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Machen, Arthur

Entry updated 4 March 2024. Tagged: Author.

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(1863-1947) Welsh translator, actor and author, born Arthur Llewellyn Jones, his parents adding Machen apparently in an attempt to please a rich relative. The Welsh landscape of his childhood visually dominated his writings all his life, serving as a body English of the ecstasy of reality or realities only "visible" through words that meant more than they could literally say. 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 work; almost all his best work was written between 1889 and 1899 (though much of it reached print only later). His first book of fiction, The Chronicle of Clemendy [see Checklist for subtitle] (coll 1888) comprises exuberant pastiche tales in medieval mode, some fantastic, all visibly influenced by Chaucer and Rabelais but set in a version of Machen's home county Monmouthshire or Gwent. Soon after 1900 he was once again poverty-stricken, and went on the stage for much of the following decade with Frank Benson's Repertory Company; from the early 1900s until he became financially secure after about 1931, when he was granted a Civil List pension, he did a great deal of hackwork, much of this not yet itemized or collected, some of it possibly containing supernatural elements. Some attention has been paid to some of his late fiction.

With influences ranging from William Morris to Robert Louis Stevenson (in particular) and associations from John Lane's Bodley Head (in the 1890s when 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 [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]), 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 the Scientific Romance as practised in 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, with those located in London – like the novella, "A Fragment of Life" (February 1904 Horlick's Magazine) – being irradiated by deeply romantic visions of alternatives to the industrialization he saw infecting England, and despised. In both his work and his appearance he resembled a malefic G K Chesterton.

"The Great God Pan" (13 December 1890 The Whirlwind; much rev for 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; though he was clearly conversant with the idioms of the Imperial Gothic, the ultimate threats to lives led in the present world well up from ancient breeds and rituals; his influence on H P Lovecraft was manifest and acknowledged. "The Great God Pan" is told through a complicated Club Story frame by narrators complicit in the savage events they narrated. There is some sf-like 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. It is a premise which underlies Peter Straub's reworking of some elements of the tale in Ghost Story (1979).

The Three Impostors; Or, the Transmutations (fixup/coll of linked stories 1895), though sometimes deprecated as a disjointedly episodic attempt to channel Stevenson's New Arabian Nights (coll 1882 2vols), does in fact utilize that acknowledged model to problematize any easy linkage between stories and the reality they might purport to reflect.The book is something of an avant courier of Modernism: its disintegrative course prefigures a long century of doubt about the describability of the truthful. Machen's proleptic incertitude in The Three Impostors did not extend to any of his later work, with the exception of "The White People" (January 1904 Horlick's Magazine), whose intimate, grammatically innovative, almost stream-of-consciousness depiction of the sexual awakening of a sixteen-year-old young woman may have flummoxed some of its male critics, and which also embeds in the boobytrapped coils of the narrative itself a problematic about the possibility of telling. In both tales, the Transcendental – which may include the future Machen so clearly found inimical – is exceedingly dangerous to try to describe. The total lack of impact of the reductio ad absurdum challenge mounted by The Three Impostors against the commanding self-assurance of Western literature before 1914 has been harmful to the enterprises of Fantastika over the long century since its publication.

Story, in any normal sense, there is none. The impostors have been assigned by a Secret Master to ascertain the whereabouts of an aleph-like coin (see Icon) which they believe to be in the hands of a "man with spectacles" who has some arcane access to the Little People (or not) (see Wainscot Societies). This task is to be accomplished through their recounting a variety of tales to two gentlemen whose connection to the sought man (if any exists) is "absurdly" never tested. The stories themselves, which make up the bulk of the book, are of various types (including one Parody-with-love of a Bret Harte Western), and some as singletons have successfully entered the rough canon of classics of the supernatural; but none in any plausible sense could have anything like the wanted effect on the gentlemen – idle delectators of a Babylonic London – to whom they are told. These gentlemen have been introduced in the frame story, where they are seen approaching a strange suburban house; inside this house the man in spectacles, having been severely tortured, is dying or already dead. We soon discover that they – without knowing its possible significance, or any link to the impostors – have found the coin, which means nothing to them(it remains unrecognized in the pocket of one of these pestered flâneurs), but continue to be hounded by the three garrulous strangers in implausible disguises, whose narratives lead nowhere. We learn en passant that the man with spectacles, now dead, had no proper knowledge of the Little People. The aleph whose incineration might light the way to Transcendence remains undiscovered.

The image of London as an almost oriental playground for flâneurs to immerse themselves in, a Babylon-on-Thames at the end of time (or at least the nineteenth century), had been more or less created by Robert Louis Stevenson (see above), and elaborated by authors like Hilaire Belloc and G K Chesterton. The Three Impostors, and the course of history, seem to have dealt the mode a death blow, though Steampunkimagery clearly derives from this fantastication (The Three Impostors contains multiple premonitions of a shaken Steampunk). Recent returns to the model may include Richard Calder's Babylon (2006) and Christopher Fowler's Bryant and May sequence, where London also serves as a fantasticated storyboard (see City).

Machen's next novel, The Hill of Dreams (1907), more conventionally told but powerfully felt, is not sf. 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 (October 1916 Evening News; 1917) is quasi-sf in its story of animals such as sheep turning en masse against humans, distantly prefiguring The Birds (1963) directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Through work of this sort, Machen's influence, and others, has been strong on twentieth-century Gothic SF.

The Collected Fiction (coll 2019 3vols) edited by S T Joshi reprints the entirety of Machen's identifiable fiction, though some of his many belletristic pieces, here uncollected, may contain fictional elements; the edition is corrected as fully as possible, though Joshi lacked access to the manuscript collection described by Henry Wessells in Arthur Machen: The Norman Hickman Collection (coll 2024 chap): [JC/PN/DRL]

see also: Grey Goo.

Arthur Machen

born Caerleon, Monmouthshire, Wales: 3 March 1863

died Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire: 15 December 1947

works (selected)


Collected Fiction

individual titles

collections and stories

posthumous collections (selected)


about the author


previous versions of this entry

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