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.