Tuesday, July 28, 2020

The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen

While reading Elizabeth Hand’s excellent short story collection Last Summer At Mars Hill this past weekend, I saw that her story The Boy in the Tree started as a riff on this classic horror novella. That story was later expanded into her first novel, Winterlong (which I haven’t read yet. She also mentioned that a short story by M. John Harrison, also called The Great God Pan, was published around the same time and was expanded into his novel The Course of the Heart. Since I had a copy of the Harrison novel I picked up at a used bookstore last year, I thought it would be a good reading experience to read the three in quick succession. Both the Machen novella and Hand story were excellent, as are the first three chapters of The Course of the Heart.

The Great God Pan has been on my radar since last summer when I read a lot of Lovecraft and Lovecraftian fiction. In the course of that I read that Machen was a big influence. And this novella, written decades before Lovecraft published anything is a clear model for the ominous circuitous approach that Lovecraft took to creating a mood of creeping horror. I’d almost say that much, if not most, of Lovecraft is an extended homage to this. That would be an overstatement, but here are multiple narratives about the search for forbidden knowledge that, when found, drives people to madness.

It opens with a Dr. Clark, who is fascinated with the occult and is attempting to write a work proving the existence of the Devil, is convinced by a friend to participate in an experiment attempting to see an occult reality. They essentially sacrifice a woman who is the first person driven mad by what happens, a rite revealed later to be even more disturbing than first glance. Throughout the rest of the narrative Dr. Clark and other  gather narratives of the effects of that night culminating in a true nightmare.

I enjoyed Machen’s prose which reminded me of Kenneth Graham (author of The Wind in the Willows) and his ability to create an atmosphere of creeping horror. This is the kind of story that gets in your head and lives there. It’s no surprise that Lovecraft picked up here, and that a century later it inspired great work by two of the best living writers (Hand and Harrison).  I suspect I’ll be returning to this novella at least several times.

Highly Recommended/ Canon Worthy

Free Online, Library Books, Etc 2020 10/35

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