Recently, during an all too-infrequent pilgrimage to Eighth Day Books (and those who have been there know I do not exaggerate), I beheld a wondrous sight. I had heard rumor of it, but now I came face to face with the reality. Truly, it pleased while it simultaneously perplexed me.
I’ll digress for the uninitiated.
Imagine that you walk through a blue door into what appears to be a quaint home of dignified years, but instead of finding a family residence, you’ve entered through a portal into fairyland. True, you find real objects from everyday life: shelves containing books, places to sit and daydream, a set of stairs leading up to the heights and second set leading below. There are human faces and mortal drink. Yet all the same, it is also fairyland.
(“But in a place like Kansas?” a skeptic may ask with raised brows. Well, if you’re not prepared to meet fairyland in a plains town as seemingly common as Wichita, then I’m afraid you’ll won’t be able to find it anywhere else.)
Amidst a section on poetry, a wall of religious classics and shelves of Orthodox icons, there is a particular two-sided bookcase which draws many of the bookstore’s visitants with a force not unlike a magnet. This quiet monolith is adorned by a blue plaque with white script: C. S. Lewis and Friends.
On its shelves, you’ll find scholarly tomes on the great writer and Christian apologist, studies on the languages of Middle-earth, philosophical treatises by the confounding Owen Barfield, and a row of thrillers both sacred and profane in the manner only accomplished by Charles Williams.
But the club is less exclusive than the names of these four historical Inkings may suggest. The space is well stocked with the radio plays of Dorothy L. Sayers, the fairytales of George MacDonald and the blustering genius of G. K. Chesterton. Because of their natural affinity, these authors have been posthumously grouped by academics and casual readers as the Seven.
But, what is this eighth I see?
An interloper, it appears, has inserted himself like a thief snugly between The Literary Lives of the Inklings and The Golden Key. He hasn’t appropriated much of the landscape, only a Penguin edition and a few rarer volumes from a less-reputable publisher. And below, I read in black type: Arthur Machen.
I must admit, this singular sight made me smile. Arthur Machen… a friend of C. S. Lewis? “But is this this true?” I doubted. From a strictly literal or historical perspective, I must confess no. Yet, as the work of both men would tell us, we oughtn’t be concerned solely with the surface of things.
Like MacDonald and Chesterton, Arthur Machen belonged to an earlier generation. Indeed, the Welshman turned 74 the same year that both his final piece of fiction, a short story entitled The Ritual, and The Hobbit found publication. Ten years later, Machen passed into the glassy floods of Avalon before Lewis’s children first stepped through the Wardrobe.
Unlike MacDonald and Chesterton, Arthur Machen did not experience renown despite six decades of literary endeavor. His obscurity has often been proclaimed unjust by the occasional author or critic, but it has remained in such a condition to both the general reading public and to academia. Some would even question the notion that as a literary figure he has survived as anything more than an odd footnote to the more specialized reader.
And true, Machen, unlike fellow outsider and fantasist E. R. Eddison, was never invited to a meeting of the Inklings. In any case, he contrarily preferred the company of stage actors to literary men. In the end, Machen led a life far from the scholastic atmosphere of Oxford, of Lewis and Tolkien, or the fast-set of London’s bright literati of his generation.
Yet… to cast doubt upon doubt, I wonder. Could there be something to this after all?
Commenting on the Angel of Mons controversy, Chesterton called Machen a “prose-poet.” In terms of theology, they held common ground as defenders of Anglo-Catholicism in the years before Chesterton’s submission to Rome. For that cause, each wrote brilliant essays in journals and newspapers. Furthermore, both men were acquaintances, though Machen knew G. K.’s brother Cecil more intimately.
Grevel Lindop discovered Machen’s The Great God Pan referenced in the margins of an early notebook belonging to Charles Williams’. Later, Machen would add assistance to the Latin and Hebrew phrases which pepper Williams first novel, The War in Heaven. This occurred through correspondence with the publisher, but the unpublished letters show messages were passed between the two writers through the middle man. Furthermore, Glen Cavaliero is quite clear about Machen’s influence upon the burgeoning novelist.
As a compiler and editor, Sayers thought enough of Machen and his work to write for permission to reprint one or two stories for the second volume of the Great Short Stories of Detection, Mystery and Horror series. Again, in unpublished letters, one may read of his encouragement to Sayers to include The Great Return, a suggestion she accepted.
It is reported that at the time of his death, the library of Lewis yielded a copy of one of Machen’s most inebriated and intoxicating creations, The Secret Glory.
And more recently, Douglas A. Anderson felt Machen’s position in Christian fantasy to be strong enough that he included an abridged version of The Terror in his anthology, Tales Before Tolkien.
All the writers thus mentioned, belong to a river of tradition that remains vitally critical to the intellectual and spiritual nourishment of those of us who cling to tradition and culture in this mad age of unreason.
Whether through his dark fairy tales, or through the exquisite awe of saintly visions of the Holy Grail, Machen is speaking to us of a needful thing through mythopoeic language. This needful thing is found time and time again as fractals throughout his fiction and essays. There is a greater reality to the one that we see and feel: wild, dangerous and sanctifying. I, for one, have benefited greatly from such ministrations. Truly, Machen, despite his obscurity and the inaccurate assertion that he is simply a horror writer, belongs to this great river of tradition as a curious current to be discovered and cherished.
He once wrote, “I chose the mysteries first and I chose the mysteries last.”
A Prose-poet & Mytho-poet—
Arthur Machen belongs on the shelf.
All the above clumsily serves as a rambling preamble…
This coming October, I look forward to further exploring the topic of Arthur Machen’s position in Christian fantasy at the 7th annual Inklings Festival held by the Eighth Day Institute. Quite beyond my expectations, I’ve been invited to be a keynote lecturer for this wonderful event. It is my sincere hope that my upcoming presentation, Dreamt in Fire: The Dreadful Ecstasy of Arthur Machen, will encourage further reading and scholarship of the Apostle of Wonder.