This week’s work of weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing is an episode from Arthur Machen’s The Three Imposters. I suspect it’s more interesting if you’ve read the rest of the novel. I have only read other excerpts presented as short stories. I may rectify that soon.
Review: “History of the Young Man with Spectacles”, Arthur Machen, 1895.
Narrated by Joseph Walter, a would-be scholar, seduced by a decadent secret society.
Right at the opening paragraph, the narrator tells us he’s holed up in his crummy apartment in London’s bad Clerkenwell district and awaiting his destruction when he goes outside. His story is a warning.
He spends a great deal of time at the beginning telling us he “chose the glorious career of scholar”. But he’s not going to practice the scholarship of “these days”, merely annotating and editing books superfluously. His project is to spend his life learning everything. He waxes rhapsodic about the dome over the British Museum’s reading room where, supported by a small income, he spends his days.
There are lots of people in the reading room every day, and one makes their acquaintance through little things like “a casual offer of assistance, a hint as to the search in the catalogue”, and one such man he meets is Dr. Lipsius. It’s a German name, and Lipsius tells Walters that, with his “wonderful resolve” to pursue an “infinite career” in scholarship, he should have been a German. Justus Lipsius was the name of a Renaissance philosopher who sought to fuse stoicism with Christianity. Machen’s choosing the same name may be a bit of irony since Lipsius is certainly not a stoic or Christian.
But, Lipsius warns, Walter’s ambition is ultimately futile. Walters frankly states that Lipsius gradually seduces him into seeing the value of a hedonistic life. That’s what the great scholar Rabelais suggested. Lipsius even turns Walters against the “whole social system” and excites Walter’s “natural inclinations”. He frankly asks Lipsius to tutor him in his new pursuit.
A meeting is setup with all sorts of spy/revolutionary tradecraft involved – standing on a corner at a particular time for a rendezvous with a stranger. He is taken to see Lipsius who is talking to some guy about a “Hittite seal” and “pre-Celtic monuments in England”. (This ties in with another episode in the novel, “Novel of the Black Seal”)
The other man leaves, and Lipsius takes Walters to a meeting. Walter hints at depravity but doesn’t tell us much about what went on during his initiation:
I cannot write down what I witnessed that night; I cannot bear to recall what went on in those secret rooms fast shuttered and curtained . . .
He drinks the “wine of the Red Jar that Avallaunius” made.
He’s distressed to learn that, from time to time, “unfortunate persons” are lured to that “evil house”. In fact, he will be compelled to be one of those seducers. Walters is unclear when he says “it is on my conscience that I have held many to the deaths of the pit.” Is he talking literal murder or spiritual seduction? He implies he did it many times.
He relates a particular instance when he is to lure one James Headley, possessor of “a unique coin, the gold Tiberius” – this also seems to be a reference to another episode in the novel.
When Walters asks how Lipsius knows Headley will be in town and Headley’s plans, Lipsius just says their unnamed society doesn’t deal in guesswork and wouldn’t it be better if Walters was just amused at the results than worry about the mechanism.
Lipsius gives Walters specific instructions about approaching Headley at a particular time when a cab driver will take him to the wrong corner. Walters does as instructed (this takes several pages) and takes the man to a particular house.
The next day Walters visit Lipsius and is told he accomplished his task in an “artistic manner” and is shown the coin.
Walters asks what happened to Headley.
What on earth does it matter? . . . He might be here, or there, or anywhere; but what possible consequence could it be? Besides your question rather surprises me; you are an intelligent man, Mr. Walters. Just think it over, and I’m sure you won’t repeat the question.
However, Walters presses the issue so Lipsius takes him to see a mummy case – complete with mummy beside it. Looking closely at the mummy – its skin already blackened – he sees it’s Headley.
Walters, coin in hand, dashes in terror out of the house. He gives us a vague account of matching himself with two men and a woman who are Lipsius most deadly “myrmidons”. There are even stories planted in the newspaper trying to lure Walters out of hiding.
Visiting a friend in Bayswater (there’s also an episode in the novel entitled “The Recluse of Bayswater’), he finds the woman has rooms in the same house.
Walters account ends with him waiting to be captured in tortured:
I know that I shall die with Lipsius standing near and gloating over the refinements of my suffering and shame.
Still, being a scholar, Walters is determined to leave us an account.
Then the story moves out to the greater frame of the novel with one Dyson closing “a little book”, looking at a coin, and hoping Walters somehow escaped.
Given what little I know of Machen’s life, it’s tempting to see Walters as Machen’s comment on his youthful self and also a commentary on London’s revolutionary and occult societies. There is also a strain of decadence in not only Lipsius’ society but that Walters is ultimately powerless to stop it, the theme of impuissance so prevalent in Decadent fiction of this time.
In a way, though, Walters has succeeded, as the title hints, in his scholarly pretensions. After all, he wrote a history of events he has been uniquely privy to. He undercuts his work, though, by his elisions.