OCTOBER 8, 2011
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 wrote to him declaring that, on the contrary, it must be true. There were window displays in London stores and articles in the psychic journals pondering the exact nature of the apparitions. Machen, like Orson Welles with his notorious 1938 radio broadcast of War of the Worlds, became the author of not mere entertainment, but mass delusion.
“If I had failed in the art of letters, I had succeeded, unwittingly, in the art of deceit,” Machen later wrote. “The Bowmen” appeared at a moment when people were looking for a miracle, and many people embraced it as one. Machen achieved both nationwide fame, which he didn’t want, and confirmation of something that interested him more, namely, the fact the human spirit craves belief in the non-material.
Soon after the publication of “The Bowmen,” Machen wrote another story, “The Great Return,” in which the inhabitants of a Welsh seaside town hear bells tolling from across the waves, see lights shining in the dark and are visited by the Holy Grail, which sweeps away their illnesses, worries and quarrels. Machen presents this account as a reporter’s quest for evidence of strange events that have already apparently occurred. The story, like many of Machen’s, would make a wonderful film, and it’s rendered in a cool, dispassionate way that anticipates Borges or Calvino. Machen’s prose nonetheless has its own sad music, especially when he’s evoking a landscape that matters to him:
For the sun went down and the evening fell as I climbed the long hill through the deep woods and the high meadows, and the scent of all the green things rose from the earth and from the heart of the wood, and at a turn of the lane far below was the misty glimmer of the still sea. And I thought, if there be paradise in meat and in drink, so much more the paradise in the scent of the green leaves at evening and in the appearance of the sea and in the redness of the sky.
Machen was interested in visions, in ecstatic experiences, not just the supernatural as such. All his fiction ponders the idea that other realities exist beside, or just beyond, or within the everyday one that we normally perceive, and all his fiction features characters who reach for that dangerous mystery. Sometimes, as in “The Bowmen” or “The Great Return,” that other reality introduces miracle and wonder into quotidian life. Other times, especially in the work he produced as a young man during the years 1887-1901, the discovery that lies on the other side of the veil is utmost horror.
In his most famous tale, “The Great God Pan” (not reprinted here, though perhaps it will feature in a future Penguin), the hero, Villiers, investigates the story of Helen Vaughan, a woman who appears to bring evil and despair wherever she goes. Helen mows down hapless Victorian men like so much corn. This same trope of the belle dame sans merci, the female predator so swooned over by Swinburne, Dowson, Wilde and other British writers of the 1880s and 1890s, is pursued again in “The Inmost Light,” the story which opens this collection: “Then I knew what had made my heart shudder and my bones grind together in an agony. As I glanced up I looked straight towards the last house in the row before me, and in an upper window of that house I had seen for some short fraction of a second a face,” recounts the narrator. “It was the face of a woman, and yet it was not human.”
Or rather, I should say, recounts one of the narrators. Machen, as Guillermo del Toro notes, favors “dense, Chinese-box formalism,” fictions that are constructed as reports or contain multiple narrators, any one of whom may or may not be reliable. Machen got some of these techniques from Robert Louis Stevenson, one of his major influences (Poe and Rabelais being others), and quickly saw, no doubt, that such labyrinthine storytelling provided the appropriate structure for his chosen subject: The quest for the ineffable.
More than books shaped Machen’s career, however. The remoteness of his Welsh border background was an influence, likewise London. He moved there to study medicine, which he did in a desultory way, while setting out his stall as a freelance writer. Like Dickens, Machen explored the great city on foot, finding unexpected connections and a landscape that, as the teeming urban center dribbled out into featureless grey suburbs, both thrilled and terrified him. In “Novel of the White Powder” (a tale abstracted from the narrative fabric of The Three Impostors, the book into which it was originally woven), a character swallows a white powder that transmutes him. The first hint of that transformation comes when he glances out of the window and suddenly sees London as if it’s something infernal out of Blake or Dante: “It is as if a great city were burning in flames, and down there between the dark houses it is raining blood fast, fast.” Soon the man’s form and character are subsumed by the hell within himself: “The house of life was riven asunder, and the human trinity dissolved, and the worm which never dies, that which lies sleeping within us all, was made tangible, and an external thing, and clothes with a garment of flesh.”
The horror is real and shuddery, though Machen is capable of more subtle creepy effects. “The White People,” a tale whose delicacy and finesse were particularly admired by H. P. Lovecraft, is the story of a young girl who innocently becomes a devil worshipper. “I must not say who the Nymphs are, or the Dols, or Jeelo, or what voolas mean,” the girl tells us, through a diary she kept and left behind, the found artefact of the story and the “evidence” so favored and needed by fantasy authors:
All these are most secret secrets, and I am glad when I remember what they are, and how many wonderful languages I know, but there are some things that I call the secrets of the secrets of the secrets that I dare not think of unless I am quite alone, and then I shut my eyes, and put my hands over them and whisper the word. I only do this at night in my room or in certain woods that I know, but I must not describe them, as they are secret woods.
The language of the girl’s diary is beautiful, as is the physical world around her she describes, and it’s only slowly that the reader realizes she has fallen victim to magic of the black (rather than white) variety. Sorcery and sanctity are the only true realities, Machen implies, and the two are closer to each other than we like to think, and all wonder is wonder of the soul.
In this Machen differs from Lovecraft, of course. A handsome new French-flapped and deckle-edged edition of The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories (also edited by Joshi) reminds horror mavens that Lovecraft’s terrifying and encyclopedic fictional world posits the existence of a cosmos whose only binding force is that it is inimical to man. Lovecraft’s fear isn’t evil so much as chaos, “the shadow-haunted outside,” and while Machen’s fiction lacks Lovecraft’s hypnotic mania, it offers a more rounded and subtler religious sense. Bright Apollo, and not only Dionysus, gets a look in. The prose is cleaner too. Lovecraft has been regarded as a classic for at least twenty years now; Machen, too, deserves his place in the corrupting sun.