Reading Group #21 ('The Great God Pan')
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It's decades since I explored Machen, but I seem to remember that he had a tendency to annoy me by throwing in the odd crashingly clunky element. One that's stuck in my mind, if I'm not confusing writers: he had quite a 'believable' story building up about prehistoric men surviving into the contemporary world - and then he went and gave them tentacles coming out of their arm-pits. Fingers crossed that he's on more judicious form with this one.
By the way, the link to the Gutenberg version: - http://www.gutenberg.org/files/389/389-h/389-h.htm
ETA - Now I'm going to be tortured for days trying to remember what was the one I had in mind!
Supernatural Horror in Literature is a favorite of mine! I first discovered a lot of this stuff by reading about it in there. That's how I got into Melmoth the Wanderer, actually, which has been one of those books that's really shaped me as a person. I found The King in Yellow via Lovecraft, too, which I've had a similar relationship with. Great stuff.
I'm not sure what I think of the idea that we never actually get to meet the baddie, but only ever hear of her 'second-hand', as it were. Though gripping and intriguing, this, for me, ensured that there was no real chill to it - though that's not necessarily a fault, of course.
Also, I think the repeated withholding of descriptions of horrors as being just too unspeakable gives an air of titillation and I'm really not sure whether it works to give more power to the story or not.
When I read the first few pages I thought that Raymond was a pretty sinister figure who should have ended up on the end of a rope - or, preferably, something more nasty - and there's nothing in the rest of the story to make me modify that opinion. But I get a quite disquieting impression that this doesn't seem to have occurred to Machen - he isn't depicting him as such. At the end, Raymond is hardly differentiated from the cast of 'good guys'.
It seems that what happens to all those men is the real horror of the story, but what happens to Mary is unimportant.
At the moment, I have the suspicion that I'd find Machen's views on the female sex rather unpalatable.
I think the idea is tremendously powerful, the best, deepest of any we've come across so far, but not very well executed. First the minuses, as I perceive them--the writing dilutes the impetus of the story by introducing too many casual protagonists with indistinct voices who merely pick up on the same thread. Having ONE increasingly freaked-out observer would've worked better.
Other elements introduced longueurs: chitchat, the drawn out identification of Helen with Mrs. Herbert, Mrs. Beaumont etc.--we guess quickly who they are so it's anticlimactic.
In the deleted post I enlarged on the "house of horrors" and what was going on exactly and what would've worked better, the actual hint of actual goings-on we get (the narrators are in possession of a detailed, written document of these things), or omitting even that and letting us just dread the "unimaginable" ('cos we are pretty much collectively jaded, compared to a Victorian audience, by too many horrors to mention).
But then I got it--it doesn't matter, the "vice", the "goings-on" in the house of horrors, the degradation in which Helen's victims fall, those are not THE horrible thing, only its outcome. The horrible are the victims themselves, and they discover the horror in themselves. And they go mad and enact horrors.
It all clicks: the doorway to perception is in the mind (removing some "guardian" brain cells), the veil lifts, we see ourselves in our bestial truth, give ourselves over to it, and engender more of the bestial spawn.
I also said some about boning up on the attributes and cult of Pan being necessary for a fuller appreciation of the story--mebbe later, no heart now for Panic puns.
I agree, I don't understand why she'd just roll over and die on command either. Perhaps the smidgens of her "human" nature? Doesn't work too well if the whole lesson is about the beast in man. But... I think I'll have to go with it. A ray of light and all that.
Re my #8, did you not find Machen's treatment of Raymond a bit problematic? Perhaps I'm making too much of it.
After reading the first sentence, I was also happy to see that this is the perfect time of year for enjoying this book!
"It was winter - that is, about the second week in November - and great gusts were rattling the windows......."
I recall finding the style a little stilted before, but I think reading a lot of 'weird' and decadent fiction in the last five years or so has tuned my ear to it, and I'm more appreciative of it now.
I should 'come clean' and say that since becoming aware of Machen's work I've read quite a lot of it, thanks to Ray Russell's Tartarus Press. I've read the introductions, etc. and I'm not coming to this text with no preconceptions (and there's no point in trying to recapture, in detail, how I regarded the story the first time I read it).
There is one point in the first section that I don't think I spotted in my previous readings: Mary is supposed to be a virgin: '"But you remember what you wrote to me? I thought it would be requisite that she-" He whispered the rest into the doctor's ear.' and a bit later: 'She was so beautiful that Clarke did not wonder at what the doctor had written to him'.
I do think Machen's thoughts on women and sex were in some way connecting to his thoughts on religion and evil (he was attracted to the occult at one point in his life, but moved to a sort of christian mysticism. I've read that his interest in the early Celtic church was in some way compensating for the fact that he couldn't quite bring himself to convert to Catholicism).
I'll read on and see if I can pull together any useful thoughts or insights.
I recall finding the style a little stilted before,
That reminds me that when I read the second paragraph ('The two men were slowly pacing ...') for the first time I thought, "Oops ... schoolboy prose" - it's a bit clumsy - then I forgot about it as I got into the story.
Rankamateur, yes, in the deleted post I wrote how the one moment of REAL dread I felt was in the very beginning, as Raymond is about to operate on Mary ('I saved her life and I can do with it as I please"). He is definitely a nasty, cold character, although in view of Machen's very paltry characterisation (true for all characters), I don't think we are meant to make heavy weather of it. And a note of cruelty isn't out of place in a horror story.
She was so beautiful that
Right. There are many veiled references to sex, or the whole thing is haunted by sex, however you look at it. And no wonder.
I'm now reading the second story in my books, "The hill of dreams".
I can and can't see why Lovecraft and Stephen King regard it as a classic.
I suppose it rather depends on how original it was. Wikipedia says that the story is 'one of many at the time to focus on Pan as a useful symbol for the power of nature and paganism'. It seems to me that the power of the story lies in the imaginativeness and inventiveness of its basic premise. If they were original to this story I suppose Machen deserves due credit for it. They were what kept me absorbed through the first reading.
However, on attempting a second reading (it's taken three goes - it sent me to sleep twice) all the faults became obvious and the story fell apart on me. It reads like an early draft of a potentially very good story - but, frankly, I think it's a bit of a mess.
Lola neatly laid-out most of what's wrong with it in her 'minuses' in #10, so there's no point in me repeating them - I'll just say that I agreed with all she wrote. Also, I thought Machen's prose read as rather amateurish on times, especially in his passages descriptive of the natural world.*
The big stumbling block for me, though, is still Machen's treatment of Raymond. I mean, in a story like this there's nothing wrong, per se, in having one of the characters be a near-psychopathic, megalomaniacal, hippocratic oath-breaking, borderline-paedophiliac sexual predator. The worry for me is that his creator doesn't seem aware of it. Machen's attitude seems to me to be summed up in his words about Clarke 'being involved in an affair not altogether reputable'. I see absolutely no indication that he was being ironic - it's as if they've been naughty boys and sneaked off to a prizefight or a really downmarket music hall.
I just can't get my head past this - I've taken a personal dislike to Machen and I'm not going to be re-reading this story for pleasure any time soon.
*ETA - It doesn't help that, over recent evenings, I've been giving a bit of time to our previous read, 'The Masque of the Red Death', where there doesn't seem to be a single surplus or ill-chosen word.
It’s worth remembering just how horrible Victorian society was if you were at the bottom of the pile - which is where you’d find a poor, working class, woman or girl. Without checking dates and statistics, we’re all aware of what factory work was like, how many prostitutes walked the streets of London (and no doubt, other major towns and cities). The law to set the age of consent at 16 was passed late in the century, wasn’t it? - and the impetus for the legislation was to try to crack down on child prostitution.
The experiment must be set in the 1860s or 1870s, so Dr Raymond’s attitude to Mary, and Clarke’s acquiescence to it, perhaps accurately reflect attitudes of the time. The fact that Machen doesn’t, as narrator, comment on it, or arrange the villains’ comeuppance, doesn’t mean that he shares their feelings.
I said I think Machen disapproves of Dr Raymond, partly this is from the writing (I didn’t quite manage, in my previous post, to say that although on first reading I found the writing to be stilted, I’ve since read a lot more prose of the period - M. P. Shiel, Oscar Wilde, etc. - and feel that I’ve tuned into its fin de siécle rhythm. I now find it fluid and effective), and partly from what I know of Machen’s biography: his interest in the Occult.
Here’s what I mean. Roger Luckhurst’s notes in Late Victorian Gothic Tales states that Raymond, in quoting George Herbert (‘chases in Arras’) is expressing a neo-Platonist view of the world, and is therefore an occultist rather than a materialist scientist. But Raymond goes about investigating the world with a totally materialist method: a surgical operation on the brain. I think Machen is the neo-Platonist who presents an arrogant, wrong-headed man causing tragedy through having the wrong view of the world and using the wrong tools and methods to prove he is right.
There is something though, which troubles me about Machen’s views although my ignorance makes me hesitate to raise it. Perhaps not directly in this story (I haven’t finished re-reading yet, and don’t - I’m mildly alarmed to find - have a very retentive memory) but somewhere Machen expresses a belief in Evil that is worse than a specific cruel act or acts. Someone can do bad - dreadful - things, but someone who perhaps hasn’t directly harmed anyone or anything can somehow be so much worse: they’re spiritually foul. The rare occasions that I was dragged to church, it was a Methodist church (of a mild Home Counties kind, don’t think Texas or North Wales Chapel), and this idea isn’t familiar at all.
Is this belief rare? I've come across it often.
Incidentally, one of the books I'm reading currently (terrible habit, parallel reads, but what can you do), Chesterton's autobiography, has him say something like that too. I know nothing about Machen as person, but you mentioned he might have been attracted to Catholicism, and, as Chesterton shows vividly and repeatedly, a (Catholic) experience of/ belief in the Devil leads pretty much logically to such attitudes.
Wow! Coincidences everywhere.
And, rankamateur vindicated! ;)
It seems like this is one of those cases where knowing a bit more about the author himself would help tease out the meaning of the story.
Well, there are difficulties, both with the structure of the story and teasing out ‘what it means’. The sections based in Wales and the London streets benefit from the author’s personal knowledge, whereas the world of Lord Argentine et. al. strikes me as a pastiche of the milieu of The Picture of Dorian Gray (No doubt there were plenty of other literary models of ‘high society’, but I’m not familiar with them).
Villiers and Austin are equally ink-and-paper rather than flesh-and-blood, but I’ve read enough amateur detective stories (occult or otherwise) that it’s only in thinking about it, as I write, that the point has struck me.
Helen Vaughan is a vamp (the first one?) who drives men to their deaths. Not for love of her, but for (one presumes) lust followed by horror. The reader infers orgies involving a gender-and-species changing woman and demons of ancient myth or ‘faerie’ or Lovecraftian horrors. The individual reader has to decide if that would be enough to drive him or her to suicide, I suppose. What I don’t accept is that this is all an evasion and the story is ‘really‘ about a fear and hatred of Sex or Woman.
It might be a horror of ‘The Battle of Life’. I don’t know. I don’t think ‘The Great God Pan‘ was written by a man with a settled philosophy, or religion, or worldview.
What about the death of Helen Vaughan? This does seem weak, and unlikely. But reputation was important in those circles. Think about Oscar Wilde. If the dates weren’t wrong, I would have assumed that Wilde’s fall could have been a model for what Villiers threatens Helen Vaughan with.
And then the ending, in which Dr Raymond reappears, apparently somewhat mellower, sadder, wiser, haunted in some measure by his past actions but not exactly racked with guilt or getting, as I said before, his comeuppance.
The inscription to Nodens, “Flavius Senilis has erected this pillar on account of the marriage which he saw beneath the shade”. Was the experiment intended to be a marriage? (could the marriage equally well be called a sacrifice to the god?) Would events have been different if the bride had been a virgin?
To summarise, although in many ways this story is a product of its time, it still has the power to get under the reader’s skin, with sexual, magical, religious undercurrents and anxieties that are perhaps all the more troubling for remaining unresolved.
Moving on, I'd like to tackle something we've explored before in another thread but have never given a proper group read: 'The Beckoning Fair One,' by Oliver Onions. I think most of us are familiar with it already, so this will probably be a pretty busy thread. I, for one, have actually never read it (shame on me!), and I've been looking forward to it for some time now...
New thread is up.
But, but wait--what about your take on the Machen?
But, but wait--what about your take on the Machen?
I'm ashamed!! I started directing a production of Prometheus Bound this month and am in the middle of my final papers for my lit classes. No time for reading just lately :( In faaaact...I hate to admit this, but I haven't ready any of the last three or four selections!
I need to hunker down over the Thanksgiving holiday and get my reading in order! :D
All the best with the papers.
It's 4:48 AM in California. Your conclusion, sir, is absolutely correct. :D
My problems with it still remain, and I can't help but see the flaws we've noted above, but, still, I have to admit it as quite a powerful and gripping read.
Something I've never got round to properly getting to grips with is the strong Classical background to this story. Machen had a strong Classics background and there are obvious allusions to Dionysus/Bacchus as well as Pan. As I remember it, Dionysius's cult, in Greece, at least, could have some pretty horrific practices. I'm sure this is tied in to Lola's point in >10 LolaWalser: about the victims discovering the horror within themselves and going mad. Madness was strongly connected with Pan and Dionysus. To the ancients, drunkeness was a form of madness, hence the connection between wine and Bacchus/Dionysus and madness ... and then there's Mrs Beaumont's 1000-year-old bottles of wine ...
I suspect I often miss a lot of allusions by not having the strong Classics background of the educated writer or reader of the 19th and early 20th century.*
ETA - *Or miss the depths and ramifications of the allusions I get.
Incidentally, I found it interesting that Villiers tells Clarke that he will leave Helen/Mrs Beaumont with the noose "in a locked room for fifteen minutes. If when we go in it is not done, I shall call the nearest policeman". The endpapers then describe Mrs Beaumont's death throes whilst 'lying' on a bed. Maybe I am reading too much into this, and the endpapers are fragments, but no description is given of Mrs Beaumont hanging herself, and if she did, how did she end up dying/shapeshifting on a bed (who cut her down etc?) Also, for Villiers and co to watch the death throes, they must have been inside the room not standing outside a locked door. Perhaps, given Villiers' rotten character, they killed Mrs Beaumont?
They add in, though, with what I said in >17 alaudacorax: about 'schoolboy prose' in the opening paragraphs - Machen had the talent, he had the imagination, but perhaps he didn't have the appetite for the 'donkey work' of writing - for the revising and polishing? At least not while he was writing this story - I haven't yet explored further.
I'd missed this too, and I've read the story at least three times. I haven't come to any conclusions or had any great insights that might resolve this apparent problem. My best suggestion is that Mrs Beaumont was forced into taking her own life but chose a different method. I'm supposing that she takes poison (with no textural support) and maybe the threatened policeman is summoned, and forces his way into the room, and in turn summons a doctor on discovering the mutating corpse.
"This new collection, which includes the complete novel The Three Impostors as well as such celebrated tales as The Great God Pan and The White People, constitutes the most comprehensive critical edition of Machen yet to appear. In addition to the core late-Victorian horror classics, a selection of lesser-known prose poems and later tales helps to present a fuller picture of the development of Machen's weird vision" :
That can't be the actual cover, surely?
I'm tempted by the description (on the OUP website) - I haven't got a 'physical' Machen - but I'm going to have to see that thing in the flesh first ...
I also haven't got a 'physical' Machen, and I haven't read about half of the stories in this edition, so couldn't resist. Incidentally, seemingly all of the introduction is available to read on the Amazon preview.
From the format (introduction, chronology, texts, notes, you know this is going to be reissued as an Oxford World's Classics in a year or so, if buying the hardback feels like too much of an extravagance (and anyway, the paper seems to be cheap pulp stock - the book smells like a new paperback).
I think the selection is very good. As the introduction notes, the intention was to choose all the short "horror" fiction of the 1890s, the full text of The Three Impostors, (rather than extracting a couple of sections as free-standing stories), a couple of the WWI stories (the majority of these I find crude, jingoistic propaganda, with some having a bit more depth and resonance. You get one of each here), and some of the stories he did in old age, returning to the themes of 40 years earlier.