Home » Occult Territory – An Arthur Machen Gazetteer Edited by R.B. Russell. Reviewed by Clare Ramsey

HORLA REVIEW (July 2019)

 

A LIFE LESS ORDINARY

Clare Ramsey reviews

OCCULT TERRITORY

An Arthur Machen Gazetteer

Edited by R.B. Russell 

HOW the lives and worlds of writers have changed!

The careers and times of authors of fiction operating today seem… one doesn’t wish to be rude or cruel, so let’s not say ‘dull’… let’s settle for ordinary.

Okay there are exceptions – John Le Carre / David Cornwell might well count; so too Jeffrey Archer.

But on the whole we’re talking rough adherence to an order that seems to involve a secure upbringing / schooling; first degree (usually, if a British writer, English or some offshoot); second degree (strongly likely to be related to the first); PhD (see earlier degrees). Often done, it should be added, on the bounce.

After this, employment at a university teaching the same subjects the author her / himself studied. Within a couple of years, a term or two at a twinned university overseas… possibly not top tier but solid enough, in, say, an American state of the type termed (perhaps unfairly) ‘fly over country’. In due course our writer-academic will climb the pay scales, fulfilling obligations and teaching pretty much the same thing year-in year-out, also adopting the occasional PhD student (thereby helping bring on the next generation of writer-academics cut from more or less the same cloth).

If successful commercially (or sufficiently esteemed by ‘connected’ types with whom our author-academic has contrived to get acquainted), there might be appearances on BBC television or radio now and again, as well as book signings at festivals and stores of the larger kind. For the less successful, in sales terms at least, there will be attempted signings at significantly smaller festivals and stores.

So much – or little – for their public lives. It’s totally possible that the private lives of these authors, however, positively froth with wild, off-syllabus excess, dark deeds, torrid romance and adventures worthy of Hemingway. But, on the whole, one tends to think not.

Safe, secure and arguably lifeless (when set against figures such as, say, Damon Runyon, George Orwell or Martha Gellhorn) is perhaps the order of the day.

And the point to be drawn from all of that is? Well, for one thing, it could account for why so much contemporary fiction seems so darned… samey.

Compare and contrast with the life and world of Arthur Machen (left).

To attempt to precis Machen’s life in a reasonably short paragraph seems an act of madness, but here goes. Born in Wales, but living mainly in London, he was variously an impoverished self-educated scholar (who never made it to university), an impoverished translator and writer, the founder of a genre of fiction that came to be known as weird horror, a roving newspaper reporter (employment he came to detest), an impoverished actor (with a fondness for playing Dr Johnson), a follower of a mystic order, a lover of good company in taverns, an associate of occultists, a contemporary of Beardsley and Wilde… and we’d best stop there before this list becomes utterly unwieldy.

Safe to say, it’s a life whose mosaic leaves us reeling – and curious to learn more.

Helpfully we have a notable new book with which to navigate the myriad worlds of Arthur Machen.

Editor R.B. (Ray) Russell modestly describes Occult Territory: An Arthur Machen Gazetteer (Tartarus Press) as ‘not exhaustive’. But one suspects that most readers of this not insubstantial volume will agree that he (and those who’ve assisted him) have done a pretty comprehensive – and praiseworthy – job.

From Wales, to London, to the English North and West Country, and as far afield as France, ‘Machenland’, as we might perhaps call it, is carefully catalogued in more than 250 pages of images and notes.

And while Machen’s life didn’t match the international experiences of, say, Rudyard Kipling, readers of this volume – particularly those new to Machen – will come away from it with a sense of a life lived.  

(Cont. next column)

The book begins with Machen’s birthplace in the old Roman town of Caerleon in Wales and closes with Le Lion d’Or (The Golden Lion), in Chinon, France, where Machen enjoyed a particularly pleasing nightcap. Between these two points, we are taken to Machen’s homes, the taverns he visited, his ‘temples’ (churches in point of fact), miscellaneous places in Wales and its Marches borderlands (castles, ancient houses, mountains, railway stations), London squares and streets (locations of theatres and bookshops, many long-vanished) and places beyond (such as Whitby in Yorkshire) where Machen journeyed on journalistic expeditions.  

Each location is accompanied with a photograph (antique where possible), illustration or map. Beneath these are notes explaining how and when the property or setting figured in Machen’s life and / or writing. In total, there are some 160 entries.

Establishments and locales reach out from the past with a beguiling charm. In London, for example, we encounter ‘The Bun House’ (417 the Strand, St Martins in Fields), photographed in 1914. Machen is quoted: ‘I spent many evening with Dowson’ (the short-lived English ‘Decadent’ writer Ernest Dowson) ‘in The Bun House. Though the name of this rendezvous has a doughty sound, it never at any time offered buns to its customers.’

Elsewhere, our eye is caught by the likes of a sketch of an ancient stone circle in the Welsh county of Gwent and a photograph of the lovely church of Saint Issui, in Patrishw, in Powys. It dates from 1060 and is remembered by Machen in one of his (many) essays, ‘The Charm of Old Churches’ – writing which will confound those who (perhaps sadly) only know Machen for his horror.

In faintly ghostly fashion, Machen features in photographs here and there throughout, as if breaking for ‘a pipe’ on a journey between his haunts. (The places catalogued are ones Machen generally regarded favourably.)

Usefully, there are also notes and images of places – such as private houses – not generally open to the public.

In his introduction Russell makes the point that while the Welsh countryside of Machen’s youth remains essentially the same (bar ‘incessant’ traffic noise at a  location on the banks of the River Usk), London is now very different – hence, as this reviewer sees it at least, the boon that this book constitutes.

A vital service that the volume – cumulatively – provides is the sense it gives us of how these places – variously ancient, urban, rural, entwined with legend – and Machen’s shifting and often very difficult life shaped his extraordinary (even scandalous at the time) fiction.

And yet, leafing through its pages, one can’t help but think of Machen’s comments in his book The London Adventure – about the presence in our lives of the ‘unknown world’.

Does Machen’s London still exist? He died not that long ago (1947). It lives on faintly, perhaps, like an image that oughtn’t to be there – but is – in a double negative photograph.

Ray Russell, it seems, has made pilgrimages (often in the company of fellow Machenians) to a number of places catalogued in this work. His affection for his subject, along with that of his co-contributors, is clear.

And this handsomely produced book (cleverly covered with an antique London street map) may well prove a ‘must have’ for all lovers of Machen.

As well as having the look of a collectable, it’s an enchanting guide through a life less ordinary.

 

*Occult Territory: An Arthur Machen Gazetteer is a sewn hardback book of 272 + xiv pages. It has been produced with a silk ribbon marker in an edition limited to 400 copies. It is on sale for £35 including p/p through independent UK press Tartarus whose website can be found here

 

** Reviewer Clare Ramsey is a Horla contributor with an interest in supernatural fiction.