Aaron Worth on Machen’s Gothic Transmutations

Posted by Timothy Jones on April 11, 2018 in Uncategorized tagged with ,

Last month, I had the opportunity to speak with novelist Phil Rickman as part of his BBC Radio Wales book programme, in an episode titled ‘Can horror fiction return from the dead?’. Its theme, as the title suggests, was horror’s sudden decline in popularity after the boom of the 1980s—a grisly case of ‘genre-cide,’ as Phil put it—as well as its future prospects for revivification. After an interview with Owen King—whose collaboration with his famous father (Sleeping Beauties) was in the end summed up as ‘occasionally a bit scary…but not horror’—Phil spoke with a pair of contemporary British novelists, Katherine Clements (The Coffin Path) and Neil Spring (The Ghost Hunters, The Lost Village), and discussed a third, Andrew Michael Hurley, author of the celebrated The Loney (2014). Back of all this discussion of (chiefly British) horror fiction and its potential resurrection loomed the shadow of Arthur Machen, whose representative, in a sense, I was. (Certainly he was the only reason I had been invited on!) Machen stood, at least implicitly, for a potent native tradition of fear-literature to which today’s writers might return for inspiration, since one couldn’t simply turn the clock back to the genre’s golden years (‘golden,’ at least, in the sense of ‘highly profitable’), the heyday of King, Koontz, and Lumley.

Now, I must disclose that I have not yet read any of the novels discussed on the programme (though after hearing Phil describe them, I most certainly plan to, as all sound captivating). But it did strike me that these modern tales of ghosts, haunted houses, and bleak Yorkshire moors seem to belong clearly to a specifically Gothic tradition in Britain—a line of descent passing also through the works of, among others, the Brontës, Daphne du Maurier, and Susan Hill; more, they seem to occupy a less…complicated position in relation to that tradition than do Machen’s own pièces noires (as Aidan Reynolds and William Charlton called his darker numbers). For a start, there are no ghosts in Machen, or hardly any (‘The Exalted Omega’ is an undeservedly obscure exception).

So…just how ‘Gothic’ was Machen, anyway? He can, of course, be found in such collections as Roger Luckhurst’s excellent anthology of ‘Late Victorian Gothic Tales.’ And it’s true that the term is an elusive, elastic, and contested one anyway. But Brian Stableford was surely on to something in calling Machen ‘the first British writer of authentically modern horror stories’—of something different, in other words, from Gothic fiction. But in what, exactly, does that difference inhere? There are as many answers to this question as there have been those who have posed it. Certainly Machen owed little or no direct debt to the foundational writers in the British Gothic tradition, though in certain cases he drew inspiration from the same sources: in particular, both he and William Beckford were powerfully influenced by the Arabian Nights. (Such American practitioners of the Gothic as Poe and Hawthorne were far more important as direct influences on Machen.)

More and more, I have found myself thinking of Machen’s art as (to use a key Machen term) a transmutation, or series of transmutations, of the Gothic tradition. In his tales, the tropes and topoi of Walpole and Radcliffe are not so much absent as subjected to a potent alchemical operation. One such transmutation, as I discuss in the introduction to the Oxford World’s Classics collection under the heading ‘Deep Gothic,’ can be seen in Machen’s treatment of time: the Gothic novelists had also been obsessed with the past, but he was among the first, perhaps the first, writer to invest a Gothic temporality with the seemingly inexhaustible depth associated with the new historical sciences of the nineteenth century.

Then there is Machen’s pioneering use of the trope of parallel dimensions, of multiple or alternate realities occupying the ‘same’ space. One of his first stories, ‘The Lost Club,’ explored something like this theme, to which he would return a number of times—most memorably perhaps in the late story ‘N,’ where the London (then-)suburb of Stoke Newington is imagined as a place where another reality impinges—sometimes, and under certain conditions—upon the one we know. Interestingly, Machen seems to have specifically chosen this district, at least in part, for its association with Poe—in particular with Poe’s archetypal story of Gothic doubling, ‘William Wilson.’ Machen, like Stevenson whom he imitated closely for a time, had himself explored the theme of the Gothic double (in modern critical parlance) in tales like ‘The Novel of the White Powder’ and the prose-poem from Ornaments in Jade alternately titled ‘Psychology’ and ‘Fragments of Paper.’ One way, perhaps, to think about Machen’s early treatment of the ‘otherworld’ trope is as an extension of this concept into another register: the imaginative invention, as it were, of a ‘spatial Doppelgänger.’ (One might say that it is also a modern reconceptualization of the Gothic trope of the hidden or secret space—the chamber or passageway concealed, unsuspected, within the dimensions of the castle or manor house.)

And it is, perhaps, this potent gift of conceptual transmutation—the habit of thought that Arthur Koestler called ‘bisociation’ and that, more recently, cognitive scientists have termed ‘conceptual integration’ or ‘blending’—which made Machen simultaneously a strong maker of horror and one who has proven notably resistant to direct imitation: while there have been scattered homages, like Mark Samuels’s entertaining ‘The Man Who Collected Machen,’ a ‘Machenian’ school, analogous to the ‘Lovecraftian’ one, is difficult to imagine. This may help to explain, too, why some of the finest creative works influenced by Machen, like Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, are themselves ‘transmutations,’ rather than mere pastiches, of elements of Machen’s own creative vision.


Aaron Worth is the editor of the newly published Oxford World’s Classics hardback edition of Machen’s The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories. Details here: https://global.oup.com/academic/product/the-great-god-pan-and-other-horror-stories-9780198813163?cc=gb&lang=en&



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