Arthur Machen – A Fragment of Life

by John Holbo on August 9, 2018

Quiet around here of late. I just enjoyed an audiobook, The Great God Pan and Other Weird Tales, by Arthur Machen, narrated by Peter Wickham. (I got from Audible.) I recently read The Hill of Dreams and found it fairly astounding, so I wanted to revisit “The Great God Pan” and “The White People” (real classics, those two.) Some folks might object that the audiobook cuts out some of the episodic bits from The Three Imposters – “White Powder” and “Black Seal” – but that’s ok. They are stand-alone. But the one in the set that I really loved, that I never knew before, is “A Fragment of Life”. A novella. It’s one of those sad English clerk and wife experience strange mystic growth in the dreary London suburbs-type possibly-fairies affairs. “Darnell had received what is called a sound commercial education, and would therefore have found very great difficulty in putting into articulate speech any thought that was worth thinking; but he grew certain on these mornings that the ‘common sense’ which he had always heard exalted as man’s supremest faculty was, in all probability, the smallest and least-considered item in the equipment of an ant of average intelligence.” That’s sounds like a first line but really it’s from the middle and – how can I put it: it handles its own heavy-handed re-enchantment theme with such a wonderfully light touch. I enjoyed the gentle ride so vastly and enormously. How can I describe without telling it? It’s like Chesterton, but instead of bouncing around or standing on its head, or executing a fake-military about-face and marching into the sea, it just keeps sliding dreamily sideways, out of its own frame, scene by scene, small episode by episode. It builds in the slowest, strangest way. It doesn’t really build but, in the end, how could I possibly mind the odd spot where it leaves me? And having it read to me nicely, while I was doing some calm drawing? My brain feels so much better.

Arthur Machen fans in the audience tonight? Never read him? Probably you should start with “The Great God Pan”.



Phil 08.09.18 at 4:20 pm

I love “A Fragment of Life”; it’s like a happy-ending version of The Hill of Dreams (which properly terrified me when I read it – far more so than “The Great God Pan”). You can have your access to the wondrous, timeless realms of the truer than true and purer than pure – and live!

(Although there is only one Mr and Mrs Darnell, which does tend to set off faint premonitory echoes of the Fast Show “…which was nice” sketch.)


Sonny Jim 08.09.18 at 4:32 pm

Bits and pieces of Machen have been bouncing around in my head these past few days (along with fragments of Blackwood and Aickman), and I’ve been considering re-reading all three authors. Perhaps it’s the near unbearable stupor of London in a heatwave — something that Machen conjures up so nicely in “A Fragment of Life.”


AcademicLurker 08.09.18 at 4:37 pm

I enjoyed reading Machen years ago. I honestly forget whether I read “A fragment of Life”, though. I know it’s in the collection I have so maybe I’ll take a look when I get home.

I sometimes think that Chaosium (the folks who make the Call of Cthulhu role playing game) don’t get enough credit for their (re)publishing efforts. In the 90s and early 00’s they published a bunch of mostly forgotten authors who had influenced or associated with Lovecraft. Machen is one of a number of people I wouldn’t have read if I hadn’t come across the cheap paperback editions that Chaosium was putting out.


John Holbo 08.09.18 at 4:41 pm

I just realized I typo’ed “white power” for “white powder”. Nope, despite having written “The White People” not an alt-right author.


The Dark Avenger 08.09.18 at 5:34 pm

The bookstore at San Jose State U had reprints of various authors, including Machen, in tall paperback editions with other authors. I forget the publisher.


Gabriel 08.09.18 at 8:25 pm

Machen is amazing; The Great God Pan itself would’ve, by itself, secured his position in Weird Fiction history. And a fascinating person as well, given his connection with the Golden Dawn and his efforts to personally reconcile the innate conservatism of his Anglican English upbringing with his own Bohemian proclivities.


JimV 08.09.18 at 9:52 pm

And now for something completely different, a dissenting opinion. I just bought “The Great God Pan and other Horror Stories” on Amazon due to the recommendation here (but it is my responsibility; they did tell me it was horror and I have no liking or respect for that genre), started it, and won’t be finishing it.

Just as the servants in “Upstairs, Downstairs”, the great BBC series, were more interesting than the gentry, the characters in “Pan” seem more like some sort of robots (albeit with weird feelings) than humans with real problems. I could care less about them and their problems–but not much less.

I suppose the suspense–what is this inchoate horror which leaves all who experience it either dead or mad or both??–is what keeps people reading, to find out what it is, but since there is no such thing in reality, there is no sensible way for that suspense to be paid off. Nightmares don’t make sense because they are not real and could not be. Meanwhile, the world has real problems that could be faced and attacked.

Well, if people like that sort of thing, who am I to disagree? Have fun storming the nightmares. I guess my only good reason for writing this is to point out what was not clear to me in the OP, and which I ignored at Amazon, that the stories mentioned in it are horror stories.

(Oddly I do respect “The King in Yellow” stories and some of Lovecraft’s stories. Madness and aliens work better for me than the occult, and I did manage to empathize with some of their characters .)

(Meanwhile, back to re-reading “The Anubis Gates”, by Tim Powers, for the nth time. I’ll take his description of Londoners over Machen’s; and his kind of magic over Machen’s, both by far.)

T o end on a better note, belated thanks to this site for recommending Susanna Clarke. That was a great recommendation!


MisterMr 08.09.18 at 10:23 pm

I did read “The great God Pan” when I was in high school, and liked it a lot, though at the time I didn’t really understand (rationally) the re-enchantment theme.


alfredlordbleep 08.10.18 at 1:07 am

Found this surprise (for me) in trying to recall Machen I might have read.
1992 (ed R.B.Russell), Ritual and Other Stories, East Sussex:Tartarus Press
A collection of Machen’s fiction pieces published hitherto only in magazine format. Includes “A Double Return” which was highly praised by Oscar Wilde, and several of Machen’s fine but neglected late tales.

[Of course, doubleness recalls O. W.’s doubling pair of imposters in his famous comedy]


Donald 08.10.18 at 2:05 am

I was all excited and ready to jump in with praise for the story I had read, “ All Hallows’”, but a quick search showed the author of that story was Walter de la Mare ( or something like that). That is my favorite ghost story. I don’t think it could be improved.

But it’s not Machen. I might have read the Great God Pan, but will see if it can be read for free at Gutenberg. “ All Hallows’” is there .


MisterMr 08.10.18 at 10:04 am

I realized that I didn’t read Machen’s Great God Pan, rather I did read a collection of Lester Del Rey tales (Robots and Changelings) and my favorite tale was about the Great God Pan.
In insight it was a tale about enchantment / disenchantment.

I’m ashamed, now I’ll go to a lonely corner for a bit.


Phil 08.10.18 at 10:28 am

JimV – if you prefer inner-space horrors, you should try The Hill of Dreams. It has a lot in common with Christopher Priest’s The Affirmation, if that helps.


Phil 08.10.18 at 10:30 am

Related audiobook recommendation: Robert Aickman, read by Reece Shearsmith. Shearsmith is obviously a fan & “gets” Aickman; his voice is right for the job, too.


cian 08.10.18 at 1:30 pm

Also a fan. His more obscure stuff can be great too. I loved ‘The London Adventure, or the Art of Wandering’ when I read it many years ago.


Stephen Johnson 08.10.18 at 1:58 pm

Don’t forget “The bowmen” – a strange little piece that actually was reported as factual.


Peter Hovde 08.10.18 at 3:36 pm

Must drop pitch for Stephen King’s masterpiece “N,” a story in and tribute to the Panic tradition.


jb 08.11.18 at 12:50 am

If you’re interested in Machen (or just in remarkable novels), I strongly recommend looking at Javiar Marias’s All Souls & Dark Back of Time.


Silverlake bodhisattva 08.12.18 at 5:26 am

…and don’t overlook Robert Anton Wilson’s hilarious psychedelic pastiche “Masks of The Illluminati” which draws on Machen and on Robert Chambers’ “The King In Yellow”.


alfredlordbleep 08.12.18 at 1:49 pm

1895 was a curious year—for publication of Machen and Robert Chambers (see 18) . . .
[not to mention, again, O. W.’s famous comedy]


johne 08.14.18 at 2:20 am

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