Tag Archives: S T Joshi

The Three Impostors and Other Stories

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.

Machen Joshi The Three Impostors and other stories

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)

The Complete Pegāna

Julianus reviews The Complete Pegāna: All the Tales Pertaining to the Fabulous Realm of Pegāna by Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, Baron Dunsany, edited by S T Joshi, in the Bkwyrm archive.

Dunsany The Complete Pegana

In the year 1904 e.v. an English Gentleman, big-game hunter and chess enthusiast created a new mythology; and no, I don’t mean Crowley. The gentleman in question was Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, eighteenth Baron Dunsany (1878 – 1957) and the book was The Gods of Pegāna. Dunsany created the first original mythology in English literature since William Blake and his work had tremendous influence on H.P. Lovecraft. Crowley was also passionately devoted to Dunsany’s work and got him to contribute a short story to the Equinox.

Dunsany generally wrote everything in a single draft with a quill pen and his prose style is unique. Brilliant and musical, it truly seems more like a newly-discovered scripture than a literary production. Fate and Chance, Gods large and small, heroes and prophets, Time and Death are all unveiled in glory and tragedy. Only Clark Ashton Smith, one of Lovecraft’s literary comrades, can approach Dunsany’s mastery of the short fantasy.

The present volume contains all the stories from The Gods of Pegāna as well as its sequel, Time and the Gods (1906,) along with three later stories on the theme. These books have not been reprinted in their entirety in eighty years and one may hope that more of Dunsany’s massive corpus, which includes over fifty volumes of fiction, drama (he once had four plays on Broadway at once,) poetry and autobiography, will follow.

You can find this book at Amazon, Abebooks, and Powell’s.

H.L. Mencken on Religion

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews H.L. Mencken on Religion by H L Mencken, edited by S T Joshi.

S.T. Joshi’s anthology of Mencken’s work on religion is a terrifically entertaining read. Mencken was an equal-opportunity infidel, skewering Evangelicals, “mainstream” Protestants, Catholics, Theosophists, and Christian Scientists entirely without theological favoritism. He did have a special animus toward Methodists, for having been the greatest motive force behind the enactment of Prohibition, which was in effect during nearly all of these writings. He applauds religious diversity and argues for freedom and privacy: “Man will never be wholly civilized until he ceases to intrude his snout into the shy mysterious, highly private recesses of his brother’s soul” (135). He argues (with tongue deeply in cheek) in favor of the Spiritualist hypothesis of survival, on the grounds that if he himself were to return from beyond the veil, he would be as mischievous, dishonest, and irresponsible as most seance apparitions seem to be (141).

While unpersuaded regarding metaphysical verities, Mencken in these writings never argues for atheism outright. In fact, he pleads for “religious” functions stripped of theological baggage in his fine essay on “Services for the Damned” (78 ff.). He is also willing to credit the great poetic power found in such places as the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, as descended from the poetry of the ancient Hebrew texts (64). He further opines that the poetic force in scripture and liturgy had allowed religion to survive its own intellectual bankruptcy and would continue to do so.

The largest section of the book is dedicated to Mencken’s first-hand reportage on the Scopes Monkey Trial in Dayton, Tennessee. In his first writing on the topic, Mencken held out for the regulatory authority of the state over rogue pedagogues, no matter how benighted that state’s decision might be. Quickly, however, he developed a clear revulsion for William Jennings Bryan and the Fundamentalist cheerleaders for the prosecution. With the event of Bryan’s death just after the verdict, Mencken’s writing passed into impressively hostile obituary concerning a man who “couldn’t be President, but he could at least help magnificently in the solemn business of shutting off the presidency from every intelligent and self-respecting man” (223).

Twenty-first century readers are likely to be taken aback at first by Mencken’s repeated references to the “darkies” of the American South and his own Baltimore. His clearest positions on race relations are however set forth in some of the last essays collected here, where he earnestly remarks himself as “a sincere friend of the colored people …. In many and obvious ways they are superior to the whites against whom they are commonly pitted. They are not only enormously decenter; they are also considerably shrewder” (285). In a different, earlier “Venture into Therapeutics” he even suggested with startling prescience that Islam would be a desirable tonic for African-American culture (269 ff.)

Joshi very helpfully provides a glossary of names which Mencken drops and hurls, but whose now expired contemporaneity will make them obstacles to the modern reader, and he supplies the text of biblical citations that would otherwise go unappreciated by most readers without scripture at their elbows. Joshi makes a few misses in his efforts to clarify Mencken’s cultural references though, such as mis-identifying “September Morn” as “a translation of a German song … by Joseph Marx” (305), rather than the scandal-provoking painting by Paul Émile Chabas. Joshi would have been better off not to note “The Girl with the Whooping Cough” as “unidentified, possibly fictitious” (273, 305) when it was an actual stage comedy suppressed on Broadway in 1910. Still, his work in organizing and presenting this material is good on the whole, and I’m in debt to his editorial labors for my chance to read this book. [via]