ARTHUR Machen (1863-1947) is regarded by many as one of the founders of a genre of fiction sometimes called ‘weird horror’. He was capable of beautiful prose and wrote extensive journalism. But it is for his darker tales such as The Great God Pan that Machen, born the son of a clergyman at Caerleon, Wales, seems to be chiefly remembered. His influence has been cited by numerous writers, notably Stephen King. Admirers of his writing include the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams.
TO really get inside the mind of a figure from the past requires access to what scholars and archivists call primary source material: notebooks, manuscripts, diaries – the papers of projects that were abandoned, or never begun, just as important – in terms of the enlightenment they might offer – as those relating to endeavours that succeeded.
In these, if the searcher is lucky, fascinating insights can be found, the emergence of works and deeds, from their earliest incarnations.
Holy Grails, in this context, are perhaps those most personal journals which the writer never imagined might one day be published.
For scholars and admirers of Arthur Machen his notebook from the 1890s, the decade in which the author was arguably at his most creative, is probably just that.
The notebook appears to have languished for years in an archive at the University of Texas, the contents of the humble-looking record largely unknown. A chain of events has seen its publication through the work of the British-based Friends of Arthur Machen society, whose labours, let it be said, must have been heroic. For the contents at times are every bit as cryptic as might be expected of a mind as curious as Machen’s.
Although in places something of a thicket of crossings-out, marginalia and Latin notations, there are also, in Machen’s rather stylish hand, gleaming flashes of thought that fired the likes of some of his notable fiction, including what many consider his masterpiece The Hill of Dreams.
Brought up in a rectory in a rural corner of Wales, Machen (1863-1947) left its green folds and moved to London in a highly bohemian era. Indeed it’s difficult to imagine anyone making a greater cultural leap within his native islands. (A similar transition features in the memoir Father and Son by Edmund Gosse, who was brought up among conservative Plymouth Brethren, and whose move to the English capital induced much family foreboding.)
In addition to the intellectual decadence projected by the New Bohemians of the 1890s,such as Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley (with its occult sub-culture), lay the horrifically real world of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 and the continuing squalid conditions of the poor and rife prostitution as reported by Henry Mayhew some decades earlier.
Passages in the likes of his memoir Far Off Things (1922) suggest a youthful hunger on Machen’s part for things new: sights and encounters different from those he’d witnessed in provincial settings such as Hereford, where he was schooled.
Even so, Machen married relatively early, albeit not wholly conventionally: his bride, Amy Hogg, a music teacher with theatrical connections whose circle included the occultist and writer A.E. Waite who was to become close to Machen.
What is undeniable is that Machen’s notebook is liberally sprinkled with such words as secret, occult, alchemy, faun, rites and orgies. One, not wholly untypical, passage, headed ‘The Wood Scene’ – seemingly in Machen’s thinking for The Hill of Dreams – reads:
‘She lay all at full length on the turf, shining wonderful with that lovely body glowing in the sunshine: her hands locked above her head; the wild wood creatures were playing with her; a squirrel sat between her breasts, a weasel ran up her leg, + two squirrels played at hide + seek about her back: she put up a hand, + they came running to her from all quarters: Clement’s face peeped through the cover + the squirrels scattered away…’
(A note by Machen beneath in Latin refers to a rite of consecration in a Black Mass: the words said to be those expressed over a naked woman lying on the altar.)
Study of Machen’s literary output at this time confirms his entrancement with the idea of idyllic ecstasy. His story ‘Midsummer’ (1897), for example, tells how one ‘Leonard’, an obviously Machen-like figure, finds respite from London on a rural farm where, in a wood, he is enchanted by the farmer’s daughter and other young women of her village:
‘Leonard gripped hard at a stick he was carrying, and drove his nails into the flesh. He saw the farmer’s daughter, the girl who had waited on him a few hours before, and behind her came girls with like faces, no doubt the quiet modest girls of the English village, of the English farm-house.
‘For a moment they fronted him, shameless, unabashed before one another, and then they had passed.
‘He had seen their smiles, he had seen their gestures, and things that he had thought the world had long forgotten.
‘The white writhing figures passed up towards the glade, and the boughs hid them…’
Such material is unlikely to come as a shock to those with any familiarity with Machen. The interesting thing, to my mind, is the question of whether he was actually a genuine believer in the likes of The Order of the Golden Dawn and the sexual abandon that some of his writing appears to yearn for. Or whether he was merely following fashion and ‘out to shock’ as a literary device (as, in time, The Great God Pan most certainly did).
It’s a question that for all of its references to the likes of the ‘sheen of naked flesh gleaming’ the notebook doesn’t really answer.
At times, particularly in later life, Machen cut a very conservative figure: voicing sympathy for the Southern cause in the American Civil War and the nationalists in the conflict in Spain (while at the same time being a congenial character fond of good company, ale, dining and tobacco). He played down his bohemian past and his part in the Golden Dawn and was cool regarding Oscar Wilde, writing in tones of some repugnance at Wilde’s visible physical dissipation (though he also seems to have made conflicting comments of a more kindly nature).
Of genuine interest, I suggest, are subjects such as Machen’s comments on other writers, including one passage in which he favours the work of Poe over the English novelist George Meredith whose novel The Ordeal of Richard Feverel (1859) provoked shock and outrage in a way that Machen’s novella The Great God Pan was to echo some decades on:
‘Meredith merely deals with surface + conventional emotions… Poe on the other hand describes the wonderful serets of human nature per se, he deals with the core. Every one of his tales, the most grotesque impossible are inestimably valuable documents of human nature – of his nature, that is.’
There are eccentricities aplenty, including an enquiry as to why animals ‘have no literature’. Whether this is a muse by Machen on writing such a work or a criticism of creatures great and small is not entirely clear.
‘Animals have understanding – the “reason” it seems of the 18th century – Wasps Dogs Ants Elephants Bees Birds (including owls) [From the Materialistic point of view they should be superior to man in every respect. They have the art of building. They can adapt means to ends. They have the association of ideas. They can be taught. [In many ways they are superior to man by the superior acuteness of their senses]… many a dog is more intelligent than many men… but we cannot conclude that we know anything of the interior consciousness of our own pets.’
References to classical literature abound. One tends to forget the extent to which Machen was self-educated, never attending university after a failed attempt to be accepted for training as a surgeon.
Buried here and there are nuggets of a pleasingly grounded nature, including a tally of weekly outgoings for lodgings and the likes of tobacco, tea, bread and washing, which (with his known inability at mathematics) he makes a hash of adding up.
Pages stream with potential works: lines and half lines for stories and pieces that seem never to have been written. The development of fiction which did reach fruition can also be seen: his horror story The White People being one. Much is also written here that was to be recaptured for his memoir The London Adventure (1924), Machen stating (in a seeming tone of regret, sadness even) how he opened the notebook to ‘… wonder at the infinite labour of former years; at the efforts renewed again and again which have issued in so little. Here, thick on every page, are the notes of stories which were never even begun.’
That Machen’s notebook can be read in an accessible printed volume is down to the admirable efforts of R.B. Russell and Rosalie Parker (of The Friends of Arthur Machen and also Tartarus Press) for whom one suspects it must also have been a labour of love. Assistance with certain finer points was provided by Mark Valentine, James Machin, Jon Preece and William Charlton.
They have performed a fine service. Making sense of Machen’s not always easily readable handwriting (which is reproduced beside typewritten transcriptions) must have been a challenge at times, never mind some of his meanings. And then there’s the astonishing breadth of the material. Not to mention the less than obvious sequencing of some of the pages.
All, one might say, pure Machen – which is perhaps a fitting way of summing-up this important book.
It has been issued in paperback this year by Tartarus Press, as a reprint of a 2016 edition, 348pp, price £19.95.
A Machen collection, The Cosy Room and Other Stories, which has fiction by him from the 1890s, including stories such as ‘Witchcraft’ and ‘Midsummer’, as well as works from his later life such as ‘N’ (1935), is available from Tartarus as an attractively-crafted hardback in a limited edition of 300 copies, price £35
Matthew G. Rees is the editor of Horla. Like Machen, he grew up in the borderland between England and Wales known as the Marches and worked for a number of years as a newspaper journalist. In recent times he has been undertaking a doctorate at the University of Swansea, Wales, into the influence of imagery on the writing of short fiction. A supernatural short story by Rees set in Wales and London titled ‘The Word’ has recently been published by Three Impostors press as part of their Machen-influenced Wentwood Tales series in a limited edition of numbered copies. Their website is here: Three Impostors press