By Edgar Walters
The Welsh horror fiction author Arthur Machen turns 150 this week. Machen, an influential figure in the budding supernatural fiction scene of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, is best known for his novella “The Great God Pan,” and for accidentally proliferating a legend about angels protecting the British army at the Battle of Mons in World War I.
The Ransom Center houses an extensive collection of items pertaining to the author, comprising 20 archival boxes of material. The Machen collection features handwritten drafts, page proofs with Machen’s notes, correspondence with family and friends including A. E. Waite and Oliver Stonor, and miscellaneous ephemera. Additionally, the Center’s Arthur Machen literary photography collection contains portraits of the author and his residences.
Machen’s accomplishments in fantasy and supernatural fiction inspired the admiration—and multiple pastiches—of a later generation of authors. “The Great God Pan” drew praise from such giants of the genre as H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King. King credited it as the inspiration for his own novella N, proclaiming “Pan” to be “one of the best horror stories ever written, maybe the best in the English language.” Lovecraft, a contemporary of Machen’s, lauded “The Great God Pan” in his 1926 essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” saying: “No one could begin to describe the cumulative suspense and ultimate horror with which every paragraph abounds.”
The many who praised Machen often compared his writing to that of his American predecessor, Edgar Allan Poe. In a letter to a fan, which resides in the Ransom Center’s Poe collection, Machen addresses the sentiment with humility: “A good many people have compared my work with that of Poe… This was an immense compliment to me—but quite an undeserved one.” But Machen was also quick to differentiate his writing from Poe’s. He continues, “[Poe’s] terrors are as distinct as possible,” whereas Machen’s own are “vague, irrational, something like the broken recollections of a nightmare.”
Indeed, Machen’s style is of a uniquely Welsh variety. His works frequently cite those of his fellow countrymen, including George Herbert, who published a book of religious poems in 1633. The storied and ominously beautiful Welsh landscape is a frequent setting for Machen’s writing, particularly his childhood home in Monmouthshire, a county in southeastern Wales of significance to Celtic, Roman, and medieval history. In a letter housed at the Ransom Center, Machen describes his obsession with the eerie scenery behind the rectory where he lived: “From the windows one looked across a strangely beautiful country to the forest of Wentwood, above the valley of the Usk. Beneath this forest, on the slope of the hill there is a lonely house called Bertholly, and to my eyes and imagination this house was a symbol of awe and mystery and dread.”
Machen paints a similar picture—one “written to fit Bertholly”—in the opening scene of “The Great God Pan,” which describes the view from a rogue surgeon’s unsettling house-turned-laboratory: “A sweet breath came from the great wood on the hillside above, and with it, at intervals, the soft murmuring call of the wild doves. Below, in the long lovely valley, the river wound in and out between the lonely hills.”
150 years later, Machen’s influence lives on. Stephen King novels are widely read, having sold 350 million copies worldwide. Supernatural horror dramas permeate popular culture, with successful television series like American Horror Story capitalizing on themes prominent in Machen’s own works. Were he to witness many of horror fiction’s modern incarnations, Machen might detect a familiar scene, reminiscent of the lonely house called Bertholly situated in the misty hills of Monmouthshire.
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