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.
In 1890, 27-year old Arthur Machen was still writing society tales.
But they won’t be for the St. James Gazette anymore. According to James Machin’s “’All Manner of Mysteries’: Encounters with the Numinous in The Cosy Room and Other Stories”, Machen’s friend Oscar Wilde liked “A Double Return”. Readers, however, were “annoyed and enraged”.
St. James Gazette wasn’t going to be buying any more Machen.
So this story got published in another magazine, Whirlwind.
The story uses a familiar plot device – the reuniting of old lovers who did not part on the best of terms.
It starts with two old acquaintances meeting again after seven or eight years. One is Villiers, a bachelor, and the other the older Richardson. (No, this is not the same Villiers of Machen’s “The Great God Pan. Machen tended to use the same surnames over and over again for his characters.) The latter has gotten involved with the Indian trade and made some money.
Villiers, like many another Machen protagonist, likes to wander around London making his studies. He could have inherited his dad’s China trading company, but he sold his interest.
Richardson married three months ago. Villiers congratulates him and wants to meet his wife. So they go to Richardson’s house.
At this point in our Machen series, we move from obscure works to one of his most famous works, indeed this story is probably Machen’s best known with the possible exception of some of the excerpted stories in his later novel The Three Impostors; or, The Transmutation or “The Bowmen” (and that one, as I’ve went on at length, only in its transmuted form.)
The figure at the story’s center, Helen Vaughn, the product of a woman mating with something from outside our world and beyond the veil of the senses. This tale may have inspired H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror”. It is regarded as a classic of weird fiction among scholars of the field.
However, while the story was popular when it was published, it was not well thought of by critics.
Machen, when the story was reprinted in 1916, quoted several bad reviews of it. It was a laughable “psychological bogey”. “Our flesh obstinately refused to creep”, said one review. The tale was tepid occultism. It was “elaborately absurd”. Not only ridiculous, said another review, but intentionally disagreeable. The story was “gruesome and dull”. And, perhaps more to the point, a reviewer for Westminster said:
an incoherent nightmare of sex and the supposed horrible mysteries behind it, such as might conceivably possess a man who was given to a morbid brooding over these matters, but which would soon lead to insanity if unrestrained . . . innocuous from its absurdity.
In that same introduction, Machen himself called the story “a silly business at the best”.