Arthur Machen: “An Ecstasy of Fear”

16 April 2012

Arthur Machen -

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): 

It is many years since the first glimmer of the theory which is now almost, if not quite, reduced to fact dawned on my mind. A somewhat extensive course of miscellaneous and obsolete reading had done a great deal to prepare the way, and, later, when I became somewhat of a specialist, and immersed myself in the studies known as ethnological, I was now and then startled by facts that would not square with orthodox scientific opinion, and by discoveries that seemed to hint at something still hidden for all our research. More particularly I became convinced that much of the folk-lore of the world is but an exaggerated account of events that really happened, and I was especially drawn to consider the stories of the fairies, the good folk of the Celtic races. Here, I thought I could detect the fringe of embroidery and exaggeration, the fantastic guise, the little people dressed in green and gold sporting in the flowers, and I thought I saw a distinct analogy between the name given to this race (supposed to be imaginary) and the description of their appearance and manners. Just as our remote ancestors called the dreaded beings ‘fair’ and ‘good’ precisely because they dreaded them, so they had dressed them up in charming forms, knowing the truth to be the very reverse. Literature, too, had gone early to work, and had lent a powerful hand in the transformation, so that the playful elves of Shakespeare are already far removed from the true original, and the real horror is disguised in a form of prankish mischief. But in the older tales, the stories that used to make men cross themselves as they sat around the burning logs, we tread a different stage; I saw a widely opposed spirit in certain histories of children and of men and women who vanished strangely from the earth. They would be seen by a peasant in the fields walking towards some green and rounded hillock, and seen no more on earth; and there are stories of mothers who have left a child quietly sleeping, with the cottage door rudely barred with a piece of wood, and have returned, not to find the plump and rosy little Saxon, but a thin and wizened creature, with sallow skin and black, piercing eyes, the child of another race. Then, again, there were myths darker still; the dread of witch and wizard, the lurid evil of the Sabbath, and the hint of demons who mingled with the daughters of men.

And you didn’t think that Tinker Bell and Cthulhu had anything in common. 

A Master of Decadent Horror

The Great God Pan

Pan (1986) by John Coulthart

Machen wrote  most of his best work during the 1890’s; that period of literary decadence that saw the publication of works like Salome and White Stains. His first successful novella, The Great God Pan (1894), involves a perverse metaphysical experiment that destroys a young woman’s mind, and a vile demigoddess who moves among people of London, spreading madness and suicide in her wake. As Wikipedia wryly puts it, the story “was widely denounced for its sexual and horrific content and subsequently sold well, going into a second edition.” The praises lavished upon The Great God Pan and other stories that Machen wrote during the ’90’s abound with terms like “of the century” and “in the English language.”

One of his most celebrated tales is The White People (written in 1899 and published in 1904), which provided inspiration for the 2006 film Pan’s Labyrinth. It consists largely of a subtle, meandering narrative in which a little girl recounts the strange old stories and secret games taught to her by her nurse, and describes a bizarre netherworld, fraught with unseen dangers, that she discovered while venturing into the woods. Lovecraft called it “a triumph of skillful selectiveness and restraint” that “accumulates enormous power as it flows on in a stream of innocent childish prattle.” 

It is only in hindsight that the plot truly becomes apparent—not because of some cheap twist, mind you, but because Machen is so skillfully indirect in his storytelling that it is only when you reflect upon the piece in its entirety that overall picture suddenly resolves itself. Like many of Machen’s tales, it does not merely wear the trappings of the occult, but illustrates the occult worldview to the reader by way of its multi-layered structure, imbued with hidden meanings that unlock themselves to those who peer beneath the surface. 

Machen applies this worldview to an urban setting in The Three Impostors, a series of interwoven tales in which the bustle and confusion of London are shown to obscure an undercurrent of occult intrigue. The story’s protagonist, like Machen himself, has a habit of observing the city which leads him (or is he led?) to the search for a bespectacled stranger who forms the common denominator in the various supernatural tales he unlocks. As the title implies, there is, of course, more than one layer to the story. For Machen, the apparent randomness of the observable world obscured hidden patterns, and patterns hidden within patterns. 

 An Ecstacy of Fear

Machen disparaged realism in writing and materialism in philosophy. Though he was openly critical of popular movements like spiritualism—by then thoroughly marred by fraud and deception—he was captivated by mystical worldview. He believed that fine literature is that which achieved “ecstasy,” or what might also be described as “rapture, beauty, adoration, wonder, awe, mystery, sense of the unknown, [or] desire for the unknown.”  

Supernatural horror stories too often wear out like a stick of gum. The enigmas that first engage the reader are explained as the plot approaches its denouement, and all that remains is to hope that nothing bad happens to one’s favorite character as he or she undertakes the necessary steps to banish the evil spirit, or expose the nefarious plot. The numinous is rendered comprehensible, and therefore boring. 

In Machen’s stories, however, the mystery only builds. He introduces the fantastic with such subtlety and restraint that it sometimes feels as though he is not describing something imaginary as much as reminding you of what you had already known, but chose to forget. He maintains the fundamental incomprehensibility of the universe, providing only such answers as hint at larger questions and greater possibilities. The book ends, but the sense of wonder—the “ecstasy”—follows you out of the story and leads you think and rethink and finally ask yourself “Is that my belief that I am trying to suspend?” 

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3 Comments to “Arthur Machen: “An Ecstasy of Fear””

  1. I definitely need to read more of Machen! How do you like him compared to Lefanu and H.R. James?

    • Much better, at least from what I’ve read. James I read years ago and didn’t like at all, but I’m going to revisit him because he’s cited, with Algernon Blackwood and Lord Dunsany as one of the classic weird fiction authors, so maybe I missed something the first time round. At this point Machen is on my short list of favorite authors, together with Shirley Jackson and the Bronte sisters.

  2. It’s M.R. James

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