Illustration from the 1906 edition of Arthur Machen’s The House of Souls

R.B. Russell/Tartarus Press

Illustration by Sidney Sime from the jacket of the 1906 edition of Arthur Machen’s House of Souls

In 1943 some of the friends of Arthur Machen—the last name rhymes with “bracken”—organized a formal dinner to honor the Welsh writer on his eightieth birthday. While many distinguished figures in the arts attended, three of the older guests particularly stood out: Max Beerbohm, W.W. Jacobs, and Algernon Blackwood.

Though obviously very different writers, this trio shared one signal distinction: each, along with the man they had come to celebrate, had written a masterpiece of supernatural fiction. Beerbohm’s best-known work is “Enoch Soames,” in which a seedy 1890s poet—author of Fungoids and Negations—sells his soul to the devil. Jacobs, though primarily a humorist, produced the unforgettable and much anthologized three-wishes story “The Monkey’s Paw.” As for Blackwood, he wrote what H.P. Lovecraft called the supreme tale of cosmic horror, “The Willows.”

Still, Lovecraft sometimes waffled about whether that dark laurel might actually belong to Machen’s “The White People”—which, despite what now seems a provocative title, isn’t about identity politics or social justice or anything like that. It presents a young girl’s diary, in which she naively prattles on about her old nurse’s games, a magical but ominous Other World, strange symbols called Aklo letters about which she dare not say anything, odd-shaped mazes, an entity called Jeelo, and phantasmagoric serpent rituals centered on a witch-queen, who might be herself. In his magisterial Guide to Supernatural Fiction, E.F. Bleiler—no pushover as a critic—describes “The White People” as “probably the finest single supernatural story of the century, perhaps in the literature.” T.E.D. Klein—the former editor of Twilight Zone magazine—aptly summarizes what makes it so extraordinary: “Most other tales of this sort…merely describe encounters with the dark primeval forces inimical to man; ‘The White People’ seems an actual product of such an encounter, an authentic pagan artifact.”

Machen himself deeply admired the macabre work of Poe and Hawthorne and regarded Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw as the finest of all ghost stories. Like these giants of American literature, he wouldn’t have labeled himself a “horror” writer, even if The Three Impostors, or The Transmutations (1895) could scare Arthur Conan Doyle, who called its author a “genius.” In The Great God Pan (1894) and a succession of short stories, Machen hinted at the continued power of pre-Christian deities—such as Nodens, the god of the abyss—or posited the survival of a primordial and malevolent race of hominids, now lurking in Welsh hills and caves. In his later work, however, he often set aside numinous dread to explore instead the spiritual and transcendental.* But whether focusing on the bestial or the beatific, Machen’s fiction always suggests that there’s more to reality than meets the eye, if we could just—to use a fin de siècle phrase—Rend the Veil.

Born in 1863, Arthur Llewellyn Jones-Machen—he later dropped the Jones—always counted it the greatest blessing of his life that he passed his childhood in Caerleon-on-Usk, a village on the border between England and Wales surrounded by brooding hills and made magical by a romantic past: the city, which has been steadily inhabited since Paleolithic times, was once called Isca Silurum by Rome’s Second Augustan Legion and was later said to be the site of King Arthur’s Round Table. As Machen observed in his lovely memoir Far Off Things (1922), “the older I grow the more firmly am I convinced that anything which I may have accomplished in literature is due to the fact that when my eyes were first opened in earliest childhood they had before them the vision of an enchanted land.”

Machen’s father was an impecunious clergyman, his mother an invalid, and their son a solitary but not lonely child. Luckily, Arthur was allowed the free run of what he calls in his memoir “a thoroughly ill-selected library.” By the time the aspiring young writer left home for good, he had discovered virtually all his literary touchstones: The Odyssey, The Arabian Nights, Shakespeare’s plays, Don Quixote, Gargantua and Pantagruel, the poetry of Keats and Tennyson, the writings of Poe and De Quincey, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, and Dickens’s novels, especially The Pickwick Papers.

While Arthur did receive a good classical education at Hereford Cathedral School, his family couldn’t afford to send him to Oxford. Rather inexplicably, journalism beckoned as a possible career. After all, hadn’t Arthur already composed a long poem about the Greek mysteries entitled “Eleusinia” (1881)? Poetry hardly seems an indicator for success in hardscrabble Fleet Street, but the dewy-eyed young provincial, “dreaming and setting my heart on the hopeless endeavour of letters,” set off for London to make his fortune—and, not surprisingly, nearly starved to death.


Happily, Machen could live on green tea and little else, while managing to launch his literary career with two odd, rather whimsical books, which—if nothing else—demonstrate his remarkable talent for pastiche. Supposedly written by “Leolinus Siluriensis,” The Anatomy of Tobacco (1884) dissects every aspect of smoking in a fustian prose modeled after that of Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. Similarly, The Chronicles of Clemendy (1888) assembles a series of “witty and facetious discourses, jests and histories,” composed in the rumbustious manner of Rabelais. The poet and classicist A.E. Housman once called the latter book “very clever,” which might or might not be a compliment. Machen decided to keep its remaining eight volumes in his head.

During this desolate time—in his loneliness, he sometimes felt “a ghostly man amidst the hurrying multitude of the living”—Machen took on a series of work-for-hire projects, notably translations of the Heptameron by Marguerite de Navarre (1886) and the Memoirs of Casanova (finished in 1889 but only published in 1894). His versions remained for decades the standard English texts. He also accepted an antiquarian bookdealer’s proposal that he prepare and annotate a catalog of curiosa, eventually titled “The Literature of Occultism and Archaeology.” This project, followed by work on similar lists, familiarized the young writer with alchemical treatises, Hermetic philosophy, Rosicrucian thought, and the major studies of mesmerism and witchcraft.

Machen’s New Grub Street life temporarily ended in the late 1880s. Following the deaths of his parents, an inheritance allowed him to put aside commercial freelance work, happily marry a Miss Amelia Hogg, and expend his energies solely on the fiction he wanted to write. The money lasted until 1902, by which time Machen had produced virtually all his best-known tales of horror and the occult. His first major work, and still the most notorious, was The Great God Pan (1894), which anticipates Hammer Studio’s ever-popular “bride of Satan” theme and combines it with a modernized version of “Lamia,” Keats’s poem about a seductive yet ultimately pitiful monster. The filmmaker Guillermo del Toro once summed up this novella in the near-aphorism “Evil is never dormant—it gestates.”

The Great God Pan was quickly followed by The Three Impostors (1895), a tricksy set of several linked stories, the most famous being the much anthologized “Novel of the Black Seal” and “Novel of the White Powder.” In this book, in which nothing turns out to be quite what it seems, Machen shows himself adept at both gallows humor and wry metafictional flourishes. One character says to another, “I tell you, Phillipps, I see the plot thicken; our steps will henceforth be dogged with mystery, and the most ordinary incidents will teem with significance.” This is, of course, precisely what happens.

These youthful works, along with “The White People” and two other brief shockers, “The Inmost Light” and “The Red Hand,” were eventually gathered into a single volume, The House of Souls (1906). That selection did leave out one powerful early story, “The Shining Pyramid,” in which a young woman, while wandering too far into the hills, vanishes, only to be glimpsed later surrounded by creatures that are not quite human.

Let us briefly linger over those creatures: in Machen’s fictive universe, the fairies and “Little People” of folklore aren’t delicate Tinkerbells or blarney-spouting leprechauns. Such time-honored cutesiness is simply apotropaic, a way of making bearable a more frightening reality: that the so-called faery folk of Britain are actually blood-thirsty troglodytes—and they aren’t extinct. Living largely underground, hissing rather than speaking, they move about in secret, “boiling with the foul passions of the swamp and the black cave.” Worse still, they possess “certain powers which would be to us wholly miraculous.”

As every devotee of the weird and uncanny knows, what matters most in such storytelling is atmosphere, the creation of an inescapable, ever intensifying feeling of wrongness and dread. Few writers are better at this than Machen. In “Novel of the Black Seal,” when Professor Gregg finally decides to visit an ancient ritual site in the hope of confirming his theories about the hideous Little People, he writes, “If I unhappily do not return from my journey, there is no need to conjure up here a picture of the awfulness of my fate.” By this point, Machen has introduced a disturbingly odd servant boy, an ancient Latin document about a race that hates the sun, and an ominously inscribed piece of polished stone. Given all these and more, the reader won’t have any trouble at all in conjuring up the awfulness of the professor’s fate.

Throughout his career, Machen would periodically fall back on his ravening Little People. In a late story, “Opening the Door,” a professor notices what he believes to be small ugly children in the lane behind his house. They aren’t children. In “Out of the Earth,” unruly preteens are said to be responsible for several seaside atrocities. Not a bit. It’s worth noting that Machen’s troglodytes play into the era’s pervasive fear of the threatening Other, whether the swarthy foreigner or the slum-dweller of London’s East End. This was the heyday of Cesare Lombroso’s racist theories about recognizable criminal types and Max Nordau’s study Degeneration, which spread fear of atavism and perversion. Though Machen’s abominable cave-dwellers survive from the deep past and H.G. Wells’s Morlocks wait in the far future, the two are otherwise much alike.


While nearly all of Machen’s fiction hints at an unseen world pressing upon ours, in his later work he turns from the unwelcome interventions of ancient deities and lost races to celebrations of poetic vision and spiritual ecstasy. Already in the 1890s he had begun to compose delicate prose vignettes, later collected as Ornaments in Jade (1924). One of these, “The Rose Garden,” could be a Sufi love poem. Machen’s shift from the unnatural to the supranatural most dramatically appears in A Fragment of Life (1904), reprinted at the beginning of The House of Souls but quite out of keeping with that book’s overall tone of terror. As the novella begins, Edward Darnell, a young, newly married clerk, finds his equanimity assailed by brief visions—or are they memories?—of an ancient woods, a gray house, and a holy well. Except for these odd daydreams, Darnell and his wife are exemplary small-scale capitalists, passing entire evenings discussing household expenses and new furnishings for their home. There are also hints that the marriage has yet to be consummated.

Throughout its first three quarters the novella displays Machen’s virtuosity in depicting the tiny dramas and vacuous pleasures of lower-middle-class life. We meet Darnell’s glad-handing chum with all the inside dope on where to find a bargain, a mad old lady convinced her elderly husband is having an affair, the ditzy kitchen maid deeply hated by her sweetheart’s mother. Had he continued in this genteelly comic vein, Machen might have produced a minor masterpiece of late-Victorian domestic humor, like George and Weedon Grossmith’s Diary of a Nobody, Barry Pain’s Eliza, or Conan Doyle’s A Duet, with an Occasional Chorus.

Still, there are those visions. Darnell slowly begins to awaken to “reality”—and the last part of the novella chronicles his gradual enlightenment. Human beings, he comes to realize, were meant for something better, something greater, than this “gray phantasmal world, akin to death.” More and more, he recognizes that we are so drenched in materialism that our higher senses are blunted, cutting us off from what truly matters. A Fragment of Life ends with the promise of a vita nuova and true happiness for both Darnells. Some Machenians think this novella his finest work.

Not Machen himself, however, who always regarded The Hill of Dreams as his masterpiece. Completed in 1897 but not published until 1907, this “adventure of the spirit” is recognizably a Künstlerroman, like James Joyce’s somewhat similar, just slightly later Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. But instead of the proud Stephen Dedalus’s trumpeting about “silence, exile, and cunning,” Lucian Taylor breaks under the weight of despondency and madness.

This account of profound loneliness—Machen called the book a “Robinson Crusoe of the mind”—begins and closes with essentially the same striking sentence: “There was a glow in the sky as if great furnace doors were opened.” An introspective boy, Lucian wanders alone in the Welsh hills or reads poetry and volumes of esoteric lore: as Machen autobiographically remarks, “He had taken all obsolescence to be his province.” Eventually, Lucian begins to write, attempting to capture his feelings for the pantheistic wonders of nature. His work suffers rejection, plagiarism, and mockery. More and more, the frustrated young author surrenders to fantastical imaginings and suspicions: Might his girlfriend Annie actually be a witch? In one tour-de-force chapter, Lucian mentally transports himself to the ancient Roman city of Siluria and the wondrous gardens of Avallaunius.

In this pagan dream-kingdom, he seeks out, like the decadent recluse Jean des Esseintes of Huysman’s Against the Grain, intense and unique sensations: “He made lovers come before him and confess their secrets; he pried into the inmost mysteries of innocence and shame, noting how passion and reluctance strive together for the mastery.” In these reveries he meets “women with grave sweet faces” who “told him…how they had played and watched by the vines and the fountains, and dallied with the nymphs, and”—shades of The Great God Pan—“loved the satyrs for many years before they knew their race.”

Arthur Machen

E.O. Hoppé/Mark Valentine

Arthur Machen, 1912; photograph by E.O. Hoppé

Eventually, Lucian travels to real-world London, where he attempts to complete a masterpiece amid the noise, filth, and vulgarity of the metropolis. But drugs and an overheated imagination lead him instead into a nightmarish death-in-life, until “truth and the dream were so mingled that…he could not divide one from the other.” In this state, Lucian hearkens to the distant call of Faerie—or is it merely the siren-song of a final madness?

When The Hill of Dreams was published as a book, the only reviewer to appreciate its power and originality was none other than Lord Alfred Douglas, Oscar Wilde’s “Bosie.” Douglas spoke of it as a “dreadful liturgy of self-inflicted pain” and “a masterpiece of prose.” Decades later, the very unBosie-like Henry Miller extolled the novel as the most “wonderful epic of the artist’s soul” that he had ever read, a book that “bereft me of emotion.”

According to Machen’s aesthetic manifesto, Hieroglyphics (1902), that’s what literature should do if it is to be more than “dignified reporting.” True masterpieces promote “ecstasy” or “if you like, rapture, beauty, adoration, wonder, awe, mystery, sense of the unknown, desire for the unknown.” After all, the object of art “is not information, but a peculiar kind of aesthetic delight,” one with roots in the incantations, songs, and dances of ancient man. Great art should therefore be mystical, intoxicating, Dionysian. Everything, Machen once declared, “is a profound mystery, the veil of a secret & ineffable glory.” A writer should strive to capture at least a glint of that hidden beauty.

Given such convictions, it may be surprising that Machen scorned spiritualism and what he once called Conan-doylery, dismissing séances as elaborate charades (in his later years Arthur Conan Doyle was famously an advocate of séances and spiritualism). Though briefly a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, he ultimately judged it “pure foolishness concerned with impotent and imbecilic Abracadabras.” Nonetheless, Machen turned to techniques learned there—probably some kind of self-hypnosis—to help him through the trauma of his wife’s death from cancer in 1899. Soon after, and probably to escape painful memories, he joined a touring Shakespeare company in which he contentedly spent several years, off and on, as a bit-part actor.

In 1903 Machen married his second wife, Dorothie Purefoy Hudleston, and again started freelancing, before landing a permanent slot as a general assignment reporter for London’s Evening News. Machen covered everything from a gun battle in the street to a royal procession. Though good at his job, he still called daily journalism, with some justification, “prostitution of the soul.” He once calculated that he produced more than 1.5 million words of copy, his best work being scores of casual essays, called “turnovers,” on subjects ranging from taverns, fogs, and Christmas traditions to poltergeists, odd corners of London, and the Holy Grail. (Some of these were later reprinted in the alliterative collections of his journalism, Dog and Duck, in 1924, and Dreads and Drolls, in 1926.)

In the years leading up to World War I, Machen grew obsessed with the Graal (his preferred spelling for the Holy Grail), frequently arguing about its origins with his close friend the occult scholar A.E. Waite (he of the Rider-Waite tarot deck). Machen became convinced—almost certainly wrongly—that the various legends about this mysterious objet reflected memories of a suppressed Celtic form of Christianity. From his studies emerged several essays, notably “The Secret of the Sangraal,” as well as two of his finest works of fiction, The Secret Glory and “The Great Return.”

The Secret Glory, written in 1907–1908 but not published until 1922, focuses on the traumatic schooldays and spiritual evolution of Ambrose Meyrick (note the initials). As a child, Ambrose visits an isolated Welsh farmhouse, where an old man shows him a chalice that radiates unearthly light and goodness. Much later, Ambrose will become that same relic’s guardian and—as one learns in the novel’s brief epilogue—suffer martyrdom as a result.

The Secret Glory is something of a hodge-podge, written as if it were the hero’s biography and dotted with phrases such as “in after life he often looked back upon this period.” While the Welsh landscape and the holy chalice elicit some of Machen’s most ecstatic prose, so does Ambrose’s youthful love affair with the servant girl Nelly. The most sheerly entertaining part of the novel, however, is the relentless, take-no-prisoners satire of public school life. Most writers, Machen once said, “dwell on the vices of public schools, [but] it is their virtues, all that they are most proud of, which stink in my nostrils.” By promoting heartiness, group-think, and rabid jingoism above all else, these elite educational institutions systematically destroy individuality and imagination. Even as A Fragment of Life showcases Machen’s talent for domestic light comedy, so The Secret Glory might almost be the draft of an early Evelyn Waugh novel. I’ve sometimes wondered, too, if T.S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party might have been partly inspired by Ambrose’s sudden martyrdom.

There’s nothing so dire in “The Great Return” (1915), a story as serenely enchanting as a medieval romance, with a particularly beguiling first sentence: “There are strange things lost and forgotten in obscure corners of the newspaper.” Using the just-the-facts voice of an ace newspaperman, Machen proceeds to report on a series of uncanny events around a small Welsh village. Sailors glimpse a rose of fire in the sky, townspeople hear the ringing of a sanctus bell, there are visions of a cup with blood in it: in short, the Graal and its three guardians have returned to this world. By their holy presence, a mortally ill young girl is healed and longstanding enmities are put aside. For an all-too-brief interval, writes Machen, “the fragments of dream” were “gathered into the clearness of vision.”

“The Great Return” appeared during World War I, shortly after Machen’s far more famous account of a similar spectral intercession, “The Bowmen” (1914). During the desperate retreat from Mons, Belgium, a company of British soldiers supposedly called upon Saint George for help. At once, shimmering archers appeared in the sky, and the air filled with arrows directed at the German forces. The story, as we would say today, went viral. Combatants even insisted it was true. Within months, Machen’s “long line of shapes, with a shining about them” had been transformed from the archers of Agincourt into genuine celestial beings, the Angels of Mons. When, in 1915, Machen brought out The Angels of Mons: The Bowmen and Other Legends of the War, it rapidly sold 50,000 copies.

That same year the Evening News serialized his “Confessions of a Literary Man,” eventually retitled and published in 1922 as the book Far Off Things. (Its sequel, Things Near and Far, appeared in 1923.) No doubt evocations of spring-like days in Wales provided a fleeting respite from the sickening horrors of war. In 1916, however, Machen obliquely confronted the era’s “contagion” of violence by releasing a provocative shilling shocker called The Terror. For no apparent reason, people living alone in rural areas are suddenly found dead—an entire family slaughtered outside their home, a man drowned in just a few feet of water, a woman mangled at the bottom of a quarry. In this last case, “there was a dead sheep lying beside her in the pit, as if the woman and the sheep together had been chased over the brim of the quarry. But chased by whom, or by what?”

Machen, for all his gifts, could often be slapdash in his plot construction, but as a thriller and detective story, The Terror is neat, compact, and expertly developed. I won’t reveal the book’s secret (indeed, the author himself came to feel that “it would have been much better to leave the mystery without explanation”), but when a child disappears, country folk initially speculate that “the People had done it.” This time the little boy isn’t the victim of Morlockian ogres. When finally found in an ash grove, he was “quite still and dead, so still that a great moth had settled on his forehead, fluttering away when they lifted him up.” That moth isn’t there by happenstance.

When the Great War ended, Arthur Machen could look back on several stages in a checkered but already substantial career. He now entered his benevolent Dr. Johnson phase, issuing his memoirs and table talk, hosting weekly drinks parties, acquiring disciples. Meanwhile, in America, the bookman Vincent Starrett was collecting his forgotten journalism, and James Branch Cabell (author of the once-scandalous satirical fantasy Jurgen) was singing his praises. Collectors were even paying considerable sums for Machenalia. As a result, in the mid-1920s the English publisher Martin Secker issued the nine-volume Caerleon Edition of Machen’s major works, and Alfred A. Knopf, in the US, brought out many of the same titles in uniform yellow hardcovers. My copy of the 1923 Knopf edition of The Hill of Dreams is a fifth printing. Two more would follow.

Alas, the boom was over within a couple of years. By 1927 the half-year royalties from Knopf were down to $25. Machen was now sixty—could his writing career be over? Already in Far Off Things, he had begun to meditate on the unhappy destiny of the aging writer, dwelling on the sad difference between a book “as it glows warm and radiant in the author’s heart, and its cold and faulty realization in words.” He continued:

It is later in the life of the literary man, when he has tried all roads and made all the experiments, that his final sorrow comes upon him. He may not be forced to say, perhaps, that he has been a total failure; he may, indeed, be able to chronicle achievements of a minor kind, successes in the estimation of others. But now, with riper understanding, he perceives, as he did not perceive in the days of his youth, the depth of the gulf between the idea and the word, between the emotion that thrilled him to his very heart and soul, and the sorry page of print into which that emotion stands translated. He dreamed in fire; he has worked in clay.

Such a paragraph shows why Machen was so acclaimed for the musicality of his prose. Despite his forebodings, though, he hadn’t quite done with writing. During the remaining twenty-five years of his life he would revisit some of his old themes of the Other World and the Little People, at length in a minor novel called The Green Round (1933) and occasionally in his short stories, which now tended to be more mellow than melodramatic. Yet some of these show Machen as a precursor of Borges. In “The Tree of Life,” for instance, a young invalid, wheelchair-bound in his ancestral home, knows about “the Secret Conquest of England a hundred years ago, that nobody was allowed to mention” and has also learned of “the great continent that was hidden because Africa was on top of it.” As in The Three Impostors, this story’s close dramatically recasts everything we have read.

At age seventy-two, toward the end of 1935, Machen would produce one last great work, the enigmatic “N.” In it, he argues not for the nearness of an unseen Other World but for its actual and visible interpenetration with ours. Characters describe a park, “a panorama of unearthly, of astounding beauty” that can sometimes be glimpsed in, of all places, Stoke Newington—if you happen to lodge in just the right house and look out just the right window. But, as the narrator suggests in a science-fictional twist at the story’s end, might there be a multiplicity of such worlds—and some hellish rather than heavenly?

In the 1930s Machen’s poverty grew such that admirers, including Bernard Shaw, John Masefield, T.S. Eliot, and many ordinary people, contributed to a fund for his relief. But no amount of money can slow the passage of the years. A final collection, The Children of the Pool and Other Stories (1936), opens with “The Exalted Omega,” a time-slip story that movingly evokes the coming of old age:

Mansel had long been aware that the sharp outlines of life and time and daily event were becoming blurred and indistinct for him…. He had been conscious of a savour gradually departing from the whole body of life, so that a grave book or a gay gathering had become alike flat and meaningless. Walking up and down his rooms, laying down the law, arguing, growing heated about the essence of poetry or the demerits of Meredith: that had been fine, relishing sport once on a time: and now it was nothing. He would look at old note-books he had filled, and wonder what possessed him to write down all those futilities.

Arthur Machen died in 1947 at the age of eighty-four. For us today, he may not seem an “important” writer, but he’s arguably something even better—a writer who inspires deep affection and devotion in his readers. On his tomb are inscribed these words: Omnia exeunt in mysterium—Everything ends in mystery.