An “ incoherent nightmare of sex,” is how Arthur Machen’s novella The Great God Pan (Watchmaker Publishing, Seaside, Oregon; 59 pages; $4.95) was described when it was first let loose on an unsuspecting, civilized, Edwardian society. But the up-tight, stuffy Edwardians gobbled up the Welshman’s mystical tale of horror.
In our modern-day hive of sexual arousal, Machen’s “sex” is more boudoir than Internet porn. But his “incoherent nightmare” epithet could easily give contemporary English writer J. G. Ballard a roll in the dystopian mud.
The Great God Pan is incoherent: if by that we mean it doesn’t follow a direct and appropriate narrative arc or a formal, linear plot. It plays with time and space. (The perfect form for a pre-Christian, pagan mystic like Machen.) Machen switches back and forth in time, creating fragments of a story, unlimiting himself, drifting from the opening scene of the wealthy benefactor Dr. Raymond and the innocent Mr. Clarke to several other characters who pop up like the chorus from a Greek play to indoctrinate a reader’s fear and loathing in fin-de-siècle London.
And the sex is no Sex in the City! This is wild, metaphysical Eros. A shapeless, shifting act, the way Eve in the biblical tale is never sexual, but all sin. Machen’s sex is prurient without being lecherous because he restrains himself; he doesn’t give into the physical. His “sex” is a voracious avatar of seduction, the offspring of a diabolical experiment in brain surgery, and an amorphous deity of nature. So it’s a bit of surprise to find out that she is a woman, and a beautiful one at that. But Machen isn’t crude enough to be so materialistic, or even gender specific. Yes she is a woman named Helen Vaughan, but at the heart of the novel, she is a force of nature, a pagan spirit born to a new life.
The story begins naturally enough with an interaction between a Dr. Raymond and his witness, a Mr. Clarke, in a lovely bucolic setting. But it doesn’t take long for the Gothic, phantasmagoric elements to rip apart this tenuous reality. Mr. Clarke says to Dr. Raymond: “We are standing on the brink of a strange world, Raymond, if what you say is true. I suppose the knife is absolutely necessary?”
The knife turns out to be a scalpel that the doctor wields to cut a lesion in a working-class waif’s grey matter. The woman is named Mary and was saved by the good doctor from a life of misfortune and is now his guinea pig in a fantastic experiment: “Yes, the knife is necessary; but think what that knife will effect. It will level utterly the solid wall of sense, and probably, for the first time since man was made, a spirit will gaze on a spirit-world. Clarke, Mary will see the god Pan!”
She does — and becomes a drooling imbecile. “Yes it is a great pity; she is a hopeless idiot. However, it could not be helped; and, after all, she has seen the Great God Pan.”
As a reader, it’s not impossible to believe that seeing the pagan god Pan will have its price. But Machen wants you to see more; he wants you to cleanse the doors of perception, William Blake-style. So if you expect the rest of the book to be easy, think again. There’s cleansing going on, and you can’t get redemption in a Gothic tale without getting a lot of metaphysical evil and mayhem out of the way first.
Enter Helen Vaughan, the daughter of Mary, who is never physically described. She simply flits like some macabre succubus leaving a trail of bodies through fashionable London. And when she is described, it is vague, alluring, confusing, haunting: “She would be called very handsome, I suppose, and yet there is something about her face…. The features are exquisite, but the expression is strange.”
Strange, indeed, for a Victorian woman to have such power over men, infuriating, frustrating, alluring, seducing, and then killing them. She is a woman of the haute bourgeoisie, married to a Mr. Herbert, who now wanders the streets of London in rags and who says his wife corrupted him body and soul. And then there are the dead bodies. Mysterious deaths around which a certain Mrs. Beaumont, the toast of society, is associated. Men who are either struck down by sheer terror or else hang themselves.
Murder, madness, and a malevolent spirit. Who can it be, seducing and, like the god Pan, striking terror into mortal man?
It’s Helen Vaughan, daughter of Mary and the offspring of the nature spirit and cloven-hoofed god Pan. Helen is on one hand a rampant symbol of pagan nature let loose on civilized London with its enlightened ideas of science and its obsessive reliance on the material. Her terror-gaze nothing more than the mirror that the real Medusa, London society, holds up to itself. But this is perhaps relying too heavily on symbolic suggestion and reading too much into Arthur Machen’s own predilections with the world around him that had forgotten its pagan past, its spiritual inheritance, and was so easily squandering it to the gods of science and industry.
This could be a moral tale, but it’s far more enjoyable as a supernatural thriller that produces, even now in our contemporary world, bursts of horripilation for Helen Vaughan, the pagan temptress of chaos, a nameless apparition from a wild wood on the borders of Wales, the vengeful spirit who is cast out as an orphan to make her way in a cold, heartless world of men. Pan’s child, “changing and melting from woman to man, from man to beast, and from beast to worse than beast.”
And it is as if Helen Vaughan knows she’s cursed because at the end of the book, through the machinations of Villiers and Austin, both bent on discovering the identity of this mysterious woman who is followed by death, Villiers sends her the “best hempen cord.”
The perennial power of Arthur Machen’s story of unleashed, pagan terror is the fragmentary way in which he presents information to a reader. He is sly, much like the woodland god, slowly giving snippets of the fantastic until everything is revealed at the end. The full circle of horror is complete as we return to the doctor, the progenitor of the unleashed terror, the man who held he knife, that made the incision, that lifted the veil. “I have played with energies which I do not understand,” Dr. Raymond admits at the end of the novel. And he reveals the truth about Helen Vaughan. “I knew what I had done the moment the child was born, and when it was scarcely five years old, I surprised it with a playmate. You may guess of what kind.”
But who, you may wonder, has the more seductive powers? The great god Pan or the great Welsh writer of the macabre, Arthur Machen?