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Tales Of Horror and the Supernatural

by Arthur Machen

(Tartarus Press, $40.00, 2002.)

A storyteller of impressive imaginative power, startling authenticity, and undeniable originality, Arthur Machen brought studied discipline and a deep understanding of the uncanny to the craft of fiction, an artistic medium through which he strived to communicate the terror and joy of a world comprised of more than the five senses, the petty dictates of logic, or the suppressing nature of organized religion through which most men defined their realities; including that of the Christian Church, which Machen belonged to while acknowledging its lack of ability to supply modern citizens with the tools or desire to experience the infinite, which the Welsh author felt waited instinctively beneath and/or within the very fabric (or crust) of seemingly commonplace geographies of flesh and spirit, knowledge and feeling.

An artist in both the interpretation and writing of fiction, Machen's spiritual sentiments, personal aspirations, and work achieved a rare state of interwoven harmony, resulting in near perfect weddings of content and form, structure and the powerful ideas beneath which, much like religious experience, were admittedly little more than symbolic forms signifying even greater unexplainable mysteries. This sense of the undiscoverable and the unclassifiable -- a mythical/mystical resonance of the eternal beauty and magical possibility belonging to life yet disguised beneath (or hidden within) exterior realties created and sustained by a species unwilling and perhaps unable to comprehend the face of infinity, was a constant theme running through Machen's fictions, and, coupled with his daringly unique critical stance towards writing as an art form, as well as his position as a decadent author in a time when Victorian sentiments still held sway, made him one of the most interesting, significant, and controversial (if oft overlooked) authors of the 19th century.

Tales Of Horror And The Supernatural, a generously thick collection of the author's arguably best short macabre fiction is a celebration of primal mysteries and complex human conflicts between psyche and soul which serves as a fine, fitting tribute to a man whose life was as paradoxical and mystifying as much of his fictions. Featuring such seminal, influential weird classics as "The Great God Pan," "The Inmost Light," "The Shining Pyramid," and "Novel Of The Black Seal," including selections from The Three Imposters as well as future volumes of short expression (which many critics feel were not up to his earlier efforts) Tartarus's presentation of Machen's influential nightmares offers both a gift and a challenge to an age where the common crux of mankind, still as hungry for dark miracles and the salvation offered in unfettered imagination as they were in Machen's era, is also just as unwilling to entertain possibilities of experience, feeling, and spirit outside the prosaic doctrines taught from the church pupil or within the recycled pages of the daily newspapers.

Math and science, the limiting scope of so-called logic and the importance of symbol in art and everyday living are themes that consistently inform Machen's writing. To appreciate the author's creative power and far-reaching poetry one must be willing to first accept the possibility that life is a labyrinthian puzzle-play of varied shades and dimensions rather than the one-sided, black and white moral and/or physical construct that many a conservative politician and media institution has long claimed. Luckily, Machen's level of craft and infectious enthusiasm snares even casual readers into subversive, shadowy border-lands of occult possibility, making the impossible seem probable and the horrid appear quite attractive if dangerous. One thing Machen never does is neglect to ask the reader ... why? The ability to frame within his entertainments questions of ethics and perception (the very primer for reality) are captured in several of the stories that comprise Tales Of Horror And The Supernatural, at once both a textbook of esoteric thought, a map of wonder, and a how-to manual of arousing terror and repulsion by first arousing the harder-to-attain emotion of awe.

Borderlands are ever present in Machen's cannon of weird tales, playing no less a role in the meaning and, at times, the purpose of his narrative puzzles than do the flesh-and-blood characters in accounts of lost civilizations, realities beyond realities, supernaturalism embedded within the very fabric of so-called realistic experience, and human minds in turmoil with themselves and appearances rarely as well behaved or as fixed as the author's numerous artists and professors, professionals and tradesman at first believe, and which often strike the internal spark of altered perception in narratives encouraging transformations of thought, emotion, and flesh. These "borderland experiences" between the real and surreal, mind and body are one key towards better appreciating Machen's craft, with philosophies and archaic symbols representing mysteries more profane than any clergyman could hope to approach.

Society, an organism which is often characterized by sheep-like dependence on the infallibility of mere appearances, is regularly depicted as a harmful, ineffectual mechanism in such tales as "Novel Of The White Powder" and "The Great God Pan." The average man of Machen's Victorian-tainted society, much like the up-down/black-white citizenry of contemporary life was content to look upon a symbol, say a crucifix or an altar, and see only its shape -- its physical form and how it might best serve a practical purpose. This one-sided, limited method of observing the world and humanity's place within it are carefully interwoven in Machen's fictions, which are as much about discovery as resulting transformation. Students and academics, poor men or those of great means -- all, for the most part, are content to simply perceive and enjoy an outward shell or semblance of life by simplistic, unquestioning adherence to an outward appearance of shapes and rules, customs and brightly-lit pathways. It is interesting to note that the most adventurous of Machen's characters, the most intelligent personas are the artists and authors, the thinkers and philosophers -- men neither with their feet firmly on the ground nor with their heads fully in the clouds, but, rather, men who are explorers, traveling heroes of old in new skins who are able to meet the demands of everyday survival while willing to consider the possibilities of alternative modes of logic and experience. The professor in "The Novel Of The Black Seal," the author in "Novel Of The White Powder," and the artists in The Three Imposters are all creatively inclined characters not only able to hear the song of outward spheres but, indeed, are each eager to escape their limited senses and psychological constraints, hungry for the pleasures of revelation to be had in their respective spiritual and mental journeys (most often accompanied by physical dangers).

The very concept of a journey immediately leads one to contemplate a proposed destination. The road has an end, the map leads to something of value ... or does it? Better yet, must it? Not in Machen's fascinating universe of introspection, subversion, and paradox. To Machen, and particularly so in his supernatural fiction, the journey towards the sublime and unearthly, the internal or external movement towards inexplicable nightmares or truths too horrible to behold were the whole and sum of the narrative experience. Just as the author thought sacred mysteries of being and spirit were beyond final comprehension, so to are the gods, monsters, deities and little people of his modern experiments in myth-making. The process of wonder and imagination, the labor of intellectual and/or physical change leads to transformation but never, ever to a decisive answer or final solution. This as both a literary concept and philosophy was of course impossible for a majority of Machen's contemporaries and fellows to understand yet alone embrace, leading to the author's status as an outsider in the rather fickle world of letters.

Perhaps one of the greatest stigmata attached to the author's writing was critics' placement of him alongside the decadents for his shocking treatment of sexuality and unapologetic depictions of pagan-like instincts in the socially and imaginatively rigid moral temperamental structure of the Victorian mind. By 1891, Machen had proved that he could write popular fiction. Receiving a small degree of temporary financial independence after his father's death, Machen moved into the country with his first wife, Amy. It was there that he wrote "The Great God Pan," his first major tale of destructive pagan impulses, nature symbolism, and "hidden" forces in what would become a series of stories and, later, novels and autobiographies all touching upon the twisted, threatening process of attempting to better understand and celebrate the unknown, mystical aspects of existence situated somewhere beyond the recognizable world.

First published in the influential Keynote series, Machen's "The Great God Pan" was and remains a shocker of implied sexual excess, the paradoxical freedom and dangers of animalistic impulses, the emotional effects of horror, and humankind's frailty in the yawning possibility of the unknown. The tale's unfettered themes of sensuality and spiritual/sensual terror stretched the literary freedoms of expression and outraged the puritanical temperament. Regardless, "The Great God Pan" has stood the test of time, its structural build-up of letters, documents, and confessions in part influencing H.P. Lovecraft's "The Call Of Cthulu." More importantly, its initial scandalous success saw Machen placed into the company of the Decadent writers of the 19th century. A group of authors and artists who practiced a form of aestheticism whose primary impulse had initially came from France, the Decadents, rebelling against the false order and plastic-coated morals of a society and life which in their eyes could only devolve, sought pleasure and debauchery largely for its own sake. While Machen's fiction had at its core a seed of sustaining belief and purpose more complex than a majority of those authors whose camp he had been placed in, including the infamous playwright Oscar Wilde, the excess of "Pan," the loosely connected novel The Three Imposters (an ode of sorts to Machen's literary hero, Robert Louis Stevenson), and later, such tales as "The White People" placed him amongst their ranks in terms of brazen imagery and a decidedly non-conformist attitude.

While Machen would move to non-fiction and a gentler form of mysticism in The House Of Souls and in The Hill Of Dreams, a largely autobiographical work, the mellowness of later years couldn't erase his belief in the profound, nor his ability to discover awe in words that, much like their fictional counterparts of hill and glen and city, were but mere symbols for experiences beyond and within the puzzle of the secret fabric of the world -- an occult, mystic geography that Tales Of Horror and The Supernatural offers to a new generation of readers.

Review by William P Simmons.

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