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.

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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

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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…

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Fretful Porpentine rating:  😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀