These are the Alps
Fools! Sit down and wait for them to crumble!
--Basil Bunting, "On the Flyleaf of Pound's Cantos"
The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories by Arthur Machen. Edited by Aaron Worth. (Oxford University Press 2018).
Machen, the hidden master obscured under Wilde, Marsh, Stoker, Stevenson, and Conan Doyle, is canonized by Oxford University Press.
And high time, too. Machen is the great semi-colonial (Wales) aesthetic perfectionist, though I suspect his sublime style and tone of voice was taken for granted by himself, since it is so unerringly and consistently applied from start to finish in his ouvré.
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I found Machen at age 51, one year ago. To paraphrase Engels, a reader does not start on an author until he is ready to appreciate/conquer him. (For me: King, age 14; Lovecraft: age 15; Wodehouse: age 24; M.R. James, age 27; Machen, age 51.) This belated "encounter" with Machen probably accounts for the deep emotional response I have to his work. For instance: a grown man and hardened Marxist weeping every time he reads "The Tree of Life." Or getting gooseflesh every time the sublime story "N" is finished.
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I used to think Machen's diabolical women were a product of his era's patriarchal sexism.
Reading anew in The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories, I find quite the opposite. Our Arthur was prematurely #MeToo.
"The Great God Pan" is the tragedy of Helen Vaughan. Dr. Raymond may be remorseful in the end, but the ruination of two women and the suicides of many men cannot be scrubbed from his escutcheon. A rope without "an inch of jute" should have been offered him.
Dr. Black in "The Inmost Light" is a vile narcissist. A man-child rejecting adult responsibility in employment and in the duties of matrimony:
....'Ever since I was a young man'— the record began —'I devoted all my leisure and a good deal of time that ought to have been given to other studies to the investigation of curious and obscure branches of knowledge. What are commonly called the pleasures of life had never any attractions for me, and I lived alone in London, avoiding my fellow students, and in my turn avoided by them as a man self-absorbed and unsympathetic. So long as I could gratify my desire of knowledge of a peculiar kind, knowledge of which the very existence is a profound secret to most men, I was intensely happy, and I have often spent whole nights sitting in the darkness of my room, and thinking of the strange world on the brink of which I trod. My professional studies, however, and the necessity of obtaining a degree, for some time forced my more obscure employment into the background, and soon after I had qualified I met Agnes, who became my wife. We took a new house in this remote suburb, and I began the regular routine of a sober practice, and for some months lived happily enough, sharing in the life about me, and only thinking at odd intervals of that occult science which had once fascinated my whole being. I had learnt enough of the paths I had begun to tread to know that they were beyond all expression difficult and dangerous, that to persevere meant in all probability the wreck of a life, and that they led to regions so terrible, that the mind of man shrinks appalled at the very thought. Moreover, the quiet and the peace I had enjoyed since my marriage had wiled me away to a great extent from places where I knew no peace could dwell. But suddenly — I think indeed it was the work of a single night, as I lay awake on my bed gazing into the darkness — suddenly, I say, the old desire, the former longing, returned, and returned with a force that had been intensified ten times by its absence; and when the day dawned and I looked out of the window, and saw with haggard eyes the sunrise in the east, I knew that my doom had been pronounced; that as I had gone far, so now I must go farther with unfaltering steps. I turned to the bed where my wife was sleeping peacefully, and lay down again, weeping bitter tears, for the sun had set on our happy life and had risen with a dawn of terror to us both. I will not set down here in minute detail what followed; outwardly I went about the day's labour as before, saying nothing to my wife. But she soon saw that I had changed; I spent my spare time in a room which I had fitted up as a laboratory, and often I crept upstairs in the grey dawn of the morning, when the light of many lamps still glowed over London; and each night I had stolen a step nearer to that great abyss which I was to bridge over, the gulf between the world of consciousness and the world of matter. My experiments were many and complicated in their nature, and it was some months before I realised whither they all pointed, and when this was borne in upon me in a moment's time, I felt my face whiten and my heart still within me. But the power to draw back, the power to stand before the doors that now opened wide before me and not to enter in, had long ago been absent; the way was closed, and I could only pass onward. My position was as utterly hopeless as that of the prisoner in an utter dungeon, whose only light is that of the dungeon above him; the doors were shut and escape was impossible. Experiment after experiment gave the same result, and I knew, and shrank even as the thought passed through my mind, that in the work I had to do there must be elements which no laboratory could furnish, which no scales could ever measure. In that work, from which even I doubted to escape with life, life itself must enter; from some human being there must be drawn that essence which men call the soul, and in its place (for in the scheme of the world there is no vacant chamber)— in its place would enter in what the lips can hardly utter, what the mind cannot conceive without a horror more awful than the horror of death itself. And when I knew this, I knew also on whom this fate would fall; I looked into my wife's eyes. Even at that hour, if I had gone out and taken a rope and hanged myself, I might have escaped, and she also, but in no other way. At last I told her all. She shuddered, and wept, and called on her dead mother for help, and asked me if I had no mercy, and I could only sigh. I concealed nothing from her; I told her what she would become, and what would enter in where her life had been; I told her of all the shame and of all the horror. You who will read this when I am dead — if indeed I allow this record to survive — you who have opened the box and have seen what lies there, if you could understand what lies hidden in that opal! For one night my wife consented to what I asked of her, consented with the tears running down her beautiful face, and hot shame flushing red over her neck and breast, consented to undergo this for me. I threw open the window, and we looked together at the sky and the dark earth for the last time; it was a fine star-light night, and there was a pleasant breeze blowing: and I kissed her on her lips, and her tears ran down upon my face. That night she came down to my laboratory, and there, with shutters bolted and barred down, with curtains drawn thick and close, so that the very stars might be shut out from the sight of that room, while the crucible hissed and boiled over the lamp, I did what had to be done, and led out what was no longer a woman. But on the table the opal flamed and sparkled with such light as no eyes of man have ever gazed on, and the rays of the flame that was within it flashed and glittered, and shone even to my heart. My wife had only asked one thing of me; that when there came at last what I had told her, I would kill her. I have kept that promise.'
The Three Imposters: The Novel of the Black Seal offers us Dr. Gregg (pace Miss Lally). What are we to think of this respectable ethnologist? He brings a mentally challenged teenage Jervase Cradock into his home, whatever the skepticism of his own children's governess. Not of course as "catamite,", but treated with all the associated signifiers of a catamite.
Jay30 September 2018