We’re powerfully aware of Arthur Machen (1863-1947) as the author of some of the finest horror fiction of the 1890’s: weird, wonderful and decadent works both lyrical and mystical. The Great God Pan, The Novel of the Black Seal, The Novel of the White Powder, The Inmost Light, The Hill of Dreams and Machen’s masterpiece, The White People – a long story that ranks, for me, with the finest in English literature; its partly stream of consciousness narrative being remarkably effective, though very different from James Joyce or Virginia Woolf.
So the case for Machen’s early memorable fiction (at least) has been long established by readers, critics and scholars. But what of Machen’s non-fiction? He wrote a considerable amount ranging from the ‘real’ little people, the Great War, the Celtic church, modernism, the occult and much more, including an essay on the truth about curry (Machen was a gourmet) that made me think of George Orwell (who wrote a piece on the eleven rules for making a good cup of tea). Machen earned a living from jobbing journalism but it was never hack. Faunas: The Decorative Imagination of Arthur Machen is a welcome compilation of essays covering the full range of his output collecting material from Faunas, the bi-annual journal of the friends of Arthur Machen, in a handsomely produced paperback.
There are some really outstanding pieces here that are persuasive in maintaining a serious critical interest in this remarkable writer. Essays like ‘An Exploration Beyond the Veil’ by Tessa Farmer who is the great granddaughter of Machen. She decided “to visit the places that inspired Arthur Machen in his attempt to penetrate the veil, and where his powerful stories are set.” Farmer journeyed to South Wales, Gwent and Machen’s birthplace, Caerleon-on-Usk. Farmer certainly inspired me to undertake a pilgrimage and soak in the atmosphere of a Welsh countryside containing the Roman remains that figure strongly in his fiction.
John Gawsworth provides an introduction to a re-print of Machen’s ‘The Rose Garden.’ Gawsworth befriended Machen in the 1930’s and wrote a major biography. Machen’s short prose piece is beautifully written and contains a subtle sense of female sexual ecstasy. ‘Ecstasy’, like the word ‘veil’ are significant words in the Machen dictionary. There’s always a Machenean imperative to break through the veil to what’s hidden to us and experience the wonder of a sensual paradise or hellish reality – the beautiful idyll of Pan’s woods accompanied by terrible sight of Pan himself.
‘The Nurse’s Letter’ by Rosalie Parker. I loved this attempt at imagining the nurse’s reaction to the lost girl, taken away by the little people of The White People. Whilst Emily Fergus’s ‘A Wilder Reality’ contains this assertion:
“Machen’s ‘little people’, whether threatening or not, are always the keepers of a lost connection with the sublime, and he often used them to illustrate the essential permeability of the boundary between the natural and the super – or preternatural worlds.”
We also have essays on Machen and the Great War, an account of his wife Amelia Hogg, Machen’s funeral, Machen’s account of Captain Scott’s expedition and the legend of Drake’s drum. And even Machen as a a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.
Yet I wondered to whom Faunas was addressing itself? Is it for subscribers to the journal and its contributors, or the general reader who’s enjoyed Machen’s stories and wants to dig deeper. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed this book but I did feel that sometimes it put up a sign saying “Machen initiates only” to metaphorically defend a gentleman’s club of elderly men seated in leather armchairs, drinking port and delighting in a fin-de-siècle London where Machen went off adventuring into what we now call psycho-geography. By that I don’t wish to infer complacent writing, hagiography or nostalgia for a time they never experienced. None of Faunas’s essayists are uncritical or uninteresting.
However after reading them, and generous extracts of Machen, I was undecided as to whether Machen was a minor writer, of the first rank, with a major talent best realised in the field of horror: or a minor classic ‘arts and letters’ writer, deserving major attention by academe? (Has Machen fully entered the Western cannon of the 1890’s alongside of Wilde, Yeats, Hardy etc?). But the literary Gothic is a rich field of academic research, at the present, and time is proving to be holding up well for Machen’s considerable talents. – Alan Price.