Arthur Machen, the Apostle of Wonder

the 27 April 2005 Times Literary Supplement
Arthur Machen, the Apostle of Wonder
Phil Baker

THE LIFE OF ARTHUR MACHEN
Edited by Roger Dobson
John Gawsworth

394pp. | Leyburn: Tartarus. Available upon application to the Friends of Arthur Machen, 78 Greenwich South Street, London SE10 8UN. | 1 8726 2181 3

Notably independent of contemporary fashionî was Jocelyn Brookeís comment on Arthur Machen, which was admirably diplomatic, if lacking the flourish of J. P. Hoganís ìFew people read Arthur Machen nowadays; he is the preserve, zealously guarded, of lonely men who step into the gutter when the bowler-hatted jostle them in the streetî. Interviewing Machen at his Lisson Grove flat (ìa shrine to which no one pays homageî) in 1919, Ben Hecht felt that the writer now lived in an era that ignored him, while clinging to an era that had overlooked him, in effect pinning him down as a minor Nineties writer.

That was before the 1920s revival, after which Machen was allowed to join the ranks of the reforgotten, where he has largely remained until quite recently. ìThe Apostle of Wonderî is nowadays intensely appreciated, and although he notionally dealt in tales of horror, he is surely read more in hope than in dread. For all his nightmare unveilings and horrible transmogrifications, Machen was fighting a rearguard action to keep open a space of romantic and mystical possibility, resisting the ìdisenchantment of the worldî that Max Weber saw accompanying the rise of science.

Much of Machenís work involves a re-enchantment of London as a place of infinite and ultimately mystical possibilities, like the fabulous glimpsed park that opens up in one of his finest stories, ìNî, within a transfigured Stoke Newington. Barry Humphries has described discovering Machenís London by reading him in Australia, so that when he finally arrived in 1959, ìI wandered in the streets that I felt I had got to know through the Machen guidebook, in Clerkenwell, in Camden Town, in Kentish Town, in Islington. The gaslight was still there to my surprise, there were still dark corners, there were traces of the eighteenth century . . .î. Humphries was also an enthusiastic reader of M. P. Shiel, the Caribbean fantasy writer, and admired the John Gawsworth introduction to Shielís Best Short Stories. In his own introduction to Gawsworthís Life of Arthur Machen, Humphries recalls wandering around Notting Hill Gate, then run-down and associated with race riots and the murderer Christie, and finding himself in a pub on Westbourne Grove called the Alma. He noticed an old drunk, with ìthe look of a failed actor or minor literary gentî, holding forth to a small group of duffel-coated listeners, and it was an appropriately Machenesque moment when the barman told him this character was none other than Gawsworth: ìI decided I had been led to this horrible little pub by Fateî.

Gawsworth, his early promise destroyed by drink, was an abject figure when Humphries befriended him. Stubbornly faithful to the 1890s poets and the Georgians, Gawsworth was living in a bedsitter with Shielís ashes in a biscuit tin on the mantelpiece, putting a pinch in the stew for special guests. He would quote great chunks from the minor poets he championed and anthologized ñ poets such as Herbert Palmer, Wilfred Rowland Childe, Richard Middleton, and A. S. J. Tessimond ñ but his favourite writer was Machen, and he would often speak of a biography he had written. ìI didnít much believe in the existence of this bookî, Humphries says.

Gawsworth was inspired to write it at the age of eighteen or so, after hearing Caradoc Evans declare, ìIt isnít Machen writing, itís God writing through himî, and in his brief preface he justifies the project by what was then its pioneer aspect. It has since been outpaced by other biographical works, but it is good that it has survived to be published at all. What was evidently a chaotic 466-page manuscript has been excellently edited by Roger Dobson, who displays an impressive knowledge of Machen in his ìNotes on the Textî. Gawsworthís narrative has its faults, but it is an extraordinary achievement for a writer of around twenty-one, and it gives a solidly chronological account of Machenís life up until 1933 (he lived on, without much further incident, until 1947).

Unfortunately, it is lacking in discussion of Arthur Machenís work, which Gawsworth probably assumed readers would know, and in that respect Aidan Reynolds and William Charltonís Arthur Machen (1963) should be read first. Instead, Gawsworth is particularly attuned to bibliographical details ñ he was already dealing in books and manuscripts ñ and the difficulties of making a living as a man of letters. He follows Machen from the Welsh landscapes of his childhood, through his lean period in his London ìdiggingsî, as they were then called, when he lived on dry bread, green tea and tobacco, and catalogued occult books for the dealer George Redway. This, no doubt, fed his later loathing of the occult, although he briefly joined the Order of the Golden Dawn and was a lifelong friend of the occult scholar A. E. Waite, author of The Book of Black Magic and of Pacts, who published Machenís fiction in his role as Editor of Horlickís Magazine, the malted milk periodical. Machen had some money of his own in the 1890s, which were among his most productive years, but even then his work was not popular: the Manchester Guardian described The Great God Pan, published with a Beardsley cover, as ìthe most acutely and intentionally disagreeable book we have yet seen in English. We could say more, but refrain from doing so for fear of giving such a work advertisementî. Machen later published a volume of his bad reviews, Precious Balms.

The renewed need to earn a living forced Machen into journalism, which he likened to being ìcaptured by a malignant tribe of anthropoid apesî. For better or worse he was now in step with his time, writing not just news (he covered the Siege of Sidney Street from a nearby rooftop, while the trapped anarchists shot it out with the Army) but nostalgic causeries on bygone London and all things olde worlde. His greatest journalistic coup came in the First World War when he created ìThe Bowmenî and the Angels of Mons, a piece of supernatural propaganda which took on a life of its own and even seems to have fooled the recent Oxford Dictionary of Folklore.

Machen did what he could to discourage Gawsworth from writing his book, but in the end he helped. There is a good deal of unfamiliar material, including real-life prototypes for several characters, the circumstances of his meeting his first wife, Amy Hogg, and how he knew Shiel. There are details of Machenís earliest journalism, and of a later lost work, ìFleet Street Diversions and Digressionsî. We also learn why ñ at least according to Machen ñ Henry Harland never asked him to contribute to The Yellow Book: Machen had offended him with his enthusiasm for the Sherlock Holmes stories, then thought to be very vulgar.

Other curiosities include a brief Machen text called ìSpoof Tennisî, arising from a practical joke, and an unexpected mention of The Hill of Dreams in the LeopoldñLoeb murder trial. A few larger mysteries are also aired, including a shadowy commercial syndicate who aimed to find the Ark of the Covenant, and an odd story about a plan to form a secret society purely to entrap one particular person, which is like something Machen himself might have written.

It is a pity Gawsworth did not tease out more about one of the most enigmatic episodes in Machenís life, the spiritual experience that followed his wifeís death from cancer in 1899. Machen reports he was in a desperately low state when he resorted to ìa processî. Before long, walking up Rosebery Avenue towards Sadlers Wells, he found himself ìwalking on airî with, the pavement bouncing like the deck of a ship, and he experienced ìgreat gusts of incense . . . the odours of rare gums that seemed to fume before invisible altars in Holborn, in Claremont Square, in grey streets of Clerkenwellî. Ingenious explanations have been suggested for all this, from unsavoury magical practices to experimentation with his wifeís opiates, but it may simply be the heightened perception sometimes associated with bereavement, amounting in this case to an almost manic state and clung to by Machen as evidence of some genuine visionary gleam.

Perhaps the true Machen enthusiast needs to be a lover of lost causes. Lawrence Durrell remembers Gawsworth rising early to place flowers on the statue of Charles I, a moment as characteristic as meeting him wheeling a pram full of empty bottles to the off-licence. Gawsworth found some solace in being King Juan I of Redonda ñ the guano-covered rock in the West Indies, which had M. P. Shiel as its first monarch ñ and would bestow titles for the price of a drink. The present King, the Spanish novelist Javier Marias, has not only helped with the cost of Dobsonís edition of The Life of Arthur Machen but considerably improved the intellectual level of the Redondan peerage, ennobling A. S. Byatt, Pierre Bourdieu and John Ashbery among others. Roger Dobson was created Duke of Bridaespuela a few years ago, and he more than deserves it for his labours on this valuable publication.

COURTESY JOHN PATTERSON!

0 thoughts on “Arthur Machen, the Apostle of Wonder

  1. Readers may be interested to hear that a thriving literary society exists to honour Machen and his works, The Friends of Arthur (www.machensoc.demon.co.uk). 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 (www.tartaruspress.com).

  2. @roger dobson: mark e smith front man and owner of post punk northern enduring rock band The Fall has also been vocal about his apreciation of Arthur Machen

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