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.
Coincidentally, Arthur Machen, subject of several recent posts, has a connection to this story. Smith had read his “The Great God Pan” and decided he would like write a story with a woman impregnated by something inhuman.
It’s an effective story though it does rely on the great coincidence of the narrator, Henry Chaldane, accidentally ending up, while on a motorcycle trip through England, at the isolated house of Sir John Tremoth. He just happens to be a friend of Henry’s deceased father.
Henry vaguely remember the story of what happened to Lady Agatha Tremoth, Sir John’s wife. She went cataleptic and was mistakenly buried alive.
The day after she was interred in the family vault, Sir John doubted that Agatha was dead. He went to the crypt and found Agatha sitting upright. Somehow, she got her nailed coffin lid off. She was shattered in brain and body and remembered only a hideous, unhuman face looming over her. Its limbs were semi-human, and the figure seemed to go about sometimes like an animal.
Nine months later, she gave birth to a monstrous child and died. The child was locked away from the world.
Machen, by 1895, had finished all his Dyson tales with their frequent references to the Little People. But the theme was one of continual and certainly not casual interest for him. This is a book review touching on the theme and is one of the pieces in the appendix of Arthur Machen: Collected Fiction, Volume 1: 1888-1895.
For Machen, most of the modern study of folklore is hampered by the idea that the unusual never happens and the supernatural does not exist.
He speaks of the work of Léon Pineau, particularly Les Vieux Populaires Scandinaves. Pineau held animism was the most primitive form of human thought. Machen says Pineau was following Andrew Lang in this regard, but he dropped Lang’s suggestions that myths are misunderstood rituals.
Pineau talks about tales of dwarves as memories of a “short, non-Aryan race” that first lived in Europe.
It’s not only the last of Machen’s stories about writer and pseudo-detective Dyson, but it also decisively ends an era of Machen’s literary career.
Like all the Dyson stories, it’s told in a series of episodes. The story was first published in 1895 and slightly revised for a 1925 publication. As usual in this series, editor S. T. Joshi went with Machen’s preferred version.
In “The Arrow-Head Character”, Dyson and his friend Vaughn are discussing the latter’s recent trip to the country.
They haven’t seen each other in three years, and Vaughn came to see Dyson right after getting off his train in London. He speaks of a haunting and invites Dyson out to the country. Dyson likes London in September. It’s exciting, and he doesn’t want to leave.
Vaughn says the country isn’t always peaceful. It has its mysteries. For instance, Annie Trevor, a beautiful girl, disappeared walking to her aunt’s house about five or six miles away. There were no pits to fall into or cliffs to fall off along the way. The villagers, “bad as the Irish” in their superstitions, have an explanation involving fairies.
Years later, in “About My Books” (which can be found in The Secret Ceremonies), Machen said of this story “highly ingenious and quite inferior”.
The story opens with “The Problem of the Fish-Hooks”. Amateur ethnologist Phillipps is examining primitive fish-hooks. He pronounces them genuine. Dyson tells him he can find primitive men in London if he just looks. Besides, contrary to what Phillipps says, the fishhooks aren’t genuine artifacts and probably forgeries. Baiting him with remarks about representatives of trogolodytes, lake dwellers, and darker races to be found in London, Dyson gets Phillipps to take a walk with him.
As usual in Machen, adventure, coincidence, and mystery follow. Dyson’s intuitive wanderings are the closest thing he has to occult powers.
They come across a forlorn street. Beneath a lamp, on the pavement, an artist has scrawled some chalk marks. Nearby is a timber yard. Then, they come across a murdered man. His throat has been cut. Nearby is a piece of flint with blood on it, a flint knife. Phillipps says it looks about 10,000 years old given its style.
The crowd gathering around the body identifies him as Sir Thomas Vivian. After the police come and they give their statements, Dyson and Phillipps leave with Dyson apologizing about his “infernal jesting” seeming to have raised an “evil spirit”.
Dyson mentions a mark he saw on the wall above Vivian’s body. He sketches it, and Phillipps identifies it as a hand making the sign of the evil eye.
The “Incident of the Letter” takes place about a month later.
Dyson tells Phillips what he’s found out about Vivian’s murder.
Phillipps theorizes Vivian was mixed up with Italians and one killed him with a knife found in a museum. Dyson brings up the chalked red hand. Why draw it? A “murderer is always a madman” argues Phillipps.
Written in 1894 and 1895, this is one of Machen’s most famous works, especially when you consider that many of its episodes – “Novel of the Black Seal”, “Novel of the White Powder”, and “Novel of the Iron Maid” – are frequently anthologized. Those episodes take on other meanings, raise additional questions in the context of the novel.
The title, said Machen in his 1923 “About My Books”, derives from some probably fake work of German occultism, De Tribus Impostoribus, he came across a reference to. He speculates the three impostors in that book were Christ, Moses, and Mahomet. (Machen’s piece can be found in The Secret Ceremonies: Critical Essays on Arthur Machen.)
But the plot itself was “An imitation, I regret to say, of [Robert Louis] Stevenson’s Dynamiter and New Arabian Nights.”
It’s Machen’s first novel of weird fiction, albeit an episodic one, of what he called “wonder fiction”. Coincidence is rife. The geographic settings range from London, Wales, and America. Given that so much of it is told by liars and criminals, multiple interpretation of events are possible.
Machen’s tells his story in a way that perversely and deliberately undercuts any build-up of suspense.
The novel opens with four people in an abandoned house in a London suburb. One is a beautiful woman of hazel eyes, Helen. Two are men. The fourth is on his way to quickly becoming a corpse. He’s Joseph Walters, “the young man with spectacles” as the others refer to him.
On orders from the absent Dr. Lipsius, the trio has been searching for Walters and finally ran him to ground.
The three bid farewell to their aliases, one each for the men and two for Helen who also bids a “farewell to occult adventures”.
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 opens with the narrator seeing a item in the newspaper thanking a gentleman who helped the writer in distress when she was at Victoria Station on the evening of November 15th. She would like to meet him again at the station at 6 PM on November 21st. The narrator saw the notice about a week ago since he likes to read “agony columns”, and he decides to watch this meeting which is suggestive of the “plots of shilling dreadfuls”.
The narrator, an accountant, tells us he’s a man of no vices and excellent morals.
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.