Why You Should Read Arthur Machen
Joshua Alan Sturgill
I’ve just finished reading a collection of Machen’s short horror fiction. And for those who would avoid (or maybe be wrongly attentive to) the term “horror,” I offer a few reflections. My intention is to encourage greater readership of his works, because I feel that where he is known, he suffers under the label “genre writer”—a label he does not deserve.
The stories in my collection included: The Great God Pan, The White People, The Inmost Light and The Shining Pyramid. These are easily read in a few hours, though I recommend giving them plenty of time and attention.
I might be throwing out some spoilers here. This is a warning for those whose appreciation of a story is mostly exhausted by its surprise. I find though, that great literature is so much more than its novelty, and that knowing a few themes or details beforehand rarely spoils the impact, but often prepares the reader or viewer for a deeper engagement.
Let me begin by reorienting our thinking on the word horror. With its relatives horrid, horrible and horrifying, the word comes from a Latin root meaning to “shudder” or “tremble deeply.” Machen’s work is meant to cause shuddering at what is always present around us, but rarely seen. His work is suggestive and descriptive, rather than exciting and gory.
Since horror does not mean “causing to scream out loud,” we can immediately distinguish Victorian horror fantasy from modern horror film—which is a kind of entertainment. I don’t think Machen fits the category of entertainment—unless by this we refer to the original idea of “to entertain” (inter/among + tenere/hold)—meaning to “hold in common,” from which we have the idea of hospitality, or “to hold within,” meaning to “consider carefully.”
Of course, as with much current usage, the word has come to mean something almost the opposite of its original denotation. We now have “an entertainment,” which means something not held and not considered. Very far from Machen, and very far from the purpose of most great art.
With this preliminary clarification out of the way, I will dive right into what I think are some of the most important of Machen’s ideas a new reader should know.
First, in Machen, there is no supernatural. This word refers to something removed, usually far removed, from what we call our natural, normal life. Out of sight, out of mind, as we say. But Machen’s stories describe our world as being without a safe separation between the Seen and the Unseen. The “supernatural” is simply the parts of the natural we would rather not think about.
Our decision to not think about the Unseen is what we call, variously, Science, Modernism, Culture. Machen suggests that though the modern and the scientific (they are one thing for him) blind or distract us from the Unseen, they do not release us or inoculate us from their influence. Science may even, in The Great God Pan for instance, unwittingly serve infernal ends. Science opens a back door, so to speak, for the Unseen to invade from an unexpected direction.
Machen shows science furthering the cause of evil beings rather than disproving their existence or rendering them harmless. Evil, then, is conscious and deliberative. In Machen’s fiction, we do not see mere “forces” of evil. Both humans and devils have minds and make choices.
A second observation involves the relationship of good and evil to the landscape. If humans and devils make choices, these choices affect the physical world—objects, locations, words. A place can be hallowed or haunted, sometimes for centuries, as it bears the consequence of use or abuse. Good and evil remain on or in the land until destroyed or transfigured. No thing and no place simply drifts back to “neutral.”
Evil remains with us, often biding its time in inaction, choosing its practitioners and victims precisely in order to keep itself out of view. In this, it mimics the good. But while goodness remains unseen out of its humility and gentleness, evil remains unseen through deceit and malintent.
Because evil and good are tied to the land, we can make a third observation: the consequences of an encounter with evil are irreversible. There is no undoing the spell, no rescue, no “happy ending, lessons learned.” Those who die remain dead… those who are terrorized remain forever in horror of what they have seen… those who let in the evil suffer for doing so.
Perhaps this directly leads to a fourth point: evil is a mystery that can never be solved. The “solutions” found in Machen’s detective-like stories are always solutions of how, never of why. Justice, reason and reversal are not part of the plot. That evil occurs, that it leaves traces and trails, that it operates consciously—these can be known. But why evil exists is beyond our ability to discover.
Finally, as a new reader of Machen, I’m struck by his continual reference to what used to be called “thin places”—objects and locations where the veil is sheer, and the Unseen (whether holy or hellish) breaks through. The Grail narratives and the demoniac narratives both feature this theme. Good passes through wells and churches and peaceful homes. Evil passes through grottoes and dark groves. In other words, dedicated places… and dedicated people, as well. Ultimately, we become the thin place where either evil or good will break through.
Machen’s characters, with their simple views and comfortable lives, are exactly as we are. Yet, he insists a comfortable life is often the privilege of ignorance. Our workaday world is as much an illusion as a safe and distant “supernatural.”