Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Arthur Machen, Monstrous Matrons, and Other Eldritch Things Man Was Not Meant to Know

"No, I think not, even if the worst happened. As you know, I rescued Mary from the gutter, and from almost certain starvation, when she was a child; I think her life is mine, to use as I see fit. Come, it's getting late; we had better go in."

"Yes, I married, Villiers. I met a girl, a girl of the most wonderful and most strange beauty, at the house of some people whom I knew. . . My friends had come to know her at Florence; she told them she was an orphan, the child of an English father and an Italian mother, and she charmed them as she charmed me. The first time I saw her was at an evening party. I was standing by the door talking to a friend, when suddenly above the hum and babble of conversation I heard a voice which seemed to thrill to my heart. She was singing an Italian song. I was introduced to her that evening, and in three months I married Helen. Villiers, that woman, if I can call her woman, corrupted my soul."

"Everyone who saw her at the police court said she was at once the most beautiful woman and the most repulsive they had ever set eyes on. I have spoken to a man who saw her, and I assure you he positively shuddered as he tried to describe the woman, but he couldn't tell why."

Arthur Machen (1863-1947) was born in Wales to a poor vicar. He left for London to seek his literary fortune but found mixed success, although a surprise inheritance sustained him comfortably for a time. He took up acting and associated briefly with the Aleister Crowley circle, though mostly out of curiosity. After a brief period of popularity in the 1920s, Machen's fortunes faded, but on the event of his eightieth birthday a literary appeal was made to formally recognize him as a distinguished man of letters. Signers included T.S. Eliot, Bernard Shaw, Walter de la Mare, Algernon Blackwood, and John Masefield. Its success gave Machen's final years a long-sought security.*

Much more so than Robert W. Chambers, Machen was an enormous influence on H.P. Lovecraft. In his essay "Supernatural Horror in Literature," Lovecraft praised "The Novel of the Black Seal" and "The Novel of the White Powder" (from the episodic novel The Three Imposters) as "perhaps represent the highwater mark of Machen's skill as a terror-weaver" and used them as the basis for his own stories "Cool Air" and "The Colour Out of Space." Machen's most famous work, the 1894 novella The Great God Pan, inspired Lovecraft's "The Dunwich Horror," which shares many significant plot points and even gives its predecessor a shout-out. ("Great God, what simpletons! Show them Arthur Machen's Great God Pan and they'll think it a common Dunwich scandal!") More recently The Great God Pan has been said by Stephen King to be "Maybe the best [horror story] in the English language" that cost him several sleepless nights and deeply influenced his 2008 novella N.

As part of my Year of Lovecraft I purchased a copy of the anthology The Three Imposters and Other Stories:Vol. 1 of the Best Weird Tales of Arthur Machen from Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu fiction line. It contains The Great God Pan, "The Inmost Light," "The Shining Pyramid," and The Three Imposters; or, The Transmutations. According to editor S.T. Joshi (a leading Lovecraft scholar and editor of the Chambers collection as well), Machen was a "religious mystic, [for whom] the triumphs of nineteenth-century science were anything but victories; instead, it seemed to him that science was coming to rule all aspects of life, even those aspects - the spiritual life and its corollary, art - where it had no place." In his 1902 treatise Hieroglyphics: A Note upon Ecstasy in Literature Machen criticizes "such writers as Jane Austen and William Makepeace Thackery for work that is too much under the control of the conscious reason and not sufficiently open to the wonder, mystery, and 'ecstasy' of life." Machen can perhaps be called a Dark Romantic for whom nature was a chaotic, untrammeled force of creation and destruction, of joy and madness.

Machen's concept of nature is basically horror's original Eldritch Abomination, a special type of Cosmic Horror made famous by such Lovecraftian entities as Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth. In fact, the latter is best known for its role in "The Dunwich Horror," in which the godlike entity impregnates a human woman and brings forth a monstrous half-human hybrid. The key trait of the Eldritch Abomination is that it is above and beyond our comprehension - even to see one is enough to shatter the human mind. They are rarely actively evil; rather, the havoc they wreak is indirect, akin to a human accidentally crushing some bugs while performing a mundane task. Encounters with an Eldritch Abomination are often the result of meddling in things Humanity Was Not Meant To Know, such as Dr. Raymond's experiment on Mary in The Great God Pan which would enable her to "see Pan." Originally the Greek God of Nature, Machen's Pan is the true formless form of the universe.
"We know what happened to those who chanced to meet the Great God Pan, and those who are wise know that all symbols are symbols of something, not of nothing. It 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 named, cannot be spoken, cannot be imagined except under a veil and a symbol, a symbol to the most of us appearing a quaint, poetic fancy, to some a foolish tale. But you and I, at all events, have known something of the terror that may dwell in the secret place of life, manifested under human flesh; that which is without form taking to itself a form."
Her single glimpse of Pan drives Mary insane and, as with Lovecraft's Lavinia Whateley later on, somehow results in a pregnancy. While Wilbur Whateley was a repulsive man with tentacles, Machen's Helen Vaughan is a beautiful but sinister woman who seduces prominent men and drives them to suicide. The misogyny is blazingingly obvious: Helen, under her alias "Mrs. Beaumont," is a single, independent woman with no authoritative male attachments - no husband, father, or brother. Machen may have been racy for his time, but his portrayal of liberated female sexuality only reinforces the Victorian status quo. As Harry Markov puts it in his review of the Cthulhurotica anthology:
Sex is strength for women in “Cthulhurotica.” Their sensuality is a tool. What Everett doesn’t explain, however, is why the women in the Lovecraftian universe are ready to transition from the ‘uninitiated’ – sexually and in the sense of knowing the world – to ‘initiated’ – accepting the layers hidden within our world and coming back stronger from meeting the horrors. Well, historically speaking women were demonized because of their sexuality. Lilith supposedly slept with demons and Succubi are sex-starved demons that drain men of their life force after sex. Sirens lured men to their death with an irresistible song. Circe tried to seduce Odysseus to his death. Witches were rumored to copulate with Satan himself. In the long run, myths and legends – told by men – stigmatized women’s sexuality as sin and demonized them to a point where it’s ingrained in our subconscious collective mind. It’s why women in the Lovecraftian universe can transition and accept, whereas men fail to and become insane.
The "monstrous female," Markov argues, achieves dominance through sexual destruction. In this respect, Machen's vision of the Pan mythos seems to draw heavily on that of Bacchus/Dionysus, whose wild female followers, the maenads, tore powerful men like Pentheus to shreds with their bare hands. Women in Classical myth, I remember my professor telling us, are always associated with hysteria and madness, even in ostensibly positive portrayals such as Sophocles's Antigone, in which the titular heroine is irrationally fixated on properly burying her dead brother in defiance of all danger and dire consequence. Dido in The Aeneid is another good example. And these associations are hardly a dead trope: the second season of True Blood featured a maenad named Maryann Forrester who fed off primal emotions and was said to have been known in ancient times as Lilith, Isis, and Gaia, a Greek goddess of earth. Here once again we have a connection between a "monstrous female" and destruction, raw nature, and crazed emotional states. Maryann driving all of Bon Temps to ecstatic madness further positions her as a literal threat to civilization.**

If women are intrinsically linked to an eldritch vision of nature, then men represent restraint and civility. The characters opposing Helen Vaughan and trying to stop her (by killing her) are all male. The other Machen stories included in the anthology center on English gentlemen stumbling into various occult mysteries, ranging from arcane rituals to a particularly nightmarish version of the Fair Folk. There is a vivid contrast between "the darkness of the thicket, the dance on the mountain-top, the scenes by lonely shores, in green vineyards, by rocks and desert places" and the urbane London flat, where a man of letters and a scientist converse about cryptic encounters with the strange people of the streets. For all their emerging awareness of the dark corners of the earth, however, Machen's heroes - such as Dyson, the recurring amateur detective - maintain their cultivated aristocracy. No one even Goes Mad from the Revelation, as usually happens in Lovecraft, although they may be shaken.

Which is not to say that only women in Machen are villainous. Dr. Lipsius in The Three Imposters is a truly diabolical figure that may remind modern readers of Senator Palpatine. But even then, his victim was seduced intellectually (as opposed to sexually or emotionally) by promises of ultimate knowledge. Where women are victims, this simply transforms them into infernal gateways. Both Mary and Mrs. Cradock ("The Novel of the Black Seal") bring forth monstrous children of rape. Mrs. Black from "The Inmost Light" obediently submits to the experimentation of yet another mad doctor, this one her husband, and is turned into something no longer human which must be destroyed. A possible exception to both villainy and victimization could be Miss Lally ("Black Seal"), who is rationally skeptical of Professor Gregg's obsession with the Fair Folk. But given the twist ending of The Three Imposters that dramatically alters our perception of the preceding stories, both her example and that of Mrs. Cradock are probably nullified.

Despite my complaints, though, I really did enjoy Arthur Machen, even more so than H.P. Lovecraft! Compared to Machen's subtlety and elegance, Lovecraft comes across as little more than the pulp writer he was. The big issue I have here is one most marginalized bodies (i.e. women, people of color, the GLBTQ community) face when reading fiction: that of how to enjoy literature, especially older literature, when you're likely to encounter stereotypes and prejudicial beliefs. I agree with one gay blogger who argues that it's usually better to be erased than to see yourself portrayed in an offensive manner. Given the sheer amount of FAIL Lovecraft displayed towards minority groups, I'm actually glad female characters are practically nonexistent in his works. It comes down to how many bumps you're willing to tolerate, I suppose. Along with Chambers, Machen could use more love, though not without a critical eye.

The Great God Pan can be read here. For "The Dunwich Horror," click here.

* Yes, I wrote the TV Tropes page for Arthur Machen and supplied most of the tropes. I did the same for "The Shadow Over Innsmouth." LOL I am such a dork.
** And on the Wild Mass Guessing page for True Blood, I even argued that Maryann Forrester was Helen Vaughan. TV Tropes will ruin your life.

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