The Hill of Dreams

Essay: The Hill of Dreams, Arthur Machen, 1907.

Cover by Matthew Jaffe

In 1896, the year The Three Impostors; or, The Transmutations was published, Machen said, in the introduction to a 1923 edition of this novel, he decided to stop being, in the words of critics, a “second-rate imitator” of Robert Louis Stevenson.

This was not quite all the truth, but there was a good deal of truth in it, and I am glad to say I took my correction in a proper spirit. I resolved to try to amend my ways.

There would be

No more white powders, no more of the calix principis inferorum, no more hanky-panky with the Great God Pan, or the Little People or any people of that dubious sort.

He planned this novel in in 1895, and it was not done until the spring of 1897. His plan was frequently revised, concluding chapters abandoned and restarted. He despaired, at times, of ever finding a way to completion.

But Machen succeeded in creating a style of his own. Gone was the jaunty plotting and dialogue heavy stories of his Stevenson phase. His paragraphs became long, dialogue sparse. Incidents decreased but the narrative wandered back and forth in time, sometimes in the same long paragraph. It is sometimes hard to separate fact from hallucination or mystical vision.

The idea of the novel as a “Robinson Crusoe of the soul” came from reading Charles Whibley’s introduction to Tristram Shandy. (A perverse notion occurs to me that an interesting compare-and-contrast paper could be done on this novel and J. G. Ballard’s Concrete Island, also inspired by Defoe’s novel.)

When he handed The Hill of Dreams to a publisher in 1897, he got long letters imploring him not to pursue publication of a book

so poor and weak and dull that its publication would ruin what little reputation I had gained before.

It was finally published in 1907.

It did not ruin his reputation. It is considered his masterpiece. In his introduction to Arthur Machen: Collected Fiction: Volume 2 1896-1910, S. T. Joshi says it is “one of the pinnacles of his literary expression”. 

The plot is hard to define because of the ambiguity of key parts of the story, but a good place to start is the description on The Friends of Arthur Machen website:

For many readers today this is Machen’s most important and moving work. Lucian Taylor, the hero, is damned, either through contact with an erotically pagan ‘other’ world or through something degenerate in his own nature, which he thinks of as a ‘faun’. He becomes a writer, and when he moves to London he becomes trapped by the increasing reality of the dark imaginings of this creature within him, which become increasingly real. Machen drew copiously on his own early years in Wales and London, and the book as a whole is an exploration through imagination of a potential fate which he personally avoided. One of the first explorations in fiction of the figure of the doomed artist, who is biographically so much a part of the decadent 1890s.

The novel’s first two chapters follow Lucian from twelve years old to age 23 and track his increasing isolation. His mother dies when he is 15, but Lucian is close to his father, a poor clergyman. Both are keen observers of life in and around Caermaen, and both are unable and unwilling to trim their behavior to the winds of social norms thus their poverty. The novel does have some nice observations on the hypocrisies, cruelties and philistinism of the townsfolk of Caermaen.

Besides his father, the only person Lucian deals with regularly is their housekeeper Miss Deacon, a cousin of the family. She’ll dispense well-intended, “practical” advice to Deacon which his artistic soul does not heed.

And Lucian continues to notice Annie Morgan, a girl three years older than him. When he’s fifteen, he becomes rather disturbed by Annie, a woman to his awkward boy.

Eventually, Lucian comes to practice a sort of occult science that almost renders the annoying townsfolk around him invisible, their actions and words not affecting him or his work.

That work is a novel which Lucian eventually finishes and sends off. It is rejected. Indeed, he finds out later that his novel has not only been rejected but plagiarized.

Despite his father’s urgings to publicize the theft, Lucian does not. He heads off to London to become an anchorite of literature.

In London, he has only two visitors from the village. Deacon writes to him, but Lucian doesn’t even keep contact up with his father who dies toward the end of the book.

In London, Lucian’s isolation from humanity grows.

Human forms become mere shadowy figures in the fog as Lucian’s alienation grows:

It was difficult to say which were the more dismal, these deserted streets that wandered away to right and left, or the great main thoroughfare with its narcotic and shadowy life. For the latter appeared vast, interminable, grey, and those who travelled by it were scarcely real, the bodies of the living, but rather the uncertain and misty shapes that come and go across the desert in an Eastern tale, when men look up from the sand and see a caravan pass them, all in silence, without a city or a greeting. So they passed and repassed each other on those pavements, appearing and vanishing, each intent on his own secret, wrapped in obscurity. One might have sworn that not a man saw his neighbor who met him or jostled him, that here every one was a phantom for the other, though the lines of their paths crossed and recrossed, and their eyes stared like the eyes of live men. When two went by together, they mumbled and cast distrustful glances behind them as though afraid all the world was an enemy, and the pattering of feet was like the noise of a shower of rain.

Eventually, London – especially its lower-class who Lucian doesn’t react to at all like his idol Thomas De Quincey – seems a Pandemonium to Lucian.

It is hard to determine what exactly happens at several points in the novel given that the plot centers on the imaginative and mystically minded Lucian. Besides the book’s famed sections of Lucian’s long, detailed, mystical vision – almost a form of time travel — of Isca Silurum, the Roman ruins around Caermaen, there are four major scenes of ambiguity in the novel.

The first is when Lucian is 15. He falls asleep in a grove and wakes up in, what I suspect, we are to conclude is his first case of sexual arousal: body trembling and “a flaming blush” on his face. Either he has a sexual dream or he meets a faun or witch in the vision of “scarlet lips” that kiss him. The latter possibility is strengthened by Dr. Burrows, one of the few people in Caermaen Lucian likes talking with, when the doctor suggests there is a group of witches in the area. If the novel is, indeed, a story of possession, this would seem to be the moment it happens. 

The second episode is later, again in the woods by the Roman fort. There Lucian feels “the physical shame and reluctance of the flesh”. He runs in panic from the woods, and he believes he sees a faun and a “miserable shamed boy”. Is he in a dissociative state and the boy really him? If you want to see him as possessed by some kind of spirit, it is after this he begins to socially withdraw. Then, again, maybe it’s just the natural workings of nature and nurture.

The third episode is on the very day Lucian learns his book has been rejected. After getting that news, he again goes into the woods and again sees those two figures and again flees.

On the road, he meets Annie. Lucian is at a low point. He’s been rejected. He’s seen the local boys in town torture a dog. Annie’s presence and her kindness seem to lead to sex.

She promises she’ll return to him for, presumably, the renewal of their physical intimacy, but she never does. But her kindness makes her into a sort of embodiment of womanly love for Lucian. Just as he become an anchorite of literature, he also takes to self-mortification with nettles when thinking about her. But this moment of physical intimacy has not stopped his growing detachment from humanity or even occasional fury towards people even before he goes to London.

The fourth odd bit also involves sex. Does Lucian, as I’ve seen some claim, really rape a red-headed prostitute in London? 

Another question is whether Lucian’s landlady sets his death up by encouraging what seems to be laudanum use? 

Machen’s novel fascinates through its lyricism, mysteries, social observation, and, particularly, the literary struggles of Lucian in London and the growing isolation and alienation they bring.

Part of the book’s fascination is its autobiographical element. Lucian and Machen share many similar things. Both are sons of poor clergymen. Both grow up in Wales. Lucian’s Isca Silurum is Caerleon-on-Usk where Machen grew up. Both went to London as young men to pursue a literary career. Both admire the same writers: Edgar Allan Poe, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Rabelais, Cervantes, John Milton, and Thomas De Quincey.

And both ended up in cold, shabby apartments living on dry bread crusts and smoking tobacco. Both come to love the mysteries to be seen wandering London.

Machen, however, escaped his life of poverty after a couple of years. Lucian dies in it.

James Machin argues, in “Arthur Machen and Decadence: The Flower-Tunicked Priest of New Grub Street” (in The Secret Ceremonies), this is definitely a work of Decadent fiction. When Lucian meets Annie on that fateful evening on the road, he thinks of himself as “’degenerate’, decadent”.  There is opium use, and writing is even described as a kind of drug bringing ecstasy to Lucian at times.

A further Decadent element is the book Lucian finally produces, The Amber Statuette. It gets a critical response (“This needs disinfectant”) similar to that received by works of English Decadence.

English Decadent fiction may have become unpopular after Oscar Wilde’s trial in 1895, but Machen actually became interested in Decadence after that date and begin to take up some of its themes.

But Machen’s method of writing was also a factor. He found, when trying to write a story for a horror anthology he was invited to contribute to, an anthology which eventually included H. G. Wells, that he could no longer write to order. He needed a muse. And, in 1896, his muse inspired him with a tale of art and social isolation. If Decadence includes a commitment to, as Machin says, “progressive forms of fiction in the face of popular indifference”, then Machen qualifies as Decadent.

Normally I’m suspicious of claims of symbolism in fiction, but Machen loved medieval literature and spoke of using symbols himself, so it seems entirely plausible that The Hill of Dreams may have some not so obvious ones

A two page essay, “The Revenge of Vulcan”  by G. J. Cooling (also in The Secret Ceremonies) makes some interesting observations about the imagery of fire and furnaces that opens and closes the novel. Cooling sees the women in The Hill of Dreams as a continuation of Machen’s theme of the femme fatale first introduced with Helen Vaughn in “The Great God Pan”. 

There are several “ominously alluring women” in Machen’s novel. We can see Lucian as sort of a Vulcan figure given the fire imagery around him and that he is an artisan of sorts.

Cooling links these women to Vulcan’s wife Venus. They are Annie and the prostitute in London.  Cooling says we can’t be sure the prostitute Lucian first meets is the same one as in the book’s final part but both have reddish, bronze hair. 

Furthering this notion is that Lucian worships Annie as the ideal embodiment of a woman, i.e. Venus, and later casts his memories of Annie the actual woman aside for that ideal. 

The title of Lucian’s work, The Amber Statuette, also suggests Venus. Besides the opening and closing fire imagery, the orgy Lucian observes in London is seen in “lurid naptha flames” (Cooling’s words).  There is also fire imagery in the scene where Annie and Lucian meet on the road.

The Hill of Dreams is a beautiful, mysterious novel on the desolation of a soul alone in a city and the agonies of creation.

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