Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Machen, Arthur

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(1863-1947) Welsh writer whose reputation has always been high, though he never became widely known. AM began his writing career with hack translations and fantasy pastiche in the 1880s, continuing to produce work into WWII; he was employed first as an actor with the Benson Shakespeare Repertory Company 1901-1909 and then as a London journalist until 1921. At the turn of the century he joined the Order of the Golden Dawn, but his participation in the "orders" was always somewhat sceptical.

In his long career, AM embraced and mastered two of the main categories of the fantastic: Supernatural Fiction and Fantasy. At first under the influence of his friend A E Waite as well as his own moody mysticism, AM wrote Ghost Stories and other supernatural fiction in tune with the Yellow Book Decadence of the late Victorians. Most of these early tales of Wrongness, of the intervention of the fantastic and the horrible into a firm, everyday reality, combine what his reclusive Ambrose in The House of Souls (coll 1906; with one story dropped and one added, rev vt The Strange World of Arthur Machen 19?? US) speaks of as "Sorcery and sanctity ... these are the only realities. Each is an ecstasy, a withdrawal from the common life." The House of Souls has a frontispiece by S H Sime and contains a cut version of The Three Impostors plus AM's greatest single story, "The White People". The best-known and most influential of his supernatural fictions is "The Great God Pan" (1890; exp in The Great God Pan and The Inmost Light coll 1894), in which a young girl is, after a quasiscientific surgical procedure, made to see the hideous reality of Pan, or the Devil himself.

Perhaps AM's most successful book in this mode is The Three Impostors, or the Transmutations (fixup 1895), which is structured as a set of fantastic narratives about intervention of Celtic "little people" and other marvels told by very rational late-Victorian London gentlemen – in other words, AM adopted the Club-Story mode in order to heighten the wonder of his tales.

AM never quite gave up supernatural fiction. When he was working for the London Evening News during World War I his story "The Bowmen" (1914) won him a remarkable notoriety because of its hopeful and positive supernatural intervention of the ghosts of ancient British archers to help at the Battle of Mons. He wrote some other fantastic legends about WWI to go with this; the sequence was assembled as The Angel of Mons, The Bowmen and Other Legends of the War (coll 1915 chap), followed by The Terror (1917), in which the apocalyptic fears aroused by WWI are confirmed by a revolt of the animals against the corrupt rule of humanity.

In his important nonfiction book about literature, Hieroglyphics (1902), AM speculates on the role of style and writerliness in fiction that he admires from Cervantes to De Quincey and gives the indication that he most wants to write high fantasy. The word "ecstasy" was a favourite with him in some of his supernatural fictions; here he uses it as the label for the style of the highest literature or the highest fantasy. His best books in the mode of high fantasy are fantasized or spiritual autobiography in which Celtic Wales, Arthur and the "ecstasy" writer himself are his real subjects (see Celtic Fantasy). These autobiographical books do contain the urgency of Story for AM because they must be at least Twice-Told for him. In other words, the supernatural writer who sounds like Robert Louis Stevenson is effective on the Belatedness of a confident one-level view of reality that hardly needs the "storying" of the lost age of heroes; and AM knew he was part of such belatedness and even viewed it with some humour, as in "The Bowmen". But AM wanted, also, to tell a life with multiple levels of Reality, and believed in this inner life enough to produce the high fantasy of his spiritual autobiographies. The Hill of Dreams (1907) is his best book in this mode. The protagonist Lucian Taylor is much like AM, with the same Welsh youth, the same effort to write in London, the same dreaming about ancient Rome and about hills back in Wales and about Arthur. In fact, AM first titled this text "The Garden of Avallaunius" as a coinage from a Roman British name he had uncovered in research, Vallaunius, his version meaning "the man of Avalon". He also says that he wanted to write a "Robinson Crusoe of the soul" in which a man is lonely in the "midst of millions". He came back to this mode of belief with The Secret Glory (1922). Finally, then, in a strange way, this eager young Yellow Book hack of the 1890s grew into a sort of father figure for 20th-century fantasists. [DMH]

other works: Eleusinia (1881), poem; The Anatomy of Tobacco (1884) and The Chronicle of Clemendy (1888), medieval pastiche; The Heptameron of Marguerite of Navarre (1886) and The Memoirs of Jacques Casanova (1894), translations; The House of the Hidden Light (1904); Dr Stiggins (1906), journalism; The Great Return (1915); War and the Christian Faith (1918); Far Off Things (1922) and Things Near and Far (1923), autobiography; The Shining Pyramid (coll 1923; with differing contents 1924 UK); Dog and Duck (1924), journalism; The Green Round (1933); The Children of the Pool and Other Stories (coll 1936); The Cosy Room and Other Stories (coll 1936); Tales of Horror and the Supernatural (coll 1948 US); Ritual and Other Stories (coll 1992; rev 1997), assembling mostly uncollected early work; The Secret Glory: Chapters Five and Six (1991 chap), continuing The Secret Glory.

further reading: Arthur Machen (1964) by Wesley D Sweetser; Arthur Machen and Montgomery Evans: Letters of a Literary Friendship, 1923-1947 (1994) ed Sue Strong Hassler and Donald M Hassler.

Arthur Llewelyn Machen


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.