Tuesday Terror! The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen

Paganism and Victorian shenanigans…

First published in 1890, this is the title story in the new Oxford World’s Classics collection, The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories. It’s considered to be a classic of the genre, influential on later writers from HP Lovecraft to Stephen King. So I prodded the porpentine awake, and we sat down ready to be horrified, in this week’s…

Tuesday Terror 2The Great God Pan
by Arthur Machen

Arthur Machen

‘I have heard myself called quack, and charlatan and impostor, but all the while I knew I was on the right path. Five years ago I reached the goal, and since then every day has been a preparation for what we shall do tonight.’

Clarke has been asked by his friend Dr Raymond to witness an experiment in his laboratory in far away Wales (Machen’s native land), the culmination of the work of years. He proposes to carry out a brain operation on his young ward, Mary, which, he claims, will allow her to look into the spiritual world closed off to our normal brains – to see the Great God Pan, as he puts it. Clarke isn’t so sure the whole thing is a good idea…

“Consider the matter well, Raymond. It’s a great responsibility. Something might go wrong; you would be a miserable man for the rest of your days.”
“No, I think not, even if the worst happened. As you know, I rescued Mary from the gutter, and from almost certain starvation, when she was a child; I think her life is mine, to use as I see fit.”

Crikey! I’m betting Mary’s thinking pretty nostalgically about that gutter round about now! Anyway, needless to say, it all goes horribly wrong…

…suddenly her eyes opened. Clarke quailed before them. They shone with an awful light, looking far away, and a great wonder fell upon her face, and her hands stretched out as if to touch what was invisible; but in an instant the wonder faded, and gave place to the most awful terror.

Le Faune by Carlos Schwabe.
Musées d’art et d’histoire in Geneva.

Poor Mary collapses, shrieking. When Clarke sees her next, three days later, she is lying in her bed, grinning vacantly. Fortunately, Dr Raymond manages to be quite philosophical about the whole thing…

“Yes,” said the doctor, still quite cool, “it is a great pity; she is a hopeless idiot. However, it could not be helped; and, after all, she has seen the Great God Pan.”

Oh, well, that’s all right then! This is all in the nature of a prologue. The story then jumps forward some twenty years or so and the scene shifts to London. Clarke has remained interested in the occult and makes a habit of gathering strange stories. These stories are relayed to the reader as a series of snippets or brief sketches with a variety of narrators. To the people involved these incidents seem entirely random at first. But after a while, Clarke begins to see a pattern emerging. His subsequent investigations take him into the dark belly of London’s seamy underworld, on the trail of a mysterious woman who has been connected to some of the strange and horrible events…

“I should be wrong in saying that she found her level in going to this particular quarter, or associating with these people, for from what I was told, I should think the worst den in London far too good for her. The person from whom I got my information, as you may suppose, no great Puritan, shuddered and grew sick in telling me of the nameless infamies which were laid to her charge…”

Fabulous illustration by sandpaperdaisy at deviantart.com

* * * * * * *

While the porpy and I weren’t exactly terrified, we thought this was a jolly good story. Mad science, that great love of Victorian horror and science fiction writers, mingled with paganism and a good deal of hinting at immoral and quite possibly unnatural sexual shenanigans, there’s also plenty of typically Victorian, fine descriptive writing, both of nature in the countryside and of the dark and gloomy streets of London at night. The Great God Pan is no cuddly pipe-playing faun in this one – he’s satanic, possibly in fact Satan, and we all know what happens to innocent young girls who fall in the path of that old cloven-hoofed goat. Being Victorian, we are spared the details, but Machen manages to get his meaning across. Of course, the woman is the one who succumbs to the dark pagan powers – but then the men succumb to the equally dark force of female sexuality. (They’re called Victorian attitudes for a reason…)

Combine that with Clarke’s familiarity with the seamy side of London life, where he cheerfully admits, with no attempt at concealment, “I have always been fond of diving into Queer Street for my amusement, and I found my knowledge of that locality and its inhabitants very useful.” Even worse, that he is there on the trail of a society lady who also likes to head to the lower levels to take her pleasure. No wonder it was considered pretty shocking at the time! (So disgusted were the morally upstanding Victorians, in fact, that it apparently shot to the top of the best-sellers list…)

Guillermo del Toro acknowledges the influence of the story on his film, Pan’s Labyrinth

It might be a little less shocking now, but it’s well told and one can easily see its place in the chain that links horror writers of different generations. It’s almost like a bridging link from the older ones, – the Gothic style of Poe, for example – through his contemporaries – his dark London having much of the feel of Stevenson’s Jekyll & Hyde – and onto those who followed, like Lovecraft, who acknowledged his debt to Machen. Great stuff, and I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the collection…

* * * * * * *

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

33 thoughts on “Tuesday Terror! The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen

  1. Oh, yes – I have been looking forward to the review of this one very much! It sounds just perfect for me, a bit of good, old fashioned Victorian outrage and Satanic dealings. A bit like Sunday lunch at my mum’s 😉
    Joking aside, this is a lovely review that captures the feel of the book beautifully. Poor Mary – suddenly starving to death in a gutter doesn’t seem so bad!

    • I loved this whole collection – he’s leapt up into the lead in my list of favourite horror writers. I wonder why he seems to have been largely forgotten. Haha – Mumsie’s Sunday lunches sound like fun… and I’m sure she wouldn’t carry out illicit brain ops on you. Unless she already has… *muses*

        • At least she only cut away the sensible part, and who needs that anyway? 😉

          I’ll be reviewing the whole thing at some point, but go for it, I say! Worth getting the OWC one for the introduction which tells you all about him and the context of the stories (makes a reviewer’s life so much easier, I assure you… 😉 )

            • Tragically, cutting back on review copies (except specially requested ones) means I seem to be enjoying most of what I read at the moment – I’m so sorry! I’ll see if I can find a really bad one soon… 😉

  2. It does sound deliciously atmospheric, FictionFan, in that uniquely Victorian way. And I like the way a lot of the beliefs of the time come through – even the ones ( like the attitude towards Mary) that are eye-rolling by today’s standards. Sounds like a well-told tale, too.

    • I loved the writing style, and it’s intriguing to see how all these late Victorians influenced each other and used the same concerns as the basis for their stories. Haha – poor Mary! I feel there ought to be rules about practicing brain surgery on one’s wards… 😉

  3. Glad to see the porpy back! I remember this story from my teens – I always thought the true horror of it was the casual way Mary was treated. The real monsters in the world are the ones pretending to be human.

  4. Oh this does sound like a good one. And I’ve heard Pan’s Labyrinth from GDT is a good movie, and quite scary! I just watched The Shape of Water, which wasn’t scary, but still a great film…

  5. Something awfully sad about throwing away a person just because she was found in a gutter. That said, I don’t think this one is for me, despite Porpy’s endorsement. Oh, well, my TBR is pudgy enough anyway!

    • I know – I suspect Machen was being a little tongue in cheek when he wrote that, ‘cos he seems like quite a nice chap really! This will definitely appeal more to fans of “weird” fiction, like Lovecraft, so I’ll let you off this time… 😉

  6. As always your asides really made this something special! Poor Mary indeed!! As you say the writing is so typical of the era even though this is essentially a terrifying tale despite you only awarding three porcupines this week.

    • Haha – glad you enjoyed it! These Victorian horror writers always bring out my sarcastic side… 😉 The writing’s great though and it had a couple of fairly scary bits, but not enough to set the porpy quivering. Poor Mary, though!

  7. Your comments made me laugh out loud! Don’t know if this is really my cup of tea but it’s nice, as you say, to see where this fits into the grand scheme of horror/weird writing. Enjoyed your review, as always!

    • Haha – glad you enjoyed it! These Victorian horror stories have a tendency to bring out my sarcastic side… 😉 I must say I loved these stories – he’s leapt into top position as my favourite “weird” writer (which is more of a compliment than it sounds… 🙂 )

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