Holy Terrors by Arthur Machen
The Bright Boy (1936)
"The Bright Boy" is a strange crime/mystery story, though the protagonist only realizes it late in life, long after the events.
At first we assume we are reading a tale about a valiant tutor (a bright boy himself) preparing to rescue a gifted child from dangerous and morally corrupted parents. But then the tutor deserts his post, like Bertie Wooster running for the pre-dawn milk train after Bobbie Wickham has made things too hot for him at a country house.
This double-axis of the "The Bright Boy," the prospect-retrospect framing, strongly underscore Machen's profound strength as plotter and organizer of what could be, in other hands, only a pot-boiler in bad taste.
The Tree of Life (1936)
As with "The Bright Boy," "The Tree of Life" gives us the illusionist's trick, then reveals the secret. Both portions of the story are perfectly pitched. "The Tree of Life" is a powerful story of goodness, much as "The Bright Boy" is a mystery revealed as abominable crime.
Opening the Door (1931)
Here we are back in the world of Machen's reporter narrator in the 1916 novel The Terror: a man with a curiosity for out-of-the-way enigmas. He relates a few minor ones before the main course: the tale of a Celt scholar timeslipped and retuned out of synch with our mundane world after using the door in his garden wall. (Today we would call such a man an "experiencer.")
The Marriage of Panurge (1922)
Pantagruel's factotum Panurge weds, and weds badly. His new spouse forces upon him chastity and sobriety. Can he break free?
Machen might have been a High Church hater of everything that came after Luther's 95 Theses, but he was no teetotal schoolmarm, and Panurge is a wonderful rascal.
The Holy Things (1924)
Cacophony of a city street in broad daylight is transformed, each bit of noise joining in unity to form a song of praise. A morose artist's changed perceptions alter his mood and his day.
"....we lead two lives, and the half of our soul is madness, and half heaven is lit by a black sun. I say I am a man, but who is the other that hides in me?"
The Turanians (1924)
A brief, but not a slight, anecdote. A teenage girl stalks the forrest camp of a band of itinerant tinkers. "They were people of curious aspect, short and squat, high-cheek-boned, with dingy yellow skin and long almond eyes; only in one or two of the younger men there was a suggestion of a wild, almost faun-like grace, as of creatures who always moved between the red fire and the green leaf."
The Rose Garden (1908)
Another young woman liberated by her intersection with sylvan ecstasy. "Herself was annihilated; at his bidding she had destroyed all her old feelings, and emotions, her likes and dislikes, all the inherited loves and hates that her father and mother had given her; the old life had been thrown utterly away."
The Ceremony (1897)
A young woman performs "the immemorial rite" at a stone in the forrest.
The Soldiers' Rest (1914)
One of Machen's war fantasies. It achieves greater emotional resonance than "The Bowmen." very moving, and skilfully told in sharp, telegraphed style.
The Happy Children (1920)
A too-too-much contribution to Hun war atrocity stories interwoven with Machen's evocation of Whitby's topography.
The Cosy Room (1929)
A killer suffers the torments of the damned trying to outwit the law.
Munitions of War (1926)
A naval companion piece to "The Bow-Men."
The Great Return (1915)
"The Great Return" is an incredibly ambitious story. It is un-horror, and no less moving for that.
The action is presented in a "reporter's notebook" format. The narrator is piecing together disparate events in a localized portion of the Welsh coast. Considered individually, each event is startling and uncanny; when pieced together and placed within the region's history, they are life-altering.
Along with A Fragment of Life, I would place "The Great Return" at the top of any list of Machen story recommendations.
6 October 2017