The Three Impostors (Machen)

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The Three Impostors (Machen)

nov. 24, 2016, 3:24am

I read this earlier this year and have been itching to reread/discuss... Anyone up for it? It's fairly short, as novels go, and it left a very strong impression on me (stronger than I anticipated, even as a big Machen fan(atic))...

nov. 24, 2016, 4:43am

Got that - unread - on my Kindle. I'm up for it.

Good excuse to try it with in the background - not composed for the exact work, but one can't have everything ...

nov. 24, 2016, 5:26am

That Gothic music thread is probably the most interesting thing to come out of this group in the past five years (can you believe it's been five years??)... I'll have to track that down and join you, sounds very cool!

Circumstances beyond my control have left me, sadly, alone on American Thanksgiving (my favorite holiday); so, I'm going to make the best of it and prepare myself some poultry-based viands and settle in with the company of dead men all day. In other words, don't be surprised if I have this one reread before mid-afternoon! :D

I'll give everyone time to catch up before I spam this thread with my thoughts, though. ;)

nov. 24, 2016, 5:29pm

Ye gods, I'm getting old! Spent the most of the day in armed combat with the ivy that's taken over my sadly neglected garden ... then settled down for an evening with Machen ... promptly fell asleep and slept all evening.

And now it's bedtime and I've not read a word and I'm still sleepy. If I try to read I'm going to fall asleep; if I go to bed I'm almost certainly going to be awake by about four.

nov. 24, 2016, 6:00pm

I pulled out my copy of The Three Imposters. I will start reading it tomorrow...for the first time.

>3 veilofisis: I hope you have as good a Thanksgiving as you can with dead men. (There has to be a great story in that. A graphic novel, even.)

nov. 24, 2016, 7:00pm

I don't think I can manage to reread a whole novel (even a short one) at the moment...but this might be of interest.

A few years ago someone on the Caermaen Yahoo group mentioned the work of Japanese-born but London-based artist Yoshio Markino as an ideal fit with Machen's vision of late-Victorian London. You can see what they meant from the examples in this blogpost:

A Folio Society edition of The Three Impostors illustrated with Yoshio Markino's paintings would be a very nice thing, I think.

nov. 24, 2016, 7:12pm

Just read the Prologue. I'm captured. I like it.

It's intriguing - deliberately so, of course - from the narrative voice's sarcasms and air of jaded cynicism to the general 'what-the-hell-is-going-on' of the storyline, the images of sickness and disease in the scene-setting, the occasional ambiguities - I found myself looking up 'piquant', just to be sure of it - an ambiguous word in this context ...

nov. 24, 2016, 10:45pm

I pulled my copy of The Three Imposters off the shelf and am excited to join in and reread it. It's been a few years, so it should be almost new to me again. I'll start later this evening after everyone goes to bed.

nov. 25, 2016, 4:11pm

Here is some related reading that might be of interest to the curious, The Treatise of the Three Imposters.

nov. 26, 2016, 2:49am

Of course I oppose your argument, whatever it may be ...

Just enjoying the prose ...

nov. 26, 2016, 3:08am

Just read 'The Adventure of the Gold Tiberius'. Fascinating enough, so far, but what is '... the well-know passage of the lad's playmate ...'? Can't find anything by googling, so far.

nov. 26, 2016, 3:23am

>11 alaudacorax:

Ah - is the 'playmate' passage perhaps a reference to his own The Hill of Dreams? I've yet to read that, so can't say for definite. A little cheeky of him, if so, and quite in keeping with a thread of playfulness I'm seeing in the writing.

nov. 26, 2016, 3:27am

>12 alaudacorax:

Oops! Got that wrong. The Hill of Dreams - 1907; The Three Impostors - 1895. So I'm back to baffled.

nov. 26, 2016, 4:59am

>13 alaudacorax: Unless Machen was into time travel.

nov. 26, 2016, 10:01am

>11 alaudacorax: ... the well-know passage of the lad's playmate ...

This might be a reference to a "real" story or a folk tale, but I think you're right to suspect that it's actually a Machen story in miniature - or just the germ of a story. I don't recall anything like it in The Hill of Dreams but it has echoes of "The Great God Pan", "The White People", "The Novel of the Black Seal", even the poltergeist/double from The Green Round, which was as late as 1933.

Machen, like Mr Dyson (a falling off from Occult Detective to rather ineffectual dilettante, here) agonised over the gap between the idea and the actual work it resulted in - "the usual agony between the conception and the execution". He kept a notebook throughout the 1890s full of story ideas/plot summaries/first drafts of which the completed work didn't see print until years later (so there's no real mystery if he seems to exercise clairvoyance in referencing future works - as an aside, have you ever looked at the scrap of newspaper on screen near the beginning of Peter Greenaway's A Zed and Two Noughts? The news items refer to the storylines of his next three (I think) films...).

After mentioning the Folio Society in >6 housefulofpaper: I was amused to be reminded that Phillipps' flat, being in Red Lion Square, is just around the corner from their current premises.

Editat: nov. 27, 2016, 4:19am

I think the "playmate" passage in "The Adventure of the Gold Tiberius" might be a reference to Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Marble Faun. I am searching for the passage in question. More later.

nov. 27, 2016, 10:23am

I've just read 'Encounter on the Pavement' and 'Novel of the Dark Valley'. I've realised that I've read this book previously, but I'm damned if I can remember anything of that - it was probably forty or fifty years ago, and it makes for rather a strange sensation, mining something up from the dim and distant past - which probably enhances this reading.

Anyway, I'm still finding it intriguing - tantalising, even - a mystery story rather than a horror, so far, though, and, paradoxically, there's an element of horror creeping up on the reader with 'Novel of the Dark Valley', which latter tale is strongly hinted as being not entirely true.

By the way, I'm reading some long out of copyright text from Project Gutenberg; is the punctuation as odd in more modern editions?

nov. 27, 2016, 3:18pm

>17 alaudacorax:.

It's only been about 8 years since I read The Three Imposters and it is almost like I'm reading it for the first time. Which is unusual for me. It's a singular and uncanny book in many ways.

I am switching back and forth between my Chaosium paperback and the Gutenberg download on my kindle, which is more convenient to read late at night in the dark. I have noticed the odd punctuation in the Gutenberg download as well. I suspect there are errors in the proofreading of the scan, rather than the original text, although I'm not fortunate enough to possess a first edition to check.

Editat: des. 10, 2016, 6:29am

I finished The Three Imposters this morning. I loved the atmosphere created in the story. It gave a great sense of place. It also seemed to herald arguments between science and belief, something that is not unknown today in some places.

Viewing the same events from different viewpoints, and weaving different stories around a set of facts is something I enjoy in stories. I am not keen on too many coincidences in a story and that is something I was not too happy about in "The Three Imposters", but Machen carried it off well using the coincidences to create the mechanism for telling the story to the reader rather than the coincidences being integral parts of the plot. Our two friends are very-much "in-loco-lectoris". They are simply our eyes and ears into the world of the story.

The explanation of the little people being evil mischief-makers is close to the original myths of the little people in Ireland. I like how Machen used the old tales to create a world unifying hypothesis for the various traditional folklores.

des. 10, 2016, 5:16am

I have no idea where I'm going.

I have a series of unreliable narratives, a couple of rather unreliable 'heroes' - and I'm a little suspicious of Machen's intentions, too - satire?

It's quite fascinating - still not much more than half-way through, though, and I really don't trust myself to make many comments until I find out what the hell is going on.

Editat: des. 10, 2016, 5:57am

I've read this previously, as I said in >17 alaudacorax:. I think in my teens because I've forgotten almost all of it, the one thing that stuck being that passage about women dying 'blushing red with shame'. I remember finding it embarrassing - because I thought it rather juvenile and when you're a somewhat pompous teenager, very self-conscious about being grown-up and sophisticated, finding something juvenile in a writer you're enjoying strikes a bit too close to home.

Nowadays I have critical faculties - which probably means I'm more knowledgeable about what I don't know, but that I know a lot less about a lot more than I used to not know a lot about.

So now I don't know if the 'blushing' passage is an infelicitous bit of writing on Machen's part, or deliberately over-the-top to remind us that Wilkins is an unreliable narrator, or to be seen as a deliberate attempt by Wilkins to titillate Dyson's imagination and thus parry Dyson's critical faculties.

des. 10, 2016, 6:05am

By the way, I'm not ignoring you, >19 pgmcc: - well, actually I am ignoring you, but this novel especially seems one of those where you want to avoid spoilers at all costs.

des. 10, 2016, 6:08am

If my posts are not adding much to the discussion it's because they're displacement activity triggered by the stress of last-minute Xmas-present-hunting.

des. 10, 2016, 7:48am

>22 alaudacorax: I put my comments behind the spoiler mask to give others the choice of ignoring them so you are ignoring me with my collusion. I would ignore me too...under these circumstances.

des. 12, 2016, 3:22am

I read 'The Novel of the White Powder' last night.

I'm not seeing any linking thread or overall direction in all these stories, and I'm starting to worry the book won't come to a satisfactory conclusion.

des. 12, 2016, 3:49am

>25 alaudacorax:

I meant I'm not seeing them in the surface stories. Machen appears to be playing a game - possibly satirical - with the concepts of authorship and story-telling, but I can't really pin that down, either. What am I supposed to think of the fact that the 'three impostors' are apparently better story-tellers than writers to whom they tell their stories?

I'm beginning to think I'm going to have to re-read this when I finish to better get to grips with Machen's underlying intentions.

des. 14, 2016, 12:58pm

I've just finished this and I've rather lost my grip on it; I think I've taken too long reading it. Oddly enough, I can clearly remember the opening chapter, but the bits in between have become a big vague (and Dyson and Phillips have got confused).

I'm not at all sure what's going on with D&P's interactions with the Three.

I think I'll probably re-read.

des. 14, 2016, 3:40pm

>127 I read the other Machen stories in the volume I was using and I now have them mixed up with the Three Impostor stories.

des. 14, 2016, 8:04pm

I haven't been ignoring this thread. I've tried to write something but, quite frankly, it needs some work. I don't think it even makes sense at the moment. If it looks like it's worth saving, I'll try to post it as soon as I can.

>27 alaudacorax:

I have to confess that the characters in Machen's stories - aren't always easy to distinguish one from another.

Editat: des. 15, 2016, 7:49am

>17 alaudacorax: - I've realised that I've read this book previously, but I'm damned if I can remember anything of that ...

I think I have not read it previously; I think I've simply read 'Novel of the Dark Valley' and 'Novel of the White Powder' in anthologies.

I've just re-read 'Novel of the Dark Valley'. It's quite flawed and can't make up my mind whether it's intended to be, showing Richmond/Wilkins as not only an unreliable narrator but not as good a story-teller as the other two. If I read it out of context in an anthology it's no wonder I didn't retain a very favourable impression of it.

des. 16, 2016, 7:45pm

>27 alaudacorax: - I've just finished this and I've rather lost my grip on it; I think I've taken too long reading it.

I've just finished my second reading, in just two days this time so I had it all clear in my mind as I was going through. I found it an odd combination of entertaining and rather unsatisfactory.

There is rather less to this than meets the eye. When I previously said I'd lost my grip on it, that was because I'd thought I was missing stuff that isn't actually there. I simply hadn't realised how many coincidences Machin had put in and I had assumed that The Three were particularly targetting Dyson and Phillipps, rather than being completely unaware of D & P's interest in the case or their possession of the gold Tiberius.

On second thoughts, I think I'll leave further comments till the morning - sleepy.

des. 18, 2016, 6:50am

More on this 'less than meets the eye' business from my previous post:

I'd thought, on my first reading, that Machen was satirising contemporary literary concerns (>26 alaudacorax:).

Er ... there may be SPOILERS ahead.

Dyson and Phillipps are antiheroes, rather than heroes, passive rather than active characters, and on times depicted quite disparagingly by Machen. They seem opposite sides of a coin: Dyson has real talent, but is incurably lazy (and self-deceptive about it); Phillips seems to be a talentless hard worker; Dyson achieves little and Phillipps achieves lots that he can't sell; both have private means and he seems to imply that they are hamstrung by this. Then the issue is complicated by his throwing in of 'Edgar Russell, realist and obscure struggler' who appears to be near-starving, but Machen's reference to Grub Street suggests that he's earning at least some sort of pittance as a hack writer.

This concern with writers, plus the sudden throwing in, in 'Incident of the Private Bar', of references to 'Tit Bits', Robert Elsmere and Romola (though the relevance of the last one escapes me) suggest that he's engaging with the literary and wider cultural controversies and changes of the day, but, if so, I just can't see what he's implying.

The only place where I get glimmers of light is in the text surrounding 'Novel of the Black Seal', where Machin appears to be satirising Sir Oliver Lodge's ('Professor Lodge') engagement with spiritualism. But even there I'm not 100% sure - if it's satire there's little bite or humour and it's really little more than a veiled illusion. Is Professor Gregg's fate code for Sir Oliver getting his just deserts for straying from the path of intellectual or scientific integrity? I'm really not sure.

And then there's The Three Impostors' underlying implication that the villains are much better story-tellers than Dyson, etc. What am I supposed to make of that?

des. 18, 2016, 7:01am

I was going to throw into the above a reference to a 'novel of the supernatural', but then it dawned on me that, as the baddies are making up the stories, it's really not.

Then I got into all sorts of thoughts about the relationship between fiction and lying, but now I've decided I could more profitably be thinking about lunch ...

des. 18, 2016, 1:52pm

I mentioned The Three Impostors - more specifically "The Novel of the Black Seal" - in this thread over in The Weird Tradition group.

gen. 17, 2017, 6:19am

Is nobody else going to weigh in on this one? I have a strong feeling of unfinished business - a strong feeling that Machen is doing something, here, that I'm failing to grasp (or trying to do something ...)

gen. 17, 2017, 6:59am

>35 alaudacorax:

Two of the stories in The Three Impostors - "the novel of the black seal" and "the novel of the white powder" - were possibly the first of Machen's writings I ever read. They were extracted from the body of the novel and printed as stand-alone stories in an anthology of, supposedly, H P Lovecraft's favourite Weird stories.

The Three Impostors seems to have a rather wobbly reputation among Machen devotees, with these two stories regularly extracted - "saved" - from the novel that undercuts them.

From the criticism I've read (most of it I suppose of the fan or at least amateur variety) the novel is viewed as a not entirely successful experiment, Machen attempting something in the manner of Robert Louis Stevenson's "The New Arabian Nights" but not being able to give it his full conviction. That said, there were, naturally other writers who saw greater merit in the overall work and maybe even pointers towards the elements of Christian mysticism that developed in his later fiction.

>32 alaudacorax:

That's an interesting point about the references to contemporary culture because it anticipates the way Machen wrote later in life when he had to earn a living as a reporter. His fiction from, say, the WWI period onwards is often journalistic in tone, or framed as an essay or memoir, to the point where the boundary between fact and fiction becomes blurred. It was often printed in the same papers where his straight journalism appeared, apparently with little to distinguish between the two kinds of writing.

In his last collection of short stories, from 1936, Machen mentions "by the way" scraps of odd news that used be filler column inches in the newspapers: an expedition to discover the Ark of the Covenant, an old man in Reigate who defends his house with a bow and arrow, even a passing reference reference to the actor "poor" William Terris (leaving the reader, I think, to remember that he was a murder victim and his ghost had been reported haunting Convent Garden tube station). I think this is a conscious technique to set his stories in a world of the unexplained, either merely coincidental or apparently supernatural. In "the novel of the black seal" there may a satirical intent - Machen was I think both suspicious of most spiritualist's claims and genuinely alarmed at the sinfulness of trying to "pierce the veil" (see the discussion on sin at the beginning of his short story "The White People").

gen. 18, 2017, 2:46am

>36 housefulofpaper:

That last sentence is interesting to know - adds a little weight to what I was suspecting of the 'Novel of the Black Seal' - I must read that 'The White People' bit. Between a pile of reading I already have on the go and a stack of other things I have on, at the moment I really don't have time or inclination to look for lit. studies of Machen and this story; hence >35 alaudacorax: - hoping somebody else was doing it for me. I'll get round to it eventually.

I have to say, though, I'm not overly impressed with 'The Three Impostors' overall, and I don't really expect to find much in the way of hidden depths. Perhaps I'll be proved wrong.

Editat: feb. 16, 12:15am

I read through the thread, but didn't notice anyone commenting on what David brought up in >9 DavidX:, the medieval* anti-religious pamphlet De tribus impostoribus... do any of you have additional info on what Machen had in mind when choosing the title, did he set the work in relation to the ancient precedent or what? (My edition is the early one without any editorial apparatus.)

*or a later fabrication

The reference would appear to be clear but I don't recall noticing any special import to it when reading the stories.

Was Machen very religious? I thought he tended to anti-modernist reaction fairly typical of that period, akin to Tolkien and his circle, somewhat paganish Christianity (or Christianised paganism). But no idea of the intensity of his devotion.

If he was very religious, then I'd suspect he wanted to turn the "three impostors" on its head by claiming the real impostors are secular power, commerce, and science.

feb. 16, 8:17am

>38 LolaWalser:

I'm at sea, here—it's been a while since I read this stuff, and I don't think I've really explored Machen, apart from reading a handful of tales. To that end, I've recently splashed out on a bucketful of (non-ebook) Machen books and I intend to really get into him. So I, for one, am not ignoring your post—it's just that it might take me a year or two to reply (there should be a 'lol' or emoji or something on the end here, but ...)

feb. 16, 9:07am

>38 LolaWalser:

Going by memory, I think Machen said, possibly in one of his autobiographical volumes, that there wasn't any special meaning or implication behind choosing the title The Three Impostors, but that it just sounded good - intriguing and sonorous.

He was religious and there's been discussion about both the intensity and the nature of his religious beliefs. He regretted the Reformation but wouldn't or couldn't convert to Roman Catholicism. He wrote about, and presumably believed in, a Celtic Church whose rituals had been preserved in the Grail legends (which he always wrote "Graal") and, it's speculated or it's assumed, in his mind he was a member of this conjectured Celtic wing of an undivided Catholic Church, even as he attended COE services. (No question he would be drawn to "High" Anglican services. He's rude about Nonconformist Chapels and the like at points in his work. Without even mentioning his involvement with Magical societies!).

This is a quick summary of the scraps I've picked up over the last decade and a half since becoming aware of Machen. I've no doubt over-simplified and forgotten some details whilst over-amplifying others. I don't think I've made any actual false statements, though.

He was, you're right, distrustful and scathing about modern science. It's an attitude I don't have sympathy with but in the context of his era maybe he's closer to Chaplin's Modern Times than, I don't know, an anti-vaxxer on social media today.

feb. 16, 5:38pm

>39 alaudacorax:

No worries, I read this myself not that long ago and am embarrassed to remember so little. Summer school's in order!

>40 housefulofpaper:

Thanks very much. Hmmm, the puzzle deepens... it seems very difficult to imagine that someone of Machen's background, meaning both the religiously orthodox and the occult interests, would NOT have been familiar with the "three impostors" tract... I rather think it would have been known (at least by hearsay) to any student of his day/generation.

But if he never said more on the topic himself, I guess we can only guess...