Arthur Machen: Man Is Made a Mystery 1: Great God Pan, White Powder, Inmost Light, Black Seal


Well-Known Member
Aug 21, 2010
We begin our review of Arthur Machen's oeuvre and life as discussed by Geoffrey Reiter in the readable dissertation below. Please let your comments be based on Reiter as well as your reading of the Machen stories listed in the title. Discussion of the stories apart from Reiter's comments might be better elsewhere, although after the Reiter-focused discussion is wellunder way no doubt there will be some appropriate reflections on the story (or the life) not so closely tied to the paper.
I've read the front matter and the first chapter. Reiter's thesis is twofold: (1) that critics have seen Machen's fiction, written during a career of around forty-five years, as something all of which may be interpreted in the light of Machen's lit-crit book Hieroglyphics (written 1899); and that (2) it will be more profitable to consider Machen's writing as showing changes in his concerns and beliefs as well as his style and plotting. This thesis seems promising.

Those who are interested in Machen but haven't learned about his life may appreciate Reiter's brisk survey thereof in these early pages.
Chapter 2 will have the most immediate appeal for many Chrons people because it is here that Reiter explores "The Great God Pan," The Three Impostors, etc from Machen's early to mid-1890s. These are likely to be the stories you've read if you've read anything by Machen, the stories that Lovecraft, Stephen King, and other horror writers praise. (One other well-known story, "The White People," belongs to Chapter 3.)

Herewith I'll offer a few notes on Dr. Reiter's second chapter, with probably more to follow.

I'm afraid my French is too rusty for me to make out the 200 or so words of a letter from Machen to a translator of "The Great God Pan" (p. 34). Thus i have to take Reiter's word for it that it proves that, when Machen wrote "Pan," he was "for all intents and purposes, an agnostic, at least in regards to mysticism and the supernatural. He did not believe encroachments from other worlds into our own were possible, if any such other worlds even existed" (p. 35). Reiter builds on this assertion the claim that Machen wrote supernatural horror fiction at this time to provide "a symbolic representation of the psychic consequences doubt can have on the human person."

I think Reiter is hampered here by something that we are apparently stuck with as regards Machen -- namely that we just don't have very much to go on. Though he wrote several autobiographical books and some of his letters survive, Machen doesn't, it seems, provide anything like the detail we'd like to have for some important times in his life, including this one. (Machen has been a favorite author of mine for almost half a century, but I have found his published letters very disappointing.) Can we be quote sure that "at this time, Machen is himself a skeptic, part of that very modernity" (p. 43)?

Reiter's discussion alludes to late Victorian anxieties about evolution, the doctrine of hell, agnosticism, etc. but the reader will have to look elsewhere for a satisfactory explanation of these topics, and, should he or she acquire that knowledge, the reader will still, I think, not find the matter vis-a-vis Machen clear enough. About the second topic mentioned, I would refer readers to Geoffrey Rowell's Hell and the Victorians, a book I've had in the back of my mind for many years in connection with George MacDonald's Lilith -- which was published about the same time as Machen's classic horror. But I haven't read the Rowell yet. I have great regard for the Victorian Hebraist and leader of the "Oxford Movement," and recall that he wrote What Is of Faith as to Everlasting Punishment? -- i.e., what must a faithful Christian believe, given that the incarnate Savior Himself, and the apostles, had as much to say as they do, about hell?

But I've digressed a bit.

Reiter is the first critic, so far as I have known, to point out the recurrence of the names of Metaphysical poets in "The Great God Pan" -- Vaughan, Herbert, Crashaw. The excellent George Herbert is quoted by Machen in "The Great God Pan" (Reiter, p. 37; I shoulda looked up that quotation years ago!) and it is certainly worth considering Reiter's suggestion that the poet Vaughan's alchemist brother is alluded to by Machen, a Vaughan passage with such sonorous language as "a certain Horrible Inexpressible Darknesse, the Magicians call it Tenebrae Activae"! (page 46)

The discussion on pages 46-47 raises questions about "The Great God Pan." You'll remember that climactic horror in which "Helen Vaughan" undergoes a revolting transformation. Reiter believes that the story would have us shudder at the thought that this could happen to any of us; that the ghastly evolutionary retrogression is nothing but an exposure of the nature of us all. If that's the case, then why have Helen be the monstrous progeny of a poor girl who had "seen the god Pan"? Conversely, if what happens to Helen reflects her monstrous birth, what relevance does it have for humanity? I think Machen himself probably hadn't worked this out. I don't think most readers wonder about this until they have read the story multiple times, if at all.

This may be a good time for me to say that, for over 20 years, I have thought that Machen might have been better off leaving the first chapter ("The Experiment") of "The Great God Pan" by itself. The story would end, then, with the dreadful fate of poor Mary and the Hawthorne-like coldness of the surgeon-experimenter. Much of the "filling" of "The Great God Pan" between "The Experiment" and the horror-scene discussed in the previous paragraph relates to Stevensonian or Doylesque London-encounters, rumors of depravity that culminates in suicide, etc. These pages are entertaining on a pulp fiction level, but aren't entirely convincing.

Reiter may be correct when he says (p. 48), that "Machen's world in The Great God Pan has no Christian redemption, no heaven. Only hell remains, and it is a materialistic hell, an abyss that is so terrifying because it lies within each person, since each person has implicitly risen from the same [sic] biological depths as Helen."

Dr. Reiter might consider whether "notorious" would be a better word choice than "infamous" on page 45 and elsewhere.

I haven't finished the discussion of "The Great God Pan," but that's enough for one posting. Anyone want to turn this into a conversation rather than a monologue?
The White Powder was the first the very first Machen story.
Hi, Baylor! I hope you will read Dr. Reiter's very readable dissertation with me/us. The only word I've encountered in his text so far that may be unfamiliar is "diachronic," meaning changing over time. This discussion is intended specifically for people who want to read and discuss the dissertation. It's an excuse for reading (rereading) Machen, to be sure, as well.

As we read Reiter's paper, it may be helpful to keep an eye on the chronology of Machen's writing. Go here

and scan down to find the section devoted to this short fiction.
I haven't read anything of his but "The Great God Pan", but I will be interested in following the topic and seeing a little study of the man who I have seen discussed before as being way beyond the standard fantasy writing.
Reiter concludes his discussion of "The Great God Pan" by resolving the difficulties of what happened to Mary and what happened to Helen Vaughan in terms of Lovecraftian "pure cosmic horror." I hope people reading this posting, and who are well acquainted with the Machen story, will read Reiter's argument for themselves. It may remind them of some of the more probing discussions/debates that we've had here at Chrons!

Many years ago I (Dale Nelson) published an article in the Machen journal Avallaunius (#7, 1991, pp. 19-24) in which I suggested that a key to the story's interpretation lies in Clarke's dream in the first chapter, which I won't summarize here, but which includes a mysterious cry, "'Let us go hence!'" I don't remember that anyone else who has written on the story has pondered what the cry means. I contended that it is likely to be a reminiscence of a passage in the writings of the Jewish-Roman historian Josephus. Perhaps you have never heard of him, but his Jewish War was once widely available in translation even, I believe, in quite unliterary households, because of its relevance to the New Testament and for the attestation of Christ that it contains. I provided evidence to support the likelihood of Machen having access to the book -- especially since he grew up in a parsonage. I suppose it is actually quite unlikely that the household didn't have its Josephus, though, of course, that doesn't in itself prove that Machen browsed in it.

Anyway, according to Josephus, just before, in AD 70, the Roman armies destroyed the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem (as Christ had prophesied was going to happen), this same cry was heard. It is clearly a supernatural phenomenon (one of several such phenomena) and not just a frightened citizen of the city looking to flee. Josephus doesn't explain it further, but it may be taken as the departure of the divine Presence from the Temple (which has never been rebuilt).

This may link with language later in Machen's story relating to the surgical violation of the unfortunate Mary, "'that when the house of life is thus thrown open, there may enter in that for which we have no name,'" etc.* In other words, there is a parallel between the departure of the divine Presence and the throwing-open of the Temple, and Mary's being thrown-open by the scientist's operation upon her. To say this is still not to spell out exactly what has happened here, but to notice an additional pointer. The story thus would retain the traditional Christian belief of the sacred nature of mankind, suggesting it by evoking the corresponding concept of blasphemy.

But I acknowledge that my exposition has ignored the strong flavor of Darwinism that also comes through in the climactic scene with Helen Vaughan's dissolution. Perhaps Machen is suggesting that God's method of creating humanity was "evolutionary" (yes, I realize that for many the concept of "theistic evolution" is an oxymoron, but we shan't go into that here, I trust), that is, a body was formed over time that would eventually, by God's act, be united with a soul. The surgeon's experiment sundered what God had joined together. It was an act of the profoundest sacrilege. For Mary, the subject of the experiment, this meant the rest of her life was to be that of an idiot, i.e. according to the etymology, one so severely mentally impaired as not to be able to take part in public life. Virginal Mary gave birth, in a grotesque parody of the conception of Christ, to a daughter who should never have existed; Helen has the beauty of Nature, if you like, but no soul. (Instead she is animated by Pan/the devil or a demon.) The concept of Nature here may be, not that of a romantic, but something akin to that of St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans, in which we read that nature is in bondage or slavery to corruption thanks to the Fall. The story's language of "corruption" would thus connect with that. Helen's flesh is beautiful (till the end), but it is in bondage to the indwelling evil spirit.

What I'm saying is tentative (and partial). I'd plead that, if anyone wants to engage with what I've just written, she or he should read Reiter's double-spaced paper first (pp. 36-58). I'm not sure how much I'm disagreeing with him. And I think the story does not lend itself to too confident an interpretation. I don't see this as mere mystification, as if Machen thought, "I could an' if I would" explain it all quite plainly, but prefers to play games with the reader. Rather it's part of Machen's artistry.

*I think this is further supported by one or two other Machen stories, btw.
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I had expected the story to be somewhat enjoyable reading due to all the praise for Machen that I'd read and the special emphasis people were placing on that story. Instead I was highly uncomfortable with what happened in it. I suppose the elements those people were appreciating were indeed of a philosophical nature rather than the events in the story itself. I noticed the heavy emphasis on science and the disdain for things other than the materialistic, but thought the science itself was bizarre enough to suit anyone wanting the fantastic; also it resembled the science in FRANKENSTEIN.
In his second chapter, Reiter mentions several other stories from about the same time as "The Great God Pan," but I was surprised that he basically ignored "[The Novel of] The Black Seal" from The Three Impostors, that well-known horror story of atavism. Here there's no surgery, but rather the patient tracing of the legends of a hidden race to a surviving, furtive race of troglodytes, matings between which and human beings are fertile; so modern humans and the abhorrent trogs are evidently the same, though the latter retain certain alarming abilities and habits that human beings have lost. This story is more purely a work of science fiction than "The Great God Pan." Of course, in its setting in The Three Impostors, "The Black Seal" is just outlandish rigmarole, but it seems to me a bit too easy to dismiss it from further consideration on that ground.

The same is true for "[The Novel of] The White Powder," which I suggested in my 1991 article seems to shed light on Machen's conception of what happens in "The Great God Pan," with the sacrilegious sundering of what God has joined in the human being. Reiter will want to deal with this story should he expand his paper into a book someday, since as it is his paper could be criticized for attempting to make the evidence of this group of stories (the ones I've mentioned plus a couple of others, "The Shining Pyramid" and "The Red Hand," fit the thesis rather than being truly read out from them.

What do I think? I think it quite possible that Machen was, at this time, rebelling against the Christian faith that he'd grown up with, and that he enjoyed writing stories with shocking implications vis-a-vis the ordinary believer. It seems that throughout his life, indeed, he resented that variety of Christian morality that is commonly called "puritan." I would see Machen, at this time, as quite possibly more deliberately aggressive towards "conventional Christianity" as Machen conceived it, than Reiter perhaps does. Reiter notes the origin of the title The Three Impostors in a possibly non-existent Renaissance-era satire of Moses, Christ, and Mohammed. Perhaps Machen derived some private gratification from the mockery, which, he'd have known, hardly anybody would recognize.

Support for the idea that Machen was, at this early stage in his career, hostile towards Christianity will be found in some pieces that hardly would be remembered if they weren't by a notable author, such as the "Double Return," etc.; such stories smirking at the "pious bourgeois" who is such a fond figure of fun for some young writers.

Yet Machen may, at times during this time, also have rejected the rather drab outlook of Victorian science, with its reductive materialism that had no real place for art or spirit. Writer says that Machen, at this time, have have "had the soul of a mystic but the mind of an atheist" (p. 86).

I wonder if Machen at this time wasn't hitting out on two fronts; as well as trying to sell fiction and simply to attain a high level of achievement in the realm of thrillerdom.

Readers of Reiter's paper may be interested in the amount of attention he gives to the Dyson-Phillipps frame.

Page 73 -- Machen poking at Dickens?? If that's going to be suggested, Reiter should note the very high regard indeed that Machen had or at least came to have, as seen for example in his introduction to A Handy Dickens, and which is reprinted in the Duckworth volume of thirty years or so ago.

As I said before, we would like to know more about Machen the man than we do. On the other hand if we knew more perhaps we would a little too readily "settle" questions of interpretation by going outside the literary work.

A further thought, to which I may recur: I like it that Reiter turns occasionally to note authors Machen certainly read or may have read but who are not read now, or not much, e.g. Sir Thomas Browne--

Literary Forbears of Arthur Machen

I will just say again that I think it may be found in due course that Coventry Patmore was an important influence on Machen, sooner or later.
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I should have indicated above that Dr. Reiter's discussion of the Dyson-Phillipps material in Machen's book really deserves attention from those interested in critical reading of The Three Impostors.

At this point I think I'll suspend further comment of my own on Machen stories examined in the first two chapters of Dr. Reiter's dissertation, hoping Chrons people will read them and comment here sooner or later. The stories probed in Chapter 2 are (with the exception of "The White People") the Machen works that Chrons readers are most likely to be familiar with.

I'll start a separate topic, Man Is Made a Mystery 2, on the third chapter of Reiter's paper, before long. It deals with "The White People" and other works.
Support for the idea that Machen was, at this early stage in his career, hostile towards Christianity will be found in some pieces that hardly would be remembered if they weren't by a notable author, such as the "Double Return," etc.; such stories smirking at the "pious bourgeois" who is such a fond figure of fun for some young writers.

One could also mention Machen's proclivity at the beginning of his literary career for translating works such as "the playful, chaotic, baroque, sometimes obscene and almost unreadable Moyen de Parvenir" (quoting Wikipedia).
The Great God Pan was really great. I did manage to pick up one more of the authors, but just couldn't get into it. That being said I was very much ill at the time. Hah. Are the rest of Machen books worth the read.
William Davey, thank you for joining the discussion, and welcome to Chrons!

In answer to your question, I'd say that some of Machen's work has been rereadable for almost fifty years of my life.

My personal favorites by Machen include his first volume of autobiography, Far-Off Things; his stories "The Novel of the Black Seal," "The Inmost Light," "The Novel of the White Powder," "The White People" among the famous horror stories; and "The Great Return" and "N" among his later stories. I also reread "The Terror," "Out of the Earth," etc. There are some little-known stories by Machen that may turn into favorites of mine, but perhaps it's soon to say; some of these are rather appealing. I don't care much for Ornaments in Jade, The Hill of Dreams, and The Secret Glory (which seems to me full of self-pity). I found Dr. Stiggins self-indulgent and unreadable and never finished it. I took up The Canning Wonder yesterday; it seems outrageously padded and I hardly think I will read it. I like The London Adventure more than Things Near and Far among his autobiographies other than Far-Off Things.

I've written about a number of Machen's works in a series at the Wormwoodiana blog (look under contributions by Dale Nelson).
Thanks alot. Would really love to read his autbiography Far-Off Things. To be honest I didn't even know he had an autobiography. Need to read The Great Return and N aswell. Would like to see some of his later work.
I haven't read anything of his but "The Great God Pan", but I will be interested in following the topic and seeing a little study of the man who I have seen discussed before as being way beyond the standard fantasy writing.

You might find The Three Impostors to be of interest .

The Hill of Dreams not horror novel and nor suspense novel . Its a try odd book and one that either you a like or hate. There is no middle group with this one.
You might find The Three Impostors to be of interest .

That book has a contrived frame story plus four embedded stories, two of which -- "The Novel of the Black Seal" and "The Novel of the White Powder' -- are discussed above. The other two stories, which despite "Novel" in their titles are quite short, are "The Novel of the Iron Maid" and "The Novel of the Dark Valley," and neither is much regarded, for good reason. They are not supernatural stories. In the first, a collector of torture devices meets a predictable fate; the latter is Machen's only Western, about rough justice exerted on outlaws by outraged settlers. It's fair to say that The Three Impostors is remembered mostly just because it contains the two first-named stories and because it's by Machen; otherwise it would probably be long forgotten. The two stories discussed above may be read on their own.
Didn't Hammer Pictures do an adaptation of Machen Innermost Light?