Arthur Machen The Great God Pan Parthian Books 2010
Tame by modern tastes:
When I was young I swore by H P Lovecraft while my friend Roger championed Machen. At the time I thought The Hill of Dreams pretty insipid compared to anything with Cthulhu in it. Several decades on I felt that I have to give Machen another chance, as it were, and this edition of The Great God Pan (and the two companion pieces in this volume, The White Pyramid and The Shining People) provided the opportunity.
I still now find Machen fin-de-siècle novels a taste I have yet to acquire. By today’s standards the horror (and Machen tends to get his characters to refer to ‘horror’ in case we can’t put a word to their feelings) is pretty tame, more alluded to than described. The title story is about the degradations that are begat on a particular individual and visited on those that come into intimate contact with her in London. The answers to the mysteries — unspoken animal lusts clearly connected to the deity of the title — are obvious to the reader, but the narrators and protagonists, not to mention the dilettantes and flaneurs of Late Victorian Britain, seem blind to the implications of what they are investigating and the tale seems rather overlong as a consequence. (Though Machen only died in 1947, the year before I was born, his style of writing is very much of a different age, and untouched by any sense of urgency; it’s hard to believe his life and mine were so close to overlapping.)
The other two slighter tales are, strangely, more convincing. The White People suffers from a clumsy framing device, but the ever-flowing and scattergun chattiness of the child narrator in the central portion strike me as typical of children’s descriptions generally, in the way that the dialogue in the opening section (on the nature of evil) is rather artificial and less true to life. The Shining Pyramid has been described as almost an occult Sherlock Holmes story, but I find the detective figure’s deductions, for all their apparent logic, come over as pure leaps in the dark as far as realism is concerned, and the climax oddly anti-climactic.
Machen’s strengths are in creating atmosphere, whether in gloomy London or the eerie depths of the countryside. Claustrophobia is induced by descriptions of dark streets or fog-bound moors and woods, intensified by a general geographical vagueness. Characterisation is less successful; in all three stories I had little sense of individuality, for the men in particular, and had to keep looking back in the text to see who was who in any given passage. While I was unmoved by these tales, I would still like to revisit some of his other stories like The Great Return to see if time has played more fairly with them in my memory. But I’m almost certain my youthful obsession with Lovecraft is a thing of the past, so I shan’t waste time on him.
A brief word of praise here for this edition’s cover artist Chris Iliff, due to his capturing precisely the look I imagined Machen ascribing to the title story’s femme fatale. No wonder men went mad staring into those eyes! The Foreword by Ramsey Campbell is, like Machen’s prose, strong on atmosphere but comes over chiefly as eulogising, while Tomos Owen’s notes (which add in some of the historical, cultural and literary contexts) are workmanlike if not very inspired.
* Repost of review first published in July 2012