, about animals turning on mankind and killing them prefigures “The Birds” by Daphne DuMaurier and James Patterson’s co-written novel Zoo. One of the most evocative pieces he ever wrote was a collection of prose poems called Ornaments in Jade. His story “The Bowmen” (about the Angels of Mons) became a widely-believed legend to the British in WWI. To me, his work culminates in his novel The Hill of Dreams, a beautiful yet poignant tale of a young dreamer’s spiritual isolation from everyone around that ultimately leads to the main his destruction. Overall, Machen’s themes involve survivals of the pagan that have endured into the present day. The practice of witchcraft, secret colonies of the “little people” or fairies in the Welsh countryside, Machen’s stories tend to depict the beauty, the ugliness, and the dangers of a world adjacent to ours. The conviction in Machen’s florid prose makes his work feel real. In his book of literary criticism Hieroglyphics, Machen’s central theory is that the best writing creates a sensation of “ecstasy”, transporting the reader beyond the mundane and reaching for the unknown. Machen’s theory ties into his identity as a mystic and his best work embodies that.

To me, Machen is horror’s best-kept secret. Machen expanded the horizons of the literature of terror by exploring the dark side of fairy tales and myth. He is venerated by the well-read but mentioning his name to anyone else draws blanks, even from horror readers. Regardless, his influence on other writers is immense. He was introduced to the U.S. by admiring critics such as Vincent Starrett (his essay “Arthur Machen: A Novelist of Ecstasy and Sin” is free as an ebook on Amazon and it’s amazing). He was respected by pulp masters such as H.P. Lovecraft and R.E. Howard. He inspired mainstream giants such as Paul Bowles and Jorge Luis Borges. He served as source material to modern-day masters like T.E.D. Klein and M. John Harrison. Beyond literature, he’s also sparked the imaginations of other people in the arts such as filmmaker Guillermo del Toro. Respect, however, doesn’t equal sales and Machen lived in poverty for most of his professional life. It wasn’t until a petition was made to the British government by his admirers (which I believe included T.S. Eliot and W.B. Yeats) that he was able to receive a pension from the crown and enabled to live for the remaining years of his life in relative comfort. Machen is getting the respect he deserves but it would be wonderful if he was read more widely. If you haven’t tried him give him a shot. His books aren’t always easy to find in bookstores but readily available online.

Written by Nick Montelongo



Add Comment

Enclosing asterisks marks text as bold (*word*), underscore are made via _word_.
Standard emoticons like :-) and ;-) are converted to images.

To prevent automated Bots from commentspamming, please enter the string you see in the image below in the appropriate input box. Your comment will only be submitted if the strings match. Please ensure that your browser supports and accepts cookies, or your comment cannot be verified correctly.