Home » Three Impostors by Arthur Machen

NEWS FEATURE (June 2019)

 

RETURN OF A HORROR CLASSIC

 

Arthur Machen’s The Three Impostors  is revived in a special new edition with eye-catching art

DOMINIC KILDARE recounts Victorian reaction & explains the emergence of the new edition 

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)

Despite the author’s conscious change of artistic direction, there was a curious postscript when characters from the book including Miss Lally and the ‘young man with spectacles’ seemed to come to life before Machen as he wandered the London streets in a disturbed state after the death of his first wife Amy in 1899, events he described in Things Near and Far. It has been speculated that he might have been using the laudanum prescribed for Amy in the terminal stages of her cancer.

Three Impostors, publishers based in Newport, Gwent, borrowed their name from Machen’s novel.

David Osmond, Richard Frame and Mark Lawson-Jones came together to set up their small, independent publishing house in 2012 with the initial aim of producing new editions of Machen’s autobiographical books to mark the 150th anniversary of his birth.

In 2017 they worked with artist John Selway on a new illustrated edition of The Great God Pan but unfortunately John died before the book was released in 2018.

To coincide with the publication, Cardiff artist and print-maker Pete Williams produced prints from Selway’s illustrations which were exhibited in Llantarnam Grange Arts Centre, in Cwmbran, and in Barnabas Arts House in Newport, and when plans were laid for a new edition of The Three Impostors as a companion volume for The Great God Pan, Williams was a natural choice as illustrator.

The new book is a hardback of 216 pages, with introductory essays on the text and the artist by James Machin, Editor of Faunus, the journal of the Friends of Arthur Machen, and Hywel Pontin, former Director of Llantarnam Grange, respectively.

There are fourteen illustrations, two photographs, and extensive endnotes. Only two hundred individually numbered copies have been produced. The book can be purchased – price £28, including p/p – from www.threeimpostors.co.uk

Read it if you dare…!