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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.