Arthur Machen  

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"Of Mr. Machen's horror-tales the most famous is perhaps The Great God Pan (1894) which tells of a singular and terrible experiment and its consequences. A young woman, through surgery of the brain-cells, is made to see the vast and monstrous deity of Nature, and becomes an idiot in consequence, dying less than a year later. Years afterward a strange, ominous, and foreign-looking child named Helen Vaughan is placed to board with a family in rural Wales, and haunts the woods

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Arthur Machen (3 March 1863 – 15 December 1947) was a Welsh author and mystic of the 1890s and early 20th century. He is best known for his influential supernatural, fantasy, and horror fiction. His novella The Great God Pan (1890; 1894) has garnered a reputation as a classic of horror, with Stephen King describing it as "Maybe the best [horror story] in the English language." He is also well known for "The Bowmen", a short story that was widely read as fact, creating the legend of the Angels of Mons.




From the beginning of his literary career, Machen espoused a mystical belief that the humdrum ordinary world hid a more mysterious and strange world beyond. His gothic and decadent works of the 1890s concluded that the lifting of this veil could lead to madness, sex, or death, and usually a combination of all three. Machen's later works became somewhat less obviously full of gothic trappings, but for him investigations into mysteries invariably resulted in life-changing transformation and sacrifice. Machen loved the medieval world view because he felt it manifested deep spirituality alongside a rambunctious earthiness.

Machen was a great enthusiast for literature that expressed the "rapture, beauty, adoration, wonder, awe, mystery, sense of the unknown, desire for the unknown" that he summed up in the word ecstasy. His main passions were for writers and writing he felt achieved this, an idiosyncratic list which included the Mabinogion and other medieval romances, François Rabelais, Miguel de Cervantes, William Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson, Thomas de Quincey, Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Allan Poe, and Robert Louis Stevenson. Those writers who failed to achieve this, or far worse did not even attempt it, received short shrift from Machen.

Machen's strong opposition to a materialistic viewpoint is obvious in many of his works, marking him as part of neo-romanticism. He was deeply suspicious of science, materialism, commerce, and Puritanism, all of which were anathema to Machen's conservative, bohemian, mystical, and ritualistic temperament. Machen's virulent satirical streak against things he disliked has been regarded as a weakness in his work, and rather dating, especially when it comes to the fore in works such as Dr Stiggins. Similarly, some of his propagandistic First World War stories also have little appeal to a modern audience.

Machen, brought up as the son of a Church of England clergyman, always held Christian beliefs, though accompanied by a fascination with sensual mysticism; his interests in paganism and the occult were especially prominent in his earliest works. Machen was well read on such matters as alchemy, the kabbalah, and Hermeticism, and these occult interests formed part of his close friendship with A. E. Waite. Machen, however, was always very down-to-earth, requiring substantial proof that a supernatural event had occurred, and was thus highly sceptical of Spiritualism. Unlike many of his contemporaries, such as Oscar Wilde and Alfred Douglas, his disapproval of the Reformation and his admiration for the medieval world and its Roman Catholic ritualism did not fully tempt him away from Anglicanism—though he never fitted comfortably into the Victorian Anglo-Catholic world.

The death of his first wife led him to a spiritual crossroads, and he experienced a series of mystical events. After his experimentation with the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the orthodox ritual of the Church became ever more important to him, gradually defining his position as a High Church Anglican who was able to incorporate elements from his own mystical experiences, Celtic Christianity, and readings in literature and legend into his thinking.


In politics, Machen was reactionary. He stated in response to a 1937 questionnaire on the Spanish Civil War in the Left Review, "Mr. Arthur Machen presents his compliments and begs to inform that he is, and always has been, entirely for General Franco."

Legacy and influence

Machen's literary significance is substantial; his stories have been translated into many languages and reprinted in short story anthologies countless times. In the sixties, a paperback reprint in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series brought him to the notice of a new generation. More recently, the small press has continued to keep Machen's work in print. In 2010, to mark the 150 years since Machen's birth, two volumes of Machen's work were republished in the prestigious Library of Wales series.

Literary critics such as Wesley D. Sweetser and S. T. Joshi see Machen's works as a significant part of the late Victorian revival of the gothic novel and the decadent movement of the 1890s, bearing direct comparison to the themes found in contemporary works like Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Bram Stoker's Dracula, and Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray. At the time authors like Wilde, William Butler Yeats, and Arthur Conan Doyle were all admirers of Machen's works. He is also usually noted in the better studies of Anglo-Welsh literature. The French writer Paul-Jean Toulet translated Machen's The Great God Pan into French and visited Machen in London. Charles Williams was also a devotee of Machen's work, which inspired Williams' own fiction.

Historian of fantastic literature Brian Stableford has suggested that Machen "was the first writer of authentically modern horror stories, and his best works must still be reckoned among the finest products of the genre".

Genre fiction

Machen's popularity in 1920s America has been noted, and his work was an influence on the development of the pulp horror found in magazines like Weird Tales and on such notable fantasy writers as James Branch Cabell, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, Frank Belknap Long (who wrote a tribute to Machen in verse, "On Reading Arthur Machen"), Donald Wandrei, David Lindsay and E. Charles Vivian.

His significance was recognized by H. P. Lovecraft, who in his essay "Supernatural Horror in Literature" named Machen as one of the four "modern masters" of supernatural horror (with Algernon Blackwood, Lord Dunsany, and M. R. James). Machen's influence on Lovecraft's own work was substantial. Lovecraft's reading of Machen in the early 1920s led him away from his earlier Dunsanian writing towards the development of what became the Cthulhu Mythos. Machen's use of a contemporary Welsh or London background in which sinister ancient horrors lurk and are capable of interbreeding with modern people obviously helped inspire Lovecraft's similar use of a New England background. Machen's story "The White People" includes references to curious unknown rites and beings, an idea Lovecraft uses frequently in the mythos.

Lovecraft pays tribute to the influence by directly incorporating some of Machen's creations and references, such as Nodens and Aklo, into his Cthulhu Mythos and using similar plotlines, most notably seen by a comparison of "The Dunwich Horror" to The Great God Pan and of "The Whisperer in Darkness" to "The Novel of the Black Seal". Other Lovecraft tales with a debt or reference to Machen include "The Call of Cthulhu", "The Festival", "Cool Air", "The Descendant", and "The Colour Out of Space".Template:Citation needed

His intense, atmospheric stories of horror and the supernatural have been read and enjoyed by many modern horror and fantasy writers, influencing directly Peter Straub, Stephen King, Ramsey Campbell, Karl Edward Wagner, "Sarban" (John William Wall), Joanna Russ, Graham Joyce, Simon Clark, Tim Lebbon, and T. E. D. Klein, to name but a few. Klein's novel The Ceremonies was partly based on Machen's "The White People", and Straub's novel Ghost Story was influenced by The Great God Pan.

Wider literary influence

Machen's influence is not limited to genre fiction, however. Jorge Luis Borges recognized Machen as a great writer, and through him Machen has had an influence on magic realism. He was also a major influence on Paul Bowles and Javier Marías, the latter of whom dedicated a subplot of his 1989 novel All Souls to collecting the works of Machen and his circle of peers. He was one of the most significant figures in the life of the Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman, who attributed to Machen his conversion to High Church Anglicanism, an important part of his philosophy and poetry. Sylvia Townsend Warner (a niece of Machen's second wife, Purefoy) admired Machen and was influenced by him, as is his great-granddaughter, the contemporary artist Tessa Farmer.

Machen was also a pioneer in psychogeography, due to his interest in the interconnection between landscape and the mind. His strange wanderings in Wales and London recorded in his beautiful prose make him of great interest to writers on this subject, especially those focusing on London, such as Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd. Alan Moore wrote an exploration of Machen's mystical experiences in his work Snakes and Ladders. Aleister Crowley loved Machen's works, feeling they contained "Magickal" truth, and put them on the reading list for his students, though Machen, who never met him, detested Crowley. Other occultists, such as Kenneth Grant, also find Machen an inspiration. Far closer to Machen's personal mystical world view was his effect on his friend Evelyn Underhill, who reflected some of Machen's thinking in her highly influential book Mysticism.

One chapter of the French best-seller The Morning of the Magicians, by L. Pauwels and J. Berger (1960), deals extensively with Machen's thought and works. Machen's approach to reality is described as an example of the "fantastic realism" which the book is dedicated to.

Other fields

In music, the composer John Ireland found Machen's works to be a life-changing experience that directly influenced much of his composition. Mark E. Smith of The Fall also found Machen an inspiration. Likewise, Current 93 have drawn on the mystical and occult leanings of Machen, with songs such as "The Inmost Light", which shares its title with Machen's story. Some artists on the Ghost Box Music label like Belbury Poly and The Focus Group draw heavily on Machen. It is an interest also shared by film directors like Mexican Rogelio A. González who made a successful version of "The Islington Mystery" as El Esqueleto de la señora Morales (1960), adapted by Luis Alcoriza, a frequent collaborator in Luis Buñuel's classic films. This interest in Machen's works among filmmakers is also shared by Guillermo del Toro and Richard Stanley. Other notable figures with an enthusiasm for Machen have included Brocard Sewell, Barry Humphries, Stewart Lee and Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury.

Literary societies

An Arthur Machen Society was established in 1948 in the United States and survived until the 1960s. It was followed by the Arthur Machen Society based in the UK, in 1986, which in turn was replaced by the current literary society, The Friends of Arthur Machen.

The Friends of Arthur Machen (FoAM) is a non-profit international literary society founded in 1998 dedicated to supporting interest in Arthur Machen and his work, and to aid research. It publishes two journals: Faunus, which reprints rare Machen articles and criticism of his work, and Machenalia. It fosters interest not only in Machen but in events in which he played a key part, such as the Angels of Mons affair, and organises psychogeographic excursions.

Prominent members include Javier Marías, Stewart Lee and R. B. Russell of Tartarus Press. The society was nominated for a World Fantasy Special Award: Non-Professional in 2006.

Selected works (in approximate order of composition, with date of publication)

  • "The Great God Pan" (written 1890–1894; published 1894) — Novella. First published together with "The Inmost Light" as Volume V in John Lane's Keynotes Series.
  • "The Inmost Light" (1894) — A scientist imprisons his wife's soul in a shining jewel, letting something else into her untenanted body, but the jewel is stolen before he can reverse this...
  • "The Shining Pyramid" (1895) — Strange arrangements of stones appear at the edge of a young man's property. He and a friend attempt to decipher their meaning before it is too late...
  • The Three Impostors (1895) — A novel incorporating several short stories, including "The Novel of the White Powder" and "The Novel of the Black Seal". Centers on the search for a man with spectacles.
    • "The Novel of the Black Seal" — A precursor of H. P. Lovecraft in its subject matter—the protagonist gradually uncovers the secrets of a hidden pre- and non-human race hiding in the Welsh hills, and the true nature of a hybrid, idiot child fathered by one of them.
    • "The Novel of the White Powder" — A man's behavior takes a strange turn after he starts taking a new prescription. His sister doesn't know if this is a good thing or a bad one...
  • "The Red Hand" (1895) — A story featuring the main characters from The Three Impostors. It focuses on a murder performed with an ancient stone axe.
  • The Hill of Dreams (written 1895–1897; published 1907) — Novel.
  • Ornaments in Jade (written 1897; published 1924) — Vignettes.
  • "The White People" (written 1899; published 1904) — A young girl's diary, recounting tales told her by her nurse, and her increasingly deep delvings into magic. Often described as one of the greatest of all horror short stories. Very subtle in its telling.
  • Hieroglyphics: A Note upon Ecstasy in Literature (written 1899; published 1902)
  • The House of the Hidden Light (Written in 1904 with Arthur Edward Waite. Only 3 copies were published.)
  • The Secret Glory (written 1899–1908; published 1922) — A public school boy becomes fascinated by tales of the Holy Grail and escapes from his repressive school in search of a deeper meaning to life.
  • "The Bowmen" (1914) — In this story, written and published during World War I, the ghosts of archers from the battle of Agincourt, led by Saint George, come to the aid of British troops. This is cited (by some at least) as the origin of the Angels of Mons legend.
  • The Great Return (1915) — The Holy Grail returns to a Welsh village.
  • The Terror (1917) — In wartime Britain, a series of unexplained murders occur with no sign of who or what is responsible.
  • Far Off Things (1922) — First volume of autobiography.
  • Things Near and Far (1923) — Second volume of autobiography.
  • The London Adventure (1924) — Third and final volume of autobiography.
  • The Canning Wonder (1925) — Non-fiction study of the eighteenth-century mystery of the disappearance of Elizabeth Canning. Machen concludes that Canning was lying about some or all of her exploits.
  • Dreads and Drolls (1926) — Essays.
  • The Green Round (1933) — Novel.
  • The Children of the Pool (1936) — Short stories.
  • The Secret of the Sangraal and Other Writings (Tartarus Press, 1995) — Essays collected from Dog and Duck (1924), Notes and Queries (1926), Tom O'Bedlam and His Song (1930), Bridles and Spurs (1951) and other sources.

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