Friday, June 4, 2010

Help, help, it's the Great God Pan! - a glance at Arthur Machen

I’ve been spending too much time reading about the devil.  I was right there with him in The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner and Paradise Lost.  He’s not exactly present in Les Chants du Maldoror by the Comte de Lautréamont, but still – well, that one’s complicated.  Next week.

Then there’s the longish short story “The Great God Pan” (1895) by Arthur Machen.  Experimental brain surgery summons Pan, or the devil, or primal forces, or something.  Pan takes the form of an English woman, albeit an English woman from Argentina, who drives men to despair and suicide by, I guess, unveiling her primal forces.

It [the Great God Pan] was, indeed, an exquisite symbol beneath which men long ago veiled their knowledge of the most awful, most secret forces which lie at the heart of all things; forces before which the souls of men must wither and die and blacken, as their bodies blacken under the electric current.  Such forces cannot be names, cannot be spoken, cannot be imagined except under a veil and symbol, a symbol to the most of us appearing a quaint, poetic fancy, to some a foolish tale. (107)

Now, and this is perhaps because I’ve been reading Lautréamont and Milton and so on, but this seemed pretty thin.  What I mean is, I have been reading stories in which the writers do imagine or describe the secret forces and sickening evils and so on, and describe them plausibly.  A bit earlier in this story, a character tracking the evil devil woman says that his informant “shuddered and grew sick in telling me of the nameless infamies which were laid to her charge.”  I could only, think, try me.  I can handle it.  I bet I’ve heard worse.  I bet I just read worse in Les Chants de Maldoror.  I know I did.

So this is a typical horror story trick, not actually telling us what’s so horrifying but just letting us sort of see the shadow of the horror.  H. P. Lovecraft perfected the technique, perhaps through the repetition of weird names and books of forgotten lore and such.  Or perhaps he was just a better writer than Machen.  As an example, Machen has this strange tic of insisting that his characters say goodbye or good night to each other at the end of scenes.  Dead words; drove me nuts.  Still, this story is a must for readers in search of Lovecraft Before Lovecraft, and it was a curious sexist variation on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886).

I read “The Great God Pan” in Arthur Machen, Tales of Horror and the Supernatural, The Richards Press, 1949.  If you tell me there are better stories in this book, I’ll believe you, and if you say there aren’t, I’ll believe that, too.

I read this story for the Welsh Reading Challenge, so that’s that.  Thanks to The Kool-Aid Mom for sparking my curiosity.


  1. Funny you brought up Lovecraft. That's who I immediately thought of when I read that passage.

    Technically speaking, I'm not sure Lovecraft is really that great a writer. He had great, original ideas but his prose is fifteen different shades of purple.

  2. Technically speaking, I'm not sure Lovecraft is really that great a writer.

    Yeah, but he's better than Arthur Machen!

  3. I think his Novel of the Black Seal is his best, from what I've read anyway.

    Lovecraft better than Machen! HPL wouldn't have agreed, but then he didn't get much positive feedback in his lifetime. He'd be astonished at his influence today and his literary longevity.

  4. Thanks for the Machen recommendation. Poor Lovecraft, but think of where he is now - the Library of America, Penguin Classics - you're right, he would be shocked.

  5. The Three Impostors is a fine episodic novel, which includes "Novel of the Black Seal." I like Machen - he certainly wasn't a prose stylist, but I think he had a good imagination and could tell an entertaining yarn.

  6. Hmm, another vote for "Black Seal". "Not a prose stylist" is, at Wuthering Expectations, a devastating criticism.

  7. I think imagineers should take a pass regarding their prose. For me what matters is the ideas. It seems, to me anyway, that it's very hard to find a writer who combines an elegant prose style with a vivid imagination.

  8. A pass? Oh no. I value what they do, but I don't rank it all that high.

    Wuthering Expectations is not remotely an idea-centered enterprise. This really is a sharp difference between us - for me, the ideas matter very little. The guiding spirits of Wuthering Expectations are Flaubert and Nabokov and Lewis Carroll. And Tolstoy and Borges - there are some ideas! And - well, many others.

  9. Lest I seem to dogmatic, I will note that I have identified my lack of interest in or fear of ideas is my #1 intellectual flaw.

    I'm working on it!