The Ecstasies of Arthur Machen

July 24, 2021   •   By Scott Bradfield

WHEN I MOVED to London in the mid-’80s, I had no idea I was following so closely in the footsteps of Arthur Machen (pronounced Mack-in, as in Kraken), a writer I knew nothing about at the time. In fact, if I possessed any sympathy for metaphysics, I might believe there was some unspoken occult connection that led me, back then, to unknowingly relive the life of someone I now know to be a splendid, unusual, and relatively happy writer. For despite the exigencies of my own writerly life in London — living in cheap, musty bedsits, scraping together enough change for evening pints at the local pub, and delivering review copy by foot to the newspapers along Fleet Street and Old City Road to save the high cost of tube tickets — I will always associate that life with joy.


Today, browsing through editor R. B. Russell’s Occult Territory: An Arthur Machen Gazetteer (2019) from the wonderful people at Tartarus Press — a beautifully produced and richly illustrated guide to places Machen lived, worked, drank and ate at in England and Wales — I feel like I’m falling through one of those science-fictional time-vortexes into all the cross-temporal locations where my life interconnected with Machen’s. For example, there were his various temporary lodgings in Great Russell Street, an area where I often haunted several dusty used bookstores in the ’80s and ’90s. (These were eventually bought up by the likes of Costa and Starbucks — those bastards.) Or Rupert Street, where my son and I, in another millennium, just as often haunted Computer Exchange, seeking a different generation of pleasurable media. Or the pubs and taverns (such as The Mitre on Fleet Street) where I went to read books to review for the TLS or The Independent, or to produce fast “reader’s reports” for Hodder & Stoughton on Bedford Square (later swallowed up by a conglomerate) or Allison & Busby on Museum Street (ditto).


And when I was totally broke (as in usually always), I aimlessly walked until late at night the fabulous, confusing, and joyously dingy streets that came twisting and raveling ever outward from the confusing loops of the Thames, continually getting lost and finding my way back to familiar territories, never once washing up stranded in some neighborhood where I felt threatened, as I might well have done in most American cities. For London is the ideal city for tireless, solitary walkers, as Machen himself described so vividly in his late-life autobiographies, now reissued in beautiful, uniform hardcover editions by Tartarus Press, or in a denser, more budget-friendly paperback omnibus edition by Hippocampus Press. The key to London walking, Machen writes, is to “shun the familiar” and avoid “London cognita” in favor of the vaster “London incognita”:


We all know about Piccadilly, and Oxford Street, London Bridge and the Strand. […] But where will you be, if I ask you about Clapton, about the inner parts of Barnsbury, about the delights of Edmonton, about that region which was once called Spa Fields? Nay: how many people know their Camden Town in any thorough and intelligent manner? They may know the main artery of it by which the omnibuses go up to Hampstead; but not the byeways, not the curious passages of Camden Town into Holloway …


Camden Town. Holloway. Clapton. Barnsbury. This passage reads like a glossary of all the places I spent a large happy part of my young adulthood walking and wandering, long before I knew anything about the marvelous, and endlessly rereadable, Arthur Machen.


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Born the son of a vicar in provincial Monmouthshire, Machen walked widely as a youth in the Welsh countryside, and was only drawn to London after discovering it through newspapers and books at the Pontypool Road newspaper stand — especially De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. (For Machen, London would forever be a De Quincey–esque mixture of the phantasmagoric and the drab.) Unable to afford university, Machen eventually moved to London and suffered the financial hardships of literary hackdom. He lived in cheap bedsits “horribly alone,” and dined almost exclusively on dry bread and green tea. And while he was initially attracted by the Strand’s shops and restaurants, he soon began wandering through more shadowy, out-of-the-way suburban landscapes. I began to realise, very gradually and by dismal degrees, that the gaieties of London were commodities that had to be bought with money, and that I had none.” And it was by joining together these two regions of London — the bright central-city roads strung with gloaming lights and the dark, overgrown, outer-city suburbs — that Machen developed the strange, haunting, and confounding landscapes of his fiction.


He often read widely as he walked — from Rabelais and Thackeray to Rosicrucianism and the Kabbala — eventually finding work at a publishing house in Chandos Street, and later at a bookseller in Leicester Square; meanwhile, he did whatever translating work came his way. “I had my queer books in the mornings and my long lonely walks in the afternoons,” he wrote, “and my great books in the evening and far into the night.” He was continuously moving — from Clarendon Road to Wandsworth and Gray’s Inn Road. And when he wasn’t waging his daily war with words (nobody struggled harder to produce each sentence with just the right syntactical lilt), he explored those shabby, sorry suburbs where most dignified flâneurs dared not go:


I would sometimes pursue Clarendon Road northward and get into all sorts of regions of which I never had any clear notion. They are obscure to me now, and a sort of nightmare. I see myself getting terribly entangled with a canal which seemed to cross my path in a manner contrary to the laws of reason. I turn a corner and am confronted with an awful cemetery, a terrible city of white gravestones and shattered marble pillars and granite urns, and every sort of horrid heathenry. This, I suppose, must have been Kensal Green: it added new terror to death. I think I came upon Kensal Green again and again; it was like the Malay, an enemy for months. I would break off by way of Portobello Road and entangle myself in Notting Hill, and presently I would come upon the goblin city; I might wander into the Harrow Road, but at last the ghost-stones would appal me. Maida Vale was treacherous, Paddington false — inevitably, it seemed, my path led me to the detested habitation of the dead.


Over a career that spanned the decadent period of Oscar Wilde — who admired Machen’s first and best-known short novel, The Great God Pan (1894) — through World War II, Machen never lost his youthful exuberance for words or solitary walking. As Lucian Taylor, the semi-autobiographical protagonist of Machen’s great novel The Hill of Dreams (1907), discovers in the Welsh countryside, if a wandering intelligence looked hard enough, “his sense of external things” would grow “dim and indistinct.” Eventually “material life” would be reduced to a “fleeting of shadows across a great white light.” Wherever he lived, Machen sensed a deeper reality stirring underneath the superficial one. And over several decades, this sense of a buried reality blossomed darkly forth in a series of unusual, beautifully written supernatural tales.


Looking back at Machen’s career, it is impossible to find a greater expression of the 19th-century doctrine of l’art pour l’art, even though every classic survey of the period — from Arthur Symons’s The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899) to Edmund Wilson’s Axel’s Castle (1931) — either ignores Machen’s remarkable contributions or, like Richard Ellmann’s 1969 biography of Wilde, reduces him to an insignificant footnote. Yet these excellent new editions of Machen’s work, including a three-volume set of his Collected Fiction from Hippocampus, make it refreshingly clear that Machen provides more readerly pleasure than a shelf full of university-sanctioned “aesthetes,” such as Huysmans, Swinburne, and Dowson.


It is amazing that Machen’s reputation survived at all — for if anything could go wrong for him career-wise, it usually did. When The Great God Pan was published by John Lane in 1894 (with a striking Beardsley-illustrated frontispiece), its critical reception was largely hostile — perhaps because it took its dark assumptions about the world too seriously. In Machen’s universe (unlike Wilde’s or Huysman’s), horrific events aren’t the result of human perversity; they are sewn inextricably into the fabric of nature. When Pan’s Dr. Raymond performs his surgical experiment on a girl “rescued from the gutter” (“her life is mine,” he asserts), he opens her mind to an appreciation of reality that includes “seeing the God Pan.” (Machen’s characters often end up seeing, or struggling to see, beyond superficial unrealities.) As the story is pieced together over many years, through various eyewitness accounts, the young woman suffers more raw knowledge than she can handle; and the astute reader catches glimpses of the Great God Pan lurking in the interstices of reported events: suicides, a woman seen dancing in the woods with a satyr, weird orgies and hints of occult conspiracies. By the story’s end, none of these events are adequately explained; they simply withdraw into the general mayhem of human life. And yet, even as the dust settles, the God Pan remains out there, dancing his lusty, hypnotic dances — especially when people stop looking for him.


Like Stevenson’s Mr. Hyde, Machen’s Pan doesn’t threaten upright, moralistic Victorian society; he emanates from its dark heart. Which is perhaps why The Great God Pan struck a chord in Victorian critics — mainly, they didn’t like it. They called it “acutely and intentionally disagreeable” and “a gruesome and unmanly book.” And by the time Machen published his next work of fiction — The Three Imposters, or The Transmutations (1895), a sort of mini-Decameron inspired by Stevenson’s New Arabian Nights (1882) — his reputation was irredeemably soiled. To make matters worse, Machen’s friend Oscar Wilde became mired in a series of public scandals and trials, and being associated with him didn’t sell books.


I can’t recommend The Three Imposters enough. It is a truly unusual, perfectly composed, entertaining, demonic little book; and when all the frame-within-a-frame doors slam shut at the end, you won’t easily find your way out again. The main narrative is confusing the first time through, as the first pages introduce three vaguely associated “friends” embarking on a mysterious enterprise. As they exit the opening scene in different directions, the book’s principal characters enter: Mr. Dyson and Mr. Phillips, a pair of friends who spend their Holborn evenings debating the significance of unexplainable events. Mr. Dyson believes marvelous happenings are part of life, but Mr. Phillips believes there is always a rational explanation for everything. Like an inverted Holmes and Watson, they pursue several investigations in the course of this slim book, and don’t solve any of them; instead, they are drawn further into the world’s essential weirdness. Then, in a gruesome final scene, they uncover what the “three imposters” had been setting off to accomplish when the book began. It is horrific. And in that strange way understood only by people who enjoy perfectly produced fiction, it is also deeply, aesthetically pleasing.


Like many of Machen’s characters, Mr. Dyson and Mr. Phillips are outmatched by unfathomable forces. And the stories they investigate celebrate the endless, inexplicable possibilities of hectic London. As Mr. Dyson explains, there is no point in being “pessimistic” about the “squalor” of “decadent” times, for one finds in London


the greatest spectacle the world has ever seen, — the mystery of the innumerable unending streets, the strange adventures that must infallibly arise from so complicated a press of interests. Nay, I will say that he who has stood in the ways of a suburb and has seen them stretch before him all shining, void, and desolate at noonday, has not lived in vain. Such a sight is in reality more wonderful than any perspective of Bagdad or Grand Cairo.


Even when confronted by supernatural perils, Machen’s protagonists don’t feel the need for protective charms or rational explanations; they only hope to witness the dark beauties of life (however horrible) with a clean pair of spectacles.


Reading through to the surprising conclusion of The Three Imposters is like finding your way on foot from Charing Cross to Acton Town and back again without a map. You must do it several times before you understand what you’ve done or how you did it. And then you need to do it all over again or else you might forget.


On publication, The Three Imposters gathered a few notable admirers (Conan Doyle said that it kept him awake nights), but mostly it attracted condemnations of Machen’s “unhealthy” nature. Like many artists accused of composing “immoral” books, Machen appears to have been a deeply moral (however idiosyncratic) man. His first wife, Amelia Hogg, was a sensual, bohemian music teacher whose early death from cancer hit him hard; and when he later remarried and became a father, his fictional production stalled as he responsibly sought ways to feed his family as both a journalist and a stage actor. As a result, some of his greatest work, such as the macabrely rapturous autobiographical novel, The Hill of Dreams (1907), as well as his long stories — such as “The White People” (1904), which Lovecraft considered the second-best weird tale ever written, or the uncategorizable reflection on suburbia’s innate strangeness, “A Fragment of Life” (1904) — gathered dust in his desk for years before they found publishers. Then, when they were finally published, they went largely ignored.


If it weren’t for Machen’s jingoistic little fable “The Bowmen” (1914), in which World War I British soldiers are saved by St. George’s angelic “Agincourt Bowmen,” his earlier works might have remained forgotten. But this relatively minor story found a home in the war-weary British imagination, inspiring publishers to issue new collections of Machen’s older work. Machen began publishing several new, minor stories, and one of his longest, most powerful novellas, “The Terror” (1916), which describes a violent revolt of nature against human society. (For Machen, nature is both infinitely beautiful and inexpressibly terrible, and you can’t have one without the other.) These successes led to the publication of Machen’s most beautifully written and satisfying books — three autobiographies about living, writing, and unprofitably wandering the streets of London: Far Off Things (1922), Things Near and Far (1923), and The London Adventure (1924).


Machen produced prose the way many of his characters engaged in occult enterprises — by testing the shape and texture of every word he placed on paper. As Machen’s fictional alter ego, Lucian Taylor, learns, writing isn’t about expressing ideas, it’s about distilling human experience onto a blank page; in order to “win the secret of words,” one must “summon the wind into a sentence.” Writing is a form of alchemical transmutation; it requires a recognition of life’s darkest regions as well as its brightest. “Sorcery and sanctity,” announces a character at the beginning of “The White People,” “these are the only realities. Each is an ecstasy, a withdrawal from the common life.” For Machen, this was all that really mattered about art: ecstasy (as his 1902 book Hieroglyphics: A Note upon Ecstasy in Literature, recently reissued by Tartarus, makes plain).


Nobody deserves being recovered and read more than Arthur Machen. He has never received a proper full-scale biography, and many of his best works have been long out of print. So do it: go and buy these various republished volumes. And while waiting for them to arrive, think about visiting London after this endless pandemic has finally receded; and if you do visit London, here’s the best advice I can give: leave your tourist guides and map-apps on the living room table, and take a long walk into the less-frequented streets of that marvelous, endlessly fascinating city. According to Machen, that’s where everything is happening — whether you see it happening or not.


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Scott Bradfield is a novelist, short story writer, and critic who currently lives in London and San Luis Obispo. He is the author of The History of Luminous Motion (1989), Animal Planet (1995), The People Who Watched Her Pass By (2010), Dazzle Resplendent: Adventures of a Misanthropic Dog (2017), and The Millennial’s Guide to Death: Stories (2021).