Arthur Machen and The Fall

An essay originally written for Fall fans who wanted to know a little bit more about Welsh supernatural writer Arthur Machen. As a consequence its intended reader is someone who knows a lot about The Fall but next to nothing about Machen and the life is interlarded with lyrics from Fall songs. That said the life, like the works, is not at all without interest. The place to go for further information is the Friends of Arthur Machen website, from which I have taken several of the photos.


I stood here, and saw before me the unutterable
The Great God Pan

Arthur Machen had many faults as a writer, but his handful of achievements were rare and lasting. The most influential of these is his unique evocation of supernatural horror.

Caerleon, 1893

Caerleon, 1893

I was born, lucky me, in the land that I love

He was born Arthur Jones, March 3rd, 1863, in the Welsh village of Caerleon, just outside Newport, Gwent. Its rolling hills and winding valleys fringed on either side by mountains and sea he called ‘an enchanted land’. It had been the site of the important Roman garrison of Isca, and among its imperfectly buried ruins was a temple dedicated, Machen writes, to

Nodens, God of the Depths

A large part of Machen’s vision of evil is here, at the very beginning of his life; its beauty, its Celtic-Roman flavour, its concern with the recrudescence of an ancient and subterranean past.

The junior clergy demand more cash
Before the Moon Falls.

The son of four generations of Welsh clergymen, Machen would have followed in their footsteps had it not been for his father’s chronic poverty. Arthur Llewellyn Jones-Machen is a sympathetic figure; intelligent, with a comprehensive if eccentric library, supportive of his son, but uncomprehending of his passionate inner life. He can be pictured as his son would often later imagine him, in the parlour of the rectory, head resting despondently on a wilting hand, contemplating his dire financial straits. An agricultural smash in 1880 resulted in bankruptcy. There was not enough money to send the young Arthur to university. A career as a schoolmaster or clergyman was shut to him.

There’s a lot in a name
The Post Nearly Man

The name Machen was his invalid mother’s, taken by his father to allow them to inherit from that side of the family – rather long lived Scots of Welsh heritage. There’s a lot in a name – a series of inheritances between 1887 and 1892 gave Machen a rare period of financial security in which he was able to produce his finest work.

Sunset (St Pancras from Pentonville Road) by John O’Connor 1884

Sunset (St Pancras from Pentonville Road) by John O’Connor 1884

I’m so hungry I cannot speak

This much-needed relief was still seven years away however. His father could not support him, and he moved to London where he embarked on a series of ‘odd jobs and queer jobs’. His early years in the capital were characterised by intense poverty. Paid employment was erratic. His diet consisted of unbuttered bread, green tea, and black pipe smoke, with maybe a currant biscuit at lunch-time. He was very lonely. In a garret in Turnham Green so tiny that he had to store his books out on the landing, he warmed his hands at a gas jet and devoted himself to literary creation. Fired by Cervantes and Rabelais, Swinburne and Tennyson, he loved the rich and strange, the mysterious and the wonderful. ‘I chose mysteries first and I chose them last’ he would later write. Even his mature works are best called Romances rather than novels, the realist conventions of which he all his life held in great contempt. Language was chiefly important for the quality of its sounds. Having tried and failed at poetry, poetry never left him; often in the evening he would lay down his pen and embark on vast perambulations of west London and amid sulphurous fumes from the brickfields at Acton would search for elusive expressions, lines, single words even, which would transform his prose into the magical. All too often he would return to his attic and pick up his pen, only to find that inspiration had deserted him. Time and again he writes

One dreams in fire, and works in clay.

Frontispiece to Collected Works of the mystic Jacob Boehme, 1682

Frontispiece to Collected Works of the mystic Jacob Boehme, 1682

One must also earn a crust, unbuttered though it may be. The most significant job he had in this period was spent in the dank and airless cellar of a Convent Garden publishers; George Redway of Fern Street. Attracted by a 17th century burlesque Machen had written entitled The Anatomy of Tobacco, Redway hired him to catalogue a massive collection of rare and occult books. He became immersed in the literature of the weird and the recondite. Alchemy and Witchcraft, Diabolical Possession, Ghosts and Apparitions, Gnostics, Quietists and Mithraists, Divines, Stargazers, Mesmerists and Spiritualists, Psychometrists and Animal Magnetists all came his way, dutifully categorised in his laborious clerk’s hand. A blurb of advertisement he wrote at this time, Thesaurus Incantatus, reads more like Rabelaisian parody than advertising copy, revelling in the symbolical and allusive language in which he was immersed. Although always interested and intrigued, he was by and large robustly sceptical of the content of these books – ‘learned in occult law, but scornful of ordinary occultism’ is how one reviewer has put it. The ancient Roman hills of Wales and the gas lit streets of London had taught him what books could not; he was a mystic, not an occultist. But although his vision was intense, it was inarticulate and wanted the right circumstances to find expression.

Machen, Pan hiding behind the curtains

Machen, Pan hiding behind the curtains. (EDIT) This is in fact not a photo of Arthur Machen - as two correspondants have written to tell me, one pointing out that it looks nothing like Arthur Machen, writer, and the other pointing out, equally correctly, that you can't trust anything you read on the web, as I have so amply demonstrated. See John Alkek's note at the end of this piece. (update 9th July 2009 - and also Maria's lovely comment)

At some point in the mid ‘80s he met Amelia Hogg. She was an independent, deep-voiced woman, 18 years Machen’s senior. In 1887, a few weeks after the death of his father, they were married. This may seem slightly peculiar timing, an occasion where ‘the funeral baked meats did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables’, but it was presumably on the expectation of his inheritance, his mother having died two years earlier. This money, when it came, was sufficient to set up house in Bloomsbury and later the Chilterns.

I live with cancer death wife
Leave the Capitol

Machen’s reticence about ‘Amy’ is, as more than one frustrated biographer has noted, curious. He never mentions her. We know that her health was poor, that her family owned vineyards in France, which they visited, and that in 1897 she died of cancer, leaving Machen bereft. By the time this happened, she had performed two great services for him. First, she introduced him to AE Waite. The scholarly mystic and the would-be writer of supernatural tales became lifelong friends. They disagreed, said Machen, about everything, but clearly had a great sympathy. Waite was also director on the board of Horlicks and would persuade his fellow directors, God alone knows how, to finance a periodical, devoted to the occult, entitled The Horlicks Magazine and Home Journal for Australia, India and the Colonies. In this would appear Machen’s unnerving short story The White People and an early version of The Hill of Dreams. (It is not the only time, as one biography wittily puts it, that mystery has sheltered beneath the wings of milk – supernatural writer Algernon Blackwood once worked for a firm that dealt in the dried type). Second, Amy’s presence provided Machen with the emotional company that, with the financial relief, allowed him to pluck the fruits of his hard-earned labours.

They say music should be fun
By reading a story of love,
But I wanna read a horror story
Dice Man

In the meantime, despite his change in fortunes, Machen knew his income would not last long and he supplemented it by translating the Memoirs of Casanova into 12 volumes. It is a highly entertaining work, and Machen preserves the narrative fluency by pruning the archaisms of which he was so fond, and shortening his sentences. These were valuable lessons, teaching him to use plain language effectively and control tempo. Although now superseded Machen’s was for a long time the only significant translation of Casanova available in English and is still very readable, an even more remarkable achievement when it is considered that this rollercoaster of pan-European high life was conned in a flea-invested Bloomsbury flat, by a still-poor 25-year-old Welshman.

As well as this monument of translation, Machen had begun writing short stories. Robert Louis Stevenson’s New Arabian Nights, where London was transformed into a new Baghdad of magic and adventure, had been enormously successful and Machen, whose facility for imitation was perhaps too great, undertook to write in the manner of the Scot. In 1894, from the ferment of his vivid imagination, to stalk the streets of London, came The Great God Pan.

Mesopotamian votive stand
3rd Millennium BC

A sinister experiment on a servant girl. A daughter born of an unholy communion. A local boy terrified witless by a strange scene in the glade of a wood. A wealthy and prosperous Londoner found raving and destitute in the streets. Disturbing sketches found in a dead artist’s notebook. A series of inexplicable suicides. ‘Un succés fou! Un succés fou!’ declared Oscar Wilde – a raving success. The Great God Pan became the talk of a town that had already acquired a taste for the wormwood of fin-de-siecle decadence. Reviews were mixed. The Manchester Guardian called it ‘the most acutely and intentionally disagreeable book […] yet seen in English.’

We could say more, but refrain from doing so for fear of giving such a work advertisement.

There could, of course, have been none better. The Lady’s Pictorial called it ‘unmanly’, clearly the worst of qualities, and the Glasgow Herald recommended ‘a smart turn in brisk air to cleanse the feelings.’

Cover to 1965 Corgi edition

The triple gang, and the throng…

Machen followed this in 1895 with The Three Impostors. The title was taken from the name of an old heresy, that Jesus, Mohammed and Moses were three deceivers who had led the world astray, the complex history of which deserves an essay to itself – Robert Burton refers to it in his Anatomy of Melancholy as ‘that pestilent book de tribus mundi impostoribus, quem sine horrore (inquite) no legas [about the three impostors of the world, not to be read without shuddering] and Thomas Browne mentions it scornfully in his Religio Medici. Machen’s work takes nothing but the title, and in structure is highly derivative of Stevenson’s series of tales, The Dynamiter. Two earnest young men keep on encountering, in a variety of guises, the three impostors of the title, criminals deep in Black Magic, who spin the young men a variety of supernatural tales as part of a plot to capture The Young Man in the Spectacles, who has stolen a rare and cursed gold coin from them. Among the tales they tell are two of the finest things that Machen wrote. In The Novel of the Black Seal, a young woman is accomplice to a professor’s unhallowed investigations in the Welsh hills, at the heart of which are the indecipherable hieroglyphs of the Black Seal and a strange half-forgotten race of people. There is an unforgettable scene where a local idiot boy undergoes a hideous transformation. In the Novel of the White Powder the same young woman in another disguise tells a story about her overworked brother. He is prescribed a mysterious white powder, which initially has an effect of hyperactive reinvigoration, but gradually leads to hideous spiritual and physical corruption.

But that fraction, that small fraction missing is sometimes the most important.
I’m Bobby Pt 1

What is the nature of Machen’s horror? It is, with the comic, the most difficult of the literary arts. You cannot tell a reader he is scared if he is not, any more than you can tell him he is finding something funny when he is finding it dull. A writer may hoodwink a reader that something is profound when it is merely boring, just as a writer may convince a reader they are being intelligent when they are wading through something unintelligible. A horror writer may succeed in all points of construction and style, but if there is not something uncanny about the creation, that writer will have failed. Similarly, a writer who botches the most basic of technical skills may yet succeed if there is, wreathed about the tale, an atmosphere of fear and dread.

By conventional standards Machen’s writing is disastrous. His plot construction is completely absent other than as a series of coincidences. His character drawing is rudimentary in the extreme, so that it is frequently difficult to work out who is narrating. Conversational exchanges become an exercise in counting back to work out who is saying what to whom. The way he squanders the build-up of menace in a short story The Red Hand is immensely frustrating and the last line of The Three Impostors provoked in me a shout of excruciated laughter. The narrator in The Novel of the Dark Valley is a monster of slow-witted incuriosity and boredom – even Machen admitted it was ‘to put it mildly, not a very good story’. Names are but imperfectly attached to their owners, so it is not unusual in connected works to find different characters with shared titles. His style is deliberately repetitive, and while this can have the cumulative effect Machen is aiming for, it is frequently tedious. He often aborts or rushes denouements. Characters, as well as being paper thin, frequently engage in an early version of what would later be known as radio dialogue; gabbling instant information at each other from point-blank range – this from The Three Impostors:

‘We owe a great deal to you,’ said Mr Davies politely; ‘ the doctor said so before he left. But have we not all three some farewells to make? I, for my part, propose to say good-bye here, before this picturesque but mouldy residence, to my friend Mr Burton, dealer in the antique and curious,’

and so forth.

And yet: Machen’s writing has qualities that defy conventional standards. All the basic faults of construction and style should preclude the expression of higher things, yet they do not. The intangible atmosphere of mystery persists in spite of, perhaps even because of, the grossly malfunctioning mechanics.

His vision of horror has a beauty that derives from its origins in the Welsh landscape. He explicitly wrote The Great God Pan as ‘an endeavour to pass on the vague, indefinable sense of awe and mystery and terror’ he had received from his native countryside. As a consequence his evil is both repellent and seductive and there is a sense that the victims in his stories in some way desire their dreadful fate. Like the rites of ancient Rome described within his pages, lust, ecstasy and terrible revelation dance hand in hand to weave his literary cloth. Under the beautiful hills of his homeland lies the dreadful, only semi-human race of little people, glibly called faeries, but actually a vile and malevolent early offshoot of humanity. In The Shining Pyramid, Vaughan and the ever-plucky Dyson creep to the sides of a bowl formation at the top of a hill in Wales –

It did, in truth, stir and seethe like an infernal caldron. The whole of the sides and bottom tossed and writhed with vague and restless forms that passed to and fro without the sound of feet, and gathered thick here and there and seemed to speak to one another in those tones of horrible sibilance, like the hissing of snakes, that he had heard.

Years later Machen wrote –

Here then was my real failure; I translated awe, at worst awfulness, into evil.

I think far from being his real failure, this was his real success. It gives his horror the status of a religious experience, cosmic theogony rather than localised folk tale. It is something that HP Lovecraft would take much further. Dr Raymond in The Great God Pan explains thus –

There is a real world, but it is beyond this glamour and this vision, beyond (…) them all as beyond a veil. I do not know whether any human being has ever lifted that veil; but I do know, Clarke, that you shall see it lifted this night from before another’s eyes.

Far from being accompanied by beauty however, the lifting of this veil results in hideous obliteration. The 17th century mystic Thomas Vaughan, like Machen a Silurian Welsh, wrote of a chain of being where ‘beneath all degrees of sense there is a certain horrible, inexpressible darkness. The magicians called it tenebrae activae.’ This crudely sentient and primal darkness is like a canker that infects first soul and then flesh. So it is that Helen Vaughan in The Great God Pan, Mrs Black in The Inmost Light, and Francis Leicester in The Novel of the White Powder all end up ‘a dark and putrid mass, seething with corruption and hideous rottenness, neither liquid nor solid, but melting and changing before our eyes, and bubbling with unctuous oily bubbles like boiling pitch.’ Jorge Luis Borges, in a brief but elegant essay, noted

la corrupción del espírito se manifesta par la corrupción de la carne

which with a little latitude may be translated –

A spotty exterior hides a spotty interior
(C’n’C Mithering)

Beauty, awe, corruption – these comprise, it could be said, the Welsh side of his terror. There is another side, closely intertwined.

‘I shall leave London to-morrow,’ he said, ‘it is a city of nightmares.’
The Great God Pan

Suburbia holds more than you care for
Petty Thief Lout

It is not just the nature of the horror, as described above, that makes it so effective, but where it takes place.

As I glanced up I had looked straight towards the last house in the row before me and in an upper window of that house I had seen for some short fraction of a second a face. It was the face of a woman, and yet it was not human. (…) as I saw that face at the window, with the blue sky above me and the warm air playing in gusts about me, I knew I had looked into another world – looked through the window of a commonplace, brand new house, and seen hell open before me.

The streets and modern inns, the monotonous suburbs and labyrinthine rookeries, which Machen had endlessly walked when he first came to London, were the settings for his abominations. Here are no crumbling castles or Transylvanian mountains; it is not Gothic, it is as everyday as the pavement outside your door. These are not academics, poring through long neglected and prohibited books, who held the key to the gates of Hell, but unwitting drunkards, prostitutes, and street artists. It is not an unearthly mist, but an industrial smog, and the flares that light the paths of the damned are not medieval flaming torches, but the petroleum naphtha lamps that illuminated London at this time.

We are The Fall, in the Neighbourhood of Infinity!
Neighbourhood of Infinity

The otherwise rather unsuccessful Novel of the Iron Maid from The Three Impostors gives full expression to the mystical quality of the streets.

Before me was the long suburban street, its dreary distance marked by rows of twinkling lamps, and the air was poisoned by the faint, sickly smell of burning bricks, deserted as those of Pompeii. I knew pretty well what direction to take, so I set out wearily, looking at the stretch of lamps vanishing in perspective: and as I walked street after street branched off to right and left, some far reaching, to distances that seemed endless, communicating with other systems of thoroughfare, and some mere protoplasmic streets, and ending suddenly in waste, and pits, and rubbish heaps, and fields whence the magic had departed. I have spoken of systems of thoroughfare,, and I assure you that walking alone through these silent places I felt fantasy growing on me, and some glamour of the infinite.

These are the neighbourhoods of infinity through which Machen’s characters walk. In infinite streets anything can happen – anything must happen, eventually. So it is those who criticise Machen’s coincidences proceed from a fundamental error: trying to interpret his writings according to the theory of realism that Machen despised. The events in Machen’s novels progress as in a nightmare. There is a sense that when his characters wander aimlessly they are part of a hidden process. That whether they choose streets left or right, secluded courtyard or crowded pub, they are progressing down an unalterable path to the heart of the mystery. In an infinite labyrinth, as Borges has pointed out, everywhere is the centre. Machen’s London, as a whole, partakes of the mysteries that occur within it.

They are mysteries written in plain language, delivered in long, rolling musical clauses, that have a kind of incantatory power to keep you reading, even when the subject matter seems weak, silly or thin. Some have seen the surging, intense Welsh preaching style of hwyl in his style, but it is also worth remembering the sheer amount of care he took over the music of his language. It may feel purple and over-the-top in these more laconic times, but it was a deliberate attempt to create awe in sound as well as sense.

That said, there is quite a serious problem of tone in these books. The rather chilly Stevensonian blend of farce and seriousness, flippancy and deadliness mixes awkwardly with the warm feeling of mystical evil that possesses the pages. I must admit I quite like, however, the great good humour and innocent earnestness with which his heroes dash about through his plots. And it is also worth pointing out that Machen is not the slightest bit derivative apart from in his faults.

The powders reach you and the powders teach you
and when you find, that they can reach you…
No Xmas for John Quays

There was another problem: the timing of the publication of The Three Impostors was not propitious. The abiding critical atmosphere in Britain was one in which fiction was expected to be ‘useful’, morally ‘instructive’, spiritually ‘healthy’. I use quote marks because of course nothing could be less useful, instructive or healthy than such an attitude and Machen knew it, reviling pious critics and puritanical nosey clerics all his life. With the trial of Oscar Wilde in 1895 the stifling critical atmosphere intensified to a disgust for anything with the slightest whiff of depravity.

This probably did not bother Machen as much as it bothered potential publishers; he always enjoyed his bad reviews and even issued a collection of them, Precious Balms. Nevertheless Machen told AE Waite ‘I shall never give anyone a White Powder again’. He had done with Stevenson and the traditional adventure story. For his next work the horrors would become chimeras of the psyche rather than the outside world.

Roman excavations at Caerleon
Roman excavations at Caerleon

Exit this Roman shell
Leave the Capitol

The Hill of Dreams describes the short life of Lucian, son of a Welsh clergyman who, obsessed by love and literature and disgusted with humankind, moves to London where, through a combination of extreme hunger, drugs and mental isolation, he goes mad and dies. This at least is a description of the external events. The Hill of Dreams is not about external events, except in a very small way. It is an internal narrative of the imagination. There is, as in The Great God Pan the suggestion of a mysterious sexual communion as he sleeps upon the Hill of Dreams. Lucian later wonders if he has ever awoken. A third of the novel is spent describing the rapturous vision of a Roman city that Lucian is consumed by. This rapturous vision becomes a monstrous nightmare when he moves to London. In starving solitude the capital becomes for Lucian a town ‘great as Babylon, terrible as Rome, marvellous as Lost Atlantis’. Like the child narrator of The White People he feels trapped in a City of Infinite Menhirs,

one grey temple of an awful rite, ring within ring of wizard stones circled about some central place, every circle was an initiation, every initiation eternal loss

The rocky avenues became the camp and fortalice of some half-human malignant race who swarmed in hiding ready to bear him away into the heart of their horrible hills. It was awful to think that all his goings were surrounded, that in the darkness he was watched and surveyed, that every step but led him deeper and deeper into the labyrinth.

Lucian is found by his landlady, next to the great work he has been incessantly writing.

It was all covered with illegible hopeless scribblings; only here and there was it possible to recognise a word.
“Why, nobody could read it, if they wanted to.”

Although a development of the horrors in The Great God pan and The Three Impostors, this fictionalised account of Machen’s early days in London also shows us their source. As with Lucian, we can imagine how Machen’s mind ‘dwelt on confused and terrible recollections, and with a mad ingenuity gave form and substance to phantoms’.

It is a book peculiar in the extreme, long-winded and repetitive, but with a strange and melancholy force, and a dreadful sincerity. The infernal visions of London are very powerful. Many critics call it his masterpiece and yet I miss the gaudy and melodramatic adventures of The Three Impostors. The Hill of Dreams marked an end to Machen’s most significant writings on the horrific. Henceforth he would by and large devote himself to the supernal, rather than the infernal. Machen himself, however, was about to descend into a circle of Hell deeper than he had been to before.

Arthur Machen, c1901

Then a great sorrow which had long been threatened fell upon me: I was once more alone.
Far Off Things

The backdrop shifted and twisted

When his wife died in 1899 Machen underwent a spiritual crisis. He became more closely associated with occult and secret societies like The Order of the Golden Dawn than before. He began to encounter characters from The Three Impostors on the pavement; on one occasion The Young Man With The Spectacles warned him that the self-proclaimed Beast of the Apocalypse Aleister Crowley had hired thugs to beat him up. He was beset by strange coincidences. Bloomsbury was awash with black magicians and diabolists. There is no doubting that, rather like Lucian, his sorrow had detached him from more generally accepted forms of reality.

A horror of soul that cannot be uttered descended upon me, on that dim, far-off afternoon in Gray’s Inn; I was beside myself with dismay and torment; I could not endure my own being.

In order to assuage these feelings he underwent some sort of occult ritual, the exact details of which are difficult to pinpoint. It seems certain he put himself under a kind of spell. This he called his ‘experiment’. He began to have unusual sense experiences, smelling wafts of incense where there was nothing burning. His short story The Exalted Omega described the sort of thing that was happening –

There was something not altogether solid and satisfactory in the sight before him. It looked he felt, as though leafage and tree branches, green turf and grey bricks of Raymond Buildings wavered together as he had seen vistas and towers wavering on the theatre backcloth.

After the experiment he spent his days in a painful ecstasy of joy that was replaced soon after by ‘dismal disenchantment’. This was not helped by the atmosphere of insecurity and paranoia that surrounded the Golden Dawn (this was about the time of WB Yeats’ notorious psychic battle with Aleister Crowley). He developed an infatuation, mystical in expression, with a woman who called herself The Sherpherdess.

Machen, with beard

Machen then took an unusual step for a solitary: he became an actor in FR Benson’s famous theatre company. Exchanging the closed and paranoiac society of the Golden Dawn for the open fraternity of the stage was the best thing he could have done. Although introverted, he had always loved the theatrical festivities of Dickens and although rather tentative at first in his minor roles, he soon entered into proceedings with great gusto.

Very likely because the change from my former way of living was so tremendous in every respect; I found the life an enchanting one.

It was not just the life of a strolling player that was enchanting Machen. A while earlier he had shyly begun to court Purefoy Huddlestone. Although she was a part of the acting world, he had met her before he had gone on the stage; his liking for her probably had a good deal to do with his gradual severing of ties with The Shepherdess and eventually The Golden Dawn. With his long beard and large, friendly bulldog Juggernaut, or Jug for short, he made a striking impression on the young woman. Despite her rather reluctant family, they were married in June 1903 and had a wedding lunch of mushrooms on toast, salmon mayonnaise and strawberries and cream.

Machen and occasionally his new wife continued to tour with the acting company, but it was no life for a married man, nor did it pay consistently enough. Purefoy and Arthur settled down in London, in the poor area of Lisson Grove between Edgeware Road and Marylebone. They survived in a mixture of occasional journalism, pawnbrokers’ loans and publishers’ doles. What is still probably the best collection of his writing came out in 1906; The House of Souls, containing The White People, The Great God Pan, A Fragment of Life, The Inmost Light, and an edited version of The Three Impostors.

Machen’s writing during this period concerns people trapped in mundane reality, being transformed through glorious revelation. In A Fragment of Life a city clerk is subject to incredible floral visions while walking around London and eventually convinces his wife that they should devote themselves to their Welsh ancestry.

Their legend is full of impossible events, and seems to put on the semblance of the Graal

The Secret Glory, Machen’s last great work, is a satirical description of life at a public school, which the hero, Ambrose Meyrick, is liberated from through his search for the Holy Grail. Arthurian quests have replaced the rites of ancient Rome, but like Machen’s Pan, King Arthur had his feet in Gwent – the 11th century inventor of the written Arthurian legend, Geoffrey of Monmouth, had acclaimed Caerleon the historic seat of Arthur.

Although divine and not satanic, Machen’s characters suffer no less from the burden of their revelation; in a rather hasty conclusion Ambrose Meyrick is waylaid on his way back from Asia, where he has deposited the Grail, and is crucified.

Write yer letters to the Evening News
Hey! Student

Machen had been writing articles and stories for various journals and in 1910 joined, for a regular salary, The Evening News. He hated the crass populism of newspapers. He felt, he said, somewhat like a man ‘captured by a malignant tribe of anthropoid apes’. He liked to tell an anecdote about publishing magnate Sir George Newnes –

‘Do you understand French?’ said the great man to an employee. ‘Yes!’ said the man. Then’, said Newnes ‘you will follow me when I say that this is par excellence what I want!’

Yet Machen was a very good journalist, with an idiosyncratic eye and a robust turn of phrase. In fact his factual writing generally is characterised by an economy and lively energy that was often absent from his more imaginative efforts. His introductions were exemplary, as was his writing about food; this on the traditional side to a dish of roast beef –

It was accompanied by Yorkshire Pudding – not a solid and a greasy and a vicious slab, sodden and detestable, but a dish that seemed to have gone through some great convulsion of nature and the oven, and to have emerged triumphant. There were golden plains and valleys all smiling before you; but here and again internal heat had blown the smooth regions into volcanic and mountainous appearances, blackened as by hidden fires. Below all this, bland delight, fit to mingle with the full flavours of the smoking beef

And his introduction to Brillat-Savarin’s Physiologie de Goût contained a description of how to make and how not to make curry.

The Siege of Sidney Street, with Winston Churchill highlighted

Winston Churchill had a speech imp-p-pediment and look what he did:
erased half of London
Tempo House

One of his assignments was to cover the Siege of Sidney Street of 1911. Machen sat on the roof of a nearby pub, munching horseflesh sandwiches and watching events unfold. The Home Secretary giving the orders was the 36-year-old Winston Churchill, later to preside over erasing half of Machen’s London, although Machen was far angrier with Londoners for what they had done to their own city through street widening and town planning than he was later with the Germans for their efforts in the Second World War.

It was a story he wrote for the Evening News about the First World War for which Machen is most famous, among those who have not perhaps read him. In 1914, after reading about the retreat from Mons, he wrote a story called The Bowmen about a spectral army of archers from Agincourt coming to the aid of the retreating, outnumbered British troops. Letters flooded into the Evening News confirming sightings of the ‘Angels of Mons’ as they became known and it assumed the status of a modern legend. It comforted soldiers and those at home alike, although many refused to credit Machen with its invention. Machen himself was both proud at the legend he had created, and irritated that no one would credit him with its invention.

In 1921, after writing a premature obituary of Lord Alfred Douglas in which the word ‘degenerate’ was used, Machen happily resigned his position. Despite his reluctance, he had been a good journalist, one of the last citizens of Grub Street, a tradition of men of letters supplementing their meagre income through hack work that stretched back over 200 years. Machen was done with newspapers, however.

Newspapers were not done with Machen, though. In 1913 an American newspaperman called Vincent Starrett published an essay; Arthur Machen, Novelist of Sin and Ecstasy. It marked the beginning of a brief but crucial American infatuation with the writer. His works were published for the first time in the States, laudatory articles appeared in the press and in Britain The Secret Glory finally came out. It was to be a happy time of relative comfort for Machen and his wife. They entertained regular visitors at their new and much beloved house and garden at St John’s Wood. Many of these visitors were Americans, who had come over the Atlantic expecting to find something some grim mage, like the malevolent buffoon Aleister Crowley. Instead they found

a genial, friendly presence, smoking a comfortable pipe, a tankard of ale on the table beside him, joining in the talk, from time to time, with that same quiet humour or quaint fantasy of thought he uses so magically in his books.
John Adcock, The Glory that was Grub Street

He served a deceptively strong summer punch (gin, Burgundy and Sauterne in a two-gallon earthenware jar) and in winter a hot rum version (1 bottle Rum, 1 quart green tea, juice of 4 lemons, 3 oranges, six grated lumps sugar on lemons, keep hot). When the weather was fine they played a rustic form of bowls in the back garden.

Machen and AE Waite, 1936

Life was not to stay all beer and skittles however. Money became tight again. The vogue for Machen in America died down as quickly as it had sprung up. They were forced to move to less comfortable surroundings and eventually left London altogether for Amersham, in Buckinghamshire. Machen scrapped what literary work he could, prefaces and introductions mainly, but they were still very poor. All his life he had worked very hard for very little; he estimated that he had earned a total of £635 from his literary work. His mobility became restricted. In 1842 his lifelong friend AE Waite died.

Machen, at the Caerleon excavations, 1937

Despite these burdens, Machen retained an affable and optimistic manner. There was to be one final hurrah. For his 80th birthday friends organised a lunch at the Hungaria restaurant and a national appeal to which lovers of his books from both sides of the Atlantic and many famous names contributed, among them TS Eliot, George Bernard Shaw and Walter de la Mare. A grand total of £2,000 was eventually raised.

In March 1947 Purefoy died and nine months later, on December 15th 1947 Machen, in the words of Auden on Yeats, ‘became his admirers’.

from Tales to Astonish! 6, 1959. Jack Kirby and Christopher Rule

When I am dead and gone, my vibrations will live on
Psychic Dancehall

And his admirers have been many. Often dismissed as second rate, the extent of his artistic legacy among others should give doubters pause for thought. The most obvious inheritor is Vincent Starrett’s friend, HP Lovecraft. He extended the implication in Machen of a cosmic scheme of evil and used many of his elements. Nodens, an avatar of Pan in The Great God Pan, appears as a god in Lovecraft’s schema, and the presence of an ancient, indecipherable language can be found first in stories like The Novel of the Black Seal. In his long, comprehensive essay Supernatural Horror in Literature Lovecraft remarks of Machen –

His powerful horror-material of the nineties and earlier nineteen hundreds stands alone in its class, and marks a distinct epoch in the history of this literary form

The composer John Ireland loved Machen’s works. His Legend for Piano and Orchestra, with its beckoning, pastoral motif and discordant, sinister piano was dedicated to Machen and inspired by the vision on the Sussex Downs of children in white silently dancing near the site of an old leper colony, who vanished when he glanced momentarily away.

Oh, so you’ve seen them too?

was the slightly terse reply from Machen when Ireland wrote to him of the event.

Machen’s description of the rapture and religious feeling to be found in mundane suburbia would be a strong theme for John Betjeman, who said that The Three Impostors

frightened me more than any book I read.

And Michael Powell, the filmmaker, owed him much, he said, for ‘terror, pity and fantasy’, which can be seen especially in films like A Matter of Life and Death.

Machen’s love for the atmospheric effects of clouds and light, and of London topography, can be found in GK Chesterton. If Chesterton outdid him in the first, Machen remained the post-Dickens master of the latter.

The reappearance of a stunted race of humans auguring evil is the starting point of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass and the Pit, and the sinister power of standing stones in the final Quatermass has echoes of Machen. Episodes of Kneale’s Beasts seem to owe much to the late Machen novella The Terror, in which the natural world rises up against humans, particularly During Barty’s Party and the highly disturbing Baby, not to mention Daphne du Maurier’s similarly themed short story, The Birds.

Mick Jagger praised Machen in an interview with Andy Warhol and Borges chose The Three Impostors as one of his choices in his idiosyncratic Personal Library. He said of the books he had selected that they all had

that lovely mystery which neither psychology or criticism can describe

which is a worthwhile reminder to those who would scorn the achievements of one who thought in fire, but worked in clay.


There are many areas of sympathy and resonance between Machen and The Fall. Not all the group’s songs are supernatural, nor, amongst those, are all of them supernatural in the Machen style. However there are several specific elements taken from Machen, as well as a strong whiff, throughout their work, of what was described in The Hill of Dreams as ‘the rank fume of the goat’.

Roman Totale XII is ‘the bastard offspring of Charles One and The Great God Pan’. (Charles I was, incidentally, one of Arthur Machen’s favourite historical figures and he would tip his hat whenever he passed a statue of the unfortunate king). However, Roman Totale is no Helen Vaughan, with her magnetic evil and primal corruption. He is perhaps rather more resilient to Pan’s revelations, the key elements of his genetic past seeming to manifest themselves in an amused indifference to sentiment and a surly pleasure in self-serving human idiocy. He revels, for instance, in the idea of a second dark age, merrily listing the various ways that people are screwed in such a set up. Presumably he knows rather more than he is saying about the Fiery Jack 7” master-tape, ‘the result’, he tells us ‘of experiments which took place in the remote Welsh hills one autumn’. Roman Totale seems, rather worryingly, to be suggesting that in certain circumstances the cloven hooves and square goatish pupils of Pan can be seen through the heavy thicket of thin metallic guitars and feverishly pattering drums of the songs on this record.

It is possible that certain attributes of Charles I skipped a generation, as the ‘yet unborn son’ Joe seems to be rather more indulgent than his father, having a certain quixotic or romantic desire to try and save the northern rising, before being thwarted by Tony and his imitative sons, although he is as unsparing as his father in the details of his vision.

Leave the Capitol is the song that has the strongest explicit Machen influence. Machen commented on a moment in Dickens, which described, he said, ‘a city translated into the very mystery of terror’. This also accurately describes The Fall’s ‘capitol’. The description of the city as a Roman shell gives the song a very strong savour of The Hill of Dreams, and among the brilliant sudden switches in character are the sonorously pompous line ‘I laughed at the Great God Pan’ and its wretched, cloven-hoofed response, ‘I didnae, I didnae’.

Indeed not. Yet there are substantial additions to the Machen style. This song is a perfect example of the aspect of The Fall where the grotesque is a function both of mockery and fear, where the hotel maids smiling in unison is both an image of ‘polite no manners’ and a sinister moment of confrontational terror.

The Impression of J Temperance also has a very strong feeling of Machen, although there is no explicit connection. There is, however, the deserted and dilapidated urban setting, a foolish experiment with hideous consequences, and although Smith’s concise delivery is about as far from Machen’s rounded periods as it is possible to get, the lugubrious bass and nasty dripping guitar and periodic keyboard screeches fulfil admirably that combination of sound and sense that Machen aimed for in his writing.

That The Fall succeeded in working in the tradition of horror without falling into the purple Victorianisms and gaudy explicitness to which that genre is so vulnerable, using, in fact, what could be termed a modernist creed, stiffened with satire, is a real achievement. These elements have not been found to go together easily, but The Fall’s Hogarthian phantoms are part of a potent vision, a psychic newscast of the contemporary world, never contrived or derivative. Like Machen’s plots, The Fall’s tales happen in the landscape around us, physical and cultural. There is no alteration of scenery to provide for a more supposedly appropriate backdrop. Music studios are more likely to crop up than deserted graveyards.

This period of early ‘80s seems the most fertile ground to find Machen’s influence, but it is not here alone that it can be found. What, for instance, is that ‘peculiar goatish smell’ doing in the otherwise mundane surroundings of Married, 2 Kids? And although I see, on checking, that The Fall lyrics parade has the line as ‘Thank God skin patch has nearly gone’ in Bremen Nacht, I must admit I have always heard it as ‘That goat-skin patch has nearly gone’, hinting at a Teutonic cousin of Pan amid the steel shutters of Bremen. Not forgetting as well, of course, that Pan is the tutelary demon of Pander, Panda, Panzer, the hisses, crackles and warped tape sounds of which suggest some auditory representation of a hidden world – as when you hear something of the ‘real’ waking world from beyond a dream.

Betjeman described the story of The Secret Glory thus –

While all the time the author’s hero knew
A Secret Glory in the hills of Wales:
Caverns of light revealed The Holy Grail
Exhaling gold upon the mountain tops;
At “Holy! Holy! Holy!” in the Mass
King Brychan’s sainted children crowded round,
And past and present were enwrapped in one.

When I read these lines I was strongly reminded of Mark E Smith’s intonation of the Sanctus at the end of his Bowmen-like vision of ‘skyscraper tall German soldiers’ amidst the new riverside housing development in certain live versions of Crop Dust.

Moreover, there is frequently in The Fall, most recently in Systematic Abuse, a sense that the world we inhabit is not the real one, but that, like the quote from Lovecraft that Smith uses at the beginning of The Horror in Clay, behind this visible world lie ‘such terrifying vistas of reality that we would either go mad from the revelation or flee into the blissful sleep, peace and safety of another, new, Dark Age’. Listening to The Fall, and reading Arthur Machen, we are brought to the brink of that revelation, and may feel something of the magician’s tenebrae activae in the void behind the musical sounds and the written words.

Angel of Mons Waltz sheet music by Paul Paree

Angel of Mons Waltz sheet music by Paul Paree

There is one final question to be addressed: what would Machen have made of The Fall? He would, his son has said, have nothing in music since Handel, apart from Down by the Old Bull and Bush and Tararaboomdeay. He hated musical innovation. On one occasion he had the opportunity to listen to the plainchant at Westminster Cathedral, which an acquaintance had told him was particularly good. It was perhaps slightly more ornate than he had expected. ‘Hello, dear: was the chant good?’ his wife Purefoy asked when he got home.

‘Chant!’ roared Arthur, ‘Devil of a bit of chant! Glees and madrigals! Impudent scoundrels!’

He probably would have heard in The Fall’s ‘death dance’ very real evidence that Pan and the frenzied rites of Rome had taken over the world and that all was lost with humanity. Nevertheless I like to think that in songs such as Papal Visit, he would have sensed, in its scraping guitars, distant processional drums and spectral messages imperfectly heard, that there was a recorded message coming from another place, not entirely earthly, that was similar in hue to the results of the investigations and experiments that take place in his pages. His short story The Autophone has a disturbed young man confronted with a scientific machine that plays back repressed thoughts from his youth, the sound of which, we may suppose, may not be entirely distant from some of The Fall’s stranger taped experiments, like the marvellous Mad.Men-Eng.Dog on The Marshall Suite. And he surely would have been sympathetic to the sylvan revenants and angels of Pine Leaves, who, having escaped from the dismal man-created hells and concentration camps of this world, have found peace and harmonious revelation in a world beyond. I hope the same for Arthur Machen.

Reports in The Times that Arthur Machen had converted to Catholicism on his deathbed proved untrue. He and Purefoy left behind them two children, Hilary and Janet.

6 Responses to Arthur Machen and The Fall

  1. Gwilym says:

    Great bio. I am the Editor of Machenalia for the Friends. Do you fancy writing the reverse an introduction of The Works of The Fall for admirers of Machen? You could use your section ARTHUR MACHEN AND THE FALL as a basis. I had someone writing me such a thing but it fell through and it is desperately needed give the attention Smith pays to Machen and the fact his autiobiography is coming out.

  2. fitzroycyclonic says:

    Certainly- Quill and penknife, and inkwell at the ready. Thanks for the comment, Gwilym – it’s good to know that it meets with expert approval!

  3. Roger Dobson says:

    Readers may be interested to hear that a thriving literary society exists to honour Machen and his works, The Friends of Arthur ( The society publishes a journal, Faunus, and a regular newsletter, Machenalia, and in 2005 issued John Gawsworth’s biography of Machen, written in the 1930s. Over the years Machen’s admirers have included the film director Michael Powell, Jorge Luis Borges, Hitchcock’s regular composer Bernard Herrmann, Mick Jagger and novelists Peter Ackroyd, Paul Bowles, Iain Sinclair and Alan Moore. Guillermo del Toro’s acclaimed fantasy film Pan’s Labyrinth was influenced by Machen’s tale ‘The White People’ (1904). After years of unaccountable neglect the cinema may be about to discover Machen’s genius. A film based on the Angels of Mons legend is currently in development from a British company, and an American screenwriter is working on a script based on The Three Impostors (1895). Many of Machen’s books have been reissued over recent years by Tartarus Press (

  4. john alkek says:

    I enjoyed your excellent article. I want to let you know that the picture you posted of a young Arthur Machen seated with Pan in the background is not Arthur Machen, the Welsh writer, but Arthur W. Machen, the 19th century American lawyer. This image was altered to include the novel background and makes the rounds as being our dear Machen. A careful study of the face reveals that it looks nothing at all like Machen, even youth aside. Best wishes, John

  5. Maria says:

    I agree with Mr. Alkek’s determination that the photo of young Machen seated is indeed Arthur W. Machen. He is an American cousin to the novelist, albeit distant. This caught me totally by surprise because this young man is my grandmother’s uncle. I love having yet another picture of him.

    • fitzroycyclonic says:

      Thanks for that, Maria. Fascinating stuff. Good to have some provenance for the photo, mistaken though my original use of it was!

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