Saturday, 8 May 2010

Arthur Machen


When I wrote about the CWA conference in Abergavenny recently, I mentioned that as well as locally born Ethel Lina White, another writer from South Wales came to my attention that week-end. This was, in fact, Arthur Machen, who was born not too far away in Caerleon-on-Usk (the Usk, as I discovered, is a lovely river and there are a number of very pleasant towns in its environs.)

There is a nice little museum at Abergavenny Castle, and when we visited it, I was interested to see a small exhibition about the life and work of Arthur Machen. I first came across Machen’s name many years ago, when I read Julian Symons’ brilliant Bloody Murder. He praises Machen’s book The Three Impostors, while noting that ‘it falls outside the detective canon’ and describing it as a tale of terror.

The opening line of the book, Symons says, is both tantalising and disturbing: ‘And Mr Joseph Waters is going to stay the night?’ When I first read this, I thought Symons was over-stating the impact of that sentence, and thought it rather ordinary, but on reflection I agree it has a sinister, fairly subtle, quality..

Machen is featured at length in Julia Briggs’ excellent study of supernatural fiction, Night Visitors, which is introducing me to some very interesting writers and stories. He clearly retains a power to appeal to the modern enthusiast – I learned in Abergavenny that there is a Friends of Arthur Machen Society (FOAM!) and for all I know he may even have a Facebook fan club.

17 comments:

Bill Crider said...

I've read and enjoyed several of Machen's short stories. I have a copy of THE THREE IMPOSTORS in an old Ballantine Adult Fantasy edition, but I' haven't read it.

Margot Kinberg said...

Martin - Thanks for featuring Machen in this post. I'm woefully ignorant about him, so it's nice to have a little memory jog : ). And yes, there is an Arthur Machen Facebook page - with 175 fans at last count.

Charmaine Clancy said...

A couple of titles to add to my TBR, thanks :-)

Elizabeth Foxwell said...

Clues 25.1 (2006) featured an article, "Eureka in Yellow: The Art of Detection in Arthur Machen's Keynote Mysteries" by Paul Fox. In addition, "The Lost Steps" radio program had an interesting program on Machen featuring Dr. Adrian Eckersley of the organization The Friends of Arthur Machen.

Machen was a major influence on the work of H. P. Lovecraft. I especially like the fact that Machen's villains are so evil that they dissolve into protoplasm. I wonder if today's authors would like to use that stratagem? :-)

http://www.loststeps.org.uk/Arthur_Machen.php
http://www.cluesjournal.com
http://www.machensoc.demon.co.uk/

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

More to read...yay! It's going to be a busy summer.

FOAM... :)

Elizabeth
Mystery Writing is Murder

Martin Edwards said...

Bill, if you get round to reading it, do let us know what you think about it!
Elizabeth, thanks for the links. I like the idea of villains dissolving into protoplasm. I can think of one or two politicians who deserve a similar fate!

Eric said...

Arthur Machen wrote some wonderful creepy stuff. Although I recently read and enjoyed The Three Imposters it seemed a bit cobbled together and uneven and I would recommend anyone new to Machen to start with shorter works like The Hill of Dreams, The White People or The Great God Pan.

Bill Crider said...

You know how it is, Martin. So many books, so little time. But maybe I'll get to it one of these days.

Martin Edwards said...

Eric, that's interesting. What was it about the book that appealed to you?

Martin Edwards said...

Bill, believe me, I know exactly that feeling!

Eric said...

Why did I like the book? For one thing, some of the stories which the novel is built around, such as "The Novel of the Black Seal" and "The Novel of the White Powder" are classic horror tales in their own right. But I also found the framing tale, of three members of a secret society scouring London for an ancient Roman coin, and, it seems, a victim, to be fascinating albeit a bit awkward. Machen only gradually reveals who the three imposters are, and what they are up to and who it is they are pursuing so that the book does have somewhat the feel of a mystery novel where you try to figure out the solution as you read. Especially so since, as in a mystery novel, the background of the situation is revealed as the three imposter tell various tales, which to me did not always sound trustworthy. Finally, I found the incidental descriptions of London quite brilliant. It is definitely an eccentric book and I wouldn't be surprised if any given reader either loved it or hated it.

Martin Edwards said...

Eric, thanks so much. You make it sound so intriguing, and I definitely want to read it myself now!

Your Friend, G said...

Hi I am editor of Machenalia it was members of FOAM who set up the exhibition. Glad to see you enjoyed it. We had our AGM in Abergavenny in March so it is an interesting coincidence. Symons was a noted Machenite. Machen is certainly an interesting writer who has had an effect on the crime genre as well as horror his nonfiction account of the Canning affair in the eighteenth century seems to have inspired Josephine Tey's celebrated novel The Franchise Affair. Robert Bloch was a great Machen admirer as well.

You will be interested to know Machen wrote a short story based on the Crippen case .. The Islington Mystery. It is one of the very few Machen pieces to be adapted for cinema. It is one of many strange ironies of Machen's work that the resulting film was regarded as a classic of Mexican cinema.

The opening sentence of Three Impostors has a stronger impact after reading the book. It certainly has a unique atmosphere. Machen is often regarded as one of most interesting writers to conjure up an atmospheric vision of London at least Iain Sinclair and Ackroyd seems to think so.

Martin Edwards said...

G - thanks for this very informative comment. I had no idea Machen had written a Crippen type story, can you tell me more? Nor did I know he'd written up the Canning case - fascinating stuff.

Martin Edwards said...

Elizabeth, many thanks for the info. Clues contains some fascinating sounding material.
Charmaine, glad to hear from you.

Your Friend, G said...

The Islington Mystery is only a short tale basically Machen suggests how a similar character to Crippen might have got away with his crime if he happened to be a taxidermist. It has no element of fantasy. The basic plot is very similar to the film:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/El_Esqueleto_de_la_se%C3%B1ora_Morales

Machen thought the popularity of the Crippen murder was a sad demonstration of the British public's love of the second rate he thought Crippen was too much of a bungler to be interesting.

Machen was fascinated by crime and historical mysteries of all sorts.

The Canning Wonder is not great in scholarly terms, he should have looked at more sources, but it was I think the first book length treatment of the case for a long period. It is like all Machen's works though a good read for Machen's prose style. He was very much in the Anti-Canning camp.

It is a curious coincidence that Sarah Walters new novel a supernatural tale based on Tey's Franchise Affair, can be traced back indirectly to Machen's work.

Conan Doyle was a Machen admirer as well.

Gwilym

Martin Edwards said...

Gwilym, this is absolutely fascinating - thanks very much for the info.