Essay: “The Great God Pan”, Arthur Machen, 1890.
At this point in our Machen series, we move from obscure works to one of his most famous works, indeed this story is probably Machen’s best known with the possible exception of some of the excerpted stories in his later novel The Three Impostors; or, The Transmutation or “The Bowmen” (and that one, as I’ve went on at length, only in its transmuted form.)
The figure at the story’s center, Helen Vaughn, the product of a woman mating with something from outside our world and beyond the veil of the senses. This tale may have inspired H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror”. It is regarded as a classic of weird fiction among scholars of the field.
However, while the story was popular when it was published, it was not well thought of by critics.
Machen, when the story was reprinted in 1916, quoted several bad reviews of it. It was a laughable “psychological bogey”. “Our flesh obstinately refused to creep”, said one review. The tale was tepid occultism. It was “elaborately absurd”. Not only ridiculous, said another review, but intentionally disagreeable. The story was “gruesome and dull”. And, perhaps more to the point, a reviewer for Westminster said:
an incoherent nightmare of sex and the supposed horrible mysteries behind it, such as might conceivably possess a man who was given to a morbid brooding over these matters, but which would soon lead to insanity if unrestrained . . . innocuous from its absurdity.
In that same introduction, Machen himself called the story “a silly business at the best”.
In 1923, Machen prepared an annotated bibliography, “My Books”, on his work. When speaking of “The Great God Pan”, his agent looked at Machen “impressively, morally, disapprovingly” and told him he had had some tea with ladies in Hampstead. They were of the opinion the story should never have been written.
So, what is the plot of this story whose critical reputation has changed so much?
Before I answer that, I’ll note this story marks a vast change in style, subject matter, and themes for Machen. It wasn’t just that it was his first fiction we could call “weird” today – though he wrote much where that label doesn’t fit. It was with this story he went from medieval pastiches, mock scholasticism, and antiquarianism to setting his stories in contemporary settings. He began to be influenced by Robert Louis Stevenson in his episodic plot structures and frequent coincidences. He starts to mix his beloved Wales with the mysteries of London, particularly the mysteries that can be found by wandering its streets at night as Machen himself liked to do
The Barebones of the Plot
I. The Experiment
Clarke watches his friend Dr. Raymond perform brain surgery on his young ward Mary at Raymond’s house in Wales. He’s out to prove a theory. He’s going to make Mary see the Great God Pan. But, when Mary wakes up from surgery, her body contorts in terror and falls shrieking to the floor. She’s now an idiot. A successful experiment, according to Raymond, since Mary did see the Great God Pan.
II. Mr. Clarke’s Memoirs
It’s years later. Thinking Raymond’s experiment somewhat disreputable, Clarke has given up occult investigations for a while. But he is drawn back to them and has a collection of documents called “Memoirs to Prove the Existence of a Devil”. He reads a manuscript from his friend Dr. Phillips practicing on a border town in Wales.
Eleven years ago, one Helen V., then 12, came to a village as to live with a local family, her support paid for by a relative. Helen, since her relative sees no need for her education, spends all day in the local woods. One day, local Trevor W, out in the woods, sees Helen on the grass “with a strange naked man”. Trevor has nightmares about this for weeks, screaming “The man in the wood!” when he wakes up. One day he utters the same cry and points at a stone head recently uncovered. It’s a Roman statue of a faun or satyr. Trevor is rendered a permanent imbecile.
Five years later, Helen befriends local girl Rachel W. They spend lots of time in the woods. However, after a couple of these outings, Mrs. W. finds Rachel changed, her manner “rather peculiar . . . languid and dreamy”. One night, Mrs. W finds her daughter crying and laying half naked on a bed. Rachel tearfully asks her mother why she let her go into the woods with Helen. She starts to tell a story.
However, Clarke then shuts the book of Phillips’ account, and we don’t learn the details of Rachel’s story. Clarke just thinks such things
can never be in this quiet world . . . not such things as this. There must be some explanation, some way out of the terror. Why, man, if such a case were possible, our earth would be a nightmare.
We then get the end of Phillips’ account about how an unnamed woman disappeared in broad daylight after walking into a meadow. But we know her name from elsewhere in the account. It’s Rachel.
III. The City of Resurrection
This is one of Machen’s society tales – which I’ll get into with the next installment of this series – rewritten for inclusion here.
Two old acquaintances, Villiers and Herbert, meet by chance on a London street. They haven’t seen each other in six years, and their lives have taken very different trajectories. Villiers is well-to-do, elegant, a man about town. Herbert is shabbily dressed.
Shortly after they last talked, Herbert inherited some money and “went into society” and married a 19-year old woman named Helen Vaughn, a “strange beauty”. On their wedding night, Helen “spoke of things which even now I would not dare whisper in blackest night,” says Herbert. Within a year, Herbert says he was a ruined man “in body and soul”. He sold his house, and Helen left with the money.
Villiers goes to his visit his friend Austin at the latter’s club. Villiers asks Austin if he knows anything about a Charles Herbert. Indeed, he does, says Austin. He was involved in a famous murder case three years ago when a dead man was found in front of Herbert’s house. The police thought Charles threw the dead man out a window but couldn’t prove it.
However, a doctor at the inquest says he thought the victim died of “sheer, awful terror”. But, of course, he couldn’t put that on a death certificate.
Austin asks Villiers if he ever met Herbert’s wife because he’s been told by several people who did see her that she was “the most beautiful and the most repulsive woman” they’d ever seen.
IV. The Discovery in Paul Street
It’s a few months later, and we’re back with Clarke and the account of Dr. Phillips. He takes it to a friend to consult about it.
Clarke’s friend Villiers also comes to visit. He tells Clarke about his visit to 20 Paul Street, the old address of the Herberts.
He found a “queer, heavy feeling about the air of the house” generally, and the first floor in particular felt “full of horror”. In a pile of newspapers there, he found a drawing which he shows to Clarke. In between discovering it and visiting Clarke, Villiers saw Charles Herbert’s obituary in the newspaper.
Clarke recognizes the drawing. It’s a portrait of Mary, his friend Dr. Raymond’s ward and experimental subject all those years ago. Except, on closer examination, it’s not. Villiers says it’s Helen Vaughn. Her name is on the back of the drawing.
V. The Letter of Advice
Villiers visits Austin again. Villiers has a letter from Clarke asking him to destroy the drawing of Helen. Clarke also says he knows something “strange enough and horrible enough” he’ll tell Villiers in person. Learning about Clarke’s reaction to the drawing, Austin thinks Clarke must have met the woman once.
As so often occurs in Machen’s stories during this period, the two are conversing while they wander the streets of London. Villiers points out the house of one Mrs. Beaumont whom he’s never met.
He’s heard about her, though. She’s supposedly from South America and, at one party, a Lord Argentine, an expert in wine, commented on the unusual taste of one vintage she served. He asked how old it was. “About a thousand years,” replied Mrs. Beaumont.
When they arrive back at Austin’s apartment, he shows Villiers a book he got from his friend, the painter Arthur Meyrick. Merick unexpectedly died in Buenos Aires, and the attending physician sent the book to Austin.
It’s a book of Meyrick’s drawings on a “frightful Walpurgis Night of evil . . . figures of Fauns and Satyrs and Aegipans”. And there’s one other drawing at the end of the book. It’s of Helen Vaughn.
And Villiers thinks she’ll eventually make her way back to London from South America.
VI. The Suicides
We learn more about the background of the aforementioned Lord Argentine. He went from being very poor to being very rich when his wealthy father died. For ten years, he’s been enjoying society.
One night he dines with “a lady of good position”. Then he came home, dismissed his valet, and hanged himself from a bedpost.
That’s only the beginning of a run of society suicides.
Within three weeks of Lord Argentine’s death, Mr. Collier-Stuart and Mr. Herries commit suicide using the same method as Lord Argentine.
All die with expressions of horror on their face.
The police can’t explain it. (There’s even an aside about the police being unable to catch Jack the Ripper either.) None of the dead men had money problems. None were depressed. None had shadows in their past.
Austin goes to visit Villiers. Clarke still hasn’t responded to Villiers inquiries about Helen Vaughn, and he doesn’t know when Helen aka Mrs. Herbert left Paul Street.
Austin tells Villiers that Lord Argentine dined with Mrs. Beaumont the night before he died.
Austin says he met Mrs. Beaumont, a woman of exquisite features but strange expression, and she seemed familiar.
Austin has also written to the doctor in Buenos Aires that was with Meyrick when he died. He asked if Meyrick knew a woman named Herbert. He also asks Villiers to loan him the drawing of Helen to send to the doctor.
Just then, newspaper boys outside Villiers house announce the death, by suicide, of a Sidney Crashaw. Supposedly, he died shortly after 10 PM the night before. But Villiers remembers seeing him around 2 AM outside of Beaumont’s house. Crashaw’s face was an “infernal medley of passions”, lust, hate, and despair.
VII. The Encounter in Soho
It’s three weeks later. Villiers requests Austin to visit him.
Villiers has discovered some things. He still thinks he saw Crashaw outside of Beaumont’s house, and he has confirmed that Beaumont is the same woman as Mrs. Herbert aka Helen Vaughn. He saw her enter a house in Soho. Since Helen’s “record was not of the cleanest”, he went looking for her on “Queer Street”, the bottom of society. Villiers knows some people in that social strata since he’s done favors for them in the past, and he’s trusted by them.
He learns that about five or six years ago a woman named Raymond showed up from the country. She was about seventeen years old and very pretty. “Nameless infamies”, probably of a sexual nature, are associated with her. She lived in the neighborhood about a year and then disappeared until she showed up later on Paul Street.
But she kept returning to her old haunts frequently and moved back full time to the neighborhood about eight months ago. Then she disappeared again for a few months and then returned to a room in the neighborhood which she visits two or three times a week, always at 10 AM.
Villiers stakes the place out and confirmed that Helen, Miss Raymond, Mrs. Herbert, and Mrs. Beaumont are all the same person.
Villiers goes to visit Clarke and gets a manuscript from him, “an account of the entertainment Mrs. Beaumont provided her choicer guests” written by a man who “escaped with his life, but I do not think he will live many years”.
Austin is disgusted by the manuscript and warns against Villiers idea of visiting, with Clarke, Mrs. Beaumont.
Villiers than casually mentions he’s bought some rope, and Austin realizes he plans to kill Helen. No, says Villiers, he’s going to give Helen the chance to hang herself before the police arrive.
Villiers has also heard from the doctor who attended the dying Meyrick. He confirms that Meyrick met Helen Vaughn, “not the best of characters” in the doctor’s words.
VIII. The Fragments
This part of the story is presented as fragments of papers.
The first is from one Dr. Robert Matheson who died in 1892. He talks about an unnamed body lying on a bed
black like ink, transformed before my eyes. The skin, and the flesh, and the muscles, and the bones, and the firm structure of the human body that I had thought to be unchangeable, and permanent as adamant, began to melt and dissolve.
“. . . Some internal force, of which I knew nothing . . . caused dissolution and change.” The body’s sex seems to change back and forth. The light in the room blackens, “but it was the negation of light”. Eventually the body becomes jelly and then he sees a “Form” that can be seen in ancient sculptures and painting, “a horrible and unspeakable shape, neither man nor beast, was changed into human form”.
The next fragment is a letter from Clarke to Dr. Raymond. He implies Helen summoned something that came to Rachel. He knows that, when Mary died, she was not the same girl that Raymond experimented on and vastly altered by his experiment, “and yet in the last agony Mary’s eyes looked into mine”.
Clarke goes to visit the house in Wales where the young Helen lived. He also goes to the wood where Helen and Rachel went, a “pleasant summer glade Rachel passed a girl, and left it, who shall say what?” He also learns of a recently discovered stone from Roman times with an inscription to Nodens, “the god of the Great Deep or Abyss”.
The story concludes with a fragment that seems to be from Raymond. It confirms Helen is the daughter of Mary, born nine months after the night of Raymond’s experiment. A few days after Helen was born, Mary died. Raymond acknowledges he did “ruin the reason of a human being”, but his theory was right. He’s also not surprised at what happened to Helen’s body upon her death. When Helen was five, he discovered her “several times with a playmate, you may guess of what kind”. After that, he sent Helen off to that village.
The concluding line is “And now Helen is with her companions”.
Reticence, Inspiration, and Theories
In a certain sense, I can sympathize with that Westminster reviewer. The only thing that can be said to be viscerally, immediately horrifying is the fate of Helen’s body, and even that requires some meditation and concentration on the scene since it goes by relatively fast.
The monstrous aspect of Helen’s deeds, her whispered enticements to depravity and her acts themselves are not “incoherent”, but they certainly aren’t spelled out. It takes an act of imagination for the reader to supply them and even then what could Helen possibly do that would drive men suicidal with despair? (And, to my mind, there is some suggestion of lesbianism between Helen and Rachel.)
But what was Machen supposed to do? Even if he wasn’t bound by his Anglican mores, there is no way that the obscenity laws of Britain would have allowed anything more explicit. And, in an age much more frank about sex and awash in pornography, a modern reader really has to stretch their imagination to supply the awfulness of Helen life if not her death.
Michael Moir’s YouTube lecture on the story reminds us that Helen is descended, after all, from Pan, and Machen is going back to the older Greek ideas of that god as a bringer of madness, lust, and chaos and not the pleasant, pipe-playing shepherd of Romantic poets.
And yet, the story still works now, perhaps because it is even harder to fathom, now, how the sexual depravity of Helen could have such effects. That, coupled with Helen’s origin, provide the necessary atmosphere and undercurrent of weird menace that the story still has.
The story has generated some theories as to what it symbolizes, what themes are at work, what Machen’s messages were.
But, first, what did Machen say was his inspiration?
Something pretty innocuous: a white gleaming house, Bertholly, on the edge of a forest in the area of Wales Machen grew up in. It became an “object of mysterious attraction” for the young Machen. It is very like the house Helen Vaughn grows up in.
In Geoffrey Reiter’s essay, “’The Abyss of All Being’: ‘The Great God Pan’ and the Death of Metaphysics”, found in The Secret Ceremonies: Critical Essays on Arthur Machen, he notes that Machen said the story was an unsuccessful experiment in evoking awe, mystery, and terror: “I translated awe, at worst awfulness, into evil.”
There seems to be, from my brief perusal for writing on the story, two theories on the story.
Moir summarizes the predominant one: that this is a story in the Decadent mode combined with Machen’s Christian mysticism.
Assuming I understood Moir correctly, the Decadents were against utilitarianism, positivism, and were sometimes Neoplatonists.
Since my own brain tends to freeze up when philosophical terms are thrown about, here’s the meaning behind those terms.
Utilitarianism holds the value of something is defined only by its material benefits. If it doesn’t make you money or make your physical body more secure or better off, it has no value. The Decadent retort to this was the Oscar Wilde’s “art for art’s sake”.
Positivism is a scientific philosophy that throws out anything that can’t be measured by human senses or, I suppose, human instruments.
Neoplatonism is a modification of Plato’s idea that the world we sense is the pale shadow of more perfect forms, Platonic ideals as they are known. We can’t perceive them directly, Plato said. The Neoplatonists said yes we can through magical methods.
You can see all these ideas at work in the opening of the story.
Raymond is an unpleasant utilitarian. Mary, his ward, is there to be used for some greater end. And why shouldn’t he? He rescued Mary “from the gutter” when she was young, adopted her, saved her from starvation. “Her life is mine to use as I see fit,”, says Raymond.
And Raymond’s project is very much a renunciation of positivism. He talks to Clarke about how we live in “dreams and shadows”, and he is going to go “beyond this glamour and this vision” by operating on Mary.
There are a couple of problems with seeing Machen operating in a Decadent mode.
The first, as James Machin lays out in “Arthur Machen and Decadence: The Flower-Tunicked Priest of New Grub Street” (also in Secret Ceremonies), is that Machen didn’t see himself as a Decadent nor had he read the French Decadents. Any similarity in style or themes came from Machen’s love of Edgar Allan Poe who also influenced the French Decadents. At the time Machen wrote “The Great God Pan”, his main model was Robert Louis Stevenson, a writer too “jaunty” to be called a Decadent. He also didn’t know the literary agenda of John Lane, publisher of “The Great God Pan” and the infamous The Yellow Book which was strongly associated with the English Decadents.
The second is that, as Reiter points out, you can’t see this story as Decadent or an example of Machen’s later Christian mysticism.
At the time he wrote the story, Machen was not a
Christian author with a belief system buttressed by an eschatological hope, but rather a skeptic who views the unknown with horror instead of wonder.
The story, Reiter argues, is a symbolic representation of the psychic effects that material skepticism can have on a person.
To Raymond, Pan may be the symbol of Platonic reality beyond the veil of the senses. He may be a surgeon and scientist, but he talks like a metaphysician. No matter what Raymond says, his experiment really isn’t a practical success. Mary has seen the Great God Pan, but she is in no state to tell us anything about that reality. And what if she didn’t see some kind of Platonic space? It’s not that Mary saw some transcendent sort of evil. She may have seen nothing.
To Reiter, Pan is the absence of a spiritual world. This also plays into the ending. Helen can’t even hold a stable human or even material form. A woman born of Pan inherits his nothingness. That’s what you would expect in a story that Reiter sees as being about the search “for unity, for a coherent, organized understanding of reality”.
Reiter defends this view by going into the significance of names in the story. There was a 17th century Welsh alchemist and Metaphysical poet named Thomas Vaughn. Machen had read his work, and the description of Helen’s liquifying body owes something to it. Herbert’s name may derive from Thomas Vaughn’s brother, a Metaphysical poet. Crashaw shares a name with another Metaphysical poet. A George Villiers in the 17th century wrote a poem entitled “Upon Nothing” though Reiter isn’t sure Machen ever read that one. Thus a
character named for one Metaphysical poet has lured two others into annihilation before being done in herself.
Pan, in this interpretation, is indeed a symbol but a symbol of nothing. Pan is not a devil or god but a symbol of “a world without the devil, without God, without anything behind the tapestry of nature”. The dread, maintains Reiter, of the story is not that Helen Vaughn is evil because “sublime evil could suggest the existence of a concomitant supernal good”.
Well, the bit about the names is probably right, but I don’t think the interpretation holds because that wasn’t what Machen was up or, if he was, he wasn’t able to pull it off coherently.
Raymond sees Helen’s playmates. And, at story’s end, he says Helen is with her companions. We also hear about a strange man with Helen and Rachel. This seems to indicate a couple of things.
Raymond’s Neoplatonism is wrong. Pan can incarnate in perceptible human form. He can see, in those companions, beings of the same realm as Helen’s father Pan. And there is that strange “man” with Helen and Rachel.
Likewise, if Reiter’s interpretation is correct, why do we hear of these beings if Pan symbolizes nothing, the end product of metaphysical inquiry?
There are a couple of other things worth observing about the story. Moir mentions Victorian anxiety over the presentations of self, and he sees the thrashing, dissolving Helen, changing sex and form, as playing into this theme.
Possible, but I think Helen’s body plays into a couple of other Victorian anxieties. Helen’s body seems to recapitulate, in its changing, a sort of devolutionary progression from human to slime. In the non-fiction I’ve read of Machen’s, I haven’t seen any sign he rejected the theory of evolution. It may also be the anxiety of racial degeneration that was common before World War One. Incidentally, I don’t think that scene marks the story as Decadent. Decadence was about civilizational decline and not necessarily racial degeneration and deterioration.
I do agree with Reiter when he says nobody can really articulate what Pan is.
Another scholar, P. Bird, has noted that, in Helen Vaughn, we have a dark version of Christianity’s Virgin Birth.
I’m normally leery of symbolic and allegorical interpretations, but Machen’s work, fiction and non-fiction, make it pretty clear he thought about symbols. However, nothing he said indicates this story was symbolic. On the other hand, Villiers says “all symbols are symbols of something, not nothing”.
Adding to that, Machen had a great deal of trouble with writing this story. He wrote it in installments since its original publication was as a serial.
Where Reiter sees a “Chinese box” of symbolisms in the story, I wonder if what we’re seeing is Machen’s admitted lack of control over the story:
. . . as I went on story after story of my card-castle fell into ruins; this device, I found, would by no means serve; that incident would never convey the meaning intended. But somehow the thing was done; all but the last chapter; and that I could not do at all. There was no help for it . . . until the following June that a possible way of ending the book occurred to me.
Of the story, he said “It is not at all clever.” Still, if you are willing to read carefully and expend the energy to imagine what Machen does not tell, the story, whether an incoherent collection of episodes or a carefully worked out symbolic argument, is still worth reading after 130 years.