Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Three Impostors and Other Stories [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Arthur Machen, ed. and introduced by S T Joshi, volume 1 of the Best Weird Tales of Arthur Machen, in Call of Cthulhu Fiction series.
This volume contains Machen’s first published story, the notorious yellow-nineties fright “The Great God Pan,” accompanied by “The Inmost Light” with which it was published in its original book form, as well as the short story “The Shining Pyramid” and the full novel The Three Impostors. This last is often cannibalized for its fine component stories, such as “The Novel of the Black Seal.” Overall, the whole collection is a pleasure to read for those whose tastes run to the uncanny and the quietly twisted.
“The Great God Pan” is indispensable for its influence on later writers, including Lovecraft (“The Dunwich Horror”), King (“N”), and Straub (Ghost Story), and — as is actually fairly typical of 19th-century horror literature (think of Frankenstein or The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde) — it uses a science-fictional innovation to touch off a series of frightful events. In this case, it is brain surgery. “The great god Pan is dead!” has been supposed by centuries of Plutarch’s readers to have meant that the resurrection of Christ was the death-knell of Hellenistic paganism. The identity of horned Pan with the Christian devil is nearly explicit in Machen’s story, with the additional wrinkle that this inhuman evil is a reality against which we are shielded by a little bit of neuroanatomy!
There are two interesting observations to be made about name of the outre femme fatale Helen Vaughan. Helena was the name of the partner of the seminal Gnostic sorcerer/heresiarch Simon Magus, so Helen is a fittingly allusive name for what is really a sort of antichrist figure who reverses the action of Christian salvation. To have her mother — raped by Pan/Satan — named “Mary” is a nice touch. Vaughan seems to have been a name that Machen liked. He uses it again for an unrelated male character in “The Shining Pyramid,” where its Welsh provenance ties in to the setting. It is evocative of the 17th-century Rosicrucian alchemist Thomas Vaughan, and in his invention of Helen Vaughan, Machen may have been a contributor to the later character Diana Vaughan, the high priestess of the alleged Luciferian sex-and-black-magic cult of the Palladium that controlled worldwide Freemasonry, all manner of occult societies, and even major non-Christian religions, according to the conspiracy-monger Leo Taxil. It is entirely in keeping with the perversity of Taxil’s enterprise that he would take the name Vaughan from Machen’s fiction.
There is a decided vein of misogyny running through the stories in this book, paired with a horror of sex that is positively stunning. Despite these Victorian failings, Machen really delivers a sense of the supernatural, expressing the philosophical position that he puts in the mouth of one of his characters: “I have told you I was of sceptical habit; but though I understood little or nothing, I began to dread, vainly proposing to myself the iterated dogmas of science that all life is material, and that in the system of things there is no undiscovered land, even beyond the remotest stars, where the supernatural can find a footing. Yet there struck in on this the thought that matter is as really awful and unknown as spirit, that science itself but dallies on the threshold, scarcely gaining more than a glimpse of the wonders of the inner place.” (154-155)
Many of the characters are medical doctors or authors. The former help to brighten the line between the quotidian and the monstrous, while the latter serve as speakers and foils for Machen’s aesthetic agenda. “[P]erhaps you are aware that no Carthusian monk can emulate the cloistral seclusion in which a realistic novelist secludes himself. It is his way of observing human nature,” (195) jibes the writer Dyson, a continuing protagonist of several of the stories in this volume.
Machen (like Dyson) was certainly no realist. His fiction is abundantly open to the charge that the plots rest on coincidental events of such improbability as to remove them entirely from the believable. And yet, they hold together if the reader is led to infer some fatalistic, supernatural influence driving the experiences of the protagonists. “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.” (209)