Mr. Machen, Strongbow Cider and a Hill of Beans
This past weekend, on Sunday, we went off to attend the Second Foundation Group's discussion of Mr. Arthur Machen. We met Mr. Till from the FATE SF & Everwayan blogs for brunch there at Merlin's Rest, a Britophile-type pub. Brunch was pretty decent all in all, and I was happy to sample Strongbow Cider once and for all. Wonderful stuff. Especially for breakfast. Yum.
In regards to Mr. Machen...
"Sorcery and sanctity...these are the only realities. Each is an ecstasy, a withdrawal from the common life."
...I've read a great deal of his work, especially his weird fiction, some of his essays, The Hill of Dreams (Wikipedia / Gutenberg) and so on. Quite a bit of his work is available for free at Project Gutenberg, so if you haven't read any of his stuff yet, why not check out The White People, The Great God Pan, The Inmost Light (all of which are collected in The House of Souls), or The Three Impostors?
Arthur Machen is one of those authors that have fallen into a twilight of obscurity, his work is not quite forgotten, but it is not exceptionally well known either. H.P. Lovecraft respected Machen's story The Great God Pan quite a bit, mentioning enthusiastically in his famous essay on the Supernatural in Horror and borrowing a good bit of the literary yeast from it to brew up his own Dunwich Horror. Machen's best stories, like The White People or any of the installments of The Three Impostors, and especially The Great God Pan provide a glimpse into a variety of moral train wrecks and terrible choices--and the horrific consequences of those choices--that are redolent with all manner of unsavory implications and weird complications. The real impact, the horror of it all comes not from the words Machen committed to paper, but from the wicked hints and things he left unsaid. It's after you finish reading his stories that the horror bubbles to the surface, like glistening black oil seeping through the floorboards. Certainly, the surgical quackery of Great God Pan and misogynistic malpractice of Inmost Light both are quite nasty in and of themselves...but when you consider the knock on effects that follow in the wake of either surgical procedure...the implications grow increasingly twisted and troublesome. By piercing the veil through some sort of reverse-lobotomy, the protagonist in GGP manages to awaken some hidden or latent faculty of sensory perception that allows the subject to apprehend the underlying reality surrounding us all, what the ancients referred to as 'seeing the Great God Pan,' a surgically-rendered state of gnosis. Mutilation as enlightenment. Of course it is only a '...trifling rearrangement of of certain cells, a microscopical alteration that would escape the attention of ninety-nine brain specialists out of a hundred.' But what it unleashes upon an unsuspecting world...wow. Helen Vaughn is one of those great villains whose career takes place mostly off-stage, and we only ever get to see some of the fall-out, after the fact. There is a powerful sense of many, many weird, vile and despicable things having taken place that are pretty much left up to our own imaginations, and that is one of the strengths of Machen's best stories. He leaves a lot of the details up to you, the reader.
"Life, believe me, is no simple thing, no mass of grey matter and congeries of veins and muscles to be laid naked by the surgeon's knife; man is the secret which I am about to explore, and before I can discover him I must cross over weltering seas indeed, and oceans and the mists of many thousands years."
One of my favorite examples of how Machen delivered disturbing implications like subtle little landmines sprinkled throughout his fiction is in his story The Inmost Light. Here a down on his luck would be scientific experimenter, a self-proclaimed genius, cajoles and brow-beats his own wife to submit to become the subject of a human experiment. And not just any old experiment. He intends to extract her soul and place it into a gemstone in a process far more like some sort of perverse alchemical rite than a legitimate scientific inquiry. She consents. He removes her soul. She becomes a 'satyr-like monstrosity' that must be destroyed, as the loss of her soul has transmuted her brain into something no longer quite human nor animal, but rather it has now become more like that of a devil, whatever that really means. (Has anyone actually dissected a devil's brain?) But here's the thing, in the course of conducting this nightmarish medical experiment the so-called scientist conclusively proves that his wife actually did possess a soul, at least until he removed it. He proved the existence of the human soul, or at least that women have souls, which makes this story quite conflicted from a modern/feminist viewpoint, no doubt. Of course, the protagonist would need to repeat the process on a male to show whether or not men actually have souls, for such is the way of science.
"..when the house of life is thus thrown open, there may enter in that for which we have no name, and human flesh may become the veil of a horror one dare not express."
But proof of the existence of the soul is completely overlooked. It's a minor, inconsequential side effect. Hardly even relevant. But then the entire experiment is botched and badly handled. There's no control, shoddy records kept in a cheap journal, only one subject and we don't know for sure just how reproducible the results might really be. There's tons of speculation possible. The industrial applications of extracted souls, and the exploitability of soulless laborers are left unexplored, but it does invite speculation. Which is one of the reasons why Machen has been such a major inspiration and influence on Wermspittle. For instance, my Flash fiction story Extractive, which is directly inspired by the transference of the human soul into a weirdly opalescent gem, that could be misconstrued as a version of the Philosopher's Stone...in Wermspittle the Soulless experience a form of unholy longevity as a side-effect of the extraction process. This is why certain individuals seek this operation out, voluntarily undergo the process, and consider it a fair trade-off for what they receive in return for their souls. And that is before I even mention the infamous White Powder, which is if anything, even more integral to the Corruption Trade that dominates Wermspittle.
"...the universe is verily more splendid and more awful than we used to dream. the whole universe, my friend, is a tremendous sacrament; a mystic, ineffable force and energy, veiled by an outward form of matter; and man, and the Sun and the other stars, and the flower of the grass, and the crystal in the test-tube, are each and every one as spiritual, as material, and subject to an inner working."
But getting back on track, we discussed The White People, Hill of Dreams, and The Three Impostors as well as some of Machen's other works. It was remarked upon by more than one of us present that Inmost Light, Great God Pan and The White People taken together form the essential core of an Ur-Mythos that has served as a vital root for what we take for granted as being the so-called 'Cthulhu Mythos,' but in fact these stories stand apart from the usual Yog Sothery and are entrees into their own mythos unto themselves. It's easy to see the attraction of Machen's weirder stories for the speculative Cthulhuist, but really, these tales can and do form a fairly vital seed-core unto themselves and do not require getting grafted onto HPL's imaginative juggernaut of collective post-modern myth-making. There is much that could yet be profitably explored taking the various weird revelations of Mr. Machen's tales as an inspiration...Many of Machen's best stories remain potent and rife with all sorts of weird loose-ends, tantalizing implications and horrible side-effects yet to be described or explored.
"It is hard to write of such things as these, and chiefly because that shape that allured with loveliness was no hallucination, but, awful as it is to express, the man himself. By the power of that Sabbath wine, a few grains of white powder thrown into a glass of water, the house of life was riven asunder and the human trinity dissolved, and the worm which never dies, that which lies sleeping within us all, was made tangible and an external ting, and clothed with a garment of flesh."
The discussion of Machen's life, personality, and body of work was great good fun. Inspiring even. I particularly liked the comment that the Angels of Mons/The Bowmen, which Machen publicly stated frequently and often had become something of a burden to him, a hindrance to his career of sorts, might not have been an outright hoax at first, but could well have been an actual supernatural experience, especially as it was originally published in a newspaper, etc. As our host remarked; perhaps Machen protested too much. Very interesting line of speculation there.
All in all this was a great discussion and we're both looking forward to the next one.
In the meantime, I intend to go back and re-read The Three Impostors all over again...after all, like Machen's London, Wermspittle is a city of resurrections...just not in exactly the same sense...perhaps...