The Three Impostors

Essay: The Three Impostors; or, The Transmutations, Arthur Machen, 1895.

Cover by Matthew Jaffe.

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”.

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