My first read of 2021 is a classic, a seminal text in many ways that inspired a generation of Weird fiction writers. Arthur Machen was writing a decadent Gothic novella, which is a kind of fantasy-horror juxtaposing the beauty of the natural world with the unspeakable horror that lies beneath it, on the other side of the veil. Should we try to lift the veil and expose what lurks beneath, it would drive us to madness, sexual excesses, and death. If that sounds like a good time you wait until you see the symbol he uses to represent this unspeakable horror…
CWs: male genitalia and irreverent discussions of a sexual nature, suicide, lobotomy/medical horror, strong language
Jon Gower, reviewing The Great God Pan in the Wales Arts Review, applauds (rightly) Machen’s use of description and his effective use of blank space to keep the unknown … well, unknown. He describes this novella as ‘a Matryoshka confection, a Russian doll full to the brim with seeping, foggy menace, inexplicable deaths and resurrections’. On Machen’s style and use of horror, Gower writes,
Machen won’t show you it all, he is not an explicit writer, where the horror is all described, splatter by splatter. Rather he nudges the reader forward with studied nuance and telling detail, setting his sentences like traps, like the blackest of spiders.Jon Gower, reviewing The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen in Wales Arts Review, 16.09.2013
In 2016, during the search for the Greatest Welsh Novel (#GWN), critic Phil Morris reviewed this novella too, and concludes that ‘Machen’s powerful capacity to disturb lies not in what is described and explained but what is indicated and unsaid.’ Yes, the prose can be clunky and overblown at times, but that’s sort of the point of a decadent text in which the descriptions are fairly important for Aesthetic reasons. Morris writes,
Its unknowable anti-heroine, its dark implications, its structural lacunae, and its expressions of awe in the face of the ineffable mystery of our universe, directly addresses our concerns regarding the odd impulses that emanate occasionally from our Id, the highly subjective nature of perception, and the limitations of human knowledge. Much scarier than a mere monster is the idea that we don’t really know who we are, why we’re here and what is our purpose.Phil Morris, #GWN Revisited: The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen, in Wales Arts Review, 03.11.2016
So what is it about? In my view, it’s probably the best film Hammer Horror never made. We start off with middle-aged Dr Raymond talking to his friend Clarke in a lovely Gwent valley about a brain operation he plans to perform on his 17-year-old wife/ward Mary, and the mad doctor has more than a little touch of real-life Dr William Pryce in him. I imagine him as Sir Christopher Lee. Clarke, the friend, is obviously Peter Cushing. The Gwent valley is gorgeously depicted and so familiar to me, and that made it exceptionally jarring as a setting: all a little too close to home. Dr Raymond takes Clarke back to his place, where Clarke falls into a lethargic dream about weirdness in the woods and something lurking beneath natural beauty, brought on by the fumes in the lab. The lab itself has a stone slab rather than an operating table, and when Mary comes in, she is dressed all in white. There is, of course, a knife, and a grisly operation which we do not see. Mary opens her eyes, sees what is beyond the veil of our reality – which, apparently, the ‘ancients’ called ‘seeing the Great God Pan’ – and her face contorts in horror and terror. She becomes insensible and Dr Raymond coldly informs Clarke she is now an incurable “idiot” [in the 1890s medical sense], but that’s okay, because she has seen some stuff.
Clarke had expressed concerns about this procedure, but Dr Raymond said that, since he had rescued Mary from the gutter and starvation as a child, her life was now his to do with as he pleased. I think that line is the most haunting of the lot, for me. It is only right and fair that Mary’s child – apparently conceived in this metaphysical space through the potency of looking at whatever it was she saw, which is all very Merlin-esque – should avenge herself on men in general, but of course Machen doesn’t quite write it that way. It’s how I choose to read it, though.
The B-Movie medical horror scene is also a maiden-sacrifice scene, mixing Frankenstein with druidic menace. We move on to the next section of this epistolary, fragmented novella, to Clarke’s memoirs. Many years have passed, he is now a determined rationalist trying to debunk the notion that there is anything beyond the realm of our reality, but is at the same time unable to totally convince himself that this is the case. He is haunted by Mary, and that weird day he allowed his mad doctor friend to cut open her brain.
Clarke is reading an account of a Helen Vaughan, a young girl who came to a Welsh town and made friends with a local girl Rachel. Helen looks Italian – a dead giveaway that she is the baddie, and will be sexually promiscuous or some sort of femme fatale. It’s also an obvious link to the Classical origins of Pan, who is a symbol of what actually lies behind the veil, so the European Other trope is just there for us as readers to make that leap that she is (a) foreign and don’t belong here, or in this case is clearly otherworldly and (b) has something to do with the Great God Pan and is associated with this symbol. Sure enough, a young boy Trevor sees her in the woods with a strange naked man [the introduction to the satyr as a symbol of horror] and has a seizure. Helen’s friend Rachel goes for an innocent walk in the woods with Helen, and comes back also mad and terrified – clearly something awful has happened to her. Clarke stops reading the account at this point, so we never get to read Rachel’s report of what happened. This is left up to our imaginations.
Since a satyr is typically depicted like this, I think we know what’s been going on, Arthur, yeah.
Helen becomes the central antagonist and mystery of the novella, viewed only through secondhand accounts (by men). Her beauty is described in conjunction with the horror and revulsion it has on the morally upright characters, while the bright young things of Fin-de-Siécle London flock to her drawing room and then go home in paroxysms of lust and hate and kill themselves for no apparent reason, or are found dead of fright in the street not long after leaving. Is Helen Vaughan Mrs Herbert? Is she then also Mrs Beaumont, late of Argentina? Can Clarke (Peter Cushing) and Villiers (obviously a young Vincent Price) figure all this out before it is too late?
The novella is fragmented and you do have to go with the flow of the fragmented narrative as all becomes clear and gets tied up at the end. Sort of. Helen’s ending falls very flat, and Hammer could have done so much with that climactic scene. I would like to see that with Celia Gregory or Madeline Smith, but, sadly, no boobs for us readers. Only horror. Unspeakable horror.
Speaking of which, I think this passage of What The Doctor Saw at the end, where a Dr Richard Matheson’s scribbled Latin notes have been translated and reveal what he witnessed when he came to tend to a certain dying person, remains one of my all-time favourite paragraphs. It’s beautiful body horror, and it manages to cycle through every social anxiety at once in double-time, from sex and gender concerns to the concept of human devolution (which was all wrapped up in the multifarious ‘mainstream’ and academic racist and eugenicist discourses of the time, as well as imperialism and colonialism).
Here is a snippet of that:
“. . . for one instant I saw a Form, shaped in dimness before me, which I will not further describe. But the symbol of this form may be seen in ancient sculptures, and in paintings which survived beneath the lava, too foul to be spoken of . . . as a horrible and unspeakable shape, neither man nor beast, was changed into human form, there came finally death.”Arthur Machen, The Great God Pan
Honestly, an absolutely cracking start to the New Year. Solid 4*s from me.
In the podcast serialising my first novel (first episode airing 4th Feb 2021) I’ll talk more about this when we get up to Wes Porter’s story of how his family ended up as eldritch abominations. In one of the middle chapters of The Crows, Carrie hears this family origin story in a vague, almost fairy tale, format, and Wes leans in to embracing the well-endowed man in the woods symbol, and all that goes with it. Yes, that family does drive others to madness and death, but, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, eldritch girls just want to have fun.