Straying in fairyland

© C A Lovegrove

The Hill of Dreams by Arthur Machen.
Foreword by Catherine Fisher,
notes by Tomos Owen.
Library of Wales: Parthian Books, 2010 (1907).

‘There was a glow in the sky as if great furnace doors were opened. But all the afternoon his eyes had looked on glamour; he had strayed in fairyland.’

Half a century ago, when I was busy devouring the weird fiction of H P Lovecraft, my friend Roger advised me to try something by Arthur Machen, an author whom he rated highly. So I borrowed The Hill of Dreams from the library where I worked, the copy of which came in one of Gollancz’s now vintage lurid yellow dust jackets with mauve lettering. And, frankly, it wasn’t my thing: though I recognised its mystical and visionary qualities I preferred Lovecraft’s suspenseful eldritch writing.

Fast forward several decades; in the interim I’d tried some of Machen’s short stories – ‘The Great Return’ and ‘The Bowmen’ for example – and found them more attractive; then I decided to try his more extended writing again. The horror in The Great God Pan was, I judged, tame by modern standards but I must’ve noted a quality in the writing that I hadn’t appreciated before because here I am, giving Machen another chance.

And it’s with the novel where I first encountered his fiction in 1971, curious to see if the intervening years have either mellowed or sharpened my former opinions.

Horse-drawn cabs in London smog

Lucian Taylor is the son of a 19th-century Anglican clergyman based in a small village a handful of miles from Caermaen in southeast Wales. After his mother dies the lad is brought up by a moralistic elderly cousin, is looked down on by the local gentry and bullied by his contemporaries at school. But he is able to escape in two ways – through books in his father’s library and by long solitary walks in the countryside through the rural parish and beyond.

One of the walks takes him to the “hill of dreams” – the Roman fort at Caermaen – where he is first visited by the ecstatic vision of a flaming January sunset “as if great furnace doors were opened.” That experience and the symbolism it gains for him is replicated throughout the novel in naphtha lights, street lamps, candles in windows, the blush on a cheek, a red dress, blood raining down, and especially in the concept alchemist’s oven wherein the Great Work is achieved – as much in Lucian’s psyche as in the notional transmutation of base elements.

In seven chapters we view the seven ages of Lucian, starting with his youthful vision. There is then his first disappointment when his novel is rejected, followed by his first taste of infatuation when, utterly lost on an unfamiliar path, the older Annie Morgan appears, at first as something pale that “seemed to swim and float down the air … with a gliding motion” in the moonlight, before setting him on his way home.

There are touches of savage humour in Machen’s descriptions of local worthies with “their little hypocrisies and malignancies,” but the heart of the novel rests in Lucian’s living in an alternate reality of his own making: strolling around the town of Caermaen and its fort he imagines himself instead in the court and garden of Avallaunius, his vision of an idealised Roman city. Here he describes how, as “lord of his own sensations,” he discovers “the true meaning of alchemy” in his heightened perceptions, which resemble a glorious kind of synesthesia.

With the fifth chapter there is an abrupt change of venue. Lucian is now a young man ensconced in a bedsit in 1890s London, which to him at first seems a city of the High Middle Ages as Caermaen was of Rome. He has received a substantial bequest which has allowed him to escape to the capital to pursue the life of a writer, from where he can ignore the epistolary admonitions of his cousin by solemnly pigeonholing them “in the receptacle lettered ‘Barbarians’.” He gives himself up to composing his magnum opus, interspersed with his habitual rambles, though now they take place in noisy grey streets instead of leafy Welsh lanes. But all is not well: when winter comes first frost, then smog, plus his pipe-smoking and poor diet start to affect his mental balance, and this flâneur in the labyrinthine thoroughfares becomes a misanthrope, wondering “whether there were some drop of the fairy blood in his body that made him foreign and a stranger in the world.” One day he returns to his bedsit and

… there was a strange thing. There was a little bottle on the mantelpiece, a bottle of dark blue glass, and he trembled and shuddered before it, as if it were a fetish.

Chapter VI

We have a fair idea what’s in this bottle.

Arthur Machen 1863–1947

The Hill of Dreams is undoubtedly semi-autobiographical: born in Caerleon the son of a clergyman, young Arthur was unable to pursue a university education for financial reasons so like Lucian he upped sticks to London where – unlike Lucian – he found intermittent success as a translator and then as an author of short stories and novels. This 1907 novel, begun in 1895 when he was in his early thirties, expresses Lucian’s feelings and thoughts in a welter of diverse and confusing incidents, impressions and visions which we can presume owe much to Machen’s own sense of his place in an uncertain world.

And so to my present response. Along with sharp satire on provincial notions of respectability, there was a greater cohesion with regard to themes than I remembered, though Lucian’s descent into nightmare was as kaleidoscopic as before. As Lucian muses early on in these pages, “farce, after all, was but an ill-played tragedy,” and the novel veers dramatically from tragedy to farce and back again. This is a fiction rich in literary allusions as well as full of striking images, though the latter tend to overwhelm a lot of the time.

There is, however, no denying Machen’s ability to evoke atmosphere, with Caermaen enveloped in a misty, mystical penumbra and the London of Conrad’s secret agents and Conan Doyle’s sleuth transformed into pagan temples and druidical sites. But it’s as a portrait of a sensitive young artist with lacking sympathetic friends or any understanding from a fellow human that I shall principally regard The Hill of Dreams.

Author Catherine Fisher has written an excellent foreword to this edition, to which are added helpful end notes by Tomos Owen, especially those giving details of some of Machen’s literary allusions

#ReadIndies via Karen and Lizzy

Parthian Books are independent publishers based in Cardigan – Aberteifi in Ceredigion, Wales – and The Library of Wales is one of their principal series. I read this for #ReadIndies in February and also in anticipation of Paula’s month-long #Dewithon, Reading Wales 2023, which begins today, 1st March, St David’s Day: Dydd Gŵyl Dewi Hapus!

9 thoughts on “Straying in fairyland

  1. Pingback: Reading Wales 2023 – Book Jotter

    1. I’d always thought of the phrase as a metaphor for pulling up the posts of a temporary home (like a tent?) in preparation for moving to a different site but a little investigation suggests I may be mistaken. Apparently it’s naval slang from the time of sailing ships when “sticks” referred to masts and their placing in position in readiness for hoisting the sails and relocating! Hmm, I will still think of tent posts… 😁 But thanks, Jeanne, this is one weird novel but I’m glad to have revisited it!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. So interesting Chris – I’m quite sure that our response to books can change over the years as we change as people, and I’m glad you got something out of this novel on your revisit. I know of Machen but have never read him – though having enjoyed my one foray into Lovecraft’s work, I may have to give Machen a try!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I like (and at the moment prefer) the short stories of his I’ve read so far, Karen, though I admired this more than I expected. You could try the stories first (there’s a recent-ish Penguin collection) to get a flavour.

      It’s interesting to read his barely disguised view of Caerleon and environs – his father had a parish church about five miles to the northeast, now converted into a house – and having visited the town a few times over the years some aspects will barely have changed in the century and a half since his adolescence there. I’ve got his last novel from the library to try soon, though that’s not so highly rated as this Gothick tale.

      Liked by 1 person

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