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The Hill of Dreams

by Arthur Machen

(Tartarus Press, 2006; $55.00; ISBN: 1872621937 .)

Review by William P Simmons

cover scanA storyteller of startling imaginative power and lyrical poetry, Arthur Machen (born Arthur Llewellyn Jones, 1863-1974) approached weird fiction with a mystic's belief and a craftsman's devotion to form, weaving tales of decrepit pagan influences and the conflict between external appearance and inner truths (among other themes) into his dark art. His thematic preoccupation with hidden realities have influenced innumerable authors of the fantastique, including H.P. Lovecraft, who ranked "The White People" as the second greatest weird tale, surpassed only by Blackwood's "The Willows."

Essayist, journalist, actor, and occultist (a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn), Machen's most inspired period came after receiving an inheritance, allowing him to devote his time to writing rather than earning his daily bread. Toil and tragedy were no strangers to Machen's life -- a shadow-tinged dream world where a late night walk could bring him face-to-face with characters from the pages of his own works and rambles through pagan ruins could transport him into fits of exquisite wonder. Perhaps best known for his scandalous late-Victorian story "The Great God Pan" (1894) and the episodic novel The Three Imposters (1890) (containing "The Novel of the White Powder" and "The Novel of the Black Seal"), Machen was at his most personal and revealing in the semi-autobiographical novel The Hill of Dreams (1907).

Released by Tartarus Press in time for its centenary next year, this, the most accomplished novel of the field's greatest dreamer, looks as exotic as its story reads. Including the three original illustrations by Sidney Sime, this reprint of the earlier edition (also from Tartarus) includes a rousing introduction by Machen himself, and special introductions by fantasist Lord Dunsany and author/critic Mark Valentine (whose own lyrical prose approaches Machen's evocation of the wondrous in the seemingly everyday). Published in 1907, during one of his major spurts of creativity, The Hill of Dreams is an adventure in the senses -- a celebration of feeling and instinct, of dreaming wide awake in a world opposed to anything outside the daily grind and banal mechanics of cold logic -- itself little more than an illusion shared by the majority. An intense, passionate read, the novel hides within its strangely simplistic seeming 'plot' a deeper story -- and a subtext -- of universal significance. Traditional plot -- a narrative device moving the action of a story through an accumulation of events that lead to a crises -- is spare herein, largely bypassed by the central character's emotional stimulus as he struggles between Fay and reality, whatever that may be. Emotions and sensations, the stuff of raw experience, is Machen's emphasis.

Nothing less than a journey inward through the realms of spirit and discovery, Hill of Dreams re-invents itself anew with each reading. Lucian Taylor, a young man teetering perilously between the hazy realms of fantasy and reality, recreates those twilight visions and fancies experienced by Machen himself as a youth. These sensations, filtered through Lucian, promise salvation while threatening damnation. Wonder, awe, mystery -- they are the waters of streams, boundaries of land, and whisp of the air. Within the natural world and the secrets it conceals is the suggestion of a greater reality. "An interior tale of the soul and its emotions," the resulting passion inside Lucian follows him as he becomes a writer and moves to London. Nature, and his deeply felt affinity with its secrets, conflict with his cultural fear that he may be damned, until his yearning for dream proves tragic.

At once both a reaffirmation and broadening of the Pagan devotion he had explored earlier in his career, The Hill of Dreams explores a natural mysticism and sense of ancient vitality both threatening and ecstatic. As dangerous as it was potentially liberating, the weird essence of wonder and dark miracles found in a life devoted to/controlled by history, wonder, and the occult -- nourished by strange byways of existence and art unfelt by the common herd of Man -- Machen's approach to paganism in this manifesto is at turns awe-inspiring and cautionary. Warning without preaching, loving without completely embracing the allure of the mystical that feeds the mortal mind through ecstatic experiences gleaned primarily from visions and art -- the very instrument of terror and pathos -- this novel is an essential work in the Machen cannon. Whereas "The Great God Pan" was a horror story devoted to deviant sexuality, suggesting the dangerous wonders of the infinite as the sexual union with Nature resulted in the birth of a femme fatale who infiltrated British society through the paradoxical pleasures and corruption of sexual enticement, the poetic wonders experienced by the young visionary (Machen himself, thinly veiled) are nourishing at the same time that they separate the artist/seer from the everyday walk of common life. Such an existence is both lonely and an invitation to madness. Beauty, and the gift of knowing, of touching such beauty, has a price. And if the Great God Pan is the primal power of nature unveiled -- a terrible, savage, awesome terror-- than the mystical experience inherent in Dreams is both a spiritual baptism and introduction to social isolation.

In this novel, Machen points an accusing finger at the suppressing nature of organized religion through which most men define their realities, including Christianity, which failed to offer an experience of the infinite which they spent so much time talking about. This was a theme he explored through most of his life, yet nowhere is its message of angst and disdain more noticeable than in Hill of Dreams. Also apparent is Machen's favored belief that there are truths hidden within the exterior crust of the natural world. The surface layers of reality are exposed as deceitful symbols whose purpose is to hide from humanity the terrors which constitute true reality. The modern Shaman, revealing the secrets of, and opening the gates to, the magical otherworld is the storyteller. Machen and the young conflicted poet he depicts in this journey through personal hell and salvation the archetypal questor in search of truth, searching for the infinite in hopes of experiencing personal transformation through art. Nature is a flimsy screen behind which the cosmos hides paradoxically dangerous yet transforming wonders.

In Hill, Machen's ideas and approach, much like the authentic religious experience he himself sought, were symbolic forms signifying still greater mysteries. The young, maddened dreamer of the novel is caught in a sleepwalking 'between' world, a life which is only partially perceived. The attention paid to the illusion of the senses and logic -- the mechanisms by which most men attempt to measure the world and their place in it -- represents the materiality that Machen, unlike such authors as Lovecraft, embraced. He attacks such materiality by emphasizing the limitations of scientific logic. The infinite, and an accompanying interest in secret truths beneath "illusions" of reality, are expressed with consummate power here. Journey: the very word leads one to contemplate a proposed destination. Each road has an end, each map leads to something of definite value or definition ... or does it? Better yet, must it? Not in Machen's fascinating universe of introspection, subversion, and paradox. For Machen, as well as for the young hero of Hill of Dreams, the journey towards the sublime, the movement towards inexplicable nightmares and truths too horrible to behold, are the very sum of narrative. And each journey digs deeper inward. The process of wonder leads to transformation ... but never to a decisive answer.

In the final analysis, Arthur Machen in Hill of Dreams successfully merges appearance with internal mystery, suggesting the different truths singing beyond each. He suggests a flaw in our observational abilities to interpret truth vs. image, symbol vs. meaning. His words, inspiring awe and terror, are a testament to the lasting value of the horror story, emphasizing the powers lurking within the fringes of experiences too horrible and, at times, too beautiful for the mortal mind to comprehend without the filtering lens of art.


Review by William P Simmons.

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