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Great Science-Fiction & Fantasy Works

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Arthur Machen

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Standard Disclaimer:

This is a brief discussion of Arthur Machen and, of course, of some speculative-fiction books by Machen.

This discussion and list does not necessarily include every book by Machen: it includes only those books that I both know and like. Just as with the author list itself, omission of a particular item may mean I didn’t think highly enough of the omitted item, or it may simply mean that I have not yet sufficient familiarity with it. (In a very few cases, I have listed some books merely on the strength of my opinion of the author: all such books are clearly marked below, as throughout these lists, with a hash mark (#) before the title so you know what’s what.)

I don’t pretend that this discussion is a deep analysis. My intent is no more than to give you a rough idea of what kinds of tales Machen tells, how those tales are usually told, and what makes them and Machen worthy; in sum, to help you rank Arthur Machen (and the works by Machen listed here) on your personal literary “to do” list.

A Few Words About Arthur Machen

Arthur Machen (last name rhymes with “blacken”) is most often described as a “horror” writer. Now as I say in several other places on this site, “horror” fiction is not something I normally deal with; but, as I also say, there are a few authors whose works seem to me to transcend the limited purposes of most horror fiction, and Machen is one of those.

One way he transcends is the quality of his prose—which is not to say that horror fiction is normally poorly written, but is to say that Machen’s prose style is—for any class of fiction—outstanding. Here is a random sample:

It was winter now, for he heard the rain and the wind, and the swaying of the trees, but in those old days how sweet the summer had been. The great hawthorn bush in blossom, a white cloud upon the earth, had appeared to him in twilight, he had lingered in the enclosed valley to hear the nightingale, a voice swelling out from the rich gloom, from the trees that grew around the well. The scent of the meadowsweet was blown to him across the bridge of years, and with it came the dream and the hope and the longing, and the afterglow red in the sky, and the marvel of the earth.

Nor is his artistry limited to charming rural scenes. Here, a view of London:

The sky was clear, and the afterglow of sunset had lingered long about it. The flushing twilight of a summer evening vied with the gas-lamps in the square, and fashioned a chiaroscuro that had in it something unearthly; and the children racing to and fro upon the pavement, the lounging idlers by the public-house, and the casual passers-by rather flickered and hovered in the play of lights than stood out substantial things. By degrees in the houses opposite one window after another leapt out a square of light; now and again a figure would shape itself against a blind and vanish, and to all this semi-theatrical magic the runs and flourishes of brave Italian opera played a little distance off on a piano-organ seemed an appropriate accompaniment, while the deep-muttered bass of the traffic of Holborn never ceased.

But Machen has a lot more going for him than just belle-lettres prose. He is very much an intelligent writer, and many of his works exhibit complexities and subtleties of plot; indeed, The Three Imposters, a sort of “1001 Nights” collection of loosely tied-together tales that only just thereby qualifies as a novel, is often marketed as “mystery story”.

If we look to what I call the four legs of a solid tale (prose, plot, setting, and characterization), we have already touched on prose and plotting. We find his settings unremarkable as such, all his tales being placed in Britain: usually in London (which Lin Carter, in an Introduction to The Three Imposters, called “Baghdad-on-the-Thames”), but sometimes in rural areas. He often describes his tales’ settings wonderfully (as the samples above demonstrate), but one cannot say he has invented anything, only that he has drawn our attention to details and aspects too easily glossed over absent his sort of care with them, which is still craftsman-like work.

Characterization is another of his strengths. While some of his tales are plot-driven, many are profound character studies. In the first few pages of “A Fragment of Life”, for instance, we find not one, or two, but four people neatly and remarkably well set out. Here is some of that:

They had been married for a year, and they had got on excellently, rarely sitting quiet for more than an hour, but for the past few weeks Aunt Marian’s present had afforded a subject for conversationwhich seemed inexhaustible. Mrs. Darnell had been Miss Mary Reynolds, the daughter of an auctioneer and estate agent in Notting Hill, and Aunt Marian was her mrother’s sister, who was supposed rather to have lowered herself by marrying a coal merchant, in a small way, at Turnham Green. Marian had felt the family attitude a great deal, and the Reynoldses were sorry for many things that had been said, when the coal merchant saved money and took up land on building leases in the neighbourhood of Crouch End, greatly to his advantage, as it appeared. Nobody had thought that Nixon could ever do very much; but he and his wife had been living for years in a beautiful house at Barnet, with bow-windows, shrubs, and a paddock, and the two families saw but little of each other, for Mr. Reynolds was not very prosperous.

Not perhaps profound, that randomly chose little bit, but it rather neatly pins down Mr. and Mrs. Darnell, and Aunt Marian, and Aunt Marian’s husband, and Mrs. Darnell’s parents, all in a paragraph (actually, a fragment of a longer paragraph). That example is rather light-hearted, but there is plenty enough dark characterization elsewhere in Machen’s tales.

Machen’s works started rather dark. The Great God Pan was his first major success, but it generated quite a furor in its day owing to the fairly overt sexuality in the tale, which is dark indeed. As time went on, Machen slowly moved toward less black stories, through The Bowmen and Other Legends of the War, in which (among other things) angels appear to aid British troops in World War I, on to stories like “The Tree of Life”, full of warm compassion.

Mind, it isn’t as simple as that: he wrote occasional tales early on, and occasional dark tales later on. He was richly creative, and will reward any reader, not just the seeker after dire deeds and terrible things.

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Other Arthur Machen Resources

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Arthur Machen Resources on the Web

While Machen is not, and never was more than briefly, a household name, there seems to have been a modest revival of interest in him, and there is now quite a bit to be found about him on the web.

The Friends of Arthur Machen have a dedicated Machen web site. Here are some other pages of Machen interest:

Other Machen-related oddments include a 1925 essay on Machen by famed fantasy author M. P. Shiel [archived copy].

Those interested in images of Machen book and magazine covers will enjoy this online Arthur Machen Gallery [archived copy].

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Arthur Machen Resources in Print

Again, there is quite a bit to choose from:

(There was a 2017 movie titled Holy Terrors that is an anthology of six stories from Machen’s work. Here is a link to its entry at the IMDB.)

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Notable Science-Fiction and Fantasy Books by Arthur Machen ****

(Machen’s work seems to having a revival: where once there were only numerous little books—chapbooks, really—containing overlapping smatters of his work, now there are several all-inclusive, or nearly so, omnibuses and sets: the problem is selecting. One set, in 3 volumes, from Hippocampus Press is pretty thoroughly inclusive, but expensive, around $75 as I write; another set, also 3 volumes, from Chaosium is distinctly less inclusive—though it has almost all the key works—but can be had for under $30. Nor does it make much sense to list the many various works individually, as one-off copies of most of his important works tend to be about as expensive as an omnibus volume. (Prices I mention here are for used copies, “Very Good” or better condition, including shipping, but not any tax, as of Spring of 2023.)

My suggestion is to get the Chaosium set; it comprises most of the essential works for a total of under $30. You could then fill in with the few major works not so included.

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