- Occultism & Decadence in Arthur Machen
ARTHUR LLEWELYN JONES MACHEN (1863–1947) is far less remembered for his striking occultist writings in the late-Victorian “Decadent” Nineties than for the Great War myth he never expected would outlive the day it was published.
Three reputed happenings emerged during the early months of the war. Burly Cossacks, shipped by the Czar to bolster the disintegrating Western Front, were seen debarking for France from British railway terminals at Dover, still shaking the persistent snows of Russia [End Page 432] from their boots. (In reality the 40,000 troops sent by Nicholas II many months later would land at Brest and Marseilles, bypassing England.) In 1915, Machen would look back to the credulous reception of his own “The Bowmen,” appearing on 20 September 1914 as “a psychological phenomenon of considerable interest, fairly comparable with the great Russian delusion of last August and September.” It was then too soon for the third legend—that in Flanders, the battleground of Machen’s breathless, imaginative account, soldiers from both sides mingled in No Man’s Land in a spontaneous Christmas truce.
Only the enthralling Christmas Eve and Christmas Day cease-fire actually occurred, but Machen’s unsigned and purported front-line dispatch on page three of the London Evening News, for which he worked as a journalist, took on an ineradicable life as “The Angels of Mons.” His fictional rifleman, in a dwindling contingent decimated by powerful German gunfire, sees, above him, as he “gulped with astonishment,” ghostly bowmen of Agincourt prowess between the two armies, led by an even earlier mythic warrior, St. George.
Mysterious, allegedly supernatural, pseudo-truths can overwhelm the mind. As Machen put it, “Man is created to be inebriated.” Especially the young. “I know of the law that youth succeeds because it does not understand.” The uncanny “world of wonder” first enchanted Machen, he wrote in an introduction to a 1916 reprint of his novella of 1894, The Great God Pan, when, from the dreary Welsh rectory of his childhood, he was “overwhelmed” by “a dream of mystic beauty—the valley of the Usk.” He was “twelve or thirteen.” High above the river was historic Betholly House, where he stood, “dreaming under the mouldering remnants of the Roman city wall.” He would later “translate a hill into a tale,” reproduced in its weird entirety in Arthur Machen: Decadent and Occult Works. The tirelessly thorough editor, Dennis Denishoff, who spares no opportunity throughout for extensive, often unnecessary annotations, describes the tale as “an earnest, terrifying exploration of psychological and spiritual boundaries marked by sexual violence and abuse.” Aubrey Beardsley’s illustration for it, repeated on the cover to this edition, “aestheticizes the hooved demi-god as a gender-ambiguous youth who, among sinuous vines, coyly invites readers to enter into the sexually inflected pleasures of the text.” [End Page 433]
In The Great God Pan, a physician devoted to “transcendental medicine” explains to his guest that the hills and valleys and orchards around them are “but dreams and shadows.” The ancients, he says, knew how to lift the “veil” and confront reality. “They called it seeing the god Pan.” It takes “a trifling rearrangement of certain [brain] cells.” But there is a price—which becomes the London-set narrative. One victim apparently indebted to Pan comes to a horrific end. The life of the artist Austin Meyrick ends at thirty. He leaves a book of drawings evoking a “frightful Walpurgis Night of evil, strange monstrous evil.” And, on one page, also, the face of a femme fatale known to the narrator under several guises. A doctor who examines the corpse while it is still identifiable claims “an utter collapse of the whole system, probably caused by some severe shock.” Then the shock becomes his. “I saw the form waver from sex to sex, dividing itself from itself, ” suggesting “ancient sculptures” of “a horrible and unspeakable shape.” Then what remains of Meyrick liquefies into a loathsome blob.
The dubious “pleasures” of occult, unfulfilled...