The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories by Arthur Machen

Weird and wonderful…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This is a collection of those stories of Arthur Machen that fit into what would now be thought of as ‘weird’ tales. Normally when a book is titled after one story with the rest lumped under “and other”, my expectation would be that the title story would be the best of them. And indeed, I loved The Great God Pan, as you’ll know if you read my Tuesday Terror! post about it. But I was thrilled to find that many of the other stories in this book are at least as good, and some are even better. I’ve discovered a new favourite horror writer!

The book is edited by Aaron Worth, Associate Professor of Rhetoric at Boston University. He provides an informative introduction, which gives a brief biography of Machen’s literary life along with a discussion of his influences and themes, and of his own influence on later generations of writers. Worth also provides copious notes to explain any unfamiliar terms, or allusions within the text to other works, to mythologies, or to the preoccupations of Machen’s society. All of this richly enhanced my reading experience, reminding me once again that, great though it is to be able to download so many old stories, a well-edited volume is still a major pleasure.

Machen’s stories are set mainly in two locations, both of which he evokes brilliantly. His native Monmouthshire, in Wales, is depicted as a place with connections to its deep past, where ancient beliefs and rituals are hidden just under the surface of civilised life. His London is a place of dark alleys and hidden evils, with a kind of degenerate race living side by side with the respectable people, and often stretching out a corrupting hand towards them. Worth tells us that Machen was sometimes considered to be connected to the Decadent movement – Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley, et al – although Machen himself disputed this. But there is a definite air of decadence with a small ‘d’ about the stories. Many have strong sexual undercurrents (never overtly spelled out – it’s the Victorian era) and paganism is a recurring feature. There’s also a frequent suggestion that the morally deficient are most likely to succumb to the forces of evil, and will often pay a horrible price for their weakness.

The Great God Pan
All the fabulous illustrations on the post are by mgkellermeyer via DeviantArt.com.

The quality of the writing is excellent – stylistically it compares to the likes of Conan Doyle or HG Wells. There’s a good deal of humour in it alongside some effective and occasionally gruesome horror and he’s a great storyteller. His descriptive writing is also very good. I particularly liked how he used London pollution effectively to give a strangeness to the city – his skies are purple, grey, dark, red, and the street lamps have to fight to shed their light through the dirty air. His Wales is equally good in what feels like a deliberately contrasting way. There, the air is clear but there are hidden things behind ancient rock formations – old symbols, and sometimes new symbols placed by ancient races.

The Welsh parts have a very similar feel to Lovecraft’s ruins – Lovecraft acknowledged his influence – but where Lovecraft opted for ancient malign aliens, Machen’s evil is all of earth, earthly. Worth reminds us that this was at a time when Victorian society was having to get used to the ideas that man had evolved from the beast and that the world was far, far more ancient than had previously been thought. Where Wells takes evolution far into the future in The Time Machine, Machen instead suggests that some of the ancient things of earth are still here, unevolved and unchanging. And that sometimes they might even live within us…

The stories range in length from a couple of pages to well over a hundred. I gave every one individually either 4 or 5 stars – I think that’s a first for me in any collection. Some of the very short ones are a little fragmentary, but each either tells a tale on its own or adds depth to the world Machen has created. Some are outright horror, some more an evocation of a kind of witchy paganism, some based more in reality. Marvellous stuff! Hard to pick favourites, but here are just a few of the ones I enjoyed most:-

The Shining Pyramid

The Inmost Light – this one features Dyson, who along with his friend Phillips, appears in a few of the stories, almost as a kind of Holmes and Watson of the occult. Dyson sees a horribly frightening face in a window and some time later discovers the woman of the house has died. The doctor at the inquest declares that her brain was inhuman, and Dyson investigates. This has some great London scenes and a decidedly demonic theme – Machen apparently subsidised his meagre earnings as an author at one point by taking on the job of cataloguing a library of occult publications, and used the knowledge he gained from that throughout his work. Excellently told and a very effective horror ending.

The Three Impostors – this is the longest in the book and in fact reads like a mini-collection of stories all linked by one major underlying one. It has a great mixture of humour and horror within the separate episodes, and again stars Dyson and Phillips. The main story is of an evil cult which sucks people in through exploiting their greed or weakness, and then either forces them to join or uses them as victims. But it’s really the minor stories that make this one special. My favourite of all, I think.

The White People – a story told by one man to another as an illustration that evil is an elemental force. It tells of a girl who from an early age has seen things invisible to others. She is introduced to old stories and pagan rituals by her nurse. This displays another common theme of the stories – female sexuality and its links to witchery, paganism and even Satanism. It’s brilliantly told and one can see its influence on both weird and witch fiction, and Machen’s siting of evil within humans rather than as an external force is particularly effective.

The White People

I could go on, and on, but I won’t. I’ll just say if, like me, you’ve managed to miss out on Machen up till now, I strongly recommend you make his acquaintance – a great collection.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

28 thoughts on “The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories by Arthur Machen

  1. Oh, my, this does sound like a fine horror collection, FictionFan. One of the things that especially gets my attention is the background information. It’s interesting to learn about an author’s contexts, and it sounds that was done effectively in this case. Glad this collection was so consistently good.

    • I love these OWC editions – the intros are just the right length. They give lots of relevant information without being overly long and detailed, and what I like is that they set the book in its literary context so that I’m aware of who else was writing what around the same time. It makes it so much clearer that they were all addressing the same concerns in very different ways, and all influencing each other. 🙂

    • I learned about this author from another blogger, so we’re all “teaching” each other! I do think Machen should be as well known as the other great horror writers – for my money, he’s one of the best. 🙂

    • Thank you! I think the way they’ve all been collected here gives a really good picture of how there are common themes, and a common “world”, in most of his weird tales.

    • I know – I can’t think of another collection where I thoroughly enjoyed every single story. Ha – thank you! As I said to L. Marie, I learned about this author from another blogger so we’re all “teaching ” each other… 😀

  2. Your description of “The White People” reminds me of Stephen King’s description of his first novel, Carrie. Carrie’s mom is a fundamentalist Christian, and King notes that it’s with Carrie’s first period that her ability to move things with her mind starts. Carrie’s mother assumes her daughter has taken sides with the devil.

    • Now that’s interesting, since, along with HP Lovecraft, apparently Stephen King cites Machen as one of his influences. I think the whole female sexuality/Satan thing was quite a Victorian thing though Machen makes it more explicit than most. I guess it all dates back to the Garden of Eden… *stops talking before she accidentally says something offensive* 😉

  3. I’m not particularly enamored of horror, so this one’s probably not for me. However, I found your review most interesting, and I know that having so many 4- or 5-star reviews in one collection is quite an accomplishment!

    • It’s funny – I really wasn’t into horror either when I started the whole Tuesday Terror thing a few years back, but have gradually got more and more interested in it. In older horror, anyway – I’m still not too enamoured with contemporary stuff. But this collection was particularly good – I’m glad to have stumbled across this author! 🙂

  4. A great review and I know where to come to find ‘weird tales!’ I didn’t realise that this author came from Monmouth which is incredibly close to where I grew up – my violin teacher lived in Monmouth and so I’m not at all surprised to hear that those situated there are full of ancient beliefs and the like – it wasn’t an awful lot different in the 1980s.
    I’m quite sad that this isn’t really my sort of read as you’ve rated all the individual stories so highly.

    • Ha – yes, weird tales seem to have become a bit of an obsession with me over the years! I blame the porpentine. Hahahahaha – brilliant! I shall remember to be very wary should I ever go to Monmouthshire – no dancing barefoot near ancient rocks… 😉

      I reckon you’d love horror if you got into it – would you like me to make you up a little list of books to add to your TBR…? 😉

  5. I love weird, yet this one seems a bit scary, ha ha ha. I felt exactly like that when I read Shirley Jackson’s complete short stories. Rephrase, I listened to them narrated by diverse authors. As a whole, they gained more body, -and they were great already by themselves.

    • Ha – it’s not too scary – it didn’t keep me awake at night! But it might have made me a bit hesitant about looking behind ancient rocks for a while, or walking through dark alleys… 😉 Oh, I love Shirley Jackson – yes, I can see how she tends to deal with common themes too. Lots of individual horror stories can stand on their own, but on the whole I find I appreciate them more in collections – you get more of a feel for the author’s world view overall.

  6. Oohhh this sounds ultra scary, but so worth it. I have a soft spot for witchery and paganism, I find that stuff fascinating! Especially in this political age, people still seem to be afraid of what women do in their own time…

    • It’s deliciously dark but the humour kinda stops it getting really scary, for the most part – though I’ll be a bit careful about looking behind ancient rocks for a while… 😉 Yes, I thought this was interesting as an insight on how Victorians (and some people today!) view female sexuality as something to be feared…

  7. Superb review, thank you. I HAVE to get myself a copy. Blackwood, Lovecraft and Machen are exactly my kind of thing – and that cover is calling out to me, in a weird, eldritch voice.. There seems to be a bit of a Machen mini-boom at the moment – a few people have mentioned his stuff to me recently, I heard him discussed on the radio last week, and I think Penguin are doing a nice new edition of The Great God Pan over the summer. Hooray!

    • Thank you! 😀 I hadn’t read any of them, Lovecraft, Blackwood or Machen, until four or five years ago, when for some reason I took a collection of Lovecraft for review. It’s taken me a while to get properly into it but I’m kind of addicted to weird stories now. The joy is that means I still have so many to discover – I think I’ve only read one Blackwood story so far. This collection is great because it brings all Machen’s weird stuff together so you can see how they all fit into the same world, plus the book is lovely too. Hope you enjoy it if you get to it! 😀

Please leave a comment - I'd love to know who's visiting and what you think...of the post, of the book, of the blog, of life, of chocolate...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.