Sunday, January 3, 2010

Arthur Machen’s Horror of Unemployment

In many ways, horror novelists are best understood by close-readings of their biographies, especially since their most frequently revisited “horrors” often have a corollary in their life stories. For example, it is no coincidence that Edgar Allen Poe’s most famous works concern the ghosts of beautiful young women forever haunting their bereaved lovers, since the author was traumatized in real life by the premature deaths of both his mother and his wife. In a similar fashion, Victorian, Anglo-Catholic author Arthur Machen populated his horror tales with his own personal demons, which included amoral scientists, secret societies, heartless women, and pagan gods. These fears were an outgrowth of his Catholic antagonism against scientists, which rebelled at the theories of Charles Darwin, and his childhood spent in the village of Caerleon-on-Usk in Wales, where the ghosts of Pagan gods seemed to live still among the ruins of Ancient Roman Britain. However, as frightened as Machen was of both scientific and supernatural forces, what seemed to concern him most was the evils of economic hardship and social class division. He, like his fictional characters, often found himself broke, unemployed, or exploited by unscrupulous mentors. These are exactly the kinds of fears a modern person can relate to, especially in light of the Great Recession, so now may well be the perfect time to read this accomplished, if obscure, horror novelist.

Many of Machen’s most respected works have been recently republished by Chaosium Inc. in a series of collected editions. Vol. 1, The Three Impostors and Other Stories, is a particularly strong book, and showcases the excellent title novella, as well as the delightfully atypical vampire tale The Great God Pan. The Three Impostors is an episodic book concerning a trio of assassins charged with recovering a gold coin from a man who has gone into hiding from the secret society he has robbed. The Great God Pan is about Helen Vaughan, the half-human daughter of the mythical god Pan, who was conceived in rape and who grew up to seduce, marry, and murder, a series of wealthy men. The plots of both books are fragmentary and as evocative of post-modern novels The Crying of Lot 49 and If on a winter’s night a traveler… as they are of classic Victorian Gothic works such as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dracula.

Like other figures who objected to the utilitarian and anti-romantic impulses of the Victorian era – including ghost investigator William James and neo-pagans such as Michael Field – Machen developed an obsession with the notion of a spirit realm hidden behind (and influencing) reality as we understand it. However, while the Greco-Roman gods and forest sprites have sometimes inspired liberating, back-to-nature movements, feminists, and socialists prone to romanticizing bygone ages and aboriginals, Machen saw “the old religions” as uniformly frightening and dangerous. Hence his casting of “The Great God Pan” as a Satanic figure likely to enthrall, rape, or kill anyone who draws aside the curtain of the civilized world and behold him directly. Machen’s scientists are also figures of fear, since many of them “adopt” unsuspecting assistants, wards, or even subjects of secret experiments without deigning to explain their true motives, or treat their vulnerable charges with due respect and consideration. For example, the scientist in The Great God Pan adopts a poor young woman precisely so he can experiment on her, choosing to make an incision in her brain enabling her to directly apprehend the spirit world, without seeking her blessing for the procedure first. After all, like a “typical” ruthless scientist, he felt that he owned her, much as science claimed dominion over the natural order of the word.

These various evils – ruthless scientists, vampire women, pagans – all seen unconnected, but there is an extent to which all of them are related, to one degree or another, to Machen’s own financial misfortunes, and his belief that the world was a fundamentally unjust place in which he could not make an honest living, no matter how hard he tried. Unsure why things would not go his way, Machen turned to religious and supernatural explanations for his misfortunes, and blamed scientists like Darwin for stripping life of its meaning. Any world in which Machen could not pass an exam to get into the Royal College of Surgeons, or be paid properly for his translations of Casanova’s memoirs, was one which was likely controlled by dark forces, be they pagan gods or secret societies. In such a world, a man like Machen would be hard pressed to find a woman to love him, and (as The Doors have attested), women seem wicked when you’re unwanted. Nor could Machen feel at home anywhere, as the countryside, the suburbs, and the city have all failed to provide him with economic security or a sense of purpose.

How does all this show up in Machen’s work? Well, in some Machen tales, the protagonist signs up for a dream job, but gets a nightmare one instead, much like Sherlock Holmes’ duped clients Jabez Wilson and Violet Hunter. These characters arrive as innocents in an unfamiliar land, rudderless transports to a new city, country village, or continent, not knowing that they are about to be exploited, abandoned, or sacrificed by their supposedly benign “employer.” It is also unsurprising that The Great God Pan features a Black Widow villain who marries rich men, drains them of their money, kills them, and then moves on to the next rich man. Such a tale reads like the wish-fulfillment of a financially strapped author who wants revenge against the wealthy and consolation that he is not a target of gold-digging women.

Several other Machen tales involve a protagonist who has no fulfilling work to do and, consequently, is drawn by an inexplicable impulse to wander into a bad neighborhood at three a.m. only to witness a violent death or be almost killed himself. Why? Because a lack of proper purpose in life drove him to seek out extreme situations for his own diversion. Unemployment, extreme poverty, and boredom is the cause of the ruin of most Machen heroes. In a similar vein, several secondary characters are also of a type - they are "old college friends" of the hero who seemed carefree enough while at university but, within a few years of living in “the real world,” the friend in question is reduced to poverty and illness because of some inexplicable supernatural force. Machen sometimes identifies this force as Pan or some form of tentacle monster, but the real force is most certainly gambling debts, alcoholism, and unemployment.

That happened to some of my old college friends, too.

And I’ve been there myself. Which is why I kinda like this Machen fellow. I, for one, can relate to a horror story that is all about economic hardship and complete confusion as to what is actually causing it. Is it oil shortages? Wall Street evil? The expensive “war on terror”? Credit card companies? Or is it THE GREAT GOD PAN? According to Machen, it is Pan. And Charles Darwin. And the New Women who won't sleep with him. That’s not the conclusion that I would come to, but Machen seems pretty certain. And his stories sure are fun.


  1. Megan Becker-Leckrone:January 4, 2010 at 12:04 PM

    Marc -- did I already mention to you that a South-American creative writing colleague of mine said Machen was a hero to Borges? And that he (my friend, Juan) had read as short stories, in anthologies, the "novels" within The Three Impostors? In fact, he hadn't realized the stories came from a larger book at all. So the Pynchon and Calvino connection seems entirely apt.

  2. So, is Jennifer's Body an adaptation of this book, or what? In that film, we have a symbolically/literally raped and wronged woman turned into a demon and unleashed on men, and we kind of wind up rooting for her to kill as many men as possible before she is dispatched at the end. Even the nice men. They can go, too. Same story, right?

    Upon reflection, I think I need to give more credit to a "gendered" reading of the book than I initially did. The most disturbing, and dramatic scenes in the book are of women being experimented on or killed. Those scenes are so powerful that one would expect the whole book to be equally emotionally draining to read. And yet, so much else is left undramatized, or shunted to the background. The consequence for me - at least when I first read it - is that a book that seems, on the surface, to be all about gender conflict winds up minimizing it to the extent that Machen's obsession with class creeps forward and kidnaps the book in a bait-and-switch move. Certainly, something like Dracula, in not shying away from depicting "evil sex," and in including seemingly off-topic rants against the New Woman winds up being very obviously a horror of women and sex novel.

    However, Emily has made me think more on this score, and I've changed my mind a lot. I think I know why so much isn't shown. Isn't the "unspeakable" and the "unshowable" all the moments when the woman/demon has the upper hand over men? It is unthinkable that she, like an evil Lysistrata, has swapped the natural order and put woman on top over men, and made the low high. Consider how much detail we get when men torture women - painstakingly dramatized and awful - and how we always show up on the aftermath of a scene when men are defeated. It all seems so censored and sanitized. But that is to spare the men the full brunt of their defeat. We see her male victims haggard, or with their necks broken on a front lawn, but we don't witness their "emasculation" in progress. Because who wants to see that, right? ;)

    So there's some serious sexism in a writer who shows women getting experimented on without a qualm and who can't show ... I don't know what ... happening to men when they aren't getting killed outright. Were they enjoying sex with a succubus too much? These omissions left so much to the imagination that the (unintended?) consequence was that I kinda wanted to meet this demon woman myself in that apartment building. Sounded like fun.

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  4. You present a really nice consideration of Machen's nineties fiction in the context of his lifelong financial worries and hardships, which were with him from his childhood in Gwent to his adult years in London and on to his final years in Old Amersham, Buckinghamshire.

    Machen's often limited view of women is in line with the conservative popular view of his time and place, and does manifest in sexist ways (the experiments on females in "The Great God Pan" and "The Inmost Light," published together in Machen's first appearance in a Keynotes volume).
    However, Machen was married to his first wife over the entire span of the most-active and creatively-successful period of his life, 1887-1899. Amelia "Amy" Hogg was over a decade older than he was, and, as her friend the writer Jerome K. Jerome states, she had a reputation as leading a Bohemian lifestyle before her marriage to Machen. Amy is the person who introduced Machen to the occultist and scholar of the occult A. E. Waite, which was the start of a lifelong friendship.

    As to Machen's estimation of paganism, I recommend his essay "On Paganism," which originally appeared as an introduction to Mitchell S. Buck's book Afterglow: Pastels of Greek Egypt, 69 BC. He is critical of post-Alexandrian paganism, primarily because the beliefs had fallen to gestures empty of much meaning and too often an excuse for debauched excess (sounds like the perfect kind of scene for the femme fatale of "The Great God Pan"). Machen had a high estimation and respect for the earlier philosophic beliefs of Platonism and Neo-Platonism. So, he wasn't entirely dismissive of pagan belies, nor was he horrified by all of its manifestations, real or imagined.

    J. Renye

  5. Helen Is Great!!!