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Thursday, 26 May 2011

Arthur Machen joins the Big Leagues in Penguin Classics

Once disreputable, then neglected, Arthur Machen is now set to join the hallowed ranks of writers included in the Penguin Classics series. A selection of Machen's stories will come out in Penguin in December 2011. Machen lived into the late 1940s, but the work of his still read today was written almost exclusively in the 1890s, though some of it took years before being published.

For those not in the know, Machen was a horror writer, his work being a prototype of cosmic horror. He was a big influence on H.P. Lovecraft, probably the big influence. He wrote some pretty far-out stuff, and had the distinction of being widely denounced for his early tale "The Great God Pan" (1894), called "the most acutely and intentionally disagreeable book yet seen in English" and "an incoherent nightmare of sex". It was predicted that "the majority of readers will turn from it in utter disgust". And maybe they did - it certainly didn't sell that well, but it went on to be massively influential in the horror genre.

In case you're wondering what was so disagreeable about "Pan", the story is set in motion by some guy identified as Dr. Raymond - though I have my doubts as to his accreditation with the medical council- who wants to access hidden realms of sensation and discovers a form of brain surgery which allows him to do so. Having a compliant young lady at hand, he performs on her this unspecified operation, thus lifting the veil from her perception, as it were, and bringing her face to face with a primal life-force beyond what civilized man can experience. "The ancients called it seeing the god Pan", according to Dr. Raymond. Anyway, the young lady, Mary, ends up after the op a gibbering idiot, but nine months later she gives birth. That is, she hasn't just seen the Great God Pan, she's gotten a lot closer than that, and it's destroyed her mind.

Disgusted yet? That's just the first chapter, about 8 pages: as for the rest of it, suffice to say that fearful powers have been let loose, powers that wish to drag mankind down to the level of beast. The ideas underlying the story revolve around mankind being divorced from the true nature of life, and that if he came face to face with this, personified by Pan, his mind would be shattered and he couldn't live. At the bottom of existence is a well of ultimate horror, which we have covered up with our veneer of civilization, and woe betide the man who scratches that veneer.

Machen was apparently a life-long devoted member of the Anglican church, despite the blasphemous overtones of "The Great God Pan". Ultimately, the story is founded on a sense of repulsion toward the unregulated self, and a belief in the civilizing process as an unqualified good, and very necessary. On the other hand, there's an obvious fascination with the more animalistic side of human nature, a deep morbidity that permeates much of Machen's work.

As it happens, "The Great God Pan" doesn't appear to be included in Penguin's collection, which is odd as it's probably his most influential work. Recently, Stephen King called it "one of the best horror stories ever written". Lovecraft said of the story "no one could begin to describe the cumulative suspense and ultimate horror with which every paragraph abounds".

The foreward for the Penguin collection is to be written by no less a personage than Guillermo del Toro, long-time Machen fan and director of Pan's Labyrinth, Hellboy, The Devil's Backbone, etc. Editor of the collection Sam Joshi admitted in his blog that it was del Toro's involvement that swayed Penguin towards green-lighting the Machen project.

The collection is to be called The White People and Other Stories and will include "The Inmost Light," "Novel of the Black Seal," "Novel of the White Powder," "The Red Hand," "The White People," "A Fragment of Life," "The Rose Garden," "Witchcraft," "The Bowmen," "The Soldiers' Rest," "The Great Return," "Out of the Earth," and "The Terror".

Slightly more of a leaning towards Machen's less highly-regarded later work here than in other collections, the last 5 stories being from the 1910s and 20s. "The Great God Pan" is the most notable absentee.

"The White People" is given the honour of titling the collection. This story concerns a young girl who communes with unearthly spirits in a Welsh woodland, on the site of an old shrine dating back to the Roman occupation, which still apparently retains traces of a supernatural power. The story is narrated by the young girl herself, so happenings are presented in a manner not entirely clear, however Machen seems to be once again implying some sort of sexual union between girl and... something unnameable. Yeah, he was really into that. This story was written in 1897, but not published until 1904, when it failed to garner much interest, not even replicating Pan's dubious achievement of being widely denounced. Lovecraft, though, gave this story pride of place among Machen's works, higher even than Pan (see Lovecraft's long essay "Supernatural Horror in Literature").

None of these stories of Machen's have ever been filmed. The only full-length film of a Machen story is from Mexico, El Esqueleto de la Senora Morales, from a little-known 1927 story, "The Islington Mystery". Then, there was a British TV version of 1895 story "The Shining Pyramid". "The Shining Pyramid" is another slightly surprising omission from Penguin's collection. It posits a group of sub-human "little people" living under the ground in rural Wales (Machen was Welsh, hence its frequent use as setting for his tales of the weird) who are rarely seen by humans, and if you do see them, that's bad, as it probably means they're planning to use you in one of their horrible rituals, as memorably described here. It's a quintessential Machen tale.

Machen is a cult figure, and will probably remain so, but his influence on people like King, del Toro and Lovecraft indicate his importance. He was also a favourite author of Mick Jagger in the 1960s, apparently. If you liked The Wicker Man, the classic 1973 British chiller (NOT the 2006 remake), then Machen is a guy you should look at. Read him, if you dare lift the veil and confront the horror that lies at the core of life, the hideous bestiality that is the life force, seething beneath your civilized exterior. After reading, you should of course replace the veil immediately, lest you be visited by some lustful embodiment of the world of nature, a world we have forgotten but not quite left behind. Because you don't want such a visitation - that wouldn't be pleasant at all.

The Penguin collection isn't out yet, but plenty of good alternatives exist, like the volumes from Chaosium Press, also edited by Sam Joshi:

"When the house of life is thrown open, there may enter in that for which we have no name, and human flesh may become the veil of a horror one dare not express." - Arthur Machen.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Arctic Monkeys - Contemporary Purveyors of the Quality B-Side.

Certain bands were masters of the art of the b-side: The Beatles, for example, and later The Jam or The Smiths. Most bands, though, just chuck any old crap on there, some live cover, maybe, or, gravest sin of all, an album track. God forbid a half-decent song should be wasted on a b-side – it’s about as likely as a band donating a good song to a charity album. Yet still flying the flag for the b-side as actually decent song is one band, Arctic Monkeys. In their six year recording career they’ve hardly released a bad b-side. Maybe in a few years they’ll release a compilation of them and sell millions, but at the moment these b-sides are a secret code, known only to the initiatived, to those who really get it, but not to the great unwashed of the music-listening world. But perhaps it’s time that all the world should know it.

It was there from the beginning: the b-side of the Monkeys’ breakthrough debut single “I Bet you Look Good on the Dancefloor” was a little ditty called “Bigger Boys and Stolen Sweethearts”, which sees a doleful Alex Turner lament that “There’s always somebody taller with more of a wit, And he’ll be quick to enthrall her and her friends think he’s fit.” It’s about the type of guy who’d “pinch your bird and probably kick your head in.” You know the type. It’s a beautifully-observed slice of teenage life, sensitive and funny. An auspicous start.

Follow up “When the Sun Goes Down” had “7”, which wasn’t half bad, either. Another of those early Monkeys songs about meeting girls in night clubs, or not meeting them in this case, because by the time our narrator gets the courage to speak, she’s gone.

Another high point was “Temptation Greets You Like a Naughty Friend”, b-side of “Brianstorm”, the first single from the band’s second album. This showed the Monkeys’ new tougher sound, and Turner’s lyrical approach, or at least the persona he adopted in his lyrics, had also changed a lot. Now he’s not worried about his bird getting pinched; he is a famous rock star, after all. Instead, it’s “I don’t ever want to hate you, So don’t show me your bed.” Dizzie Rascal also shows up mid-song for a rap. This is probably the Monkeys’ best known b-side; at least, a quick search on YouTube seemed to indicate this had more views than any other of their b-sides.

Second Favourite Worst Nightmare single "Flourescent Adolescent" was backed with “Bakery”, “Plastic Tramp”, and “Too Much to Ask”, and third single “Teddy Picker” with “Bad Woman”, “Death Ramps”, and “Nettles”. All fine tunes.

Then 2009’s Humbug, the album that somewhat put the brakes on Arctic Monkeys’ meteoric commercial rise. First single “Crying Lightning” immediately showed this was a different Arctic Monkeys. Weird, spidery riff, lyrics that didn’t make a whole lot of sense. Some sweet metaphor: “My thoughts got rude as you talked and chewed on the last of your pick and mix.” Mmm-hmmm, okayy... B-side was a cover of a 1994 Nick Cave song, “Red Right Hand”, with a lyric about some sort of demonic figure with a right hand of the colour mentioned. The single also included “I haven’t got my Strange”, only 1 minute 30 seconds long. Like a lot of Monkeys’ songs from the period, it has a slightly twisted vibe and, again, lyrics that are hard to fathom.

Second single “Cornerstone” had an excellent b-side in “Catapult”. The character described in “Catapult” recalled the Brian of “Brianstorm” or the bigger boy of “Bigger Boys and Stolen Sweethearts”, maybe even the diabolic figure in “Red Right Hand”. He’s an irresistibly charming user, whose effect on the opposite sex is extraordinary: “They queue up to listen to him pissing/ And hang around to watch some poor girl blub/ And then they chase him down the avenue/ Incessantly pestering him to let them join the club.” The single also contained 2 extra tracks, no less: “Fright Lined Dining Room” and “Sketchead”, the latter lyrically close to “Catapult”, yet another portrait of a predatory male who always gets his way: “There’s poison in his spit, he’ll compliment your tits and leave you to your wits – Sketchead/ Convincingly insisting the tyres were bald when you gave him the car.” Another good song, though; you definitely got your money’s worth with this single. The final single from Humbug, “My Propellor”, was backed with “Joining the Dots”.

Arctic Monkeys have an excellent track record with b-sides, and if they ever release a compilation, which I’m sure they will, I’ll be right down to the record store with a 10-bob note in my grubby fist – till then I’ll just listen to them on YouTube. But now, with new album Suck it and See due out in a couple of weeks, is a time to look back on their catalogue and see there’s a lot of good stuff there, hidden away in dusty corners. Hopefully, the new b-sides hold up the proud tradition, and continue putting all those lazy bums with their live versions or already released b-sides to shame. Shine on, you crazy monkeys!

Full Arctic Monkeys Discography