Arthur Machen (1863-1947) has been described as the ‘forgotten father of weird fiction’ and ‘the first writer of authentically modern horror stories’. Jorges Luis Borges, Sir John Betjeman, Aleister Crowley and musician Mark E. Smith of New Wave band The Fall are among those said to have fallen under his spell. Present-day readers and admirers of Machen’s stories and novels are said to include Stephen King, fellow writer Peter Straub, Mick Jagger and former Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams. Yet while Machen’s name is reverenced among aficionados it seems to have far less currency among the broader reading public, particularly when compared with certain of his peers such as H.G.Wells.
Machen was born in the town of Caerleon, in south Wales, and, in his education at Hereford Cathedral School, grew up in that borderland with England known as the Marches. The son of a clergyman, Machen’s interest in the occult is said to have been sparked by an article on alchemy he read in a copy of Household Words he found as a boy in the library of his father’s rectory. Other diverting fiction, such as De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater, was acquired from bookstalls at railway stations. Subsequent scholarship saw him translate the memoirs of Casanova, and what biographer Mark Valentine has called an ‘appetite for bizarre literature’ also saw him produce a version of Beroalde de Verville’s Le Moyen de Parvenir under the title Fantastic Tales. The hermetic treatise of alchemist Thomas Vaughan, Lumen de Lumine, was another work that, according to Valentine, held ‘a peculiar fascination’ for Machen.
Family impoverishment curtailed his formal education, and, in London, Machen began his battle for recognition as a writer. His major breakthrough came with The Great God Pan (1894) whose content some critics deemed scandalous. The story sold well: Machen’s association with a form of writing dubbed ‘decadent horror’ was sealed. The Hill of Dreams, the novel many consider his masterpiece, was published in 1907. Notable supernatural stories such as ‘The Bowmen’ (1914) followed.
Throughout his life Machen was dogged by financial difficulty. He presents a classic case of the committed writer struggling for survival.
In Machen’s homeland, three enthusiasts – Richard Frame, David Osmond and Mark Lawson-Jones – are on a mission to keep his name alive and to spread the word about his writing. Here is their story:
Our journey began in 2012 writes Mark Lawson-Jones as three friends who shared an interest in the work of Arthur Machen. We had taken some time to visit Machen’s childhood home in Caerleon, and followed him to London to walk the streets he walked in fin de siecle late Victorian times.
His works came to life, as we thought about how he was inexplicably drawn back to the dark and brooding landscape of South Wales through the unknowable and mystic, which showed itself in the depths of the city. We were hooked. We couldn’t understand how such an influential author, a noted and celebrated inspiration for many, had fallen from literary view.
Why was it almost impossible to find reasonably priced copies of Machen’s works? Many were out of print and some only available as rather sad looking print on demand titles?
2013 was the 150th anniversary of Machen’s birth, so we attempted to establish some interest in the Welsh publishing community by suggesting a reissue of Far Off Things, the first volume of Machen’s autobiographical trilogy. We also wrote a proposal for a book of celebratory essays by those who agreed that Machen’s work needed to be enjoyed once again. Amongst others, Owen Sheers, Tessa Hadley, Horatio Clare and Rowan Williams, agreed to contribute. To our disappointment, initial interest from publishers and funding bodies came to nothing.
Coffee is a great catalyst for action. On one of our literary excursions we decided that there was nothing else for it: we needed to set up our own publishing concern with the aim of producing good quality, limited edition, illustrated, annotated, indexed editions of Far Off Things, The London Adventure, and Things Near and Far, the three parts of Machen’s autobiography, with specially commissioned original introductions.