Life and Career
From the photograph by Hoppé, frontispiece to Gekle.
Arthur Llewelyn Jones (1863–1947), better known by his pen-name, Arthur Machen, was an influential Welsh writer of supernatural, occult and mystical stories. Born in Caerleon, Monmouthshire, Machen was the son of a clergyman and educated as a boarder at the Cathedral School, Hereford. Paying the fees was problematic and financial constraints made it impossible for him to attend university. Although he came from a middle-class background his career was never less than difficult, and in a long life he was invariably troubled with economic problems, sometimes being one step ahead of poverty. Most of his life was spent in London and the south-east of England, but Monmouthshire, or Gwent, remained a psychological presence, and was an important part of his imaginative vision. This remained for him ‘the enchanted land’ (Far Off Things 8).
Machen twice married and had two children by his second wife, supporting his family with a variety of jobs. His earliest work, in the 1880s, included a pastiche, The Art of Tobacco, and a translation of Casanova’s Memoirs. It was in the nineties, however, that Machen found his true voice in the form of a series of weird tales – notably The Great God Pan (1894) and The Three Imposters (1895), along with a variety of unsettling short stories. These texts established his reputation, although the next years, from the Edwardian period into the 1920s, were mostly sustained by work as a journalist and actor. His most famous piece was ‘The Bowmen’ (1914), in which he imagined the archers of Agincourt rising up to protect British troops in the trenches; in an age of deep anxiety, and with unrest growing even before the first year of conflict had come to an end, some believed it to be a true account based on soldiers’ testimony, and it was the source of the legend of the Angels of Mons.
Machen’s synthesis of mythology, horror and fantasy was popular, and he enjoyed some benefits from the rise of spiritualism and occultism in the aftermath of the Great War, with much of his fiction being reprinted; but his later years could barely be described as any more secure than his early ones. He gained a basic income from journalism and from work as a publisher’s reader. In 1932 he was granted a small Civil List pension and at the age of eighty was the recipient of an appeal launched by his friends and supported by some of the outstanding writers of the age, among them T. S. Eliot and John Mansfield. In old age he was regarded as something of a personality; bridging Victorianism and the new age, he was interviewed on the BBC. Machen died in Amersham, Buckinghamshire, in 1947, a final destination in sharp contrast to his origins in rural South Wales.
Machen’s life was a grind for economic survival, a struggle with the material world, but his writing was a reverse proposition, an engagement not with dull facts but with the world of the imagination and the liminal spaces where reality intersects with the unknown. Machen’s project was to reach through or beyond what is known to postulate a series of encounters with that hidden otherness. As Guillermo de Torro remarks in acknowledgment of the author’s influence on his films, Machen was a fabulist who tried to show a ‘reality invisible’ (The White People viii). Indeed, Machen regarded himself as a literary medium, and disliked realism in art and literature. In his own words, delivered in a radio broadcast on the BBC in 1937, the author’s role should always be that of one who made available an imaginative release, offering a sort of clairvoyance in which the writer creates what ‘neither he … nor anyone else has seen in actual life’ (‘Arthur Machen’).
The visionary reality he found was dichotomized: sometimes he imagines a mystical landscape, a weird psycho-geography based on the intense natural beauty of Monmouthshire and the Vale of Usk, which is the source of spiritual sustenance; and sometimes he makes contact with an ancient and threatening evil inspired by a malign Celticism or Classicism. The first of these recalls the visionary Romanticism of William Blake and Samuel Palmer, while the second is concerned with the workings of paganism and its capacity to disrupt the everyday working of what is accepted as reality, a notion heavily influenced by the supernatural stories of Edgar Allan Poe and R. L. Stevenson. Both propositions are at odds with Machen’s conventional upbringing as a member of the Anglican Church who later converted to Catholicism.
Much of Machen’s work was produced after the end of Victoria’s reign and is outside the scope of the Victorian Web. However, some of the author’s best writing was done in the 1890s and is often linked to the Decadence and developments in occultism such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn; his treatment of sexuality and what at the time were considered depraved states of mind also link his work to the late Victorian notion of Degeneracy. Inspired by Roman paganism and Celtic magic – with the evidences of Romano-British culture existing in the form of ruins in his home town – Machen was popularly understood to be one of subversive writers of the time. His place within the Decadence is most clearly expressed in the publication of his first success, The Great God Pan (1894), which was issued in John Lane’s ‘Keynote’ series in a binding and with a pictorial title-page designed by Aubrey Beardsley. Associated with Lane, the publisher of The Yellow Book and the foremost publisher of the avant-garde, and with Beardsley, the most challenging artist of the Nineties, Machen has been placed by some critics a proto-modernist, stretching the limits of Victorian propriety.
The Beardsley title-page for The Great God Pan
(click on the image for more information).
He focuses on the capacity of science to release an unknown otherworld, postulating a physical process in which the unseen could be accessed through rational thought, medicine and scientific experimentation. In The Great God Pan he presents the strange investigations of Dr Raymond, who performs brain surgery on a young girl, Mary, somehow releasing Pan into the modern world; later, it is revealed that the debauched Helen is Mary’s daughter, and is fathered by the god. Machen writes Helen’s body as a conduit which, in acting as the interface between mystical evil and the material world, is dissolved into an amorphous shapelessness, the sign of mental and spiritual collapse. The narrator is transfixed with horror as he watches her death throes:
The blackened face, the hideous form upon the bed, changing and melting before your eyes from woman to man, from man to beast, and from beast to worse than beast, all the strange horror that you witness …Though horror and revolting nausea rose up within me, and an odour of corruption choked my breath, I remained firm. I was then privileged or accursed, I dare not say which, to see that which was on the bed, lying there black like ink, transformed before my eyes. The skin, and the flesh, and the muscles, and the bones, and the firm structure of the human body that I had thought to be unchangeable, and permanent as adamant, began to melt and dissolve.[The Great God Pan ]
This fascination with indeterminacy is a familiar trope derived from Victorian supernaturalism and recalls, for example, Carmilla’s pulsating shapelessness in J. S. Le Fanu’s novella (1872). Continuing in the same tradition, Machen plays more generally on a typically Victorian anxiety: in a culture based on classification and labelling, nothing was more unsettling to the contemporary audience than the illegibility of appearances and the collapse of categorization. But Machen is more obviously influenced by the late Victorian fear of Degeneracy, in which there is slippage between man and animal: exploiting fears that bestiality could overcome civilization and evolution be reversed, he focuses an idea that was otherwise voiced in Richard Marsh’s The Beetle (1897), where animal and man struggle for superiority, and in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), in which the elegant Count transforms himself into a wolf or a bat. Most of all, Machen’s text reflects the influence of R. L. Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), the classic exemplar of how science might release the primitive and reinstate a bestial alter-ego.
Machen’s fascination with putrescence and the physical depredation of the body might also be linked to a number of Gothic sources, notably Poe’s ‘Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar’, an imagining of a man caught between death and life by mesmerism and suspended in limbo in his decomposing corpse (1845). Here, as in Stevenson’s and Machen’s tale, science – or at least pseudo-science – releases the inexplicable. Working in this gruesome tradition, Machen uses horror to express the Victorian fear of science, and the even greater fear of what might lie beyond the veil of materiality. Machen’s The Great God Pan is more generally a text of Decadent uncertainties as the Victorian age entered its transition into the twentieth century. Like Marsh, Stoker and Stevenson, Machen’s writing is emblematic of the collapse of certainties and the blurring of identities to create an epistemological confusion. The effects are destructive and unsettling.
Yet Machen’s engagement with an imagined world projected some positive messages too. Essentially a visionary Romantic, the author invokes a dream-world of idealized landscapes, largely modelled on his memories of Monmouthshire/Gwent converted into a version of paradise. Though sometimes threatening – as in the ‘The White People’ (1899) – Machen is at his most profound when he constructs an alternative to the mundanity of everyday life.
This approach is exemplified by ‘A Fragment of Life’ (1899). In this suggestive text Machen traces the dull lives of the Darnells’ petit-bourgeois life in London, only relieved by Mr Darnell’s discovery of a sort of transcendent countryside that ultimately leads the couple to regeneration in the landscapes of ‘Caermon’, a thinly disguised version of Caerleon, and the site of the character’s childhood. The conclusion embodies Machen’s belief that literature should not be realistic but invoke ‘ecstacy’ and ecstatic states (Hieroglyphics) with the aim of re-engaging the wearied urban soul with the spiritual sustenance of nature and the purity of a pre-industrial, ancient world. Drawing on his own experience in routine employment, Machen creates a complex balance between the ordinary details of metropolitan life and the poetic visions of a new life. His writing is transformed into prose poetry when he describes the landscapes of the new home:
they were in the heart of a wilderness of hills and valleys that had never been looked upon,and they were going down a wild, steep hillside, where the narrow path wound in and out amidst gorse and towering bracken, and the sun gleaming out for a moment, there was a gleam of white water far below in the narrow valley, where a little brook poured and rippled from stone to stone. [‘A Fragment of Life,’ The White People 219]
This sacramental lyricism stands in stark contrast to the gruesome details of Helen’s shimmering metamorphoses, and the contrast between the two encapsulates the range of Machen’s achievement as he strove to re-capture the mystical meanings obscured by Victorian materialism, or distorted by the pretentions of science.
Reputation and Influence
Machen is a significant writer whose work had a considerable impact on the development of horror and supernatural fiction. S. T. Joshi sums up his influence, noting how he was ‘a harbinger of a kind of golden age of weird writing’ and offered exemplars for the writing of Algernon Blackwood, M. R. James, Walter de la Mare and H. P, Lovecraft (The White People xiii). All of these authors built on Machen’s interaction of setting and character, developing the psycho-geography that is central to his fantastical merging of landscape and psyche. Machen has been equally influential in the development of the more visceral physicality and body-horror of twentieth century horror; his descriptions of fluxing bodies and grotesque encounters has become a mainstay of the genre, and his work admired by modern practitioners such as Stephen King. Film too has responded to his dream-worlds. As noted earlier, Guillermo del Torro pays homage to the Welsh writer’s dislocating effects, and there is undoubtedly an echo of Machen’s grotesqueness in the bizarre body-horror of Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) and the weird monstrosity of the fish creature in The Shape of Water (2017).
Machen has always been the doyen of cliques, yet is not widely known. Underrated by the modern reading public and one of the genuine voices of Anglo-Welsh literature, Machen deserves to have a more visible profile. His legacy is protected by the Friends of Arthur Machen, an organization with an international membership and the source of modern scholarship on this unusual and challenging writer.
Link to related material
[Illustration source] Gekle, William Francis. Arthur Machen: Weaver of Fantasy. Millbrook, NY: Round Table Press, 1949. Intenet Archive. Contributed by the Digital Library of India. Web. 10 September 2022.
Machen, Arthur. The Angels of Mons: The Bowmen and Other Legends of the War. London: Simpkin Marshall, 1915.
Machen, Arthur. Far Off Things. London: Martin Secker, 1922.
Machen, Arthur. The Great God Pan. Online version published by Project Gutenberg.
Machen, Arthur. Hieroglyphics: A Note Upon Ecstacy in Literature. London: Grant Richards, 1902.
Machen, Arthur. Interview on the BBC, 22 March 1937. BBC Archive, published on You Tube and elsewhere online.
Machen, Arthur. The White People and Other Weird Stories. Edited with an introduction by S. T. Joshi and with a Foreword by Guillermo Del Torro. London: Penguin, 2011.
Created 10 September 2022