Friday, February 27, 2015

Primal Ooze: The Origins of Lovecraft's Weird Fiction in Arthur Machen

      The burst of weird fiction popular in the 1920’s and 1930’s gave rise to modern horror and science fiction.  Coming into its heyday in the early 20th century, this unique brand of literature’s influences can be traced to an even earlier date. Modern horror can find its roots in the gothic horror and ghost stories of the Victorian Age and, more specifically, in the period at the end of the 19th century, from 1890 through 1900, in what is referred to as the fin de siècle. It is at that time that the true roots of weird fiction manifested itself in the works of British weird horror writer Arthur Machen. A Welsh writer, Machen first began writing short stories that would become an early influence on the pulp writers of the 20th century. Machen’s works would go on to establish ideas and motifs that have become essential parts of weird fiction and influenced generations of writers.
       That being said, no discussion of weird fiction would be complete without including the master of weird fiction, H.P. Lovecraft. His ideas of cosmic horror and development of a unique mythos, as well as his influence on a large group of fellow writers, shaped the course of early twentieth century weird fiction. And yet, despite his vast influence and unique style, Lovecraft owed a significant debt to the earlier works of Arthur Machen. This paper will examine Machen’s influence on Lovecraft, as well as his influence on horror and science fiction on a broader scale.
        Born in 1863 in Carleon-On-Usk, in Gwent, Wales, Arthur Machen’s rustic upbringing proved immeasurably influential on the tone and imagery of his writing. Although he moved to London and became a member of the Decadence movement, his writing invariably recalled the ancient myths and unique landscape of his boyhood home. As Machen himself wrote in his autobiography, Far Off Things, his early home in the wilds of Wales was filled with:

…deep silence, deep stillness everywhere; hills and dark wintry woods growing dim in the twilight, the mountain to the west a vague, huge mass against a faint afterlight of the dead day, grey and heavy clouds massing over the skies… Carleon-On-Usk, the little silent, deserted village that was once the golden Isca of the Roman legions, that is golden forever and immortal in the romances of King Arthur and the Graal and the Round Table(Far Off Things, 9).

       It was against this backdrop, and tinted with the earthy pagan myths and fables of Carleon-On-Usk’s ancient Celtic and Roman influence, that Machen comingled the cosmopolitan urban settings of his stories with the wilderness of the more untamed parts of England. His stories comprise a counterpoint of wild and urban, modern and ancient, and sacred and profane. This seemingly incongruity worked extremely well, and would help in the transition of the literature of the time. From the Gothic romance of Shelley’s Frankenstein, to the Victorian prudery and xenophobia of Stoker’s Dracula, or the allegorical conflict of Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—  Machen’s works represented a shift in horror fiction, a shift towards the more modern and realistic horror of the 20th century.
This idea of modernity is what most signifies the impact of Machen’s works. In 1894, he wrote The Great God Pan. Widely believed to be the best and most exemplary of his works, The Great God Pan is a masterpiece that combines elements of horror that would later become indispensible tropes of weird fiction. The story opens with a Dr. Raymond and his colleague, a man named Clarke. They are in the midst of a medical experiment on a young girl— the ward of Dr. Raymond, Mary. Dr. Raymond has taken her in and raised her from childhood, although his intentions are not honorable. He has done so specifically to conduct this very experiment when she is old enough. Through surgery, he manipulates Mary’s brain in such a way that it levels, “utterly the solid wall of sense, and probably, for the first time man was made, a spirit will gaze on a spirit world…Mary will see the god Pan! (Arthur Machen Collected Works, 2)”
The surgery is successful, but only briefly. When Mary awakes, she has a moment of seeing something, but what she sees proves too awful for her mind to handle. The experiment leaves her hopelessly catatonic. The story moves forward several years later, and a beautiful but sinister girl named Helen Vaughn plagues the local town. Helen leads two of her playmates into the local woods, where they encounter strange creatures who rape both of the children.
       Again, the story moves forward several years, and we find that Helen has grown up and moved to London, where she has married a man named Herbert. Herbert is found some years after his marriage to Helen alone and destitute. Herbert’s former school chum, a man named Villiers takes him in, and hears from Herbert a horrifying tale about Helen.
According to Herbert, Helen dragged him into unnatural acts of perversion and vice. As Herbert exclaims: “I have seen the incredible, such horrors that even I myself sometimes stop in the middle of the street and ask whether it is possible for a man to behold such things and live. In a year, Villiers, I was a ruined man, in body and soul – in body and soul” (Arthur Machen Collected Works, 10).
At this point, Helen has left England. She has fled to South America, but not after leaving a string of dead men and hinted at sexual deviance. She returns later, and we find that Villiers has made the acquaintance of Clarke, from the early part of the story. Upon hearing of Helen’s return, they confront her and she goes through a horrific transformation. As Machen describes it:

Though horror and revolting nausea rose up within me, and an odour of corruption choked my breath, I remained firm. I was then privileged or accursed, I dare not say which, to see that which was on the bed, lying there black like ink, transformed before my eyes. The skin, and the flesh, and the muscles, and the bones, and the firm structure of the human body that I had thought to be unchangeable, and permanent as adamant, began to melt and dissolve… I saw the form waver from sex to sex, dividing itself from itself, and then again reunited. Then I saw the body descend to the beasts whence it ascended, and that which was on the heights go down to the depths, even to the abyss of all being. The principle of life, which makes organism, always remained, while the outward form changed… I watched, and at last I saw nothing but a substance as jelly (Arthur Machen Collected Works, 30).

It is revealed at the end that Helen is the offspring of a union between Mary and the pagan god, Pan. Her lascivious behavior and illicit sexuality are manifestations of her father, and the ill conceived experiment of Dr. Raymond.
It is in this narrative that Machen creates the overarching thematic elements that make The Great God Pan what Stephen King called, in the end notes to Just After Sunset, “…one of the best horror stories ever written. Maybe the best in the English language” and led H.P. Lovecraft to say of Machen, “Of living creators of cosmic fear raised to its most artistic pitch, few if any can hope to equal the versatile Arthur Machen, author of some dozen tales long and short, in which the elements of hidden horror and brooding fright attain an almost incomparable substance and realistic acuteness”(88). The Great God Pan along with his other works (like The Novel of the Black Seal, The Hill of Dreams, and The Novel of the White Powder) has an acute sense of the blending of modernity and antiquity. In Machen’s case, his horrors are ancient: the horrors that stalked his Celtic ancestors. The monsters he writes of wear the faces of fairies, satyrs, strange creatures, and magic-imbued people whom evolution has left behind. At odds with this are his protagonists. Taking the form of scholars, philosophers, and modern, urban men, his protagonists walk the border between the old world and the burgeoning, technological era of the late 19th/early 20th century.  Or, as Jones wrote, “Throughout his writings, the ancient Celtic and Romano-British legacies of spiritualism and the occult, and the permeable borderland between the two worlds of spirit and matter, are all imaged forth in geographical terms on the Welsh border in Caerleon, and in the occult investigations of seedy men of letters, theosophists and scientists, working in exile, obscurity and poverty in the secret labyrinths of the shabby outer suburbs of West London” (36).
To support this supposition, and show the influence of this theme on later fiction, one need only look to the acknowledged father of modern horror, H.P. Lovecraft.  This melding of the mythical and the scientific was a common component in the stories of Lovecraft. Often, his protagonists were— like Machen’s— erudite men of education who found themselves at odds with ancient evils. Although, Lovecraft’s monsters and horrors were much older and more cosmic, there are echoes of Machen’s The Great God Pan throughout Lovecraft’s work. In The Dunwich Horror, for example, there are undeniable traces of Machen’s Clarke in Lovecraft’s Dr. Henry Armitage. To further compare, there is a considerable parity between Helen Vaughn and Wilbur Whateley, his monstrous twin brother, and both Helen and Wilbur’s awful, inhuman fathers. In fact, Lovecraft actually mentions Machen’s Great God Pan in a conversation between characters in The Dunwich Horror. A further influence on Lovecraft can be seen in the surgery Dr. Raymond performs to open up Mary’s mind to other realities. Here, we see a striking resemblance and similarity to the resonator experiments of Crawford Tillinghast in “From Beyond”. As Joshi writes, “Machen’s influence stands behind only Poe’s and Dunsany’s in Lovecraft’s work”(75).
While Lovecraft was a rational, scientific atheist, Machen remained a lifelong Catholic. His Catholicism and faith did not prevent him, however, from dabbling as a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, along with his friends and contemporaries: W.B. Yeats and Oscar Wilde. Keeping with his standing as a fin de siècle Decadent, he also mixed faith with the controversial scientific theory of evolution. In The Novel of the Black Seal, Machen tells the story of Professor Gregg who spends the latter part of his career searching for a devolved race living in the wilds of Wales. He finds an artifact that leads him to Monmouthshire. There he finds a mentally disabled boy who has traces of the ancient race in his blood. Using him as a compass-like tool, the professor ventures into the forest and disappears, taken by the monstrous elder race. Professor Gregg’s housekeeper, Mrs. Lally, tells the story.  As previously mentioned, this idea of the modern world butting up against the ancient remains a theme that Machen used to great effect.
That science can exist in a world of the supernatural is a tenet of modern horror and science fiction. There is a philosophical element to this idea of science and the supernatural coexisting. As Camara observed, weird fiction “presents nature as preeminently unnatural, as rival with ‘supernatural’ phenomena such that the occult and the scientific not only exist in a continuum, but inquiries undertaken in one field can lead directly into the precincts of the other” (100). In the case of The Novel of the Black Seal, Professor Gregg, and Machen by extension, argue that the myths and fairy tales we know may be window dressing. The scientific improbability of a race of throwbacks in the Welsh mountains is perhaps explained by myth, although time and storytelling have prettied up the reality. As Kandola explains, “…Machen’s fictional scientist contends that both folktales and literature are guilty of ‘dressing up’ these ‘dreaded beings … in charming forms, knowing the truth to be the very reverse’”(501).
This scientific view of evolution, or atavism, as it were, is an interesting approach by Machen. As Forlini observed, in The Novel of the Black Seal:

… [With]A professor’s investigation of strange races that have fallen out of the grand march of evolution… we need not read such tales as evidence of the text’s ‘Darwinian anxieties’ about devolution or the instability of matter… Instead, we can see how Machen flags his engagement with contemporary science and plays with object-driven narrative of evolutionary anthropology to destabilize the hierarchical relation between the ‘primitive’ and the ‘modern’ (487).

It is specifically a desire on Machen’s part to meld 19th and 20th century ideas around science and faith, much like H.G. Wells did in The Time Machine. This concept of devolution has become standard fare for modern science fiction and horror and the idea of an atavistic fall reverberates as very modern fear. Lovecraft, however, expanded on this idea, but gave it his own uniquely cosmic twist
  The Novel of the Black Seal, from Lovecraft’s standpoint, supported many of his own beliefs. His stories are rife with examples of this idea of devolution and primitive humans. Notwithstanding his racism and sense of patrician superiority, one of the best examples of Machen’s influence can be seen in Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls”. Lovecraft’s wealthy American protagonist, Delapore, moves into his ancestral home in England, the Exham Priory. The sound of rats in the walls leads to an expedition into the ancient tunnels beneath the Priory— tunnels that predate the Romans and Celts of antiquity. The story ends with Delapore driven mad by the call of his ancestors and the cosmic horror of the eons of civilization found in those dark passages. Delapore is found at the end of the story screaming in ever devolving language and madly eating the corpse of one of his fellow explorers. Additionally, other stories of his speak of strange, subhuman creatures living in the wilds of the New England countryside. The motif occurs again and again in Lovecraft’s stories and can be seen in, for example, The Whisperer in the Darkness, “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and his Family”, and Lovecraft’s most famous work, The Call of Cthulhu.
Defining weird fiction, and modern horror is difficult. Weird fiction in and of itself mixes elements of the supernatural with science fiction, and is distinctly different from the Gothic and Victorian ghost stories of the 18th and 19th century. As Camara observed:

Machen’s urban horror questions modernity, its notions of progress, and its technological breakthroughs with the specter of a metaphysical force from the remote past that invades civilization from its wild outside…  Moreover, despite the fact that Machen’s fiction is steeped in an antique world, it is also at the same time thoroughly modern in terms of its settings, formal experimentations, and engagement with the sciences (72).   

At the time that Machen was writing, in the 1890’s, literature was undergoing a change. His unique approach to horror led to the advent of weird fiction, which morphed into modern science fiction, horror, and— to a smaller extent – fantasy literature. H.P. Lovecraft extolled, and in some cases emulated, Machen’s style and freely acknowledged Machen’s exceptional mastery of early horror.  Machen’s reach, however, went far beyond Lovecraft and the other weird fiction writers of the time. Traces of the dark, comingled urban and rural horror of Machen still resonate in the works of authors like Stephen King, Brian Keene, Ramsay Campbell, and T.E.D Klein.

Sources Cited

Camara, Anthony Christopher. Dark Matter: British Weird Fiction and the Substance of Horror, 1880-1927. UCLA Electronic Theses and Dissertations. 2013. Web. 3 Dec. 2014.

Forlini, Stefania. “Modern Narratives and Decadent Things in Arthur Machen’s The Three Imposters”. English Literature in Translation 1880 – 1920. 2012. 3 Dec 2014. Web.

Jackson, Kimberly. “Non-Evolutionary Degeneration in Arthur Machen’s Supernatural Tales”. Victorian Literature and Culture. 41 (2013): 125-133. Web 3 Dec. 2014.

Jones, Darryl. “Borderlands: spiritualism and the occult in fin de siècle and Edwardian Welsh and Irish horror”. Irish Studies Review. 17.1 (2009): 31-44. Web. 3 Dec. 2014.

Joshi, S.T. H.P. Lovecraft: Nightmare Countries. New York. Metro Books. 2012.

Kandola, Sandeep. “Celtic Occultism and the Symbolist Mode in the Fin-de-Siècle Writings of Arthur Machen and W. B. Yeats”. English Literature in Translation 1880 – 1920. 2009. 3. Dec. 2014.

Lovecraft, H.P. Great Tales of Horror. New York. Fall River Press. 2012. Print.

--- Supernatural Horror in Literature. New York. Dover Publications. 1973. Print.

Machen, Arthur. Collected Works: 23 Tales of Horror & Other Fiction Short Stories. USA. 2012. Print.

--- Far Off Things. Aegypan Press. USA. 1922. Print.

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