Review: “The Inmost Light”, Arthur Machen, 1894.
Written in 1892, there are several notable things about this story.
Machen has turned has his back for good on writing society tales.
It’s also his first story with Dyson, a character in four Machen works who has sometimes been called an occult detective. However, he uses no apparatus like William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki does with his electric pentacle. He is not a student of the occult like Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence nor does Dyson claim psychic sensitivity.
Dyson calls himself a “man of science”, and his science (like many a Machen protagonist) is
the great city; the physiology of London; literally and metaphysically the greatest subject that the mind of man can conceive.
It’s also the only Machen story I would describe, after reading more than two-thirds of his fiction, as genuinely, viscerally horrifying.
The story is told, like Machen’s “The Great God Pan”, episodically, but the story relies more on coincidence than a network of personal acquaintances.
The story opens, as many early Machen stories do, with some random wanderings about London, and Dyson meeting his old friend Salisbury again after five years. Since their last meeting, Dyson fell on hard times as a writer until he inherited some money. (At this point in his life, Machen was also able to devote himself full time to writing because of an inheritance he received.)
After hearing from Dyson about his love of London’s mysteries and how the city needs its own Homer (a role Machen, with his love of the Illiad, may have seen for himself), Salisbury declares Dyson’s imagination about London “too fervid”. To prove his case, he tells Salisbury about the Harlesden case.
Harlesden is a place, one of the “out-quarters” of London, even past the suburbs. It is a mix of country and houses. It’s very lonely mid-day, a “city of the dead”.
One Dr. Black settled there one or two years ago. His wife was uncommonly beautiful, and they were often seen walking about in the neighborhood and seemed very affectionate.
However, nobody saw them all winter, and Dr. Black, when asked about her, says she felt ill. A neighborhood rumor starts up that the doctor killed his wife. However, Dyson saw her one June day. He was in the neighborhood and happened to glance at Black’s house and saw, in a window, the face of a beautiful woman that is somehow inhuman. In a rather long passage describing his sensations, he tells Salisbury it reminded him of Hell, a face that
struck me with such a nameless terror, there was a mist of flowing yellow hair, as it was an auereole of glory round the visage of a satyr.
Dyson wonders how to reconcile this with the rumors that Black murdered his wife.
However, he forgets it about it as the summer continues. However, a newspaper article on “The Harlesden Case” catches his eye. Mrs. Black has died, and an autopsy found no marks of foul play or poison. However, her brain tissue is altered so much “it resembled that of an animal”. Alteration of the brain will not be the only echo of Machen’s “The Great God Pan” in this story.
A verdict of natural causes was entered. Dyson asks Salisbury what he thinks of the mystery. Salisbury reserves judgement since Dyson has more to tell him, and they agree next week.
The viewpoint shifts to Salisbury. He’s a stolid sort, and, on the way home from Dyson’s and pondering the “perverse dexterity” of Dyson in changing some woman suffering a brain disease into something more, he carelessly strays into a strange and rough neighborhood.
Salisbury is a bit like Dyson in taking delight in the sights of London. In his case, he relishes street rows and the various “amusing phases of drunkenness”.
He sees a drunk man and a crying woman talking. She condemns him as a thief, a freeloader and philanderer. She concludes with “ . . . you can go on your own errands, and I only hope they’ll get you in trouble”. Then she takes a piece of paper out of her dress, crumples it up and tosses it. On impulse, Salisbury picks it up.
Salisbury is home reading the note he picked up. It has an odd rhyme he can’t get out of his head and has some crypitic references to names and places.
Visiting Dyson, he mentions the incident and note to him.
After telling Salisbury he’s an incorrigible “slave to what you call fact”, Dyson summarizes what he’s found out about Black.
Dyson looked up one of the doctors who did the inquest at Mrs. Black. The doctor bluntly states he thought Black killed his wife. However, given the peculiar nature of the evidence, he thinks the verdict he gave was justified. He also thinks Black’s murder was fully justified too. The doctor always been opposed linking physiology with psychology and thinks there is an “impassable gulf” between consciousness and the “sphere of matter” with no known link between the two. (Rather the opposite of Dr. Raymond’s views in “The Great God Pan”.)
The doctor does not regard the brain of Agnes Lake as being human. As to her beautiful face, the doctor says he would not look at it for a thousand guineas. He’s even more blunt when he says she had the “brain of a devil”. So, like Helen Vaughn in “The Great God Pan”, Mrs. Black is another beautiful woman that is inexplicably frightening.
Going back to Harlesden, Dyson learns the Blacks’ servant hadn’t seen Agnes months before she died. Black has also left Harlesden.
In yet another coincidence, Dyson is walking on Gray’s Inn Road one day when he retrieves a man’s hat after it blows off his head and returns it. (I should add here that, while I don’t always mention specific place and street names, Machen does, and they are often areas he was very familiar with.)
He is surprised to see it’s Black, though a much shabbier version. Black is bent and feeble, hair graying, shaking limbs, and poorly dressed.
Dyson strikes up a conversation with him as Black walks to his “miserable house in a miserable street” and a wretched apartment.
He accepts Black’s offer to visit him again and becomes an “intimate friend of Black’s”. Black never mentions living in Harlesden or his dead wife. Dyson is sure that Black doesn’t suspect how much Dyson knows about his past.
Black is a strange man, maybe mad, maybe sane, with wild speculations beside which Paracelsus’ and the Rosicrucians’ would seem tame. Black insists his occult and alchemical speculations aren’t mere theorizing. He’s traveled to a “region of knowledge” which wise men would shun like the plague.
If you knew, if you could even dream of what may be done, of what one or two men have done in this quiet world of ours, your very soul would shudder and faint within you.
Black’s science is “more awful than death, to those who gain it.”
Dyson leaves London for about a couple of months. When he returns, he hears from Black’s landlady that Black is dead.
One evening, she heard a scream from Black’s room and him stamping about, and then he came down in a rage stating he had been robbed and then fainted and died later. The landlady does remark that, when she would enter Black’s room to clean, he would keep her outside while he put a tin box away in a corner.
At his point, Dyson admits to Salisbury he probably won’t be able to solve the mystery of Black. Then Salisbury shows him the note he found. Dyson isn’t as dismissive about it as Salisbury and takes a copy of it from Salisbury.
Dyson, who regards himself as the “Wellington of mysteries”, is engaged in his “literary labours” which Machen notes are a mystery to his friends.
Walking about London after a four day stint of writing, Dyson finds himself in Soho.
We get a description of the various shops in the area, and Dyson notes a sign for “Handel Street, W.C.” above a store with the proprietor listed as Travers, a name mentioned in Salisbury’s note.
Dyson makes the connection, and goes inside where he utters the enigmatic phrase from Salisbury’s note: “Once around the grass, and twice around the lass, and thrice around the maple-tree.”
The effect on the store owner is interesting and immediate. He gasps, steadies himself, and hoarsely asks for Dyson to repeat it. Dyson refuses, telling him he knows very well what he said and gives him a minute to respond and tells him he’s heard of Q (another mention in the note), and that Dyson holds Travers life in his hand. Travers calls Dyson “Mr. Davies”, pleads he didn’t recognize him, and begs Dyson not ruin him. He then hands over a small package. Travers says he will be glad to get rid of it, and “I’ll take no more jobs of this sort.”
Back home, Dyson opens the package which has a written account of one Steven Black and also a fabulous opal.
In that account, Black describes how, from an early age, he devoted himself to “curious and obscure branches of knowledge”. He was not interested in life’s normal pleasures.
However, he needed a job, and so he got a medical degree and then married Agnes. During the time after their marriage, he only thought briefly about “occult science”. His marriage was enjoyable, quiet, and peaceful and “wiled” him away from the areas of his study where “no peace could dwell”.
Then, one night, he awoke with his old lust for knowledge back in full force. He weeps at the happy life he must leave to pursue his obsession.
He sets up a laboratory, his work closing in on bridging “the great abyss” between consciousness and the “world of matter”. He does “experiment after experiment” but comes to a reluctant conclusion.
He needs “elements which no laboratory could furnish” – a human soul, and he knows where he’ll get one: his wife.
All that happened next, he says, could have been avoided if he would have committed suicide, but he persists.
He tells Agnes about his plan.
And this is where the horror comes in.
She shuddered, and wept, and called on her dead mother for help, and asked me if I had no mercy.
He tells her what the result of his experiment will be,
what would enter in where her life had been; I told her of all the shame and of all the horror.
Finally, one night, Agnes consents with tears and “hot shame”. Black kisses her and cries. But, that night, Agnes reports to the laboratory for Black’s experiment. She only asks that, “when there came at last what I had told her, I would kill her”.
And so he does
And we learn that that opal contains Agnes’ soul.
Dyson destroys the opal at story’s end and steam, yellow smoke, and a white flame bursts through it and “there lay a thing like a cinder, black and crumbling to the touch”.
In a certain sense, this is a simplified version of Machen’s “The Great God Pan” in that it features a woman horribly transformed by an obsessive scientist, in this case her husband. Unlike Helen Vaughn, her brain is not altered to be able to see the realm where Pan exists. We’re not sure what Black was trying to accomplish. Her soul seems to be swapped, transferred into an opal, and an alien, inhuman, bestial, soul placed into her body, something that alters her brain into something alien.
The horrors of “The Great God Pan” require some effort to imaginatively construct given the hints Machen builds and involve mostly sexual degeneracy until Helen’s final transformation. Even her transformation is startling and memorable but not horrifying.
The horror here is not so much Dr. Black. Mad scientists are common. Experimenting on family members is not unknown in such stories.
Here the horror is Agnes’ pathological altruism and self-sacrifice, a misplaced love in submitting, with full knowledge of the consequences, to the experiment. I can empathize with the actions of most villains. It’s usually quite understandable that some people will commit evil out of anger, revenge, lust, or greed. It’s harder to understand Agnes’ consent to her mental and physical violation just because she loves her husband. Dr. Black is just an obsessive seeker of knowledge. His wife is far more mysterious. She seems under no coercion, so why does she consent?
It’s an odd and horrifying story, and, at least so far in my Machen reading, one of his most memorable short tales. There is also a hint here of sexual deviance in the shame that will come to Agnes. What is it? But we don’t hear of her engaging in any weird sex as is hinted with Helen Vaughn. Does Black have some hold over her akin to sado-masochist sex? It’s an odd and horrifying story.
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