ARTHUR MACHEN (rhymes with "bracken") was born in Caerleon-on-Usk, in Wales, in 1863. By 1914, at the outbreak of World War I, his once promising career as an imaginative writer appeared to be on the wane. He'd gone through the modest inheritance left him by his father, and he was working, neither happily nor efficiently by all accounts, as a reporter and critic at a big London paper, The Evening News. On September 29, 1914, the News ran a short story with Machen's byline; it was the first time in more than a decade that he'd published any fiction. The story, titled "The Bowmen"' and now republished in The White People and Other Weird Stories(edited by horror scholar S. T. Joshi with a preface by filmmaker and self-confessed fantasy geek Guillermo del Toro), had a timely wartime subject, featuring a band of beleaguered British soldiers about to be overrun.
"As far as they could see the German infantry was pressing on against them, column upon column, a grey world of men, ten thousand of them, as it appeared afterwards," notes the story's narrator, who writes with an air of casual authority and reality, as though reporting facts rather than making something up.
Some of the British soldiers sing songs, defying the barrage. Others, to keep fear at bay, give names to the shells that are tearing their comrades limb from limb. One soldier remembers a restaurant at which he ate in London, where all the plates were printed "with a figure of St George in blue, with the motto, Adsit Anglis Sanctus Georgius — May St George be a present help to the English." The soldier, who knows his Latin, repeats the invocation and feels
something between a shudder and an electric shock pass through his body. The roar of battle died down in his ears to a gentle murmur; instead of it, he says, he heard a great voice and a shout louder than a thunder-peal crying, "Array, Array, array!" ... And as the soldier heard these voices he saw before him, beyond the trench, a long line of shapes, with a shining about them. They were like the men who drew the bow, and with another shout, their cloud of arrows flew singing and tingling through the air towards the German hosts.
Soon the "singing" (lovely adjective) arrows fly so thick and swift they darken the air, and those soldiers in World War I are saved because "St George had brought his Agincourt Bowmen to help the English."
Machen himself didn't think very much of the story. He was an ambitious writer, but often left stories unfinished or published them before they were quite ready to go. Perhaps the hasty composition of "The Bowmen," its rough quality of having been written at speed as if on deadline, contributed to what happened next.
"Letters came from all ends of the earth to the editor of The Evening News," Machen later explained. Second-, third-, fourth-, fifth-hand stories, told by "a soldier," "an officer," "a nurse" and "a Catholic correspondent," began to circulate in other newspapers, attesting that these witnesses, too, had seen the ghostly bowmen. The story of the miracle was retold from pulpits all over the land. A German prisoner confessed to his captors that he'd seen the bodies of his comrades — with arrows stuck in them.
The snowball rolled on. Machen attested that he'd made the story up; priests wr...