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The Secret of the Sangraal & other writing

by Arthur Machen

(Tartarus Press, $65.00, 375 pages, 2007, ISBN: 978-1-872621-18-0.)

Review by William P Simmons

cover scanHow many times do we wish we had greater insight into the personal reflections/opinions of some of our greater authors of supernatural horror and mystical realism, feeling the need to go beyond their fiction and see some glimpses into the processes and philosophies behind their literary creations? While a sense of autobiography is by no means necessary for the enjoyment of a good story, nor demanded for a sound understanding of an author's importance, such impressions as can be gleaned of an author's personal views on his art and the world are valuable tools for establishing a context within which to analyze fiction. Autobiography and non-fiction invites greater understanding of fiction, lending it a cultural and aesthetic context that makes way for deeper philosophical queries. It is too bad, then, that so little personal information exists concerning some of the greatest practitioners of the weird tale. Thankfully, Arthur Machen doesn't fall into this category, for he was an author whose views and approach to both life and art may be examined through the several pieces of journalism, prefaces, and essays that he left behind. The Secret of the Sangraal & Other Writings is a gift to lovers of this seer's fictions, examining his mystical approach to life and art. These essays and article invite analysis, argument, and, perhaps most importantly, an opportunity to examine how closely (or not) his personal beliefs matched his imaginative writings.

A generous collection of difficult-to-obtain non-fiction ranges in scope between personal reflections to journalism discussing issues of worldwide import. A diverse array of subjects are covered, from recollections concerning his own early days as a penniless wonderer in London, though the dark annals of folklore, to the legend of the Holy Grail (the major theme in The Secret Glory). Among the pieces collected are the contents from Dog and Duck (1924), Notes and Queries (1926), Tom O'Bedlam and His Song (1930), Bridles and Spurs (1951) and A Note on Poetry (1949). A small number of individual pieces also appear, including, most notably, his short but insightful "Bibliographical Notes" from Arthur Machen: A Bibliography (1923).

Publisher Ray Russell acknowledges in his introduction that the volume in no way claims to be the definitive collected edition of Machen's non-fiction. Such a book would be costly, and not all of the author's thoughts are of interest. While not exhaustive, this volume is nevertheless an indispensable addition to the library of not only the Machen reader but student of weird fiction in general. Included are some of the author's most eccentric, brilliant, and at times mystifying musings on art, life, legends, myths, and the art/craft of writing. From serious to comical, Machen's biting wit (and sometimes surly nature) is ever present. From musings on the origins of holidays to lamentations of the passing of time, this is valuable literature, reflecting not only a writer's evolving thought but key pieces of personality. Machen is represented here as mystic, as Occult Christian, as fantasist, and as a caring, sometimes wounded, often times bold man -- a believer in himself and his opinions delighting in adversity and injecting obvious enthusiasm into each essay or remembrance. A sense of pleasure is available in practically every memory or essay put forth, from the fanciful dreamings of his esoteric wonderings to the more sensational words of journalism. While the pleasure and intellectual worth of such a volume as this should be immediately recognized, one of the chief uses of these writings is the chance for the curious to draw connections between Machen's fiction and life.

A storyteller of startling imaginative power and lyrical poetry, Machen approached weird fiction with a mystic's belief and a craftsman's meticulousness, weaving fantasies of decrepit pagan influences and the conflict between external appearance and inner truths into challenging art. These themes are further explored in his personal queries concerning ancient customs, superstitions, and religious rites, serving as an appendix, of sorts, to his stories. Such essays as "The Cult of the Secret," "Superstition or Instinct," and "Celtic Magic" reflect principal concerns of his work at the very same time that they show glimpses into his very personal sense of internal mysticism. We also get Machen as a historian of customs and traditions in "On Valentines and other Things," "'April Fool!" and "July Sport." Essayist, journalist, actor, occultist: each of Machen's personalities is examined.

A better appreciation of several of Machen's key narratives can be gleaned within these diverse essays, particularly those dealing with the Sangraal of the title, Arthurian legend, the Grail legends, and other explorations of myth and lore. Just as his characters often saw (or sensed) gleans of the mystical beyond the veil of the everyday (and terror behind mysteries humanity is neither prepared nor capable of knowing), so too can we detect several of Machen's fictional obsessions -- content that was inspired by, and often reflected, his interest in the deeper truth of symbols. Most fascinating are those pieces that reaffirm his belief that the world we know (or are taught from birth to define) is but a curtain of sensory stimuli and intellectual beliefs beyond which lurk more substantial and terrifying truths. These writings are further extensions of Machen's art as a storyteller as well as testimonies of a mythologist, reporter, and man of the world. From the sensationalized account of the Angels of Mons to his personal write-ups on some of his key supernatural tales, this carefully assembled collection depicts various sides of Machen's interests and composition styles in one convenient, reasonably priced volume.

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