In Memoriam Arthur Machen: Celebrating 150 Years of Horror and Ecstasy

Yesterday marked the 150th anniversary of the birth of Arthur Machen (1863-1947), an author who penned several influential works of supernatural horror and fantasy in his almost fifty-year writing career.  While hardly a household name today, Machen can count among his past and present admirers H. P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, Clive Barker, Neil Gaiman, Ray Bradbury, former British Poet Laureate John Betjeman, and popular movie director Guillermo del Toro.  It is possible that his star may finally be on the rise; well-known publisher Penguin Classics authorized an edition of his works in 2011, complete with a preface by del Toro.  We at Christ and Pop Culture have joined other Christian genre aficionados in calling for a reevaluation of his work.  Whether for his examination of the horrors of a godless consciousness or his depiction of the ecstasy of a lived religious experience, Arthur Machen’s work merits wider acclaim.

Though he published works in the 1880s, Machen (pronounced MACK-en) received his first big literary break with the 1894 publication of his novella The Great God Pan, which was followed the next year by his novel The Three Impostors.  The first work established his notoriety, as it was published by John Lane’s Keynotes series, a publisher associated with the “art for art’s sake” Decadent Movement.  The Three Impostors was also published in the Keynotes series; unfortunately for Machen, it appeared just as England’s most visible Decadent, Oscar Wilde, was going on trial for sodomy, and perhaps as a result, it sold poorly.

These early works by Machen are filled with the kind of gnawing horror that inhabited much great literature in the late nineteenth century.  Machen was the son of an Anglican clergyman, but The Great God Pan and The Three Impostors (along with his other works from this time) emphasize the terrors of degeneration, the fear that if humanity had evolved from lower orders of life, it could de-evolve back into something primitive, even primordial.  It was a fear that many intellectual Victorians felt, born out of implications of growing skepticism toward religious belief.  It is these works that have made him popular with writers and genre connoisseurs like Lovecraft, King, Barker, Gaiman, and del Toro.

After the failure of The Three Impostors, however, Machen went about revising his writing style, leading to his works Ornaments in Jade and the semi-autobiographical The Hill of Dreams; neither work was published until after the 1890s, though if anything, their style and themes are even more decadent than his earlier work.

At the end of the century, however, from 1899-1900, as his wife Amy was dying of cancer, Machen’s writing changed to a new phase, a phase that is perhaps his most interesting for the Christian reader.  He took a renewed interest in the Christian faith, though it was now his own custom blend of Celtic mystical Christianity derived from the history of his native Wales, as opposed to his father’s more passive, warmed over Anglicanism.  Increasingly, he saw his faith as the answer to the emptiness of the modern world, and in his writings from the twentieth century, his stylistic emphasis is one of juxtaposition: mystical experience occurs as an occasional burst in his narratives.

Perhaps the first of his works to attempt this style is also one of my favorites, a novella entitled A Fragment of Life (what I believe to be his first truly Christian work).  This piece’s four chapters follow a London resident named Edward Darnell as he gradually goes from existing in a humdrum ordinary life to becoming a full-on mystic and persuading his wife to join him.  Large segments of A Fragment of Life consist of quotidian debates about the Darnell’s bland middle-class existence; but because of that very tedium, when the moments of poetic ecstasy break through, they are all the more dramatic and exquisite for the contrast.

In his novel The Secret Glory—also begun around the same time but not published until 1922—the style is sharply satirical, largely attacking British public schools, but interweaving its protagonist’s search for nothing less than the Holy Grail itself.  In the 1910s, Machen began writing for the Evening News, and at this point he penned stories in which the mystic experience is tucked away in the midst of a cold reporter’s voice.  His most infamous of these tales was “The Bowmen,” a brief tale about supernatural archers fighting in World War I in which the reportorial voice was compelling enough that many apparently believed it had actually happened.  Better written (though not as influential) was The Great Return, about a reporter who investigates accounts of the Holy Grail appearing in a small Welsh town.  He continued to write well into the 1930s, and though critics often dismiss his later work, there are many neglected gems tucked away across his career.

I discovered Arthur Machen as a college student sometime around 1999-2000, almost exactly a century from the time he began writing more explicitly Christian work in earnest.  Finally, through a roundabout set of circumstances that I think Machen himself would have appreciated, I ended up writing my doctoral dissertation on him a decade later.  He is, in my estimation, an unjustly neglected writer for Christians.  His earlier work effectively manifests the horrific implications that undergird an existence without God; his later work displays compelling (and often beautiful) ways in which God’s presence might break through the barriers that our bland, materialistic modern world place to try to keep Him at bay.  One hundred fifty years after his birth, Arthur Machen still deserves our attention.

About Geoffrey Reiter

Geoffrey Reiter is Assistant Professor of English at the Baptist College of Florida. He holds a B.A. in English from Nyack College and a Ph.D. in English from Baylor University, along with an M.A. in Church History from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

  • http://www.theofantastique.com John W. Morheead

    You might be interested in the podcast at The Teeming Brain blog by Matt Cardin where Machen’s work was discussed in contrast with Lovecraft in the context of cosmic horror vs. sacred terror: http://www.teemingbrain.com/2012/11/30/the-teeming-brain-podcast-1-cosmic-horror-vs-sacred-terror/

  • Geoffrey Reiter

    John,

    The podcast was quite interesting: thank you for bringing it to my attention. I’d have to say that several of the contributors bring up a challenge to Ryan’s idea that I myself felt when I read his essay (which I link to in my article). I think that Ryan does what many Machen readers do (though on the podcast, he nuanced himself better), which is to read Machen’s work statically, as though his worldview was consistent throughout his life. I actually wrote my dissertation as a challenge to this position, where I break Machen’s life into four discreet stages: 1. His early horror tales (those most influential on HPL), which are indeed animated by a deep religious skepticism and emptiness. 2. A transitional phase (when he write The Hill of Dreams and “The White People”), when he accepts “ecstasy” as a goal to be strived for but is still exploring how that might occur. 3. A Christian phase, when he moves away from horror and toward mysticism. 4. A late phase, when, as a Christian, he tried to write in his older horror mode but was unsuccessful (especially in The Green Round). Ryan himself gives no examples, so it’s hard to know what he’s talking about in terms of sacred terror, though at the end, he seemed to try to read The Great God Pan as part of that line. Here I’d actually side with the atheist contributors in maintaining that Pan is one of several skeptical works (Christine Ferguson and Kelly Hurley have some excellent analyses of this aspect). However, I don’t think Machen’s horror is identical to Lovecraft’s in that Lovecraft seems a bit more resigned to his atheism that the early Machen. There is an emptiness to The Great God Pan, “The Inmost Light,” “The Shining Pyramid,” “The Red Hand,” and The Three Impostors that is, I think, more horrific than anything in Lovecraft precisely because Lovecraft is a committed atheist and has had time to reconcile his fate to the abyss; whereas the abyss simply flat-out terrifies Machen. Ryan is right, then, in that Machen’s later work—his Christian ecstatic mysticism—does provide a sort of philosophical answer to the horror of his early work. There are, however, very few of his tales which I feel combine both those elements. One possible exception might by his novella The Terror; I think it comes the closest of Machen’s oeuvre to being what one might call a distinctly Christian horror story. I don’t know that I’d call most of his other Christian work horror or that the ecstasy he describes really falls into the category of “sacred terror” (though it is worth noting that Lovecraft appreciated The Great Return).

    I don’t think Christianity is incompatible with horror by any means; indeed, many of the early Gothic writings presupposed Christian notions of sin and depravity. But I wouldn’t necessarily look to Machen for that; examples that spring to mind are Charles Robert Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, or, more recently, the works of William Peter Blatty. M. R. James was also a Christian, though the faith element in his works is perhaps a bit more muted.

    Geoffrey

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