Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Kind of Face You SLASH!!! - Day 1: On the Brink of a Strange World

Along with M. R. James, Algernon Blackwood, H. P. Lovecraft and others, Arthur Machen helped to carry the tradition of the ghost story from the 19th century into the 20th, and expand that subgenre of horror into the much broader field of “weird fiction”. Defining what weird fiction is exactly is difficult, as it seems initially to have been simply an early version of the frankly more boring phrase “horror fiction”, but the phrase has survived, to some degree, until the present day, and is distinguished from “horror fiction”, in my experience, by its focus on ancient and cosmic terrors that can’t be easily labeled. Even Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones, which have names and certain common physical characteristics, by which I mean tentacles, represent something greater than their individual members – Yog-Sothoth is bad enough simply because he’s Yog-Sothoth, but when you remember that he also functions as “the Gate” and comes from outer space, the mysterious black horror of it all is liable to make you choke on terror and then jump out a window.

Arthur Machen’s most famous story is intriguingly titled The Great God Pan, and it follows a variety of characters as they find clues, catch glimpses of, and investigate the possible sources of a world, and an evil, beyond what we consider reality. The first set of these characters is made up of Dr. Raymond, a scientist preparing a horrible experiment which he believes will prove the existence of this other world beyond the veil of our own; Clarke, Raymond’s friend and reluctant witness to the experiment; and Mary, Raymond’s guinea pig. Mary’s true last name is never revealed, but she has taken the surname “Raymond” as her own. As Dr. Raymond explains, in response to Clarke’s concerned mutterings: “As you know, I rescued Mary from the gutter, and from almost certain starvation, when she was a child; I think her life is mine to use as I see fit.”

The experiment itself is never fully described, but Raymond does say that it includes a tiny incision in Mary’s brain. He believes that if this experiment, and chiefly the incision, is successful, Mary will be able to see beyond our world, which Raymond considers nothing more than a mask over true reality, into the realm of true existence. As he explains to Clarke:

There is a real world, but it is beyond this glamour and this vision, beyond these “chases in Arras, dreams in a career,” beyond them all as beyond a veil. I do not know whether any human being has ever lifted that veil; but I do know, Clarke, that you and I shall see it lifted this very night from before another’s eyes. You may think all this strange nonsense; it may be strange, but it is true, and the ancients knew what lifting the veil means. They called it seeing the god Pan.

The experiment is both a success and a failure. Raymond is convinced that Mary has seen the Great God Pan, but as a result of that vision she has been rendered a grinning, vacant idiot. Deeply disturbed by this outcome, as well as by his own strange dream, which he experienced during a drowsiness brought on by the fumes of Dr. Raymond’s mysterious preparations, Clarke retreats not only to his own home, but away from one of his primary interests, which is studying and collecting supposedly true stories relating to the occult and the darkly supernatural. He keeps this collection of newspaper clippings, notes from personal conversations, and the like in a file which he calls “Memoirs to Prove the Existence of the Devil.” But, while his wish is to retreat from this part of his life, he is, over the years that have passed since Raymond’s experiment, drawn back to it, and among his collection he finds a story that was told to him by a friend involving two girls, a Helen V. and a Rachel M. (“since deceased”) as well as a young boy named Trevor W., who went mad after seeing what young Helen V. was doing in the forest with a “strange naked man”, whom afterward Trevor seems to still see in visions, and who he anxiously refers to as “the man in the wood.”

Interestingly, the part of England in which the story of Helen V. took place, which is never named, has a history that stretches back to the days of ancient Roman conquest. The forest where Trevor sees the man in the wood is just off “Roman Road”, and in the house where poor Trevor faces his final breakdown, a house in which Trevor’s father needed to conduct some business, there was a stone head “of grotesque appearance” which had been excavated on the grounds during extensive remodeling. Experts had pegged the head as being carved during the Roman period, and, according to archeologists who’d studied it, the face had features resembling those “of a faun or satyr.” Which is, of course, what the god Pan was. He was also a Roman god, so when you take those facts and add them to the “strange naked man” Trevor claims to have seen in the forest, and you have to think that the phrase Dr. Raymond used, “seeing the god Pan”, wasn’t quite as metaphorical in nature as it appeared.

All of the above is related in the first fifteen pages of a fifty-plus page story – we go on to learn of strange murders, stranger suicides, and moral corruption at all levels of London society, as tracked by a pair of English gentlemen named Villiers (who knows Clarke) and Austin. We also learn more about poor Mary Raymond, and what has become of her. How this all ties into Raymond’s experiments and the story of Helen V. is as clear as it needs to be, without offering, or needing, a strong explanation. Such was the nature, and the power of the classic weird story – though Villiers and Austin learn much that is horrifying beyond reason about the lives and histories of the people they investigate, neither is willing to actually speak of these things out loud. Many people claim that this method of withholding the worst of the horrors has the result of forcing the readers to use their imaginations, to create the horrors for themselves, but I find that my own imagination – which can run to the dark and nasty if the situation calls for it – is often not up to the task. If Villiers refuses to speak of what he’s learned, then maybe, I think, what he’s learned is beyond my capacity to imagine. If he can’t even say it, maybe I can’t even think it, and the true depths of this ancient evil begins to be understood, in the same way that I understand that the universe is really, really huge.
Among the more interesting aspects of this more narrative-driven section of the story are the occasional references to the Jack the Ripper murders. For instance, the bulk of the story that concerns Villiers and his investigations centers around a rash of bizarre, inexplicable, yet apparently connected suicides perpetrated by several members of the upper class. In describing the terror and confusion that follow these deaths, Machen writes:

The police had been forced to confess themselves powerless to arrest or to explain the sordid murders of Whitechapel; but before the horrible suicides of Piccadilly and Mayfair they were dumbfounded, for not even the ferocity which did duty as an explanation of the crimes of the East End, could be of service in the West.

This passage puts me in mind of the famous line written by an English journalist, writing for the Southern Guardian (and unnamed, as far as I can tell) in the midst of the Ripper murders: “We are face to face with some mysterious and awful product of modern civilization.” Machen seems to be at once following a similar line of thought and reversing its direction, as well as denying its bleak optimism. The context of the line from the Southern Guardian was a plea by the writer to have the brain of Jack the Ripper studied so as to better understand how and why these vicious murders, committed free of any readily understandable motive, could have happened. The fact that the Ripper was never caught knocks down the most obvious of the journalist’s two optimistic goals, and Machen knocks down, in the philosophical sense, the other. Unexplainable evil cannot be rendered explainable simply by understanding its place in history. The evil of The Great God Pan is being felt in England in 1890 (when the story was first published, just two years after the Ripper murders ended), but its source is at least thousands of years old. Machen had the hindsight that the writer for the Southern Guardian didn’t have, and the perspective afforded by the knowledge that Jack the Ripper was actually never caught. Two years on, it feels as though the hope of understanding why someone would disembowel, decorate and make off with organs from Whitechapel prostitutes seemed hopelessly na├»ve to Machen. Unless you’re the one with the knife, you will never truly understand it, and trying to do so might just drive you mad.

As is my nature, I’ve focused more on any passing reference to Jack the Ripper (more on him another day) I can get my hands on than on what Machen’s story is more directly about, which, apart from the potential cosmic abomination that the natural world as we know it is just a thin shield against, but also encroaching, amoral, Earthly decadence. The Great God Pan is one of the key pieces of decadent literature, standing just inside the shadow of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. In both stories, the decadence that our protagonists either witness or take part in is never explicitly described, but they, or others, are often seen stumbling away from the aftermath as gibbering madmen, determined to end their own lives, or fully turned onto the black path themselves. Not to bring him up again, but if simply being present for the most vile of debauches is what it takes to crave your own brand, what in the world could Jack the Ripper have seen?


Greg said...

I know I said this last year but I have to read some of these. First, they're short, second, many of them sound intriguing to me and this one is no different.

It seems genuinely creepy to me, what with poor Mary and her brain incision, strange naked men in the woods, Jack the Ripper and evil beyond imagination. What a great freaking story! Or so it sounds. I'm going to do some stuff on Jack the Ripper this month too, maybe some of our ideas will overlap.

Also, I left a comment on the Polanski post with a link I'd like you to read if you get the chance.

bill r. said...

Thanks, Greg. I hope you got the point that the Jack the Ripper stuff is mentioned in passing; however, I don't think it was mentioned lightly. That's what makes it sound intriguing.

There was a contemporary novel, explicitly inspired by Machen's story, called The Course of the Heart by M. John Harrison that I read in conjunction with "The Great God Pan", with the plan of also writing about it, but the novel left me too cold (and, frankly, baffled) to want to dive into it like that. But, interestingly, Harrison uses the Moors Murders as his stand-in for the Ripper murders. They are also mentioned here and there in passing, and add an extra creepy undercurrent to it all.

Wings1295 said...

Amazing post. I have never even heard of this, and now I want to go and search it out.

If this is what we are in store for this month, I for one am one excited reader!

bill r. said...

Thank you very much, Wings. "The Great God Pan" (and Machen in general) is not a hard story to track down.

Reverend Blood said...

Any of you have the free e-reader "Stanza," that reads what's becoming the standard eBook format, can get it free from "Project Gutenberg." I think you can get it in text format there as well. (I read them in eBook format on my iPhone). There are other Machen titles there as well.

I just downloaded "The Great God Pan" I'll let you know what I think. Great post, thanks for the tip!