Machen, Arthur

Tagged: Author

(1863-1947) Welsh author, translator and actor, born Arthur Llewellyn Jones, his parents adding Machen apparently in an attempt to please a rich relative. Machen was an isolated, lonely child, and was from a very early age deeply devoted both to romantic literature and to the Welsh landscape that visually dominated his writings all his life. He also imaginatively applied his extensive if somewhat random readings in the occult and metaphysics to his Welsh background. He was in London for long periods from 1880. The death of his father in 1887 provided him with enough money to marry and to write, but by around 1904 he was once again poverty-stricken. He went on the stage for much of the following decade, and until he became financially secure after about 1920 did a great deal of hackwork. By the time he was rediscovered in the 1920s he was near retirement and no longer capable of producing high-calibre material.

With influences ranging from William Morris to Robert Louis Stevenson and associations from John Lane's Bodley Head (at the time it was publishing The Yellow Book) to the Order of the Golden Dawn (whose occultist members included Algernon Blackwood, William Butler Yeats and Aleister Crowley [1875-1947]), and throughout embodying a conviction that Devolution and racial degeneracy were scientific facts (his Little People are the decayed descendants of a primitive race that once inhabited the whole of Britain), Machen's fiction generally shies clear of sf as practised in the late-Victorian and Edwardian UK; most of his best tales are horror or occult fantasies. They tend to be set in a medievalized England with Welsh tinges, those set in London – like the novella, "A Fragment of Life", in The House of Souls (coll 1906) – being irradiated by deeply romantic visions of alternatives to the industrial world which he saw dominating England, and despised. In both his work and his appearance he resembled a malefic G K Chesterton. "The Great God Pan", the title story of The Great God Pan and The Inmost Light (coll 1894; exp 1926), is typical of Victorian sf/horror at about the time sf was beginning to shed its Gothic elements into a separate Horror/fantasy genre. The tale is complexly framed into a kind of Club Story whose participants can be understood as savagely complicit in the events narrated, a premise which underlies Peter Straub's reworking of some elements of the tale in Ghost Story (1979). At the first there is an sf rationale (brain surgery) for a metamorphosis which remains one of the most dramatically horrible and misogynistic in fiction: the evil female offspring of the operated-on idiot girl grows into a malign being, apparently a woman, but actually a half-human horror (see Devolution) whose father may have been the horned god of the story's title. Though less clearly sustained by sf argument, The Three Impostors; Or, the Transmutations (fixup/coll of linked stories 1895) also complicatedly utilizes the conventions of the Club Story, in this case to present a secular vision of Transcendence as opening the way between the phenomenal world and true reality.

The Angels of Mons, The Bowmen and Other Legends of the War (coll 1915), a collection most famous for "The Bowmen" (29 September 1914 London Evening News), heatedly invokes supernatural aid for the Allies in World War One; this fiction grew into a much-repeated and sometimes angrily defended Urban Legend. The Terror: A Fantasy (1917) is quasi-sf in its story of animals turning against humans, distantly prefiguring The Birds (1963). Through work of this sort, Machen's influence, via H P Lovecraft and others, has been strong on twentieth-century Gothic SF. [JC/PN]

Arthur Machen

born Caerleon, Monmouthshire, Wales: 3 March 1863

died Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire: 15 December 1947

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