Comments on Arthur B's Machen Fairies Grim Again

A look at the work of Arthur Machen, through the lens of Chaosium's classic three-volume collection of his weird fiction.

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*.
In order to post comments, you need to log in to Ferretbrain or authenticate with OpenID. Don't have an account? See the About Us page for more details.

Back to "Machen Fairies Grim Again"