Machen Rarities Rescued from Oblivion
A Review by
Darkly Bright Press just issued Mist and Mystery, a new book of century-old pieces taken from nearly 20 years of T. P.’s Weekly. Most of the items have never been reprinted.
Machen fans will already know “Out of the Earth,” one of his narratives about the malign Little People, but editor Christopher Tompkins reprints here it in its original form, with numbered section divisions and some word differences. There’s also an original illustration. It is more horrible when you look at it closely; at first you just get an impression of some scruffy-looking kids.
Machen himself mined his journalism for several books, such as Dog and Duck and Notes and Queries. Still, Mist and Mystery deserves the attention of Machen admirers. It proved to be more interesting than I had expected. For one thing, it gives clues to Machen’s reading.
It’s many years ago since I had a library copy of Machen’s Selected Letters in hand, and my memory is that that book was disappointing. I would have liked more about Machen’s reading. Happy day – there’s plenty of that here in Mist and Mystery. It’s pleasing to read Machen’s praise for Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi (“one of the most delightful and wonderful of books…most enchanting”). He urges readers to get the book in the Chatto and Windus illustrated edition. Machen praises Blackwood’s “story of the men on the island amongst the whispering mysterious voices of the willow [bushes],” which he would place “in the very first rank of tales of terror.” Who, who has read “The Willows,” would disagree? It’s good to know also that Machen regarded The Turn of the Screw as “one of the very best horror stories ever written.” Henry James was alive when that was written.
Mist and Mystery bears witness to the way Dickens’s novels came so readily to Machen’s mind that he mentions them again and again – and he could trust that his readers knew the significance of an allusion to Gradgrind, for example. Here also is reprinted “Poe the Enchanter: A Study in Aesthetics,” in which Machen praises a study by Arthur Ransome (author of Swallows and Amazons, etc.). Machen particularly likes this sentence of Ransome’s on Poe: “My admiration was always for something round the corner or over the hill.”
Machen often sounds like Chesterton. For example “… though … I do not say that the quality of exciting violent disagreement is the one quality of good criticism, I do say that without this quality no really fine criticism can exist. The critic, if he be more than an entertaining chatterer, goes down to first principles, and first principles, on which so many of us differ, are the only principles which really are worth debate” (p. 72). Just this week I’ve been reading Chesterton’s What’s Wrong with the World and saw GKC making a similar comment – that too much political discussion does not get down to fundamental matters. Here as elsewhere Machen may also recall Coleridge.
Moreover, Machen draws our attention to forgotten books that might be worth looking for. He liked Dr. Laurie Magnus’s English Literature in the Nineteenth Century: “This is a book which students of modern literature should buy and keep on their shelves. …poetry, as Mr. Magnus shows, is a kind of magic, a species of incantation…” How intriguing, to see Machen refer to – what are these? – The Silence of Dean Maitland and Michael and His Lost Angel as “favourites of mine” that he mentions in the same sentence with The Scarlet Letter. (Everyone has at least heard of The Scarlet Letter, but I wonder how many high school students or undergraduates who first encounter it in school would have been more eager to read if they were Machen fans and knew that AM had called it “certainly one of the finest romances the world has produced.”) But who any more has heard of Coventry Patmore – and, if they have heard of him, have heard of him as being the author of “wonderful essays” as well as being the author of The Angel in the House, a long poem about courtship and married love the mere thought of which must offend the typical college-educated reader today? Yet the poem might be helpful to readers of Machen’s “A Fragment of Life” – as well as being worth reading in its own right after all.
He reviews a couple of novels that deal with “occult” subjects. Of R. H. Benson’s “curious and fascinating” The Necromancers, he says “most decidedly a book to be read.” As it happens, I have read it, and was impressed. However, though Evelyn Underhill’s The Column of Dust was (as an editorial footnote remarks) dedicated to Machen and his wife, Machen is fairly critical of it – he admires Underhill’s ambition but doesn’t regard the novel as a success. “I must say, in conclusion, that one of the most beautiful things in the book is the wonderful and convincing episode of the Holy Vessel of the Graal” – that I’d like to look into.
If you’re a Machen fan, you must have known that he loved Dickens’s novels, and you probably wouldn’t be surprised to learn, from Mist and Mystery, that Machen regarded Emily Brontē’s Wuthering Heights as “one of the most notable books in all literature.” But many Machen readers will not have read, perhaps will not have heard of, Mrs. Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Brontë. Here, Machen says he’s just been reading it “for the twentieth time, I suppose.” I’m happy to say that it is indeed an outstanding book, possibly the finest English biography of the 19th century – though I can’t match the number of Machen’s readings of it.
Several articles express Machen’s opposition to spiritualism, Mme Blavatsky, etc. He alludes to Robert Browning’s satire about the medium Mr. Sludge. The Elizabethan occultist Dr. John Dee is liable to be mentioned by modern horror writers intending to impart an antiquarian flavor to their stories. This book contains an interesting piece about Dee and “the arch-impostor Kelley” (p. 87), who, Machen believes, duped Dee.
“How to Enjoy Life” – early in one’s career of reading Machen one wouldn’t expect the author of “The Great God Pan,” “The White People,” “The Inmost Light,” “The Novel of the Black Seal,” “The Novel of the White Powder,” etc. to write a piece with that title – nor, perhaps, would one expect that, if somehow Machen did write it, it would have a theme of being content to be ignored, keeping focused on what matters. Machen’s essay is vulnerable to the criticism that he could be saying merely, “Do as you please and dismiss what anybody else thinks, embrace a life of settled selfishness” – but I don’t actually think that’s quite what he is saying. Incidentally here again Machen thinks of Dickens. Dickens for Machen is a touchstone of enjoyment and sanity.
It’s good to see, in the final piece here, that Machen grouped Sir Walter Scott with Dickens as “supremely great masters.” I don’t know if Scott is read any more. If he is not, that might be due in part to the incomprehension that, if I remember rightly, was shown by editors of a well-known college anthology of British literature, which, to represent Scott, included… the first chapter of one of his novels. Now the thing about Scott is that (from what I have experienced) it is safe as a rule of thumb to skip his introductory material and first chapters and to begin reading at Chapter 2. If you’ve never read Scott, take up Old Mortality or The Heart of Midlothian or The Bride of Lammermoor, I’d say; though Machen praised Ivanhoe in Hieroglyphics. In Far-Off Things, Machen’s first book of autobiography, he mentions a Scott set in the family parlor and reading through them all (again, as I remember without checking). Scott is more important for Machen than a lot of admirers of Machen’s horror stories realize.
Mist and Mystery includes a story, not previously read by me, “Many-Tower’d Camelot.” It seems rushed as the story is coming to a conclusion. It depicts Guinevere as a sorceress who, getting power over Lancelot by satanic magic, makes him her lover against his will, and they conduct their affair hidden under cover of magic. Lancelot sees the Grail, but this experience makes him feel pain. When she undertook black magic, Guinevere had been assisted by a mysterious “lad.” He eventually tells King Arthur what is going on. The king shows mercy, however, at last, and the queen ends her life as a nun (as will be familiar from standard accounts) and Lancelot as a bishop. It seems to me that Machen hadn’t quite worked out his themes, etc. Did he intend to set up a contrast between the theory of love that Lancelot talked about when he innocently accompanied Guinevere before her marriage, and the oppressive compulsion wreaked by black magic?
Mist and Mystery contains also some misprints, perhaps due to transcription from defective digital sources. Nicholson Barker wrote about the occasional loss of legibility – sometimes with horrendous consequences – of microfilms and digitization, in his fascinating and dismaying 2001 book Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper. But while libraries have thrown away their shelves of bound magazines, as I saw at my own university around ten years ago, thank goodness we at least have sources such as microfilms or their digitized versions rather than an utter loss of old files. Mist and Mystery shows that there’s some very good reading still to be brought forth from them.