Review: “The Lost Club”, Arthur Machen, 1890.
Machen returns to weird fiction for the first time after starting “The Great God Pan“.
At first, it seems like another society story. We have two respectable members of society, Phillipps and Austin, meeting by chance as they wander London’s streets.
They dine together and then, coming back out on the street, we hear how they are “two slaves to duty and ‘legal business’” who enjoy, again repeating one of Machen’s favorite themes, the mysteries of London’s streets “full of fantasy”.
However, it starts to rain, and the two can’t find a cab. They take shelter in a doorway in Oxford Street. Phillipps realizes where they are in their wanderings since he was brought here by his friend Wylliams who told him there was a club nearby.
Then, coincidentally, they meet Wylliams. Austin asks to be taken to Wylliams’ club so they can get out of the rain.
Wylliams hesitates. He agrees to take them to the club but swears them on their word of honor never to mention his club or anything they see in it. Austin and Phillipps agree.
They enter the club where Wylliams says they are not to recognize anybody and “nobody will recognise you”.
The first peculiarity, the first bit of weirdness in the story, shows up here.
Austin and Phillipps recognize practically everyone in the club – artists, noblemen, the newly rich, writers, an actor, a canon. And they “were all supposed to be scattered far and wide over the habitable globe”.
The President then summons the club members to the evening’s meeting. The President is the Duke of Dartington.
A strange ritual begins. Names are read out and the corresponding member opens, at random, a large book. If they open it to the black page, they are at the disposal of the committee and the Duke. The ones who open it to a regular page leave afterwards.
Phillipps hears an old friend, D’Aubigny, groan, “foam upon his lips”, and hand shaking as he leaves to accompany the president.
THe peculiar ritual concluded, Wylliams tells them they can leave now.
They have just been at a meeting of the Lost Club, and D’Aubigny will not be seen again.
Austin is horrified. Is D’Aubigny going to be murdered? No, says Wylliams. He’ll live many years. He’ll just disappear.
Three weeks later Phillipps, notices a newspaper story about a missing St. John D’Aubigny. The date of his disappearance matches when he and Austin saw him.
The two men go visit Wylliams at his his office and accuse him of being a member of the Lost Club and involved in D’Aubigny’s disappearance.
First, Wylliams says, the club he pointed out to Phillipps that one day was just a “low gambling club”. Second, Wylliams’ servant swears he was in Cairo the whole month of August.
Ausin and Phillipps go back to the club, but it’s a billiard factory and has been for many years.
A Lord Henry Harcourt also tells Phillipps he saw Wylliams in Cairo on the date they saw him at the club.
So the club seems to be displaced from regular time and space which may explain why so many of its members are thought to be in other parts of the world other than London. And what happened to D’Aubigny? Is he killed or, as Wylliams suggests, he just disappears from London? Where does he disappear to? And why has the Duke made that happen?
The name of the club seems to further the idea of it being disconnected from regular space, but it also may hint at lost souls though there is no evidence of particular depravity among the club members. However, the Duke may be a symbol of some divine figure. The book may be the biblical “Book of Life’, and if your name isn’t found in it on a black page, you are called to judgement.
I’m doubtful of that idea though. Even when Machen’s Christian faith became stronger later in his life, he doesn’t seem to have written moralizing stories. In fact, some of his later fiction and nonfiction attacks the idea of Christianity as a mere set of moral commandments.
It’s an interesting early weird story from Machen. It has nowhere the scope and depth of “The Great God Pan”, but the Lost Club is a memorable idea. It also touches on some ideas Machen will later used. There is a sinister organization, and another one will be at the heart of Machen’s later The Three Impostors; or, The Transmutations. The theme of social isolation, the club members seemingly forbidden from recognizing each other, will be one of the major themes in Machen’s The Hill of Dreams.