Horror Fiends: Arthur Machen

Originally published in Shadows of Centralis Monthly Magazine: Issue #9 (December 2022).

Born in Monmouthshire, Wales in the 1860’s, the son of a clergymen, Arthur Machen was a prolific writer who channelled his interests in spiritualism, occultism, mysticism, medievalism, and the intense love of his homeland into a number of short stories, novels, articles and more. With his works having influenced many writers, including the likes of H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, to name just two, this month’s Horror Fiends features the forgotten master of horror that is Arthur Machen.

Born in Caerleon, Monmouthshire, Wales on 3rd March 1863, stemming from a staunchly religious family, Arthur Machen (Arthur Llewellyn Jones) was a short story writer and novelist whose deeply evocative works fused horror and fantasy with the supernatural. Further to his interest in mysticism and the otherworldly, evident in his writings, Machen was also heavily inspired by the surrounding landscapes of his place of birth. For hours, from a young child to his later years, Machen explored with unyielding fascination the woods, valleys, and mountains of south-east Wales.

With his father serving as vicar of the local parish, as a child, Machen grew up at The Rectory of Llanddewi Fach, before attending Hereford Cathedral School, where he boarded. An only child, with few children of his own age around him, Machen took great enjoyment from solitude. Switching the home with his parents to a boarding school full of children did nothing to change Machen’s preference for being alone, taking enjoyment more from his own company than with others. Meanwhile, though studious and academically gifted, due to a lack of family resources, university education eluded Machen. Instead, he looked to qualify for medical training but failed achieve required grades.  

Since childhood, deeply inquisitive, Machen had been an insatiable reader, taking his initial lead from his father’s collection of books, many of which had been purchased at various railway stations, resulting in a much varied stock, as Machen described, “… the most revered stocks had mingled with the most frivolous.” Titles of Elzevir presses jostled with the adventures of Mr. Verdant Green, as well as a wide selection of Bronte books, and literature focussed on spiritualism and religion. In addition to his inherent enthusiasm for nature and the outdoors, Machen’s passion for reading remained with his throughout his life.

In dire need of finances, Machen sought, and successfully gained, employment in journalism, as well as working for a time as a private tutor. Throughout this period, when not satiating the demands of his employers and clients, the young Machen also spent his time writing, concentrating his hours on short stories which tended to hold a leaning towards mysticism and fables. Such was his creative zeal, in 1881, his poem Eleusinia was published, a piece of literature inspired by the ancient Greek Eleusinian Mysteries; initiations and rituals practiced by a cult of the goddesses Demeter and Persephone. This was followed a few years later by Machen’s Anatomy of Tobacco, which was published in 1884. In addition to pursuing a career as a writer and novelist, along with other work, Machen also earned money working as a literary translator, converting French text into English, as well as regularly submitting pieces for various magazines and journals.

Holding an inherent fascination and closeness for the wonders and splendours of nature, Machen often drew inspiration from his childhood surroundings. It was such surroundings that seeped into the writer’s work, with the locations of Caerleon-on-Usk and Caerwent, in particular, forming the world featured in Machen’s masterpiece, The Great God Pan.

Prior to its full-length publication in 1894, a shorter version of The Great God Pan was first printed in the magazine The Whirlwind four years prior. It was when the extended version of the story was published in 1894, alongside his story The Inmost Light, that Machen’s fantastical tale of horror was received with some critical disdain. Because of its overtones of sexuality, surgery, and mysticism, The Great God Pan was viewed as a distasteful and degenerate piece of writing, and impacted negatively on the reputation of Arthur Machen. The upside of this controversial critical response, however, was heighted interest, and subsequent sales, of the book.

It was years later, during a resurgence in the popularity of Machen and his work, that The Great God Pan was finally appreciated as a classic piece of horror literature.

The year of 1887 was one of both deep tragedy and much joy for Machen; his father died, and Machen married his fiancé, Amelia Hogg. Considered a prominent member of the literary scene of London, while also working as a music teacher, Amelia Hogg introduced Machen to a number of different people, including the writer and occultist A.E. Waite. With the couple deeply in love, his marriage with Amelia was a happy one and lasted twelve years, ending only due to the death of his wife in 1899 as she lost her battle with cancer.

Existing between the late-1880’s through to the early-1900’s, founded by William Robert Woodman, William Wynn Westcott and Samuel Liddell Mathers, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was an underground organisation whose focus was the study of occultism and metaphysics. Members of this society included Algernon Blackwood, Aleister Crowley, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Bram Stoker, and Arthur Machen, amongst others.

Later considered by many to be one of his finest pieces of work, Machen’s extended version of The Great God Pan was published in 1894. Prolific in his output, the following year the writer’s horror novel The Three Imposters was published. During a period of great creativity, Machen wrote a number of novels and short stories over a condensed number of years, including the semi-autobiographical The Hill of Dreams (published in 1907, a book which grew plaudits from fellow writer Lord Dunsany), The White People (short story, first published in Horlick’s Magazine in 1904, then as a standalone book in 1906) and A Fragment of Life (short story, published in 1928).

Initially published by The Evening News in 1914, going on to create the legend of the Angels of Mons, Arthur Machen wrote The Bowmen; a tale which talks of the appearance of Battle of Agincourt archers supporting beleaguered British troops during an early conflict of World War I.

For a brief time after the premature death of his wife, a distraught Machen switched his focus from writing to acting, touring the U.K. as part of Frank Benson’s troupe of performers. After a period of prolonged grieving, Machen remarried in 1903, wedding Dorothie Purefoy Hudleston. Over the years that followed, while Machen worked as a journalist for the Evening News newspaper, the writer became a father as his wife gave birth to the couple’s children, son Hilary and daughter Janet.

‘The Bowmen of Mons’ illustration by A. Forestier. Illustrated London News, 29th November 1915.

As Machen’s career entered into the 1920’s, the writer enjoyed a particular successful period; his gothic fantastical story The Secret Glory (1922) was published, a tale which has gone on to receive critical acclaim amongst literary academics and enthusiasts of Machen alike. Also published at this time was Machen’s autobiography Far Off Things (1922). Meanwhile, holding his literary star in orbit, over the course of the decade new editions and re-issues of his stories were published, consumed by an audience of readers with a renewed interest in Machen. In sharp contrast to previous opinions, having once condemned the book, literary critics now lavished praise on Machen’s The Great God Pan.

Having, perhaps, achieved the peak of his career, Machen’s later years saw a gradual decline in interest from readers. This lowering of interest contributed to some financial challenges for Machen, though in his final years, partly due to the support of some of his literary friends, including the likes of T.S. Eliot, Bernard Shaw and Algernon Blackwood, the writer lived a comfortable lifestyle until his death on 15th December 1947.

“For the older I grow the more firmly am I convinced that anything which I may have accomplished in literature is due to the fact that when my eyes were first opened in earliest childhood they had before them the vision of an enchanted land.” Taken from ‘Far Off Things’ by Arthur Machen, 1922.

“Of living creators of cosmic fear raised to its most artistic pitch, few if any can hope to equal the versatile Arthur Machen, author of some dozen tales long and short, in which elements of hidden horror and brooding fright attain an almost incomparable substance and realistic acuteness.”

Taken from Supernatural Horror in Literature’ by H.P. Lovecraft, 1927.

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