“In every grain of wheat there lies hidden the soul of a star. A creepy, creepy death star.”
Arthur Machen’s novella “The Great God Pan” still holds a mighty sway over all the Weird Fiction crowd, (and if you’ve ever written nonsense about “lifting the veil between our world and the inconceivable, terrifying reality just beyond human understanding,” it probably holds sway over you too.) I feel that there is no H. P. Lovecraft without Machen… and that a lot of other people would also vanish from the Horror Family Tree, or write very differently indeed. (Just now: The final section of Stephen King’s “Revival” borrows so markedly from “The Great God Pan” that I felt a tug toward the older classic, the only thing I recall reading from Machen. This gap is to be remedied soon.)
Machen hasn’t been exactly re-appraised by critics, but he HAS attracted some recent feminist scholarship for the perceived misogyny in this story. While it indeed involves a rule-breaking Lilith-like woman whose overt sexuality both seduces and distracts men to death, she’s merely the conduit to a far more monstrous “great naked MAN”. Is sex the unnameable horror around which the story dances? Arguably, sure – but the story makes it clear that the source is not female but, well, pansexual. The “monster,” when ultimately revealed, is pointedly omni-gendered.
No, “The Great God Pan” has sins other than misogyny; it set too vivid a precedent for plenty of inferior weird fiction that aped its style and magnified the flaws of that style. The things that work here, this one time, surfaced elsewhere as unbearable annoyances. What are those things?
1) Endless telling-and-never-showing. When you get down to it, “The Great God Pan” is comprised of a series of polite, sensible conversations between gentlemen discussing exciting things that happened elsewhere.
2) Unlikely epistles and diary entries that surface with the greatest of ease (“December, 23, 188- Dear Mimsy, I hope the following finds you well and in delightful spirits as ever. I am currently less than ship-shape myself since I am composing this unforgivably brief note while a Demon I have conjured from the depths of Hades attempts to penetrate my modest drawing room here in Yorkshire. Oh, drat it, it has burst through the door, howling and crawling ever closer, and as its clammy claws close around my neck the thought does cross my mind that maybe now is not the moment to dedicate myself to letter-writing. P.S.: Do tell Cousin Wilbur I may never repay that tenner I owed him, what with this inconvenient Death by Demon.”)
3) Incredibly stupid characters who could not put two-and-two together with a bucket of glue. (To be found in every other horror story since.)
(“Before his violent death, W was wooing a mysterious woman whose initials were M. E..”
“Hmmm, X was involved with a mysterious woman before his death as well; but he always called her Mary.”
“Interestingly, Y was ALSO dating a mysterious woman before his death; however, I believe her name was Ellen.”
“Huh. It’s funny you fellas mention that, because shortly before his death, Z had similarly fallen in love. Couldn’t be relevant to the case, though, because HER name was Mary Ellen Killerwoman.”
“Dashed puzzling, the whole thing. If only there was some way to link all these deaths!””)
4) Vague, overwrought, faux-archaic mumbling about unnameable, unspeakable horrors so primal and terrifying that, if words were ever invented to describe them, their mere invocation would evaporate your brain as your cranium imploded. Fortunately, no such words are available to mere mortal tongues, and you just gotta trust the writer when he tells you the characters saw “something” really creepy. What was it? Best not to talk about it. Use your own imagination… nothing’s scarier than your imagination, right? Picture your naked grandpa rubbing his sweaty nether regions all over your PS4 controller or something.
“The Great God Pan” is the genesis of all those sins, but somehow it works. Even Lovecraft couldn’t pull it all off as smoothly half the time. As for all the people who came later and weren’t half as good as Machen or Lovecraft…
…MAY THE REALITY-RENDING CLAWS OF THE FEAR-THAT-WAS-BORN-BEFORE-FEARS DESCEND UPON YOU, HACK YOUR COMPUTER, AND ERASE YOUR DERIVATIVE STORY FROM YOUR HARD DRIVE.
RATING: MASTERPIECE! in its genre- and yet spawner of horrors.
Elizabeth Barret Browning’s “A Musical Instrument” may have given Machen a title. I am not too fond of some of the repetition below (the two “turbidly”s particularly bug me) but there’s true insight in that final stanza.