ARTHUR Machen relished his bad reviews, so much so that in 1923 he published Precious Balms, a 200 page compilation of the worst of them.
The Three Impostors proved a fertile source for the book.
‘Frankly the subject matter… is not to our taste’ said The Echo, while for the critic from the Glasgow Herald, ‘Nothing but a smart turn in brisk air can cleanse the feelings of the person who has been unfortunate enough to read this volume through’. The Athaeneum resorted to a culinary metaphor: ‘The Three Impostors produces on the normal waking mind much the same effect as a hearty supper of pork chops on the dream fancies of a person of delicate digestion’.
There were some good reviews as well, and despite its mixed reception, The Three Impostors has come to be regarded as a classic of horror literature.
It has been hugely influential in the genre and beyond, and has been cited as an influence by writers from H. P. Lovecraft to Stephen King. The great Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges named it as one the books he would include in a personal library of 100 titles, while Mick Jagger felt that it ‘would make a fantastic movie’.
Machen (left) was thirty-two when The Three Impostors was first published in 1895 by John Lane in his Keynotes series, which sought to push the boundaries of what was acceptable in literature.
The cover and the title page were designed by Aubrey Beardsley, but the book appeared in the same year that Oscar Wilde was convicted of gross indecency, and a reaction against the ‘Yellow bookery’ of the early 1890s ensued.
The story is loosely structured around the flight of the enigmatic ‘young man with spectacles’ through London from the agents of the evil Dr Lipsius, after he had inadvertently stolen a priceless coin, the Gold Tiberius. It is a Russian doll of a novel with stories nested within stories within stories, and the setting moves between London, Gwent (Machen’s Welsh homeland) and the United States.
Two of the embedded tales, Novel of the Black Seal and Novel of the White Powder have frequently been included in anthologies of classic horror literature in their own right. Machen called The Three Impostors a ‘picaresque romance’, and admitted the influence of Robert Louis Stevenson’s New Arabian Nights and The Dynamiter on his plot and style, but after the publication of the book he declared ‘I shall never give anyone a white powder again!’
(Cont. next column)