Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Great God Pan – Arthur Machen

'It's a curious thing, Austin, to be alone in London at night, the gas-lamps stretching away in perspective, and the dead silence, and then perhaps the rush and clatter of a hansom on the stones, and the fire starting up under the horse's hoofs' (38).

Any student of Gothic horror—which I happen to be—will have heard of Arthur Machen's The Great God Pan, one of the lesser works that sprung up in the 1890s Gothic that produced Dracula and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. It has more in common with the latter, being novella-length and interested in the overreaching hand of science, upsetting the balance of the natural order. It is a deeply unsettling story, definitely a case of bona fide male Gothic in its anxiety about evil women and the titled, respectable upper crust men they prey on (unlike in Jekyll & Hyde, these men seem to have no secret sins, and unlike in Dracula, we get no hint that they might be gender non-conforming, which is my reading of Jonathan Harker). Though I've read precious little MR James and even less HP Lovecraft, the pagan background of The Great God Pan seems to hearken to, or anticipate, them.

The mysterious mode of telling this story—which Fred Botting likens to a “mythological and occult frame”--reminds me of the slightly later machinations of Gaston Leroux's narrators, but far more sinister than Leroux's Shade. The male protagonists, from Mr Clarke with his self-indulgent file on “Memoirs to prove the Existence of the Devil,” to the investigative Villiers, all start to blend together, united in their fear at ending up another motiveless society suicide.

By far the scariest part of the book is a second-hand narrative of a weird girl summoning satyrs and devils as playmates in the Welsh countryside. The novella also occasionally makes some very evocative and cryptic remarks.

'We all know what happened to those who chanced to meet the Great God Pan, and those who are wise know that all symbols are symbols of something, not of nothing. It was, indeed, an exquisite symbol beneath which men long ago veiled their knowledge of the most awful, most secret forces which lie at the heart of all things; forces before which the souls of men must wither and die and blacken, as their bodies blacken under the electric current' (44).

May I just say that while it was nice of Kessinger Publishing to reprint this novella, theirs is a terrible press, without any design or graphic sense and a host of irritating typos.

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