Arthur Machen, born in Wales, lived most of his adult life in London and became part of the aesthetic movement of the late 19th Century. A lifelong author of what he termed ‘decadent horror‘, Machen explored themes of paganism and mysticism, imagining dark secrets and ancient fears behind the closed doors of everyday society. His most famous story, The Bowman, concerned a rescue by arrow-slinging Angels at the Battle of Mons in the First World War; it was mistaken as reported fact and he spent much of his later life emphasizing the fantasy of the story.
Machen was born as Arthur Llewellun Jones, in 1863, in Caerleon near Newport in Wales. A region full of rolling, romantic hills, roman ruins and folk tales of pagan gods this early environment exercised a profound influence on Machen’s writings, even, and especially, after he moved to London where his involvement in bright, literary society drew strong contrasts to his hometown.
His father was the local Anglican vicar and Machen (the family took his mother’s maiden name to benefit from an inheritance) enjoyed a typical upbringing in the lonely rural Wales of the Victorian era. Isolated from the Empire, the grand changes of industrialisation and the cultural tide that reflected it, Machen delved into the supernatural corners of a mystical landscape that retained its connections to an ancient past. The supernatural shadows played with Machen’s imagination and his good early education provided him with the ability to explore such themes in poetry and early short stories
He moved to London in the 1880s but it took almost ten years before his confidence and interest grew strong enough to enter in the literary scene of the capital of what was still a global, British Empire. Intially he had lingered in the suburbs, treating its landscape as an urbanized version of his hometown, desolate and forbidding but rich with secret pasts and ancient mysteries.
During this period he worked as a magazine sub-editor, translated texts of old French and began writing on The Chroncle of Clemendy. His parents passed away and soon Machen married, events that shifted his centre of gravity away from his birthplace, where his writing had begun to find its unique voice. He explored elements of the fantastic that he would later develop into the gothic horror of his most successful work; several short stories saw publication in fashionable newspapers and journals and he began to establish a reputation as a serious writer.
Society and Change
This was the time of Arthur Conan Doyle, Algernon Blackwood and Robert Louis Stevenson, where adventure fiction was devoured by a willing and growing readership. At the same time though the established order of society was being challenged by rapid industrial changes, with increasing freedom for self-improvement, rather than reliance on inherited wealth. This break for Modernism manifested itself through art, music and literature, with the London of the 1990s proving to be a maelstrom of new ideas. Machen became part of a decadent aesthetic, with it’s explorations of the subtle, seductive nature of the supernatural, it’s celebration of horror and the weird; he associated with Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley and enjoyed the lifestyle of a burgeoning, successful author.
His first novel, The Great God Pan was picked up by the pioneering London publisher John Lane in 1894 and its sybaritic themes brought notoriety and approbation in equal measure. The Three Impostors swiftly followed this first success and these two novels brought a tone of weird, chilling horror that would influence the writing of H P Lovecraft and others in later decades. His robust, sensual descriptions went beyond the subtle flirtations of his contemporaries and for a while he was celebrated for a new brand of fiction, and was very much in tune with the mood of his era.
Machen’s explorations of the mystical aesthetic began to fall from grace with the public trials of his friend and associate Oscar Wilde whose crime against society of the time was one of public decency. The stiff-necked institutions that governed the monumental British Empire deemed the open declarations of Wilde and his circle to be too decadent, too extreme, and it reflected a wider mood as the Victorian Age lumbered towards a new century.
Works and Writing
Machen made his living as a writer. Having worked first as a journalist he had begun to make a living by writing fiction. However, the outcry against the aesthetic movement in the mid 1990s left him without the means to publish his unique brand of mystical horror, but it was during this period he created some of his best work while taking employment again as a journalist, sub-editing the predecessor to the Times Literary Supplement, then called Literature.
His first wife died of cancer in 1898 and although this affected him deeply he went on to marry again in 1903 and embarked on a career as travelling actor before returning to fiction again. The period of heartbreak, reflection and redemption fashioned a significant change in Machen – his work gained subtlety and maturity and he moved from the raw paganism of his early work to the sort of nuanced mysticism and spirituality that his younger self would have abjured.
The House of Souls, a collection of short stories, was published in 1906, the highly regarded The Hill of Dreams in 1907 and The Secret Glory, written much earlier found publication in 1922. He also became more interested in mystical Christianity, writing his first Christian story, A Fragment of Life, included in The House of Souls. His daytime employment as a journalist thrust him towards Lord Northcliffe’s ‘Evening News‘ and because of his lyrical turn of phrase he was often called on to write pieces that went beyond the usual dull reporting of fact, covering events such as the funeral of Captain Scott (of Antarctic fame).
His work on the newspaper brought him a serendipitous celebrity during the early part of the First World War. He wrote a short piece of uplifting fiction to describe the rescue. by a host of celestial angels of the British army, at the Battle of Mons in August 1914. The Bowmen was taken up as an inspirational article and even though Machen strenuously denied any truth in the story, his protestations were lost in the fever of a war-racked nation clinging to any faint hope of divine intervention.
In the 1920s and 1930s Machen lived in fashionable parts of London and sublimated the earlier success of his fiction into a social whirl that focused on his celebrity, and the circle of wealthy friends that came with it. He died quietly in 1947, in Amersham, Middlesex very soon after the passing of his wife. His impact though was formidable and can be seen in the work of H. P. Lovecraft – who acknowledged as much in his ‘Essay on Supernatural Literature‘ in 1926 – Robert Bloch and Frank Belknap Long. Later authors too, Stephen King, Neil Gaimon, Clive Barker and that keen observer of human nature John Betjemen are amongst the many who cite Machen as a source of inspiration. Beyond the world of literature the films of Gulliermo del Toro (most obviously Pan’s Labyrinth) and Terry Gilliam are amongst those who have benefited from the powerful, imaginative writing of the master of decadent horror, Arthur Machen.
The text of this post will soon appear as Arthur Machen: Life, Times and Works in a new paperback edition of The Three Impostors and Other Creepy Tales, to be published by Flame Tree 451.
Other posts of interest in These Fantastic Worlds include:
- Virgil Finlay: Master of Dark Fantasy Illustration
- Henry Fuseli: Dark Gothic Fantasy
- Clark Ashton Smith: Master of Gothic, Pulp and SF Classics
- Robert Bloch: Master of Psychological Terror
- Algernon Blackwood: Master of Supernatural Fiction
- H. P. Lovecraft: From Weird to Modern Gothic
- William Hope Hodgson: Master of Weird Fiction
- Charles Brockden Brown: First American Gothic
- William Blake: Artist and Revolutionary
- Myths and Legends: Origins and Traditions
- Frankenstein by Jeffrey Catherine Jones
- The Only Connect series of posts starts here.
Pinterest board for the H. P. Lovecraft post is here.
Here’s a clip from Guillermo del Toro‘s incredible Pan’s Labyrinth: