Arthur Machen’s Stories: What Nightmares Are Made Of by John J. Miller

From the Wall Street Journal, posted October 30, 2007

Tomorrow night, hordes of vampires with plastic fangs and witches with pointy hats will swarm neighborhoods, ring doorbells, and demand candy. One of the reasons they’re cute rather than creepy is because we can go to bed secure in the knowledge that Count Dracula is about as real as Count Chocula.

Cultural historians still puzzle over Halloween traditions. Some trace their deepest roots to the days of the Druids and a Celtic festival called Samhain. The origins of many modern practices are just as mysterious, such as encouraging kids to dress up like the undead and go trick-or-treating.

machen2In one of his classic horror stories, the Welsh author Arthur Machen (1863-1947) has a character propose an unsettling theory that might help explain our autumnal rites: “The real horror is disguised in a form of prankish mischief.” He suggests that monsters really do exist — and that their proof lies in the human habit of trying to tame them in custom and folklore: “Our remote ancestors . . . dressed them up in charming forms, knowing the truth to be the very reverse.”

If Machen (rhymes with “blacken”) isn’t widely read today, it’s not because his stories have goofy premises — so does Bram Stoker’s yarn about a blood-sucking Transylvanian who sleeps in a coffin. Horror aficionados in fact esteem Machen as a weird-fiction pioneer who left a clear imprint on H.P. Lovecraft and other successors, especially for his ability to locate bizarre terrors in what appear to be ordinary surroundings.

The writer Jerome K. Jerome, a friend of Machen’s, once observed that “the difference between what we call the natural and the supernatural is merely the difference between frequency and rarity of occurrence.” Machen was a master at blurring these categories, advancing a trend that would take hold in the 20th century as horror stories increasingly abandoned unexplained phenomena and submitted themselves to standards of rationalism that dominate the fields of science fiction and psychological suspense.

As it happens, Machen didn’t write extensively within the horror genre and what he did write sometimes turned up in odd places, possibly to the detriment of his reputation. Nowhere is this more evident than in “The Three Imposters,” an 1895 novel that Dover Publications has just released in a new edition.

The book is an imitation of “The New Arabian Nights” by Robert Louis Stevenson — a series of seemingly unrelated short stories, bound by a framing narrative. Unfortunately, Machen’s uneven effort doesn’t really deliver: The parts of “The Three Imposters” are greater than their sum. Two of its tales, “The Novel of the Black Seal” and “The Novel of the White Powder,” particularly stand out. The first involves a professor’s discovery of a sinister race of “Little People” who hide in the countryside of Wales. The other describes a Londoner whose pharmacist makes a fatal mistake with a prescription, and the gruesome transformation that ensues.

Each is an acclaimed tale of terror that rises above a book that is otherwise forgettable. After borrowing a copy of “The Three Imposters,” Arthur Conan Doyle — the inventor of Sherlock Holmes and a writer who dabbled in supernaturalism — told Jerome: “Your pal Machen may be a genius all right; but I don’t take him to bed with me again!”

Machen’s reputation as an innovator rests on this pair of stories and just a few others. Among the best of the rest: “The Great God Pan,” which is occasionally compared with “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” as a harrowing portrait of Victorian decadence. Machen’s masterpiece may be “The White People.” It begins with a stilted philosophical discussion, but at its heart is a girl’s stream-of-consciousness account of an encounter with profound wickedness. E.F. Bleiler, an authority on ghost stories and their ilk, has called it “probably the finest single supernatural story of the [19th] century, perhaps in the literature.”

After writing “The White People,” Machen largely gave up on the genre for which he is now most remembered. His interests were eclectic: Early in his career, he translated Casanova’s memoirs and wrote an autobiographical novel, “The Hill of Dreams,” that many of his fans consider his finest achievement. He spent most of his adulthood on Grub Street, scribbling for a living.

From time to time, he returned to supernatural themes, though not horrific ones. His best-known story, “The Bowmen,” was written for a newspaper in 1914, about a month after the Battle of Mons. It told of how retreating British troops were saved from doom by the ghostly appearance of St. George and his Agincourt archers. Machen wrote “The Bowmen” for patriotic purposes, but many of his readers interpreted it as a true description of a wartime miracle — which gave rise to a persistent urban legend that the BBC was still debunking as recently as five years ago.

For the most part, however, Machen’s fiction calls not for debunking but for the willing suspension of disbelief — just enough to send a shiver up your spine tomorrow when you open the door to a troupe of four-foot-tall goblins and ghouls.

— John J. Miller


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