Writers, even the most original talents, do not create in a vacuum. Each one is a product of their time and place as well as life experience—their joys and disappointment—which may form a bond of empathy and understanding between author and reader. Equally critical to the formation of a writer are the books they’ve read. This last point is most obvious when tracing the influence of one fiction author upon another by finding commonality in theme and technique. More obscure, but as crucial, are the types of nonfiction books one ingests, especially during formative years. Wide and disparate areas of knowledge often coalesce in the creative mind to produce intriguing fiction.
In 1887, Arthur Machen was appointed editorial duties for a now-forgotten magazine, Walford’s Antiquarian and Bibliographical Review, in which he provided book reviews and filler articles, mostly unsigned. The position provided the twenty-four year old aspiring author with his first stable salary in the field, and though neither glamorous nor auspicious, these dusty fragments allow the Machen student with an opportunity to study the young writer at a critical juncture. It is a transition period between Machen as the quiet translator and cataloguer of the 1880s to Machen, the shockingly daring short story writer and novelist of the 90s.
Unfortunately, this material has been uncollected and unavailable since its original publication in the pages of the magazine. For the first time, Darkly Bright Press will publish Machen’s reviews and essays for Walford’s Antiquarian as A READER OF CURIOUS BOOKS in December 2020. The volume paints an intellectual portrait of Machen as a young man. All of the writer’s future themes and favorite subjects can be found in its pages: Christian history and liturgy, folklore, early man, the history of world literature, psychic phenomenon, orthodoxy versus heresy—to name only a few. From the material reviewed, one may find topics for future narratives, incidents for novels and even a phrase which will become the title for a short story.
Interestingly, Machen, clearly well-read, is not merely reading and writing on these subjects, but he can be seen holding his own with the material. Though he may have felt somewhat out of depth in certain areas, such as the Bank of England, he is most often articulate and knowledgeable, and there is a sense that he adds to the conversation.
Taken together, these odd, forgotten dispatches speak to a lost bookshelf which is filled with curious and interesting relics. Below, we offer an excerpt from the upcoming book with some comments on its significance.
With the early Turanian family of man—and particularly with that branch of it called Kheta or Hittites—Captain Conder begins his “Syrian Stone-Lore.” Of this people our knowledge till recent times was slight, but the researches of scholars and explorers have done a good deal to remove the archæology of the Hittites from the dim and debatable land of conjecture. Thus we know that they lived in a country full of towns, that they had horses and chariots like the Amaur (probably the Amorites), that their complexion was lighter than that of the Semitic tribes, that they wore pigtails of a Chinese appearance, and boots. They were, in fact, a tribe of Tatars, worshipping (as Captain Conder’s latest discoveries prove) the sun, the moon, the wind, rain, and the like powers of nature. But from an early date these Turanian Hittites seemed to have shared the land with Semitic peoples; mostly, indeed, the Hittites were the overlords and the superiors in civilisation of the Perizzites, Hivites, Jebusites, &c., all of whom came of the Semitic stock. The Phœnicians were from the first the traders of Palestine. Their religious ideas were, to a large extent, phallic, and one of their talismans was the Red Hand, to this day a charm in Syria under the name of Kef Miriam, the “Virgin Mary’s Hand.” It may be noted that Captain Conder considers the Egyptian Ankh, or emblem of life, to be a representation of the “holy and shining tree of Asshur,” and not a phallic emblem. It is curious that the legend of Melusina may be traced, we dare not say to its source, in Phœnician Mythology, in which the husband of the Serpent Princess is the Phœnician Hercules. To this day many Phœnician customs are preserved by the Neapolitans, who sometimes leap through a fire shouting, “Bel, Bel!” and, like the Phœnicians, are accustomed to paint eyes on the prows of their boats. Passing to the Hebrews, we note that all Captain Conder’s research goes to prove the substantial accuracy of the Old Testament history. For instance: “The names, Moses, Putiel, Gersom, and Phinehas appear to be Egyptian, as is possibly also that of Aaron, a strong argument in favour of their historic reality.” It is satisfactory also to have Captain Conder’s declaration that “the theories which recognise the ‘lost tribes’ in Afghans or American Indians (we might add, or in Englishmen) are not founded on any real scientific, ethnological, or antiquarian information.” But such theories have proved to be wonderfully attractive to the weaker brethren. Thus, from age to age, and from race to race, the author gives the history of Syria, as he has read it on stone, on coin, and tile tablet. We have not so much as indicated a tithe of the field covered by Captain Conder. The Byzantine period is, perhaps of all, the most interesting, being in comparative darkness, and, as it were, out of the highways of history. And it is in the byways that the antiquarian is most fain to walk. By the kindness of Messrs. Bentley & Son we are able to give our readers a specimen of the many illustrations which increase the interest of Captain Conder’s work. Very few of these dolmens remain in the country to westward of the Jordan, the explanation of this fact being that the Jewish kings Hezekiah and Josiah destroyed, as far as they were able, all the religious emblems of the Canaanites. But such structures, where they exist, are held in awe and honour by the modern Bedawîn, who style them “Ghouls’ Houses.”
In this review of an obscure tome on Middle Eastern archaeology, we find thematic material for later works by Machen. From an anthropological perspective, Turanian has been used in reference to peoples of Central Asia. However, Machen would later appropriate the term as a description for the Little People. From this standpoint, aspects of fairy-lore represented an inherited memory for an ancient race who inhabited Britain before the arrival of the Celts. This theory of hidden history and wonder would be employed by Machen as backdrop for many of his short stories which deal with fairies, such as The Shining Pyramid (1895) and others.
Furthermore, Machen would continue to write about a lost race of primitives and its correlation with folkloric tropes for decades to come in the form of essays and news articles on fairy raths and other signs of their possible existence. This review for Walford’s likely predates this thread of Machen’s work.
Also, it is interesting to suppose that this forgotten book provided imagery to one of Machen’s most effective horror stories. Published in 1895, The Red Hand dealt with punishment administered by Machen’s Turanian-inspired Little People to trespassing humans with the namesake symbol being left prominently at the scene of the crime. This story, as well as Machen’s approach to fairy-lore, will be explored in more depth in 2021.
One thought on “From a Lost Bookshelf”
Looking forward to this!