The Great God Pan
In the list of influences I usually cite about my own writing, Arthur Machen is a name that looms large. Machen not only inspired and influenced; he incited successive generations of authors to write in a certain way. Born in Caerleon-on-Usk, Wales, in 1863, he lived to a ripe age and was by all accounts a vivid character. With flowing white hair and a ruddy complexion, he wore a flapping cape (a real writer, one supposes) and his appearance provoked comment wherever he went. His huge influence on the genre of ghost story writers was cited by none less than H.P. Lovecraft, a slip of a lad when Machen was already of mature years, and yet whom Machen survived by a decade. The most obvious way in which Lovecraft was influenced was in his treatment of terrors which were spiritual rather than physical in character, and it is in the story The Great God Pan that Arthur Machen most tellingly displays his story-telling powers.
The Great God Pan contains what may now be regarded as some of the standard furniture of the modern ghost or horror tale: a bungled experiment; a terrified doctor's dying testament; memoirs of a scholar of the supernatural; unspeakable manuscripts and the shocking portfolio of a dead artist. But although these things were hardly clichés at the time Machen was writing, what is remarkable about this story is its structure.
Machen forces the reader to go to the heart of the mystery by the assembly of events like swirling photo-chemicals. From the experiences of a diverse set of characters, the reader watches the horror slowly emerging, as if in a developing tank. Machen is skilled at disquieting rather than shocking; hinting at rather than demonstrating; suggesting rather than showing, until finally you are confronted with the picture you saw emerging all along but were struggling to deny.
As a writer of the supernatural, Machen's stories are committed to the notion that there exists an unseen world, a real world beyond the 'glamour' of this world. The lifting of the veil is known as 'seeing the god Pan'. This is not just some ghostly literary trope; it is a spiritual state of mind, an almost theological principle, and the source of all Machen's terrors.
Because at the heart of the mystery is the dark side of human nature; and though Machen's treatment of the subject is gentile according to the fashion of his day, it is explicit enough to be unambiguous. The key to this particular mystery is, surprise surprise, a woman of extraordinary beauty and of dubious extraction. The destroyer of numerous men of good soul and temper, they cannot but describe her as the most beautiful woman they have ever seen without adding that there is also something strangely repulsive about her.
In her different incarnations she is seen dancing in the woods with some kind of naked faun; in high society corrupting the souls of the aristocracy; and in the meanest houses in the most disreputable neighbourhoods of London. Machen's characters are no strangers to what they call the "dark waters of London society". Some of them are up and about at all hours of the morning, cruising the Victorian brothels. One wonders what a modern writer would do with the same material of sexual ambivalence, but as it is we are left with the whiff of a sexual corruption so depraved it can cause madness and suicide in any man who comes within her grasp.
I don't know whether Arthur Machen was ambivalent in his attitudes towards women or in his feelings about the tyranny of the flesh, but there is lot more than misogyny at large. The spiritual order of the universe is at stake here. The author is more concerned with uncovering a luminous horror at the base of human nature, the most secret forces brooding at the heart of all things. The introverted character Clarke, Machen's scholar of the unseen, puts it another way: the Devil lives; and man his bidding does.