Arthur Machen: “An Ecstasy of Fear”

16 April 2012

Arthur Machen - http://www.johncoulthart.com

Arthur Machen, by John Coulthart (1988)

In 1923 H.P. Lovecraft described Arthur Machen as “a Titan—perhaps the greatest living author,” and vowed to read everything he wrote. “There is in Machen,” he later wrote, “an ecstasy of fear that all other living men are too obtuse or timid to capture, and that even Poe failed to envisage in all its starkest abnormality.” In developing his Cthulhu Mythos Lovecraft drew heavily upon Machen’s stories, which abound with sinister, malefic entities that exist on the borders of human perception and are capable of inflicting unutterable, mind-fucking horrors upon those who are foolish enough to venture after them. 

Whereas Lovecraft invoked the mindscapes of science fiction in order to lend his horror its cosmic scale, Machen conjured his eldrich abominations out of the pagan lore of his native Welsh countryside. A one-time member of the Golden Dawn, his stories are occult to the bone. They evoke not the existential horror of the human race adrift in a hostile, indifferent universe, but our ancient, lingering fears of the Other, as remembered—with a certain, ominous undertone—in the language folk tales and superstition. Take this passage from The Three Impostors (1895): 

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In the Hall of the Opium King

1 April 2012
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Opium KingFrom A. Brierre de Boismont, On Hallucinations (1855):—

This writer relates the case of an English ambassador, who was sent on a political mission to one of the Indian kings. On his arrival at the palace of the sovereign, he was conducted through a long suite of magnificent apartments, lined by officers of state clad in the richest apparel; he was then led into a small chamber, where the furniture and decorations were of a still more costly description than what he had already seen. 

There he was left by himself. In a short time two persons of high rank entered, preceding a litter borne by slaves, and covered with rich silks and cashmere shawls of great value. On the couch was stretched a human form, which he should have mistaken for a corpse but for the motion of the head, which corresponded to that of the bearers; two of the officers in attendance had in their hands a golden waiter, on each of which was a cup, and a small bottle containing a bluish-looking liquid. 

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Margaret Hale: The Morbid Homemaker

23 March 2012
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Daniela Denby-Ashe Portrays Margaret Hale in the BBC Adaptation of "North and South."

Margaret Hale is a good and proper English lady who confronts angry rioters and challenges men on questions of industrial labor relations. Her brother is a mutineer living in exile in Spain. Her father is former vicar turned non-conformist who has relocated his family from an idyllic southern village to a bleak northern industrial town where her mother’s health promptly begins to fail. At nineteen years old she has to contend with death, civil unrest and the police, but along the way she grows  enamored to her dynamic new way of life in the North of Britain. 

Published as a weekly from 1854-55, Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South takes an unflinching look at the fault lines in British society in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution. Weaving contemporary social issues into an elegant coming-of-age story, Gaskell takes a frank yet even-handed view of the cultural differences between the industrial North and agrarian South, and the emergence of labor unions. She portrays religious intolerance, the injustice of courts martial, and the entrapment of women. She takes on all of these issues and more with a combination of clarity, nuance and sophistication that is rare among social critics of any century.

North and South is a veritable treasure trove of historical detail and nuance of the sort beloved by social historians and period writers alike. Here the cultural norms that form the background of more conventional works are brought into the forefront, contrasted across regional and class lines, made the topics of passionate debate, and—best of all—transgressed. It is also a good story. One of its most poignant features consists in its portrayal of ritual mourning and compassion toward dying as wellsprings of social cohesion. 

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Varney the Vampire; or, The Feast of Blood

1 March 2012

Sir Francis Varney was the First Vampire to Sport a Cloak while Terrorizing Young Maidens.

James Malcolm Rymer’s Varney the Vampire has been described as the worst book of the 19th century. Introduced in 1845, the completed serial consists of over 600,000 words of tedious dialog, aimlessly meandering storylines, maddening repetition, and enough kernels of genius to consistently inspire horror fiction into the present day. Bram Stoker, Anne Rice, Stephen King, Russell T. Davies and Freidrich Wilhelm Murnau are just some of the writers and filmmakers who have been indebted to concepts originated in the pages of Varney, making it easily the most influential vampire story that nobody reads.

The first full-length work of vampire fiction, Varney appeared in the penny press some 36 years after the original short story sketches by Lord Byron and John William Polidori, and decades before J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). It can thus be conceived of as a transitional work, expanding upon some of the ideas of its predecessors while introducing many familiar tropes that were soon be canonized into the genre, but along the way it also explored themes that were way ahead of their time. 
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Arthur Boyd Houghton’s City of Strangers

25 February 2012

Arthur Boyd Houghton Itinerant Singers

Arthur Boyd Houghton, Itinerant Singers, c1860 (detail). Click to Open Full Image in New Window.

Arthur Boyd Houghton was known to paint glowing images of happy families on seaside retreat and beneficent old men at play with their grandchildren, but in 1859-1865 he also produced a series of weirdly unsettling London street scenes. Their composition is chaotic and fragmentary, depicting complex scenes of urban bustle. His figures, though densely intermingled, appear eerily disconnected from one another.

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The Lost Art of Sentimental Hairwork

4 February 2012

Mrs. Hamlin's Family History Wreath

Mrs. Hamlin of Omaha, Nebraska left a rather curious heirloom to her descendants—an intricately woven bouquet composed entirely of human hair. Buried deep inside, each of its flowers is numbered with a tiny label corresponding one of fifteen names written on a separate index card; those of herself and her loved ones. More than a century ago, each of these people offered up their locks of brown or gray—literally, pieces of themselves—to provide the material for what would become a lasting symbol family unity. 

The weaver need not have been the eccentric that one might suppose. On the contrary, she was likely to have been a conventional middle class lady going about her fancywork. She may have included a lock of her own in the wreath, but quite possibly she did not, preferring instead to be present as the sum of its parts; the invisible weaver of family ties. As a good 19th century woman, the domestic harmony she fostered was an expression of herself; her self-portrait in sacrifice. 

As Helen Sheumaker describes in Love Entwined: The Curious History of Hairwork in America, hairwork in its myriad forms had not only established itself as longstanding tradition by the latter half of the 19th century, but had become an active fashion. Husbands went to work wearing watch fobs fashioned of their wives hair. Locks from the dearly departed were mounted into rings and brooches. Ladies filled their autograph books with snippets from their friends. At a time of rising commercialism, sentimental hairwork became a way both to signal one’s sincerity and, paradoxically, to stay in style. 

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Who Haunted Betsy Bell?

14 January 2012

Elizabeth Bell

The visitations began with sightings of strange animals about the Bell homestead, and of a unknown girl in green swinging to the limb of a tall oak. Soon there came an unaccountable knocking about the door and exterior walls of the house, followed by scratching and gnawing sounds that searched from room to room. It assaulted the boys in the night, ripping the sheets from their beds and pulling their hair as they tried to sleep. Whenever candles were lit to investigate, they would soon hear screams coming from their sister’s room. 

Betsy Bell was 12 years old in 1818 when she became the thrall of an unseen tormentor who, for some three years, relentlessly beat her, mangled her hair, pinched and pricked her skin, and once caused her to vomit pins and needles. Her family, early, well-respected settlers of Robertson County, TN, at first tried removing her from the home, but to no avail—the disturbances followed her wherever she went. It was intelligent and, moreover, able to communicate. 

At first the communication was mediated through conventional spirit rapping techniques, but soon it achieved a faltering whisper that grew into a disembodied voice, able to be heard distinctly by everyone in the room. The so-called Bell Witch—or “Kate,” as she came to be known—went on to grant many interviews, over the course of which she sang, gossiped, played tricks, and aped the sermons of local ministers, all the while heaping violent torments on Betsy, her family, and visiting skeptics.

Above all, “Kate” hated Betsy’s father—John Bell, or “Old Jack,” as she addressed him—and swore that she would torture him to death. Coincident with her arrival, he had begun suffering from facial seizures that limited his ability to speak and consume food, and when he ultimately died in 1820, the witch pointed out a vial of poison that she had used to do him in. It was only after John Bell was thus dead that the witch began to release her grip on Betsy, the manifestations more or less coming to an end by 1821. 

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