[This is an expanded reprint of a column which originally appeared in the May 15, 2003, issue of Hellnotes.]
“Of living creators of cosmic fear raised to its most artistic pitch, few if any can hope to equal the versatile Arthur Machen; author of some dozen tales long and short, in which the elements of hidden horror and brooding fright attain an almost incomparable substance and realistic acuteness.” So writes H.P. Lovecraft in “Supernatural Horror in Literature.”
Arthur Machen was born Arthur Llewellyn Jones in Caerleon-on-Usk, Gwent, South Wales, on March 3, 1863. He later took his mother’s maiden name of Machen. He grew up in a rectory near Caerleon where his father was a clergyman.
Machen was a solitary child and was fascinated by both the wilderness of the Caerleon area and by the many Roman artifacts unearthed there. Both of these elements show up frequently in his stories.
When he was 11, he was sent to Hereford Cathedral School and received a classical education. He was already interested in strange topics of literature and history. Though he was a capable scholar, his parents could not afford to send him to university. Instead, he decided to go to London to pursue a career in journalism. Just before he left, in 1881, he had his first publication, the private and anonymous printing of “Eleusinia,” a poem on ancient Greece. It is reported that he later destroyed most of the 100 copies, leaving only two intact.
Machen lived in poverty in London and was less interested in journalism than he was in reading extensively and exploring the vast city. His first book, The Anatomy of Tobacco, came out in 1884. His first fiction book, The Chronicle of Clemendy, a collection of stories in the style of The Canterbury Tales, was published in 1888.
In 1887, Machen married Amelia Hogg, who was involved in the London literary scene. That same year, Machen inherited a great sum from his father, allowing him financial freedom for many years to come.
Until this time, Machen’s work had been written in a style described as medieval archaism. In 1890, he turned to a contemporary style, publishing a series of short pieces in newspapers and journals. The themes of these pieces centered around the fantastic and gothic. He expanded one of his short pieces into “The Great God Pan” (1894), a tale of pagan sexuality and horror. After this came The Three Impostors (1895), an episodic novel which contains his most vivid depictions of horror. He achieved wide public recognition with these two works.
The year 1895 saw a change in the literary climate, a revolt against the decadents and aesthetes, and Machen’s supernatural horror writing was then deemed too shocking to be published. The ensuing five years was his most productive period, though the works he wrote then weren’t published until much later: “A Fragment of Life” (1906), “The White People” (1906), The Hill of Dreams (1907), and others.
Amelia died in 1899, plunging Machen into depression. He stopped writing and dabbled in the occult. He recovered steadily, mostly with the help of A.E. Waite, who invited him to join a secret society called The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the members of which were interested in spirituality and the occult. However, he was never closely involved with the group’s activities.
When his inheritance was exhausted in 1901, Machen joined a touring repertory theater group, and in 1903, he married again. His second wife, Dorothy Purefoy, was a singer and an actress. In the early years of his second marriage, Machen and Dorothy led a bohemian lifestyle, touring with the theater, and he had moved away from literature. After Hieroglyphics (1902), his exploration of literary theory, was accepted for publication, his interest in literature was gradually renewed.
Machen’s religious leanings changed during this time, from pagan themes to a more wholesome mysticism, which followed the general movement in the arts. This softening of theme reduced the power that was in his earlier writings. By 1907, he turned from fiction to religious writing, though he was interested more in the imaginative power of religion than its morality.
Seeking a more stable income, Machen returned to journalism in 1908. He did not enjoy the work but he stuck with it. In 1914, after the World War I battle of Mons, he wrote a story called “The Bowmen,” about celestial archers aiding the British in that battle. Some people took the story to be true, giving Machen great notoriety and public recognition. Another effect this story had was to induce him to return to writing fiction.
During the 1910s, Machen and his wife had two children, Hilary and Janet, and they led a comfortable life. In 1919, Machen lost his newspaper job after he wrote an obituary of his former editor, who was very much alive and who took exception to some of what Machen had written about him.
In the 1920s, Machen’s stories were discovered by Americans and this led to a resurgence of interest in his writings in Britain. His earlier work was widely reprinted on both sides of the Atlantic. His name quickly became a household word in both Britain and the States. By 1925, however, the Machen boom was over, and unfortunately, he did not profit enough from the renewed interest in his work to spend his declining years in comfort. He continued working as an essayist, journalist, and fiction-writer, but, with a few exceptions, such as “N” and “The Children of the Pool” (1936), the works he produced during this period were not as good as his earlier writings. Machen did not write much after the mid-1930s. He died on March 30, 1947.
One of the hallmarks of Machen’s work is his avoidance of graphic description of horror. He gave clues and left the rest to the reader’s imagination. Another is his mastery of description. In an interview in the October 10, 2002, issue of Hellnotes, Simon Clark said, “Machen described Welsh mountains, forest, streams and even urban London streets with such lyrical beauty it transformed me forever. He had the power to write about even an apple pie in such a potent way you saw a whole distillation of God, the cosmos and humanity’s soul within that golden crust.”
Tales of Horror and the Supernatural, published by Tartarus Press (a reprint of a 1948 A.A. Knopf edition), contains the most important of Machen’s stories. Tartarus also has published several other Machen books, a few of which are still in print. Chaosium and Wildside Press have trade paperback editions available.