Along with M.R. James, Machen is considered one of the great horror authors of the late 1800s and early 1900s in Britain. M.R. James’ horror is a lot more superficial than Machen’s; I also think it is a lot better than Machen’s, for a simple reason. While both were firmly Christian, M.R. James’ horror relies on universally horrific situations: grimy things with hairy limbs reaching for you in the dark, unknown forces of death. Machen’s horror, or supernatural writing in general, is much more complex, and much more propagandistic. S.T. Joshi’s opinion, from his introduction to the Penguin collection, is best summed up thusly: “Flawed as some of them are by certain crotchets—especially a furious hostility to science and secularism—that disfigure Machen’s own philosophy, they are nonetheless as effective as they are because they echo the sincere beliefs of their author, whose eternal quest to preserve the mystery of the universe in an age of materialism is one to which we can all respond.” I certainly can understand this—I find myself empathizing with and enjoying all kinds of writers with radically different perspectives from my own, from Milton to Walter M. Miller, Jr. But for some reason it doesn’t work most of the time with Machen. Perhaps it is because his writing so obstinately rejects the truth to be found in science, even while it uses the techniques of science to reveal those supposedly mystical truths. Perhaps it is because when the mystery of “The Terror” is revealed, it reminds me a little too much of Birdemic: Shock and Terror. Machen’s need to express his opinions mean that he is largely better at the set-up than the denouement; when everything is revealed, a promising scenario is too often a failed and one-dimensional call back to religiosity.
This does not, however, fully account for my distaste towards Machen, something I feel I need to account for given the place he holds in the pantheon of horror literature. Sure some of his most powerful tales seem to derive from a profound disgust with sexuality that I find tired and nearly puritanical, but he did originate a lot of good, interesting ideas, and I must give him credit for scenarios that lay the foundation for a lot of what was done later with horror. But this is also a damning factor, because to my way of thinking these scenarios were all carried out better with later horror. “The Terror,” for example, is better realized in “The Dunwich Horror” or “The Birds” or for that matter any of the monster-of-the-week episodes of The X-Files. The problem isn’t the basic set-up, which is frankly terrifying: people begin dying mysteriously all over rural Wales during WWI, and the wartime government keeps it under wraps, leaving the citizens to draw their own conclusion. The problem is partially the denouement, part bad detective novel and part latter-era M. Night Shyamalan. The problem is most of all for me the boring, uninspired delivery, not just here but throughout the entire collection. Reading this collection was a chore. I’ve talked about writers who wrote rapturously (Poppy Z. Brite and Lafcadio Hearn), poorly but in an interesting way (Joe R. Lansdale and Stephen King, at times), or perfectly serviceably but in no way stand-out (Daphne du Maurier and Italo Calvino), but Machen is genuinely boring. Even Blackwood’s circumlocutory meanderings through psychology are interesting in their own right; I just find Machen tiresome. He’s at his best when trying to draw out the mystical experiences of the unknown, but even then he is far overshadowed by Blackwood.
But still— There is something to be enjoyed in Machen, in his unique and genuinely creepy scenarios. He is good at imagining just how the supernatural might intrude on this world and, given his career as a reporter, just how people might react to that intrusion. As such, let’s look at one of his quicker, more straightforward pieces.
OUT OF THE EARTH
The author begins by commenting on “some sort of confused complaint during last August of the ill-behaviour of the children at certain Welsh watering-places” as being composed entirely of hearsay, which the author is initially inclined to disregard, particularly after his experience being the author of a short story, “The Bowmen”, which inspired the real belief in the appearance of the ‘Angels of Mons’. This is a curious thing to mention, because it’s true: Machen’s early piece imagining St. George and the bowmen of Agincourt defending the British against the Germans at Mons inspired, through a sort of game of telephone among the press, the myth of the Angels of Mons. By including this real experience in the start of the story, the narrator is explicitly identified as a fictionalized Machen, lending credibility to his claims, and as a very skeptical person, inclined to believe more in the power of hearsay than the supernatural. “And so, I dare say, it will be with this strange affair of the troublesome children of the Welsh seaside town”.
The author then, well into the story, transitions to his own experience. Talking to a friend at Fleet Street he mentions he is going to Manavon, to which the friend replies, “I thought that coast had gone off a lot.” The narrator is surprised by this, and asks the friend, a lawyer, to elaborate. The lawyer says his “wife’s friend knows a clergyman who says that the beach at Tremaen is not at all pleasant now, and Tremaen’s only a few miles from Manavon, isn’t it?” It’s not difficult to see how much this seems to be hearsay. The lawyer elaborates—there is “bad language … and all that sort of thing, worse than London slum children. … And they say that Castell Coch is quite impossible; no decent woman would be seen there!”
The narrator changes the subject but can’t believe it—Castell Coch is apparently a beautiful, bucolic place he is well familiar with. Indeed, he apparently decided to go to Manavon and “had a most delightful holiday” with no indications of trouble. The stories, though, still accumulate. Tales of “juvenile depravity” and even beatings. “At last, quite incredible things began to be whispered: visitors’ children had not only been beaten, they had been tortured; a little boy had been found impaled on a stake in a lonely field near Manavon; another child had been lured to destruction over the cliffs at Castell Coch.” Papers that investigated found that “there was not a word of truth … in any of these rumors” but the stories continue.
We learn that during the narrator’s time at Manavon, he was very relaxed and thought little of what he saw, but later some of it struck him as odd. “‘Funny children,’ was the phrase my little boy used; and I began to think they were ‘funny’ indeed.” He then tells of a talk he had with his friend, Morgan, who is a dreamer that some say is “like a child who has grown up and yet has not grown up like other children of men” and who was at Castell Coch around the same time. He says that one evening his rest was broken with “a sudden burst of horrible raucous cries—and the cries of children, too, but children of the lowest type.” He then saw them—”a swarm of noisome children, horrible little stunted creatures with old men’s faces, with bloated faces, with little sunken eyes, with leering eyes.” They apparently performed horrible acts that Morgan will not describe. “I saw blood running in streams, as they shrieked with laughter, but I could not find the mark of it on the grass afterwards.” When he called out, they disappeared into the landscape.
When Morgan mentioned it to his landlord, the landlord acted oddly, saying in Welsh “something like ‘the battle that is for age unto ages; and the People take delight in it.'” The narrator thinks again of his boy’s scared comments about ‘funny children’ and writes an account of this to an old friend, who replies:
“They were only visible, only audible to children and the child-like. Hence the explanation of what puzzled you at first; the rumours, how did they arise? They arose from nursery gossip, from scraps and odds and ends of half-articulate children’s talk of horrors that they didn’t understand, of words that shamed their nurses and their mothers.
“These little people of the earth rise up and rejoice in these times of ours. For they are glad, as the Welshman said, when they know that men follow their ways.”
The story itself—the fabula, as a narratologist would term it—is great. It’s creepy, powerful, and finally imparts a vast message with regard to WWI, something much more interesting than the uncomplicated nationalism of “The Bowmen.” Yet at the same time, this is relying heavily on certain assumptions—the valuable innocence of children, racial disgust—that are very naively adopted and not examined. It’s not hard to see that another story I’ve reviewed here, Howard’s “Worms of the Earth”, owes a lot to this, including its problematic politics. Still, it is a good, original, terrifying idea, the hidden race of degenerate libertines who corrupt children and rejoice in human misery.
In this particular instance, perhaps due to his personal projection into the story, Machen’s prose is more interesting. The short length of the story—only about seven pages—helps as well. Overall, I can’t not recommend reading Machen. He’s one of those authors so pivotal, so vital to what horror is as a discourse, that he becomes required reading. But I would recommend sticking first to the particularly notable two—”The Great God Pan” and “The White People”. Then, if you like what you read, go for more. If not, it’s up to you, but the chief contributions of Machen to horror are ideas, ideas that I feel are better presented by other writers.
This particular collection by Penguin is a good selection. The only thing notably missing is “The Great God Pan,” but that is often enough anthologized it should be easy to find, and if not it’s in the common domain and can no doubt be found on the internet. This collection is also annotated by S.T. Joshi, and here he is even more helpful than with M.R. James, because Machen has a tendency to assume an intimate familiarity with British geography and WWI battles that I do not possess.
Tomorrow, we round out our group of splatterpunk authors by looking at the king of them all, Clive Barker.
Quote from introduction copyright S.T. Joshi 2011.
All other quotations from The White People and Other Stories by Arthur Machen, published by Penguin Books 2011.
Everything else copyright Kile Marshall Bigbee 2012.