Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Arthur Machen on Night Waves


There was an interesting item in the Radio 3 arts magazine programme Night Waves the other night in which Iain Sinclair and Stewart Lee discussed the writer of the supernatural Arthur Machen with host Matthew Sweet, author of the entertainingly discursive meander through popular British cinema Shepperton Babylon (it's not included in the summary of the show's contents, but you can find it about 20 minutes in). This was to mark the publication of a Penguin Classics volume of Machen’s uncanny fiction, The White People and Other Weird Stories, which will sit neatly alongside the publisher’s previous annotated collections of Algernon Blackwood, MR James and HP Lovecraft. As with those volumes, a scholarly introduction and extensive footnotes are provided by ST Joshi. It’s a measure of Machen’s relative obscurity (and thus enhanced cult status) that it has taken so long for him to join their august company. This collection has an foreword by Guillermo del Toro, a proselytiser for the weird in classic and contemporary form, who helps to nurture it and maintain it in decadent bloom. The cover revels in what Stewart Lee describes as a 1970s heavy metal satyr, a link to del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth which is clearly trying to use his popularity to push Machen to a wider audience. Given del Toro’s well-informed dvd commentaries on his own films and on the likes of Vampyr, its evident that he is adept at tracing lines of continuity in the tradition of supernatural and uncanny literature and film, and he brings Machen in as a prime progenitor of that tradition here.

Lee has previously owned up to his Machen obsessions in his confessional article My Life on the Shelf. Measuring the components of his impressive library of books and music, he reckons on owning 3 feet of Machen books, a considerable girth given the general scarcity of his work in print. It’s not as wide as the 6 feet of music by The Fall which he’s amassed,but then the discographies of certain bands do tend to proliferate and grow wildly and wilfully out of control. Mark E Smith is also a fan of occult and supernatural fiction, as witnessed by this video recently posted on Weird Brother in which he gives a cosy fireside reading of The Colour Out of Space. Lovecraft was also a huge admirer of Machen’s work, and comments in his long 1927 essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, ‘of living creators of cosmic fear raised to its most artistic pitch, few if any can hope to equal the versatile Arthur Machen, author of some dozen tales long and short, in which elements of hidden horror and brooding fright attain an almost incomparable substance and realistic acuteness’. He goes on to quote from Frank Belknap Long’s poem On Reading Arthur Machen, a paean to the enchantments cast by his writing. The English composer John Ireland was also greatly influenced by Machen, and as Rob Young observes in his book Electric Eden, he felt that ‘no-one who had not read Machen’s fiction could properly understand his music’. The Hill of Dreams and The Happy Children had a particularly strong impact upon his imagination. His 1933 piece Legend, for piano and orchestra, was dedicated to Machen, and inspired by a vision he had whilst picknicking on Harrow Hill on the Sussex Downs, the site of an old bronze age hill fort. He saw a group of children in ancient clothing dancing before him. He looked away, and when he turned back, they had gone. The music evokes the dramatic landscape and, with its swelling, romantic piano figures, the manifestation of the old, layered stories and half-remembered mythological figures which are inscribed in it. Writing to Machen to describe his encounter with these mysterious, otherworldly apparaitions, he received the brief, scribbled affirmation ‘oh, you’ve seen them too’.

Machen’s distanced interest in the occult and in the underlying matter of British mythology, alongside his marginal life in London literary society make him an obvious object of interest for Iain Sinclair. He postions him as a writer of ‘London wanderings, and edgelands, and disappearances’. A typical Sinclair character, in other words. His projections of the city are layered over an older landscape, that of his Welsh upbringing, Sinclair suggests, with a deep and richly strange archaeology of resonant myth. Sinclair recalls his days as a London bookseller, with his stall in Camden Passage in Islington. Machen was always in great demand (this was the mid-70s through to the mid-80s), partly because his books were largely out of print and difficult to dig up. Many copies came on the market through Jon Savage, author of the history of the Sex Pistols and the emergence of punk England’s Dreaming. This points to further secret connections with deeply rooted English dissenting traditions of defiant strangeness which emerge at different times in different forms. The sparseness with which Machen’s work has found itself in print has added to the mystery surrounding it, and led to what Matthew Sweet called the fetishisation of the book. We’re lucky enough to have several volumes of the 1923 Caerleon editions of the Works of Arthur Machen in Exeter Library, which means we can read the likes of Far Off Things, Fragment of Life, The Inmost Light, Hill of Dreams and The Great Return. There’s also a 1915 edition of The Bowmen and Other Legends of War. The story The Bowmen features spectral archers from Agincourt coming to the aid of British soldiers in the First World War trenches. Genuine reports of such sightings began subsequently to be reported, fiction seeping out into the real world and influencing people’s war-stunned perceptions. Machen might protest that these were merely the products of his imagination, and not his version of actual myths, but he came to realise that he had let loose a new set of archetypes into the world, and went on to use them as such. It’s great to have a volume from the actual time that such myths were being formulated and spreading beyond his control. Another indication of the vital value of public libraries in keeping long out of print works available to the general reader.

Iain Sinclair uses Machen’s best known story, The Great God Pan, in his novel Landor’s Tower He superimposes it over the associative flow of the narrative and allowing the power of its language to temporarily ensnare the narrator in its initial, terrible experiment, which releases the ancient spirit of the dark woods loose in modern day London, embodied in the young woman who was subject to the doctor’s abominable surgeries. Sinclair quotes Machen’s description of depthless worlds opening up within and beyond this one, ‘a whole world, a sphere unknown; continents and islands, and great oceans in which no ship sailed (to my belief) since Man first lifted up his eyes and beheld the sun, and the stars of heaven, and the quiet earth beneath’. He had previously used William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland to similar effect in Radon Daughters. In both of these occult tales of cosmic terror and ecstasy, rifts are opened in the normative surface of the world, revealing greater, timeless underlying abysses. Sinclair uses them to hint at the intoxicating, spellbinding power of reading itself. The magic of the word effecting changes in perception through carefully forged language. With The Bowmen, such changes seemed actually take form in the world, the imagination made manifest. Landor’s Tower finds Sinclair (or the story’s narrator, a version or aspect of the author) travelling beyond the orbit of his familiar London territory, returning to the Wales of his childhood, tracing a transition similar to that made by Machen himself. It’s easy to see why he has such an affinity for the Welsh writer who moved to London to establish himself.

Machen’s interest in the occult led him to join, for a short span of time, the fin de siecle circle of those seeking some secret mystery patterning the world, the Order of the Golden Dawn, in 1899. Here, he was able to mix with the likes of WB Yeats and his fellow author of supernatural tales Algernon Blackwood. Machen’s studies were always more a matter of curiosity and distanced interest than Blackwood’s more committed questing, however. He maintained a healthy scepticism about all matters occult, and later wrote of the Golden Dawn that ‘the society as a society was pure foolishness concerned with impotent and imbecilic Abracadabras’. He was not a believer, and his stories remained dreams rather than expressions of a spiritualist worldview.

Sinclair sees Machen’s stories as offering efflorescing worlds born (or reborn) within worlds, in which he splices together his own personal mythology, formed of his observations of his urban surroundings, and his interest in the deeper layers of British Matter compressed beneath them. The White People exemplifies this layered quality, the Germanic folk stories at its heart emerging from the everyday in a manner memorably described as ‘viscous’. Stewart Lee talks of the sense in Machen’s work of a corruption of the spirit resulting from city or suburban life, with its fixed daily routines and mechanised rhythms. Natural forces tend to reassert themselves, both in the world and in the psyche. Sinclair refers to the story The Inmost Light, in which Machen writes of ‘the deformities of London’, and points to his portrayal of a patterned city, with a Welsh or old English landscape underlying its modern, industrialised (now finance industrialised) carapace. Stewart Lee draws attention to the element of hackwork in some of Machen’s writing, which included journalism turned out for the London Evening News, not necessarily to decry it, but to make it clear that he was a working writer who had to make ends meet (he had a family with two children to keep). Both declare their appreciation of The London Adventure, Or the Art of Wandering , a piece of observational autobiography and literary urban cartography, which is available in Exeter Library in a 1924 edition (the year of its publication, in fact, so presumably a first edition). It was written for money, but became almost a meditation upon its own creation, and the need to bring it to a conclusion. He was, to an extent, the archetypal impoverished artist, periodically starving in his lonely garrett, with all the aura of romanticism and actual squalor that such a state entails.

Both of these Machen aficionados seem entranced by his work for its very intangible quality, for what it almost but never quite reveals, both in terms of its hints at other, vaster realities, and in terms of the nature of the author himself; The detailed, occasionally even banal surface which slowly begins to phase into something other, revealing suggestive layers of great mystery emerging from below. Stewart Lee sums up this sense of reaching towards something which remains always just beyond the mind’s grasp by suggesting that there’s an unknowable centre to Machen’s work. Which is why his stories have always woven an addictive spell, and continue to do so to this day.

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