Machen Fairies Grim Again

by Arthur B

A look at the work of Arthur Machen, through the lens of Chaosium's classic three-volume collection of his weird fiction.
To some people’s tastes, Arthur Machen did the whole H.P. Lovecraft thing better than Lovecraft himself did. Although I tend to disagree, at least to the extent that Lovecraft and Machen’s personal philosophy differed greatly and those differences were expressed in important ways in their work (Machen could never have written At the Mountains of Madness, Lovecraft could never have written The Hill of Dreams), it is true that Machen was a great influence on Lovecraft; in fact, Lovecraft would heavily promote it in Supernatural Horror In Literature, his most widely-read and reprinted essay, in which Machen is the first mentioned among the “modern masters” of the genre. Borges, for his part, also greatly appreciated Machen, and in some of Machen’s more subtle intrusions of the spiritual and the extra-normal into ordinary life we see the seeds of some of Borges’ own work - and, through that, the magical realism genre in general.

At the same time, Machen’s bibliography is intimidatingly large, in keeping with a career which began in the 1880s and kept producing interesting pieces right into 1937. Whilst the major, important pieces are well-known and widely reprinted, at the same time there’s some gems to be found in his less well-known work, though a lot of it is obscured by less distinguished pieces.

Part of the reason for this is that Machen’s career had a number of startling highs and lows, with the result that his finances were often perilously stretched. (It wasn’t until in later life, when his status as a literary national treasure prompted efforts to secure him a suitable pension, that he’d be without money worries.) Although his major works had rocketed him into the spotlight in the 1890s, his extremely oblique, allusive references to socially-disapproved forms of sexuality led to him being associated in the popular and critical imagination with the Decadents (despite the fact that actually, he personally disapproved of the sexual stuff he was hinting at just as much as society did).

As a result, in the wake of the controversy around Oscar Wilde’s 1895 trial, Machen found it hard to find a publisher, disrupting his career for over a decade. He would eventually take up a job at the Evening News to make ends meet, producing a combination of journalism, brief stories, and longer serialised stories. Some of his Evening News material is in fact quite good, but other pieces are less stellar, especially those penned during World War I as consciously-crafted pieces of war propaganda. Furthermore, as we’ll explore in this article, over time Machen became increasingly set in his ways as a writer and increasingly focused on particular bugbears of his, some of which were interesting whilst others were to the detriment of his writing and hemmed in the scope of his imagination.

Between this and the fact that his work is in the process of falling out of copyright (at the end of this year it will fall into the public domain in most countries), with the inevitable result that there’s already a swathe of nasty knock-off Machen collections out there in ebook and print-on-demand format, it’s a bit of a minefield out there for those who want to explore Machen beyond the obvious citations. Fortunately, S.T. Joshi has come to the rescue here just as he has in putting the Lovecraft canon in order.

Joshi has edited a one-volume summation of Machen’s career for Penguin Classics entitled The White People and Other Stories; however, this leaves out The Great God Pan, a story which many Machen readers (including me) rank among his best but Joshi has gone on the record as not being so impressed by, believing that the story is wrecked once you know the central twist. (This is nonsense, by the way: I read Lovecraft’s summary of the story in Supernatural Horror In Literature well before I read the story itself and I still think it’s magnificent.) Moreover, two stories in the collection - The Novel of the Black Seal and The Novel of the White Powder - are shorn from their original context as episodes in the novel The Three Impostors, wherein they form pieces of a larger puzzle - whilst Machen unaccountably decides that page count that could have gone to the inclusion of the rest of The Three Impostors plus The Great God Pan is instead taken up by the full version of The Terror, a novel which, whilst it has its good points, certainly doesn’t rank among Machen’s best. As a result, the Penguin collection must be seen as being deeply flawed.

However, before he put this book out for Penguin Joshi would produce a far superior set of Machen reprints for Chaosium. These three books represent a true “best of” Machen, with The Three Impostors intact and uncut and The Great God Pan restored to the pantheon. In fact, it’s hard not to see the Penguin release as anything other than a very truncated version of this trilogy, with the baby Pan thrown out with the bathwater.

Based on the design of the cover art (and, in particular, the awkward compromise reached for the third volume), plus some other aspects I will get to later, I suspect that this collection was originally only supposed to include two volumes, with the third added through popular demand. As we will see in the review, I think that expansion of the planned set was necessary, because there’s some gems in the third book which more than make up for some clunkers in the second. The first piece of the series, however, is magnificent all the way through, and all the more impressive when you consider that it’s all taken up by Machen pieces from a short span of his working life in the 1890s...

The Three Impostors and Other Stories

We start with The Great God Pan, and it’s a magnificent place to start. To a large extent it ends up setting the mode for much of Machen’s early work, and also seems to follow the lead of many Woman In White-esque sensation stories: various characters see various pieces of the puzzle, and it’s only when they put everything together that the matter is resolved - and meanwhile, because the reader usually has more pieces of the puzzle than any of the characters, we’re a few steps ahead of them.

We begin with one of these observers, Mr Clarke, visiting his friend Dr Raymond in the countryside to observe a strange procedure Dr Raymond intends to perform on Mary - a bit of experimental brain surgery intended to give her an insight into higher worlds. Dr Raymond's attitude to Mary represents (probably quite deliberately on Machen’s part) the ultimate in Victorian-era paternalism; though he coaxes her to consent to the procedure, we don't know what he's told her it entails, and beforehand he talks of her as a thing to be used as he desires; after it ends in tragedy, he seems to show no more sorrow than you would over a spilled test tube.

In the wake of the procedure something seems to have happened to Mary - something which in a curious way seems to be related to a weird reminiscence Clarke has after he accidentally has a whiff of the anaesthetic fumes during Dr Raymond’s procedure - a recollection of a childhood incident in which Pan seems invisibly present somehow. Whether Clarke’s memories (or his sexual attraction to Mary) drew Pan’s presence or Pan’s presence stirred the memories, we don’t know; but one way or another, Pan visits on some level, and Mary is left irretrievably broken.

Years later, a mysterious young woman called Helen Vaughn emerges into the world and blazes a sinister trail through society. Much of the rest of the story hinges on the way Vaughn lures men and women alike into debased, shameful practices which leave behind a trail of shattered lives, suicides, and other tragedies, and how various witnesses and investigators end up piecing together the awful story of her career of evil and how she is connected to Mary’s vision of Pan.

What exactly Vaughn’s secret sins entail is kept extremely secret and seems to take on different forms over the years, and the impact of different segments of the story has changed over the years with our changing attitudes to sexuality. The anecdotes of childhood abuses perpetrated by her (or, possibly, something sinister that accompanies her) on other children cut close to the bone now that we are more aware of testimony of abuse victims. Conversely, the anecdote by her ex-husband of how she corrupted him body and soul starts out sounding rather risible, because it’s hard these days for us to see any consenting act between husband and wife to be evil on a profound, soul-ravaging scale, and if your wife has fetishes which you don’t feel good about catering to that’s not really a spiritual or moral crisis. Then, of course, you find out that someone died…

In several respects Pan resembles The Picture of Dorian Gray, which had been published only a few months before the first version of this story emerged. In particular, Dorian and Helen both have a string of dubious liaisons which end in the suicide or ruination of various partners. Were the stories even a shade franker and more blatant about what they were alluding to, they would lose a lot of their power, and that’s even more true of Pan than it is of Picture. By Victorian standards in general, and particularly by Machen’s standards, any sex act not emphatically authorised by God constitutes only ye liveliest awfulness and even an enjoyable evening of light-hearted pegging constitutes a sanity-blasting ordeal on a par with having your skull hollowed out by Azathoth.

(Heck, for all we know the secret horror here is pegging; certainly, the transformations Vaughn undergoes on death suggests some sort of blurring of gender roles - which would of course also have been desperately controversial in the eyes of a Victorian audience.)

Thus, like Dorian Gray, The Great God Pan is saved by the same Victorian coyness which occasionally makes it feel amusingly dated in the first place - though the specific sins Machen and Wilde were respectively thinking of are probably entirely mundane to us, because they aren't described we can fill in the blanks with something we do find shocking and because the stories leave the door open to the fantastic there is no limit to what horrors we can conjure up. And the one horror which is explicitly described, when Helen dies, is pretty shocking.

(It helps that here the supposed protagonists aren’t necessarily paragons of virtue either. For instance, the investigator Villiers talks about hanging out in dodgy parts of Soho for his amusement and having friends there who trust him - how are we to interpret this as implying anything other than he's a regular client of prostitutes?)

Where Machen breaks from Wilde is in the particular spiritual case he wants to make here. The references in the story to dubious sex acts as an “old mystery” perhaps comes closest to enunciating that central idea - that unwholesome sex acts, performed for gratification rather than the reproductive ends mandated by God, are intrinsically an act of disobedience to God, and may further be an act of glorification of carnal pagan deities. Certainly, I can agree with Joshi that in many respects this concept has been rendered rather dated by the passing of time and the changing of social attitudes - but it’s precisely the attitudes captured by the story that make it of continued interest, and because Machen sets no upper limit on the malevolence of the deities invoked or the extremities used in their invocation, the story retains some power to disturb.

The Inmost Light introduces us to Mr Dyson, a bit of a Machen self-insert - having struggled to find his financial footing until a comfy inheritance left him well-off, Dyson makes his living as a writer of a deeply uncommercial bent whilst occasionally dipping into esoteric little investigations. Dyson would, in fact, be the connecting character of much of the rest of Machen’s early fiction, only disappearing when, stung by critics pointing out that his work owed more than a little to the style of Robert Lewis Stevenson, Machen made a concerted effort to refine his own distinctive voice and shift away from his early Stevenson-inspired work.

This particular story concerns an apparently-respectable doctor's ruin after an occult experiment in which he removed his wife's soul and placed it in a jewel, leaving a space in her for something altogether more esoteric to take up residence. In its main plot it is basically ploughing the same furrow as The Great God Pan in terms of women being used as experimental subjects by doctors with occult interests and dreadful things happening as a result, though less successful in that once Mrs Black has the operation done to her and become a vessel for dark forces she doesn't actually do anything. That said, there’s also a business with a mysterious conspiracy that stole the jewel - said treasure having eventually been intercepted by Dyson - which does succeed at hinting at something larger going on we never entirely see. (In particular, as we shall see, there’s some reason to see this as a prequel to The Three Impostors.

Dyson would return in The Shining Pyramid, by which point Machen seems to have settled on conception of Dyson as a sort of slacker detective; Pyramid is much more obviously constructed as a detective story, right down to the concluding monologue tying all the clues together in a fashion which denies the story much obliqueness. It stands out as an early entry in Machen’s collection of stories about the Little People, in which for fictional ends he expresses the idea later proposed in all seriousness by others that a residual race of pre-Celtic aboriginals lurked in dark corners of Europe and gave rise to later folklore about fairies. (In particular, Margaret Murray’s proposition of this idea in The Witch-Cult In Western Europe would later greatly inspire Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, though it was considered a fringe idea in her time and is largely discredited now.)

One particularly interesting ambiguity about the story is the nature of the pyramid itself - a conventional bonfire, or a spiritual fire called up by the Little People’s primal nature? Joshi seems to think it’s the latter, but I think the former is also supported; in this way, the story bridges both more materialistic depictions of the Little People in later Machen tales (as in The Novel of the Black Seal) and more ethereal and spiritual depictions (as in The White People).

Having warmed up with these stories, Machen decided to make Dyson an integral part of the novel The Three Impostors. This is a puzzlebox of a novel which consists of a number of short stories narrated to Dyson or his materialist friend Phillipps by the titular impostors. Whilst the stories are apparently unconnected (two, The Novel of the Black Seal and The Novel of the White Powder, have been widely reprinted as standalone pieces), and given their provenance their reality might be distrusted, certain recurring themes in them lead us closer and closer to the various narrators’ true interests - which all comes down to their pursuit of a certain young man with spectacles.

The novel’s structure deserves extensive examination, because it’s through this structure that a certain part of its higher meaning is imparted. We begin with a prologue which largely serves to introduce us to the impostors in an unguarded moment, when the masks are off, in the wake of performing a dark deed. One, Richmond, seems shaken by what they have done, but Mr Davies appears to take a certain sinister pleasure in it, and the nameless woman that completes their conspiracy has gone so far as to take a morbid souvenir.

In their conversation, they let slip the various pseudonyms which, we shall later see, they used in their interactions with Dyson and Phillipps, so by telling us this Machen allows us to keep track of what is going on with privileged information not available to our supposed heroes. Machen also drops a link here to The Inmost Light, since in there the name of Mr Davies is dropped as being somehow involved in the shady goings-on with the soul gem.

Machen wraps up the prologue by having Dyson and Phillipps arrive on the scene a shade too late to run into the impostors, which also reiterates some important things established about Dyson in the short stories: namely, that as a detective he relies more on whimsy and intuition than evidence and rational deduction, and that he can’t be relied on to actually catch the bad guys or save people in peril or generally resolve cases in the way we are used to detectives resolving them.

For the rest of the novel we step back in time and examine the events that led up to whatever it is that happened in that abandoned house the impostors were sneaking out of n the prologue. The stakes are established early on in The Adventure of the Gold Tiberius, in which Dyson recounts to Phillipps how he briefly witnessed a breakneck chase in a quiet London side-street and found at the scene a strange gold coin from the reign of the Emperor Tiberius. From here on, much of the rest of the segments featuring Dyson and Phillipps are largely framing narratives for the various stories they are fed by the impostors.

Richmond’s tale is The Novel of the Dark Valley; unlike some of the others, this wouldn’t work as a standalone story due to some rather glaring plot holes, but in the context of the original Three Impostors these plot holes make sense because we know Richmond is lying, to at least some extent, and encourage us to look twice not just at his story but by the tales the rest of the impostors tell.

The fact that a sinister gang operated out of the titular canyon and was lynched, with their leader escaping, is substantiated by a newspaper story Richmond shows Dyson. At the same time, though, he claims that the young man with spectacles was “Mr Smith”, the leader of the gang, but in context we know that Richmond is just telling the story in order to get a lead on the young man with spectacles’ whereabouts, and what little we have seen of the man in question so far doens’t seem to fit the Faustian spin Richmond puts on Mr Smith in his story.

The major hole in the story is that “Wilkins”, as Richmond calls himself, is supposedly hired as a secretary by Smith before being dragged off to the Old West - but then, once they arrive at the Dark Valley, Wilkins isn't given anything to do! What could have been Smith's purpose in hiring Wilkins in the first place, when he neither brings him into his confidence or gives him any appreciable work to do? Wouldn't it have made more sense to leave him behind to take care of Smith’s London affairs, or some other respectable front for Smith’s activities, rather than drag him out to a cabin in the valley where he literally has nothing to do except stumble upon the awful truth?

Moreover, in the narrative Wilkins is able to make use of various bits of local knowledge and lore - but we are also asked to believe that, due to his connection with Smith, none of the locals will deign to have a civil conversation with him. Where, then, did he get this knowledge? And why wasn’t the survival of Mr Smith’s apparently-innocent secretary mentioned in the newspaper story? It’s tempting to theorise that Richmond himself may have run the gang at an earlier phase in his criminal career - that would certainly account for his apparent knowledge of the area, and his choice of that cover story, and the fact that he had the press cutting ready to show. Certainly, he might have picked out the news clipping to provide an arbitrary cover story for his search for the young man with spectacles, but why would you choose that one in particular when there must surely be a story out there that the fearful gentleman could more believably have be the main subject of?

After this we get The Novel of the Black Seal, the first story told by the lady impostor who, unique among the trio, we never get a “real” name for. (For this segment she calls herself “Miss Lally”.) This is related after she fakes a crying fit to get Phillipps’ attention; she claims to be searching for her missing brother, but the story she tells of her brother's disappearance is fantastical enough to make the materialistic Phillipps incredulous.

Thus, to both re-establish her credibility as a witness and regain the trust of Phillipps, she spins him the yarn that purports to reveal the truth behind the disappearance of the eminent ethnologist Professor Gregg. This makes sense as a story chosen to convince Phillipps of her sincerity, since he is also an ethnologist and had heard of the case and so would naturally be interested in hearing Miss Lally out. At the same time, it also raises implications about the identity, background, and interests of Miss Lally herself.

For one thing, Miss Lally must presumably be well-versed in the field herself, both to be aware of the connection between Phillipps and Gregg’s interests and to have the confidence to claim that she helped Gregg compile his textbook on the subject. If she wasn’t well-learned in the subject in her own right, that would be an incredibly foolish boast to make, because if Gregg had challenged her on it she would need to know a level of knowledge of the book suitable for someone who had pieced it together for draft after draft. Moreover, she must be secure enough in her knowledge of the subject to believe she can tell a story about it which will be persuasive to Phillipps. It’s enough to make you suspect that Miss Lally, if not actually employed at some point as Gregg’s secretary and the governess of his children, must surely have had some sort of connection to him - at least to the extent of being able to suss out which details she would need to keep consistent with what Phillipps knew of Gregg and where a bit of inventive bending of the truth might fly under the radar.

There is also some reason to wonder whether there isn’t a certain dose of truth to the story. For one thing, the strangeness kicks off when Gregg relocates his household to the little Welsh village of Caermaen, which establishes a link to The Great God Pan - for that is where Helen Vaughn grew up and found ancient playmates among Roman ruins. (It is, perhaps, not for nothing that the Gold Tiberius has a faun on the back.)

We also know from The Shining Pyramid that the Dyson stories are part of what could be called the Little People Mythos, that body of interconnected stories by Machen that keep coming back to the idea of the fair folk having some physical or spiritual reality to them. The Black Seal more unambiguously puts the the Little People into the category of the supernatural, with the capabilities of the Seal being nigh-magical and the creatures themselves resembling serpent people rather than humans (though they never actually step out into the spotlight themselves).

The whole story is a masterpiece of understatement and implication, but both the directly stated action and the deeper implications are vertigo-inducingly bizarre. The suggested scale of the empire of the little people belies idea that they are somehow “primitive”, and thus the story provides a precedent for a wide swathe of Lovecraft’s work, with the hill country setting of The Whisperer In Darkness perhaps coming closest. For that matter, the sole major supernatural incident described is very Lovecraftian in its tentacular manifestations, and the story would also be a big influence on later Cthulhu Mythos writings, with Colin Wilson’s The Return of the Lloigor owing a major debt to it.

Next up we get Mr Davies’ story. In the buildup to it Dyson encounters “Mr Davies” in guise of Mr Burton, who tries to get him to help him find the young man with spectacles by making out that the lad had stolen a gemstone the two had conned an Italian couple into selling to them at an outrageously low price - Davies perhaps hoping to inspire greed in Dyson in the hope of monetary reward. (I’m inclined to see this as another nod to this being the same Davies as in The Inmost Light, since that story also was about a gem given up for well under its true price.)

Burton/Davies contrives to become a regular visitor to Dyson, presumably hoping to acquire some crucial intelligence or other through a more long-term process of observation; their interactions culminate in Davies telling Dyson The Novel of the Iron Maid, a brief and trite little number relevant mostly for revealing in Burton a knowledge of torture implements (though ascribed here to someone else) and having a punchline not entirely unlike Kafka’s In the Penal Colony. When Burton abruptly stops visiting, having stolen a copy of Burton’s Anatomy from Dyson's shelves, Dyson concludes that he's been lied to (though admittedly he apparently wasn't entirely sold on the Dark Valley story).

The next major story in the collection is, once again, delivered by the mystery woman, who had taken a room in the same lodging house as one of Dyson's literary friends under the guise of Miss Leicester. She attempts to gain Dyson's support by providing The Novel of the White Powder. Taken by itself, this one is rather simple - a man takes a drug which by accident had the wrong formulation, for a time finds himself vividly interested in all the pleasures life has to offer, but then disintegrates into a slimy mass. On the face of it, it seems to be a needlessly literary take on a story based around gruesome shock.

However, as part of the wider “Machen Mythos”, all sorts of links are suggested. The incorrectly applied drug is the Vinum Sabbati of the witches’ sabbath, provided to witches by their demonic attendants - and the Black Seal narrative has it that those are the Little People. Moreover, the gruesome fate of the main character here, and the hints that the drug somehow externalised his worst self, is very reminiscent of the terminal transformations of Helen in The Great God Pan. Such allusions, along with the dark mysteries and deep knowledge implied by The Novel of the Black Seal, suggest once again that the mystery woman is the most advanced of all the three impostors in their dark secrets.

At this point we have heard all of the impostors’ stories and it’s worth considering the themes that run through them. The Novel of the Dark Valley involves a secret society, sinister meetings, and terrible punishment in the form of a mass lynching. The Novel of the Black Seal involves an entire secret civilisation, one which calls on sinister powers to guard its secrets, and which proves to be the doom of one foolish enough to investigate too deeply. The Novel of the Iron Maid offers up another torture device, and The Novel of the White Powder focuses on someone who takes the sacrament of a secret society without understanding or appreciating its true gravity, and who is destroyed as a result.

Over and over again we get these themes of secret groups, occult knowledge, and terrible reprisals and punishments - subjects which we end up seeing are very dear to the impostors’ hearts. The last major story in the collection arrives after Dyson happens to witness a confrontation between Burton/Davies and the young man with spectacles - and his quick thinking allows Dyson to obtain a notebook hastily discarded by Davies’ prey, allowing Dyson to finally read The History of the Young Man With Spectacles and finally hit on the truth of the conspiracy. Note how, unlike the narratives presented by the impostors, this is a “History” not a “Novel”, suggesting that we are meant to take this as, at last, the unalloyed truth, or at least the truth as far as the young man knows it.

The young man turns out to be Joseph Walters, whose a result of his intellectual curiosity prompts him to shake hands with danger in the form of philosophical hedonist Dr Lipsius, who runs a secret society devoted to pagan debauchery - the same society our impostors are members of. The Gold Tiberius, we are meant to understand, was struck to commemorate a memorable orgy of that Emperor, who was depicted in Suetonius’ often-fanciful Twelve Caesars as a shameless libertine and abuser. Naturally, Dr Lipsius’ group finds the Gold Tiberius especially interesting, and Walters becomes involved in their scheme to obtain it. However, he’s spooked when he discovers that murder and strange secrets of concealing it are involved, and he runs away with the coin, setting the action of the novel in motion.

The story not only explains the action of the framing story here, but also ends up being a real lynchpin of the Machen Mythos, with interconnections going all over the place. Lipsius’ archaeological interests suggests one possible vector for the mystery woman obtaining her knowledge of the Little People. The use of the “wine of the Fauns” in the society calls to mind a reference in The Great God Pan of Helen Vaughn giving people a wine she claimed was a thousand years old, and also recalls the Vinum Sabbati of The White Powder.

Lipsius himself suggests the figure of Mr Smith from The Dark Valley in the way he presides over this conspiracy and demands total loyalty. The way the conspiracy can someone reduce a person overnight to a similar state as a mummy that has been decaying for centuries suggests that they know particular occult or scientific arts of transmuting people, which reminds us not only of the specific transformations in The Black Seal and The White People but also the fact that the novel’s subtitle is The Transmutations.

It’s also interesting that the History reiterates that the mystery woman is the most dangerous of the impostors. Although it would be hard to fit all this action into what is already known of her biography, it would be interesting if the mystery woman turned out to be Helen Vaughn of The Great God Pan herself, though the similarities may simply arise from Machen having a particular stock characterisation he uses for “debauched women with occult interests”. (If you squint you can see similar features in stories like Change or The Bright Boy.)

Everything is wrapped up in The Adventure of the Deserted Residence, in which Dyson and Phillips end up confronting the fate of the young man with spectacles more or less by accident - they didn’t have any particular business around the abandoned building, as it turned out, but they found it aesthetically interesting and eventually become aware that something is wrong in there. It may be a frustrating end of the novel to see our protagonists be presented over the course of the novel with so many disparate bits of evidence but then fail to actually undertake a full-scale investigation, but this is entirely in keeping with Machen’s own philosophy in which he would regularly express healthy doubts as to whether pure, cold rationalism could really offer up all the answers in the way that the positivists of his day insisted it could.

Whilst this insight and the various ways he finds to illustrate it would be, at its best, a major strength of his work, as we’ll see in covering the later volumes in this series Machen would also become increasingly vocal about what he thought should take the place of rationalism (spoiler: it’s Catholicism), and as a result of becoming more insistent on promoting this solution his work would eventually become narrower in appeal. The early Machen, however, is for many the best Machen, and that’s what you get here.

The White People and Other Stories

Not to be confused with the similarly-titled Penguin compilation, this second Joshi-edited Machen compilation from Chaosium begins by offering the final Dyson story. The Red Hand once again finds Dyson and Phillipps confronted with a mystery but for a change of pace they actually do some active detective work this time. On a night stroll they stumble across a distinguished doctor, who has been murdered. The murder weapon seems to be a flint knife of a design ten thousand years old, and nearby Dyson spots a chalk illustration of a red hand, much as those that featured in The Shining Pyramid. Have the Little People come to London?

As it turns out, the answer is “no” - but the circumstances of murder suggests that one of the characters is some sort of agent of the Little People, or perhaps part of an elite secret society in contact with them. (Could this be Dr Lipsius’ cabal?) The big unresolved mystery is how long the character in question has been in their pocket. Was he in with them all along, since his days of poverty, or did he become their pawn as part of his elevation to high society?

The story culminates in the display of a gold ornament called the “Pain of the Goat”, taken from the Little People, which so offends Dyson and Phillipps that they cease to have any desire to investigate further. The title implies it’s some sort of depiction of sacrifice, but then again I’m not convinced a mere animal sacrifice scene would really shock an ethnologist like Phillipps. Either the pain is something crueller than mere blood sacrifice, or the “goat” isn’t actually a goat, or we’re dealing with both an unconventional pain and an unconventional goat. It’s an enigmatic note to end on, though it’s sprung on us so abruptly and so close to the end that Machen doesn’t give himself any space to really develop any interesting ideas or implications around it.

It’s at around this point that the jibes about his riffing on Stevenson started getting to Machen and he tried to distance his subsequent work from his earlier style, resulting in the retirement of Dyson as a protagonist - probably a timely decision, since Machen was starting to risk getting into a rut there and I’m not sure there’s much he could have done with Dyson that wouldn’t have been another rehash of The Three Impostors or The Inmost Light.

One of the first products of Machen’s new style was the clutch of prose poems known as Ornaments In Jade, which taken together become a meditation on the fine line between religious ecstasy and sinful pleasure, and the dark impulses and desires suppressed by social conditioning. In The Idealist, for instance, we meet a put-upon clerk who finds little to smile about in everyday life but each evening retires to his room and undertakes strange masturbatory rituals by himself; elsewhere we meet a teenage boy who plots (and may or may not carry out) the torture killing of a 12 year old girl.

The White People - easily the best Machen story not included in the first volume of these collected stories - is an illustration and expansion on several principles worked on in Ornaments In Jade, particularly the ideas of hidden witchcraft surviving to the modern day and true spiritual transgression not necessarily taking the form of evil as we'd recognise it, and the concept that true evil is a different thing from being antisocial and disagreeable. It is delivered with a framing story, in which two characters spend much of the prelude discussing these ideas and then spend the epilogue discussing subsequent developments after the event of the main story - we discover here that the main character of the core story has died, and the idol she worshipped has been destroyed.

Without the prologue and epilogue, I am not so sure we would categorise the core story as horror. The main bulk of the text is the personal memoir left behind by a girl who in her teens discovers that all the stories her nurse told her are true, and all the games she taught her are spells, and all the dances rituals, and through these and a chance spiritual encounter the girl attains communication with transcendent fairy folk.

This communication feels less like the sort of anthropological first contact Professor Gregg was aiming for in The Novel of the Black Seal, and more like the Golden Dawn’s conception of establishing communication the Higher Genius or Crowley's later conception of contacting the Holy Guardian Angel in his Thelemic system, making this the most spiritually-oriented and least materialistic take on the Little People we have seen yet in Machen’s fiction.

Through the prologue and epilogue of the story, Machen asserts that true sin constitutes a forbidden congress with higher spiritual realms, whilst true piety is approaching them in the proper way. Unless you believe in the objective existence of a God whose word is the sole moral compass (in which case you abandon all pretense at moral philosophy, because “it's good if the boss says it's good and bad if he says it's bad” is the ethical system of gangsters and tiny children), the whole “forbidden” or not-forbidden thing comes entirely down to social niceties. What right does society have to say a young lady can't marry a fairy if she wishes?

It’s particularly rich to see Machen taking this line after his involvement in the Golden Dawn, as though Macgregor Mathers’ cobbled-together part-invented farrago of mystical and occult ideas constituted anything resembling a cosmically authorised spiritual path. It does rather feel like Machen had lost perspective in the midst of the magical arguments that broke up the Order, especially the feud between Aleister “magic is totally badass and you should do it as much as possible” Crowley and A.E. “magic is naughty and we should read and think about it a lot but not actually do it” Waite - he was Waite’s buddy, after all - and in this respect the framing story can feel like a clumsy attempt to argue why one way of doing magic or exploring spirituality is OK but another one, even when it looks extremely similar, isn’t. (In fact, Crowley’s short story The Wake World is basically a Thelemic response to this story, minus the moralising framing story, in which the child narrator has discovered intuitively the knowledge and spiritual capabilities that Crowley’s system spends a lot of energy attempting to teach.)

That said, The White People has plenty of strengths when Machen isn’t tying himself in philosophical knots. Some of the comments in the prelude and epilogue perhaps represent the one of the first allusions in horror literature to the idea of memetic contamination. (Specifically, it’s implied that suggestions that though a virgin, our teenage witch had become pregnant through simple contemplation of the spiritual realities she was in contact with, the idea of bearing a changeling being enough to impregnate her with one.) It is also a masterpiece of complex allusion, with fairly clear suggestions of masturbation with idols and lesbian encounters with nymphs. Nonetheless, I find it more satisfying a tale if I just read the core and imagine my own ending for the main character rather than having Machen’s cop-out moralising kill her off.

Next up we have A Fragment of Life, a story which Joshi seems to greatly admire but which I find to be self-indulgent, overlong waffle. The story is about the Darnells, a young couple who live a painfully dull existence and don't really seem to understand each other very well, and how Mr Darnell through reaching back into his personal and family history hits on a strand of Christian mysticism wherein under his patriarchal leadership the two can awaken themselves to the magic in the world. It’s sprinkled with hints of great magic, holy and infernal in nature, but stops before anything really fantastic happens, and it rather seems to putter out because whilst Machen can narrate the start of the spiritual journey he sets the Darnells on, he can't really enunciate the actual journey or outcome especially well beyond broad hints.

It’s basically a sophisticated take on same idea that Eleanor Porter would enunciate in Pollyanna - namely, that you can take your dull or unhappy existence and turn it into a world of whimsy and wonder and enchantment and ecstasy by training yourself to look at it in a different way. This is the sort of thing which on one hand probably gives a lot of comfort to people undertaking just such exercises to make their own lives bearable, but on the other hand seems basically masturbatory in nature. I cannot help but think of the neurostimulation addicts in Larry Niven’s science fiction stories, so dedicated to stimulating their brain’s pleasure centres that they let their lives completely go to seed as a result. Nor can I see this (or Pollyanna) as being anything other than yet another opiate of the masses, encouraging people to simply accept the unacceptable rather than to have the courage to step up and change it.

Although early sections do a good job of evoking suburban tedium, they do so to such excessive length that the boredom becomes all too real, and you end up feeling like nothing will ever be interesting or fun again. The first chapter, for instance, goes on interminably about the Darnells’ very gentle disagreement about whether to spend ten pounds from Mrs Darnell’s aunt on furniture for the spare room or a new oven for the kitchen. This is exactly as tedious as it sounds, and the inner life of Mr Darnell never really becomes that much more exciting, because what Machen doesn’t seem to grasp that if someone is very, very boring, then the subject matter of their thoughts and interests doesn’t make much difference to that: you can be just as boring talking about Christ and miracles and sacred wells and holy unions as you can be by talking about furniture and kitchen appliances, and the Darnells, as the most stultifyingly boring couple in English literature, are supremely dull in either context.

This and The White People were once part of the same sprawling magnum opus that in its early planning stages also included the novel The Hill of Dreams, until Machen made the (probably extremely wise) decision to separate the stories out. Certainly, there seems to be a thematic connection here with A Fragment of Life showing the same sort of spiritual awakening as The White People, but in a more positive light because it takes place through “approved” channels (both works even include a mystical union at a well), and The Hill of Dreams is the account of a character who is drawn this way and that by the competing sides of his nature.

Next up, Joshi offers us The Angels of Mons, a mini-collection of Machen’s wartime work issued in 1915 in the wake of the urban legend Machen’s writing in the Evening News would inspire. In his introduction, Machen talks about the genesis of The Bowmen - the story that inspired the myth - and explains how it was all a big invention. This probably felt like a necessary step, since many members of the public insisted it was true, to the point where even those who knew it was originally presented as fiction believed that he’d based it on fact - he relates, for instance, a conspiracy theory that a royal lady-in-waiting had passed the information to him.

In fact, so determined were some to believe that shortly after the collected stories came out, Harold Begbie would write On the Side of the Angels: A Reply to Arthur Machen in which he insisted that, even if The Bowmen were fictional, the stories of angels on the battlefield were true and Machen was being entirely too egotistical in assuming that he’d inspired them. Nonetheless, even to this day nobody has been able to substantiate the rumour of the angels as existing at any point before Machen’s story was published. Machen blames the spread of the story on the materialism of the age making people desperate for any spiritual succor they can cling to, because the Church of England isn't being Mysterious enough (read: not elitist enough, not Catholic enough).

Machen declares The Bowmen itself to not actually be an especially good story, and I have to concur with him there - it's got all the trite oversimplifications, blatant didacticism and moral smugness of most of the war propaganda of its day. Also included in The Angels of Mons is The Soldier's Rest, a parable about a heroic British tommy’s reception into Heaven which makes sure to devote some column inches to hyping up German atrocities whilst painting the British as perfect angels; The Monstrance, which has a child-crucifying, priest-killing, church-shattering brute of a German sergeant major destroyed by a holy vision along with a great swathe of Germans who had the bad luck to be near him at the time; and The Dazzling Light, about a soon-to-be-soldier’s vision of future war technologies converging with medieval aesthetics.

These stories’ inclusion in both this collection and Joshi’s truncated Machen collection for Penguin seems to be a victory of historical interest over intrinsic quality; were it not for that rumour running out of control they wouldn’t be especially significant entries in Machen’s canon at all. They are all vapid propaganda pieces, intent on glorifying the British efforts in the War whilst baselessly denigrating the Germans at every opportunity, and in that light the way the Angels of Mons legend became a curse on Machen, resulting in a lifelong frustration at being associated in the public imagination with the story above any of his superior efforts, feels like a form of poetic justice to me.

That said, Machen does redeem himself somewhat with two other stories from the War, The Great Return and Out of the Earth. Both set in a coastal region of Wales, both presented in a mock-documentary style in which the narrator is recognisably Machen himself on his journalistic rounds, the stories are a similar linked pair to The White People and A Fragment of Life, though whereas there you have a flawed but still excellent story paired with a total pile of shit, here you have two stories which are decent enough by themselves which are mutually elevated by the parallels that arise from their common setting.

The Great Return is the heavenly half of the duo, in which Machen investigates some strange reports coming out of this Welsh village - including a mention of changes in the manner of worship at the local church - and eventually uncovers the truth; namely, that the place was, even in the midst of war, blessed with a miracle in the form of the return of the Holy Grail and its use in Mass at the local church.

Machen capably creates a sense of mystery through the early portions of the story, which depict his attempts to figure out just what has been going on; the concluding portions shift gear to focus on narrating the various miracles occurring in the region, culminating in a description of the Mass of the Grail that, even if you don’t find it resonates with you on a spiritual level, is at least simultaneously uplifting and entertainingly strange. Careful readers will notice a recurring theme of quarrels, fights, and disputes between people being resolved by the Grail, as people’s petty differences suddenly no longer seem insolubly difficult or worth creating division over after people have had their hearts elevated by the Grail. The relevance to then-current events in the international sphere is obvious.

The connection to the World War is even more prominent in Out of the Earth, the darker and more infernal half of the two and a welcome return of Machen to outright horror. In fact, it’s a revival of his Little People mythos; after a spate of rumours about wicked behaviour by feral and even murderous children in this region of Wales spreads, Machen investigates and discovers the horrible truth - that, because humans through the War have lowered themselves to the level of the Little People, they have become that much more able to break through into our world and work mischief. The newspaper style of the story really works nicely to enhance the horror here, whilst the landmarks this has in common with The Great Return and the very different events depicted in those places illustrate idea from The White People that the distinction between sin and sanctity is very, very thin indeed.

The Happy Children. though it was first published in 1920, seems to have been a product of Machen’s World War-era writing, both in terms of its stylistic approach (it’s very much like a less polished take on The Great Return) and its wartime subject matter. This time, the spiritual subject matter consists of the children who died on the battlefields of the war and the sinking of the Lusitania manifesting in a Northern England town in order to celebrate the Mass of the Innocents. It’s a shaky piece which both reverts to the propagandistic tone of much of the Angels of Mons-inspired material (which it namedrops) and adopts an awfully mawkish tone, weaknesses which perhaps account for Machen leaving it on the cutting room floor until it eventually slipped out.

The idea that humanity’s moral degradation through the War could lead to a spiritual decay that actually had a physical manifestation would be further explored to exhaustion in novel The Terror. This exists in two versions - the full 40,000 word short novel, and a 10,000 word abridgement entitled The Coming of the Terror. Joshi reprints The Coming of the Terror in this collection, though since he reprints the full novel in the next book this is another thing which makes me suspect that the Chaosium Machen was only supposed to be a two-book collection (especially since in the introduction to this volume he talks about this and The Three Impostors as containing all the essential Arthur Machen and in context it seems like these two volumes were the only ones planned in the series). Since the third volume did come out and did include the complete version of the novel, I will address it there.

(Weirdly, Joshi seems to think The Coming of the Terror is superior to The Terror itself - which makes his decision to reprint the full novel in the Penguin Machen collection and cut The Great God Pan and much of The Three Impostors especially baffling.)

Another thing that makes me think that this was intended as the last of Chaosium’s Machen reprints is that it more or less covers the remaining major points of interest in Machen’ career - you have a nod to The Terror, you have the Angels of Mons stuff plus some of Machen’s more nuanced World War I writing, you have Ornaments In Jade and A Fragment of Life (the latter of which Joshi seems to think is important even though it’s appalling dull). Most importantly, you have The White People, which despite its flaws is good enough to justify the cost of entry by itself.

The Terror and Other Stories

The title novel in this collection is the classic “animals rise up against humanity” story, set against the backdrop of World War I. It’s mostly structured as a catalogue of gruesome deaths that get stranger and stranger as the story proceeds, until the truth is revealed at the end. As usual, Machen contrives a way to focus most of his attention on a rural area of Wales near the coast, with a local doctor witnessing those manifestations of the Terror or their aftermath that affect the area.

This is riveting stuff when you’re flipping through it, but the conclusion doesn’t quite hold together and the novel tends to fall apart when you think back on it. For one thing, the animals seem slightly too effective at attacking in secret and ensuring the death of their quarry. There are some escapes and survivals, but you would think there would be enough of those, and enough witnesses to the more major attacks, to make the overall picture clearer. Moreover, the humans seem entirely ineffectual at fighting back - don’t these farmers and soldiers have guns? Wouldn’t you expect to find at least some animals shot dead near the scenes of attacks?

Furthermore, Machen’s contempt for science means some of his explanations of specific deaths are fanciful. The clouds of moths that suffocate people are one of the more startling features of the book, but Machen seems to overestimate the capability of the moths to survive and fly away after flying into people’s breathing passages; furthermore, he does not explain why dead moths were not found crushed by the struggles of their victims. (With a cloud of moths that thick, you would think that it would be near-impossible for a thrashing, desperate person not to smush a whole bunch of them with every step and flail.)

The major issue, though, is that just as Machen is talking about the importance of mystery, he dumps on us a pat explanation of the event that ties everything together neatly. Namely, he declares that the animal revolted as a result of humanity abdicating its position in the spiritual food chain, ceasing to act in the role God intended for us as ruler of the animals. For one thing, this is a less interesting explanation than the idea of a “contagion of hate” as a result of the war - a concept raised only to be dismissed without very much basis for that dismissal beyond the fact that Machen has a boner for tradition and so wants an explanation that allows him to hype up tradition, which the hate contagion isn't so useful for. For another, it turns the whole novel into an exercise in preaching, which may be supremely infuriating for readers who haven't realised that by this point in Machen’s writing that's kind of what you have to expect from him. (It’s also an unwelcome reminder of the other preachiest “animals go wild and attack humanity” story ever - the movie Birdemic: Shock and Terror.)

Most of all, though, as I said it’s an example of Machen suddenly undercutting the very point he usually makes about the importance of mystery. What Machen does not seem to appreciate is that in the context of the conclusion of a novel-length story, “God did it because we were bad” isn't grand and mysterious; it's just a cop-out.

The rest of this anthology is a mini-selection of lesser-known Machen stories, none of which quite have the depth or power of his major works but many of which are interesting and entertaining enough that I’m glad to have them here. (The only real dud is Munitions of War, a daft war propaganda about ghosts of Royal Navy sailors and ships manifesting with the intent of supporting the war effort.) This selection is bookended by two stories which almost feel connected; the 1890 piece The Lost Club is a snapshot of the monstrous inner workings of a weird secret society, whilst 1937’s Ritual is a brief snippet about children's games that seem to be unusually knowledge recreations of secret society ceremonies; the particular game the story focuses on has parallels with that in The Lost Club.

Joshi makes the wise decision to not limit himself exclusively to supernatural stories for this collection, allowing himself the opportunity to highlight some interesting pieces that would otherwise be rather lost in Machen’s bibliography. The Islington Mystery is a story of a wartime murder written from the point of view of one who appreciates them as art. Despite the very Machenlike prose, the morbid fascination evident is uncharacteristic of his late fiction - a bit of the early darkness creeping back out. The Cosy Room is a character sketch focusing on a fugitive from justice and the mental and spiritual strain he is under as he waits to be caught. (The titular cosy room is the Condemned Cell, Britain’s old-timey equivalent of Death Row.) The Bright Boy shows the story of a tutor hired to teach a small child who turns out to be a perverse little font of evil. The mundane explanation given for events here is rather half-baked, but the story’s overt references to pornography, rape and prostitution are shockingly explicit by Machen’s standards.

The best non-supernatural story here is The Children of the Pool, involving a man who, after visiting a pool of ill aspect and dark folklore, finds himself haunted by reminders of a past indiscretion. Although the scenario at first seems supernatural, it’s actually a rare instance of a story where the non-supernatural explanation of what is happening is more interesting than the supernatural one - namely, that the pool is so depressing to look at that when the chap carrying the old guilt looks at it, it makes all his ill feelings spill out.

Another late-career interest of Machen was the doppelganger legend, which appears in various forms here. Johnny Double is a fun yarn about a man who from a young age is able to bilocate perfectly happily, and keeps up the habit even as a respectable judge. The Dover Road is a story about a paranormal investigation which ends up unexpectedly witnessing a spooky doppelganger incident, though it’s rather ruined by overlong explanation at the end spelling things out which the reader will have already have worked out perfectly well for themselves,

The most significant story of spiritual doubles here is Out of the Picture: on face of it, this looks like a story about an artist who turns out to have a murderous side, but various supernatural and occult elements add a strange dimension to it. For one thing, there seems to be some obscure connection between the villain's activities and the poltergeist activity manifesting in the vicinity of an innocent schoolboy, as though the forces invoked by the evil deeds set off the lad’s latent telekinesis. The story has overt references to the Cabala, and presents a discussion of its use in landscape painting, and the villain may not be the painter at all but a dark doppelganger summoned out of the paintings themselves (as the title implies), having taken on an increasing reality as work progressed on the landscape series.

The Bright Boy might be a Little People story, which would account for the strange properties and interests of the lad in question. Out of the Picture might also be, which would account for the poltergeist-haunted boy having the appearance he does, and maybe the thing summoned from the paintings is one of them. Two stories here, though, are unambiguously Little People pieces. The first, Opening the Door presents the story of a clergyman who ends up inadvertently transcending into their realm, presenting perhaps a saintly equivalent to The White People. (It would certainly be a more gripping one than A Fragment of Life.)

The Little People mythos is closed out with Change, which brings back the implications in The Three Impostors and The Red Hand about the Little People having human collaborators. This is the story of a governess who turns the children given into her care on a beach holiday in Wales into a little coven, and allows one of them to be swapped with a changeling; in this it’s sort of a prelude to later moral panics about Satanic ritual abuse in nurseries. It’s particularly effective in the way it prompts you to go back and take a second look at what the governess and the children have been up to over the course of the story.

The collection is rounded out with Machen’s essay The Literature of Occultism, though if you were hoping for something like a prototype for Lovecraft’s Supernatural Horror In Literature you’ll be disappointed. The essay waffles a lot and isn't very clear or systematic, Machen having taken his occultism seriously enough to eagerly participate in the obfuscation dance that tends to surround the subject.

The Limits of Machen

There’s no denying that, whilst I’m glad to own all three volumes in this collection, the quality of Machen’s work in later life seems to have slipped, The tragedy of Machen is that although he had a powerful imagination, he seems to have been unable to contemplate anything outside of his particular narrow style of Christianity without horror or contempt, and as time went by became increasingly reluctant to even make the attempt to look outside of the bounds set by that worldview. He may even have felt that, as in The White People, to even attempt to imagine something outside of Christianity was actively evil.

As such, his fiction became increasingly incompatible with any interpretation outside of that context, and increasingly dull to any who did not already share his worldview. His attempts to reduce everything to either a form of Christianity or a blasphemous survival from pagan days that should be stamped out seem to have shut him out from a world of possibilities; indeed, the entire point of the semiautobiographical novel The Hill of Dreams seems to have been Machen struggling between his fascination with the Roman history of his Welsh home town and his suspicion that it was wicked to have such interests in pagan peoples in the first place.

In his introduction to The Terror and Other Stories Joshi notes that Machen's great theme, and perhaps the thing about his fiction which resonates best, is his determination to retain a sense of the mystery of the universe in a time when rationality, materialism, and science seemed to be resolving everything. In this Machen seems to have been disadvantaged by when he learned his scientific knowledge. In the late 19th Century it certainly looked like all the basic problems of science were about to be resolved - but as Lovecraft knew full well, and Machen would have seen had he kept up with new advances, by the 1920s all the old certainties seemed wrecked and the universe seemed more mysterious than ever.

Whilst Machen could not think of a response to materialism except for utter rejection, and eventually could not accept any rejection other than his flavour of Christianity, Lovecraft managed to cut this particular Gordian Knot through his realisation that the way you conserve mystery in an age of materialism is to embrace that materialism and find the mystery inside it.

Nonetheless, when Lovecraft made that breakthrough he borrowed heavily from Machen’s toolkit, and much of Machen’s work (especially from his early years) manages to offer something of interest even to readers who don’t share his conclusions. Although he would come to regret his early focus on transcendent evil, the fact is that that was really his best strength as a writer, and he’d always recover something of his old magic when he went back to that well.

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Comments (go to latest)
Ichneumon at 20:19 on 2017-03-09
Was "N" not in any of these? Because there is a passage in that one relating to the Fall which puts Ambrose's theory of evil in "The White People" in a far more interesting, almost Gnostic context: "'When man yielded,' he would say, 'to the mysterious temptation intimated by the figurative language of the Holy Writ, the universe, the universe, originally fluid and the servant of his spirit, became solid, and crashed down upon him, overwhelming him beneath its weight and its dead mass.'" Likewise, you seem to miss the nuance of how Ambrose distinguishes what we might call white magic from black by suggesting that the former seeks to reinstate that ancient, fluid and unified nature of reality, while the latter seeks to grant mankind powers which were never theirs to begin with, even before the Fall; and that a "genius" may inadvertently combine aspects of both the saint and the sinner in their methods. Of course, what Machen considers to be the natural order of things is defined by his devout Catholicism and opposition to positivism, but like Lovecraft, there's this undercurrent of the frustrated mystic in Machen, albeit less so given his embrace of the miraculous.

It's probably worth noting, too, that Machen's introduction to The House of Souls suggests that the scrapped novel which you allude to from which "The White People" was pared would have been far more like a novel-length version of the Green Book itself than "A Fragment of Life".

(Machen is a really important influence on my writing and I love his work to death despite his occasional flaws, so I apologise if I seem defensive.)
Arthur B at 08:24 on 2017-03-10
N is not included, I'm afraid.

Likewise, you seem to miss the nuance of how Ambrose distinguishes what we might call white magic from black by suggesting that the former seeks to reinstate that ancient, fluid and unified nature of reality, while the latter seeks to grant mankind powers which were never theirs to begin with, even before the Fall; and that a "genius" may inadvertently combine aspects of both the saint and the sinner in their methods

Not really, that's just a restatement of the whole "white magic is attaining to higher realms in an approved way, black in a disapproved way" thing - the distinction between awful powers humans should never have had and awesome powers over the universe that are ours by right seems arbitrary and loops back to "It's that way because God says so," which even if it is satisfying for the purposes of real world religion makes for a lousy story feature.
Ichneumon at 00:56 on 2017-03-11
See, I'm not so sure given the implied nature of the magic that the narrator learns. Many of the rituals that she describes have resonances with folk traditions regarding curses, particularly the bit with the clay effigy. It's power through supernatural violence. Machen draws heavily on old Welsh tradition rather than straight Catholicism: The cultural context of a group which converted to Christianity very early but, as illustrated in the Mabinogion, retained a healthy appreciation of the supernatural as something multifaceted and not necessarily about God or the Devil so much as something inherent in reality that could heal or hurt the body, mind and soul. To curse is evil because it wounds; to wield black magic is to wound the world. It's taking without asking, presuming divinity without paying one's spiritual dues. There are alien forces in the world which, by their nature, have power humans are not supposed to have, and with whom humans ought not make stupid deals. Unfortunately, the author of the Green Book is not old enough to have the emotional maturity to recognise any of this, and already has some very scary friends...

I suppose I just find it interesting because I like the idea of the difference between mundane and metaphysical evil being the difference between maiming something on a mere physical level and fucking it up on some weird Platonic ideal one, and how it squares with my very Ligottian paranoia about the fragility of reality. The way Ambrose talks about roses singing, in particular, nails something of that moment that nobody wants to have when the worm turns and all you can do is go, "Am I crazy or is the world crazy? Is it both? Was this always the case?" Which is to say, I feel like Machen's cosmicism carries an interesting flavour precisely because it has an intelligent, neurotic religious man's terror of either being proven horribly wrong or horribly right.
Arthur B at 10:57 on 2017-03-11
Ah, but Ambrose/Machen doesn't say that this stuff was evil because it was based on flinging curses at people, does he? Moreover, he talks up how sanctity and sin can look very, very similar, which raises the question of whether there's a context where hanging out with these beings and flinging curses is spiritually justified. (I mean, if you think all power through supernatural violence is illegitimate on the face of it then a great swathe of the Old Testament becomes indefensible.)

To be fair to Machen, in his wider body of work there do seem to be examples of a more positive/sacred interaction with these things and powers. See, for instance, the poltergeist subplot in Out of the Picture - the kid at the centre of that genuinely seems to be innocent and it seems to be happening as a sort of alarm bell to notify of danger originating elsewhere, rather than as a curse of the sort the Green Book's author uses. Likewise, see Opening the Door, where the guy who makes contact with the is a perfectly innocent clergyman whose mind is very much on very abstract theological stuff.

But taken by itself, The White People doesn't give us much of that. And also some of the use of curses therein seem justifiable but textually condemned anyway - for instance, there's the witch who kills those guys with curses because they were going to force her to marry one of them. Extreme, yes, but in context it seems like her only way out of the situation; then again a Victorian reader would probably have far less of a problem with marital rape than we would.
Ichneumon at 20:42 on 2017-03-12
To which I would respond that Machen seems unusually aware of the shittiness of his own society in its treatment of women and girls for a man of his time. Not that his attitudes are especially progressive, but it seems that when a woman does something frightening in a Machen story, it's usually instigated, directly or indirectly, by a man doing something similarly vile; "The Great God Pan" and "The Inmost Light" immediately spring to mind. The narrator of the Green Book is something of an exception until one takes into account her age and the environment in which she has been raised: If you were a teenage girl in an upper-middle-class Victorian household, constantly stifled by societal expectations, wouldn't you be tempted to rebel in some way? Mayhap a secret way, a secret and nasty one...? I feel like there's a certain sympathy for the girl in the text, while also being terrified of what she can do and what she is becoming—the desire to save a soul that does not know what they are *really* doing, but knowing that it would always be too late.

The other exception which immediately leaps to mind is in The Three Imposters, but there are a lot of other open questions about that character.
Arthur B at 22:07 on 2017-03-12
I get that to a certain extent, but he seems to combine that awareness with a certain paternalism. There literally isn't a single powerful woman in his work - at least in the stories collected in the above collections - who isn't some sort of vile sorceress. (See the Green Book narrator, see the Green Book narrator's nanny, see Helen Vaughn, see the nameless woman in The Three Impostors, see the nanny in Change, see the lady of the house in The Bright Boy.)

I would say, in fact, that The Great God Pan and The Inmost Light are the only examples where a woman goes off the rails because a man did something vile (and in the case of Pan it isn't even the woman the vile thing happens to - Helen Vaughn didn't get trepanned, her mum did).

Basically, for Machen the problem isn't that women are oppressed and subjected to the power of men so much as men don't use that power in the wise and caring way God intended. Every time they try to take power in their own right, someone suffers for it and the result is sin and degradation.
Robinson L at 20:01 on 2017-06-24
By Victorian standards in general, and particularly by Machen’s standards, any sex act not emphatically authorised by God constitutes only ye liveliest awfulness and even an enjoyable evening of light-hearted pegging constitutes a sanity-blasting ordeal on a par with having your skull hollowed out by Azathoth.

I’m sure I’ve said this before recently, but seriously, Arthur, this sentence is *priceless*.
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