Arthur Machen miscellany MIST AND MYSTERY (2022) from Darkly Bright Press


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Aug 21, 2010
Darkly Bright is a website and publisher with a strong emphasis on Arthur Machen's writings, notably works that have not been reprinted since their original appearance or that are likely to be unfamiliar. Site manager Christopher Tompkins publishes articles about Machen occasionally, as well. The press also publishes poetry and fiction by authors who seem to Tompkins to be kindred spirits.

I've been reading Mist and Mystery and finding it to be more interesting than I might have expected. After all, Machen mined his journalism for several books, such as Dog and Duck, The Shining Pyramid, and Notes and Queries. But for me, as someone whose liking for Machen is almost coextensive with my life as a reader of books -- I have been reading him for over 50 years -- there's much in this miscellany than I'm enjoying. I intend to post notes on this thread about that reading. I should say -- if anyone seeing this is a Machen fan, you might not want to wait long to order a copy, as DB editions seem to go out of print fairly quickly. The book compiles pieces from nearly 20 years of T. P.'s Weekly.

The one piece that, so far, I'm sure I have read, will be one that most Machen fans know already, "Out of the Earth," one of Machen's narratives about the malign Little People. Tompkins reprints it in its original form, with numbered section divisions and (I gather) some word changes. There's also an illustration which is more horrible when you look at it closely; at first you just get an impression of some scruffy-looking kids.

It's many years ago since I had a library copy of Machen's Selected Letters in hand, and my memory is that it was disappointing. I would have liked more about Machen's reading, for example. There's plenty of that here in this book. It's pleasing to read Machen's (brief) praise for Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi, in an illustrated edition from Chatto and Windus. He praises Blackwood's "story of the men on the island amongst the whispering mysterious voices of the willow [bushes]*," which he would place "in the very first rank of tales of terror." It's good to know also that Machen regarded The Turn of the Screw as "one of the very best horror stories ever written." Henry James was alive when that was written.

By the way, Tompkins published here

an intriguing critique of Blackwood by Machen.

Mist and Mystery bears witness again to the way Dickens's novels came so readily to Machen's mind that he mentions him repeatedly -- and he could trust that his readers knew the significance of an allusion to Gradgrind, for example. Here is reprinted "Poe the Enchanter: A Study in Aesthetics," in which he praises a study by Arthur Ransome (author of Swallows and Amazons, etc.). Machen particularly likes this sentence of Ransome's on Poe: "My admiration was always for something round the corner or over the hill."

*The book has a misprint, "lushes."
Machen: "... though ... I do not say that the quality of exciting violent disagreement is the one quality of good criticism, I do say that without this quality no really fine criticism can exist. The critic, if he be more than an entertaining chatterer, goes down to first principles, and first principles, on which so many of us differ, are the only principles which really are worth debate" (p. 72).

Here as elsewhere Machen sounds like Coleridge. I really don't know if there is any author more worth reading, for admirers of Poe and Machen and Tolkien &c., than Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

I'll quote Machen on Twain's Life on the Mississippi --

" is one of the most delightful and wonderful of books. ... here is a most enchanting book, more richly stuffed with adventurous matter than ninety-nine adventure stories out of a hundred; and yet its subject matter is the intensely technical art of navigating the Mississippi River. The moral is that there is nothing more delightful than technique if it be well-handled, and the stranger, the more remote the technique, the better we like it."

He liked Dr. Laurie Magnus's English Literature in the Nineteenth Century: "This is a book whichs tudents of modern literature should buy and keep on their shelves. ...poetry, as Mr. Magnus shows, is a kind of magic, a species of incantation..." Machen thinks in this cinnection especially of Coleridge and Tennyson -- "Tennyson, who, as a systematic and philosophic thinker, may be neglected, [but] who as a poetic craftsman cannot be too highly esteemed." Machen disagrees with Magnus, though, about the achievement of the Brontes, hailing Wuthering Heights as superior to Jane Eyre -- the former being "one of the most notable books in all literature" (p. 63).

Magnus's book is available for reading online, by the way, but it seems the Chatto edition of the Twain book at has had the illustrations whited out -- !

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Several articles express Machen's opposition to spiritualism, Mme Blavatsky, etc. He alludes to Robert Browning's satire about the medium Mr. Sludge.

He reviews a couple of novels that deal with "occult" subjects. Of R. H. Benson's "curious and fascinating" The Necromancers, he says "most decidedly a book to be read." However, though Evelyn Underhill's The Column of Dust was (as an editorial footnote remarks) dedicated to Machen and his wife, Machen is fairly critical -- he admires her ambition but doesn't regard the novel as a success. "I must say, in conclusion, that one of the most beautiful things in the book is the wonderful and convincing episode of the Holy Vessel of the Graal" -- that I'd like to look into.
I said that a book of Machen's letters had been a disappointment to me years ago, & I'd have liked more of Machen about his reading. There's a whole section in Mist and Mystery from a "Literary Week" column, and I've already drawn upon it in posting here. As one might have expected from reading Hieroglyphics, Machen is a pleasure to read as he comments on other people's books. On p. 115 I'm very pleased to see him writing with great appreciation for Mrs. Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Brontë. He says he's just been reading it "for the twentieth time, I suppose." I can at least attest that it's worth reading more than once; an authentic 19th-century classic. I have a Penguin Classics edition -- many people must have encountered this edition in recent years. But how intriguing, to see Machen refer to -- what are these? -- The Silence of Dean Maitland and Michael and His Lost Angel as "favourites of mine" that he mentions in the same sentence with The Scarlet Letter (p. 117). It seems I have a couple of leads here to follow up.

On page 119, "sedulous age" is, I guess, a typo for "sedulous ape."
My hunch is that the text of Mist and Mystery is derived from prints made from microfilms, and transcribed with much labor. I'm grateful for it. I'd like most of this material even if it were not by Machen, but Machen is, I realize, one of my permanent authors. This book is a welcome corrective to a "Machen" who shows up rather often among his most devoted readers. That Machen wrote works of horror and "Decadence" that are best encountered as published in limited and costly editions printed on fine paper with wide margins and savored with choice wine... or something like that. Here instead we have something of a latter-day Dr. Johnson, alert to language, discerning in literary taste, sure, but probably liking good talk and good beer.

There are a few errors that, I bet, are due to murky originals. On page 123 "Myths of the Monjik" refers to Russian folk beliefs; I'm sure the original is actually "Moujik," i.e. a Russian peasant. Blackwood's novel was Jimbo rather than Jumbo -- but how interesting to know that Machen had read and liked that, a book C. S. Lewis also read and praised (in a youthful letter to his best friend). I keep meaning to give that one a try...

Everyone has at least heard of The Scarlet Letter, but I wonder how many high school students or undergraduates who first encounter it in school would have been more eager to read if they were Machen fans and knew that AM had called it "certainly one of the finest romances the world has produced" (p. 122). But who any more has heard of Coventry Patmore -- and, if they have heard of him, have heard of him as being the author of "wonderful essays" (p. 131) as well as being the author of a long poem about courtship and married love the mere thought of which must offend the typical reader today, The Angel in the House? Yet the poem might be helpful to readers of Machen's "A Fragment of Life."

Machen's "The White People" may be considered one of the two greatest stories of supernatural horror (along with Blackwood's "Willows"). I wonder how many people remember the prologue's allusion to a review in the magazine Blackwood as an instance of wickedness? On pages 127-128 we have Machen, years later, commenting more moderately on the ill-mannered and reprehensible review of Keats's poems.

Dr. John Dee is liable to be mentioned by modern horror writers intending to impart an antiquarian flavor to their stories. This book contains an interesting piece about Dee and "the arch-impostor Kelley" (p. 87), who, Machen believes, duped Dee.
"How to Enjoy Life" -- early in one's career of reading Machen one wouldn't expect the author of "The Great God Pan," "The White People," "The Inmost Light," "The Novel of the Black Seal," "The Novel of the White Powder," etc. to write a piece with that title -- nor, perhaps, would one expect that, if somehow Machen did write it, it would have a theme of being content to be ignored, keeping focused on what matters.

I would love to learn that Machen had read artist Samuel Palmer's contribution to Gilchrist's Life of Blake. There we find words that have always seemed to me to be about as fine as any words one man ever wrote about another man. As a very young man, Palmer knew Blake. Many years later, he submitted a fine memoir of Blake of several pages, in which he said, "He was a man without a mask; his aim single, his path straightforwards, and his wants few; so he was free, noble, and happy." Palmer's words seem to me close enough to what Machen proposes in "How to Enjoy Life" that I do wish I knew Machen had read them -- and I'd like to know what he'd have said about them.

I was reminded also of Orwell in Down and Out in Paris and London (I think), about a certain freedom that he found when he wasn't striving for recognition, but, having hit bottom, experienced a kind of freedom from care. (But he didn't stay down there!)

Machen's essay is vulnerable to the criticism that he could be saying merely, "Do as you please and dismiss what anybody else thinks, embrace a life of settled selfishness" -- I don't actually think that's quite what he is saying. But if some folks here read the essay, perhaps we could talk it over. Incidentally here again Machen thinks of Dickens. Dickens for Machen is a touchstone of enjoyment and sanity. Do we have authors here at Chrons who serve us in that way? In general I don't see it. Our authors entertain us, perhaps supply us with intriguing ideas about the future and so on, but do we turn to them again and again as people who are on the same wavelength or as people on whose wavelength we would like to be, as companions through life? But Dickens was that for Machen.

I'm grateful for this book of Machen rarities.
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It's good to see, in the final piece here, that Machen grouped Sir Walter Scott with Dickens as "supremely great masters." I don't know if Scott is read any more. If he is not, that might be due in part to the incomprehension that, if I remember rightly, was shown by editors of a well-known college anthology of British literature, which, to represent Scott, included... the first chapter of one of his novels. Now the thing about Scott is that (from what I have experienced) it is safe as a rule of thumb to skip his introductory material and first chapters and to begin at Chapter 2. That is, I seem to recall -- it's perhaps ten or fifteen years ago now -- that these editors of a standard classroom anthology chose a portion of one of his novels that I have skipped when I read that one.

Without checking my copies, I would think that a good way to get started with Scott is

(1) put aside the medieval romances for which he has been best know and
(2) instead go to The Bride of Lammermoor, The Heart of Midlothian, or Old Mortality, and begin reading at the second chapter. I recommend a Penguin Classic edition -- perhaps not the most recent version but one of the old orange-spine editions from the 1970s -- for the notes.

In Far-Off Things, Machen's first book of autobiography, he mentions a Scott set in the family parlor and reading through them all (again, as I remember without checking). Scott is probably more important for Machen than a lot of admirers of Machen's horror stories realize.

Mist and Mystery includes a story, not previously read by me, "Many-Tower'd Camelot".. it seems rushed as the story is coming to a conclusion. It depicts Guinevere as a sorceress who, getting power over Lancelot by satanic magic, makes him her lover against his will, and they conduct their affair hidden under cover of magic. Lancelot sees the Grail, but this makes him feel pain. Guinevere had been assisted by a mysterious "lad" who eventually tells the king what is going on. The king shows mercy, however, at last, and the queen ends her life as a nun (as will be familiar from standard account) and Lancelot as a bishop. It seems to me that Machen hadn't really worked out his themes, etc. Machen might have written this in a hurry to meet a deadline. Did he intend to set up a contrast between the theory of love that Lancelot talked about when he innocently accompanied Guinevere before her marriage, and the compulsion wreaked by black magic?

I wonder if there will be another book of Machen rarities from Darkly Bright.
Hey, Extollager, thanks for the break down of the book.

A while ago I bought Hippocampus' Hieroglyphics and Other Essays, edited by ST Joshi. Do you know if there's a lot of overlap between both books, journalism wise?
I don't have the book edited by Joshi, but I have the impression there's a little overlap but not a lot.
I don't have the book edited by Joshi, but I have the impression there's a little overlap but not a lot.

The Table of Contents is available here

Perhaps it may not hold many surprises for an expert like you, but I've been dipping in and out of it before bedtime for months ago, and find many of Machen's remarks about art very interesting. Prior to this I knew little of his nonfiction.
The Table of Contents is available here

Perhaps it may not hold many surprises for an expert like you, but I've been dipping in and out of it before bedtime for months ago, and find many of Machen's remarks about art very interesting. Prior to this I knew little of his nonfiction.
At a glance it looks like there is no overlap, so I ordered the Joshi-edited volume. Joshi (within a very limited field) is a learned but annoying writer in my experience, but that book looks like a lot of interesting Machen.

I've been reading Darkly Bright's book of Machen essays What Do We Know? at bedtime -- I like it very much. Frankly one reason is that Machen likes his Dickens so much, as I do. What Do We Know? is out of print but should become available in paperback this year.

Do you know the Darkly Bright site? Christopher Tompkins is giving away a lot of Machen material -- weekly essays by Machen, some of them not even listed in the standard bibliography by Sweetser and Goldstone.

One of the enjoyable things about this is the trails Machen invites you to wander down as he comments on books and topics. I write about some of the former at Darkly Bright with an exploratory series called Books Around Machen.
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Do you know the Darkly Bright site?

Thanks to you I now do. Not living in the USA, it's hard for me to get some books from there, but I'll see my options. I think it's great there's more Machen nonfiction being printed at the moment.
There's a wealth of material at the DB site that you can access wherever you are! Yes, this is actually the Golden Age of accessibility to Machen material. There has never been more readily available to readers wherever they are, and much of it is free (lots at Darkly Bright, or books on, etc.). This availability is giving readers a better understanding of Machen the man, his themes, developments in his thought, the times in which he lived, and so on. I love the way at last Machen is getting out of the hands of a small group of collectors and into the hands of a much wider readership if they are interested. Those who want to collect original editions and so on also benefit in that they can go to sites like to see what's available from booksellers around the world (available to those with deep pockets, that is).

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