Arthur Machen is best known for his 1894 novella, The Great God Pan, of which Stephen King once remarked is “maybe the best horror story in the English language.” It begins with a doctor performing a primitive sort of brain surgery on a young lady which will allow her to see the hidden world just beneath the veil of this reality. Or, as the ancients called it, seeing Pan. This sets the stage for the horrors to come and, although it may be sedate by 21st Century standards, it is still a glorious and profound reading excursion.
Machen may have written better stories, but none quite so popular as Pan. Its popularity may have been tied, somewhat, to its scandalous nature. The book proved quite controversial when it was first published. Contemporary critics deemed it to be “too morbid to be the production of a healthy mind” and thought it a danger to the innocent reading British public as a whole. According to the St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost and Gothic Writers, the book contains “occultism, paganism, non-mainstream eroticism, sexual diversity, the femme fatale, violent and strange deaths, and the simultaneous investment in and disavowal of bourgeois identities.” No wonder the public loved it. If that description doesn’t make you want to read it, I don’t what would.
In addition to writing The Great God Pan, and his work as a journalist, Machen also penned The Hill of Dreams, The Three Impostors, and numerous short stories. My favorite of his works I have read is The Terror: A Mystery, which concerns a series of baffling, and gruesome, murders in a rural community.
Despite some ups and downs and brief periods of renewed interest in his work, Machen never received the plaudits he deserved in his lifetime. Today, he is considered the originator of folk horror and influenced everyone from H.P. Lovecraft to Paul Bowles.
Machen also created the legend of the Angels of Mons in which supernatural beings helped British soldiers repel German forces during World War I. The legend originated from his 1914 story, “The Bowmen”, and people took it as fact. I, and quite a lot of other authors, can only dream of writing that good.