Thursday, September 10, 2020

Classic Ghost Story Writers (8): Arthur Machen

Arthur Machen (1863-1947)

A while ago I wrote a post about the famous "Christmas truce" of 1914, when British and German soldiers came out of their trenches to fraternise, in defiance of the bellicose mouthings of their respective High Commands.

Whether or not this actually took place, and - if it did - what exact form it took, it forms an important part of the mythology of that larger-than-life conflict. A good source for all such matters is James Hayward's fascinating book, Myths & Legends of the First World War.

Among the most perplexing of these is the story of the Angels of Mons:
The phenomenon occurred when British troops, exhausted from many days marching to battle, reported sightings of a troop of angels on the battlefield at Mons. The story goes that the supernatural presence terrified the German soldiers, who were forced to retreat.

Charles Sturridge, dir.: Fairy Tale: A True Story (1997)

There's a wonderful moment in Charles Sturridge's film Fairy Tale - about the almost contemporaneous Cottingley Fairies - where a soldier is seen testifying at a spiritualist meeting about his own experience of having seen these 'Angels,' and having been assisted by them in escaping from the oncoming German hordes.

So what happened, exactly? Or, rather, what is now generally thought to have happened?

On 29 September 1914 Welsh author Arthur Machen published a short story entitled "The Bowmen" in the London newspaper the Evening News, inspired by accounts that he had read of the fighting at Mons and an idea he had had soon after the battle.
Note that the 'idea' Machen had did not concern angels of any description:
Machen ... set his story at the time of the retreat from the Battle of Mons in August 1914. The story described phantom bowmen from the Battle of Agincourt summoned by a soldier calling on St. George, destroying a German host.
So in what sense can this be said to have 'inspired' the legend of the Angels of Mons? The Wikipedia article I've been quoting from continues as follows:
Machen's story was not ... labelled as fiction and the same edition of the Evening News ran a story by a different author under the heading "Our Short Story". Machen's story was written from a first-hand perspective and was a kind of false document, a technique Machen knew well. The unintended result was that Machen had a number of requests to provide evidence for his sources for the story soon after its publication, from readers who thought it was true, to which he responded that it was completely imaginary, as he had no desire to create a hoax.
Whether or not he had any desire 'to create a hoax,' Machen - or his publishers - were canny enough to see this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make a stir. My own copy of his 1915 volume The Bowmen and Other Legends of the War has that as its subtitle only - the book is clearly entitled The Angels of Mons.
  • The Angels of Mons: The Bowmen and Other Adventures of the War. London: Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co., Ltd., 1915.
Machen comments in his own preface to the collection:
it began to dawn on me that if I had failed in the art of letters, I had succeeded, unwittingly, in the art of deceit. This happened, I should think, some time in April [1915], and the snowball of rumour that was then set rolling has been rolling ever since, growing bigger and bigger, till it is now swollen to a monstrous size.
Various attempts were made at the time to refute this theory. The lack of resemblance between Machen's hardy bowmen and the long line of shining angels which had allegedly protected the retreating British did admittedly make it seem somewhat tenuous. However:
A careful investigation by the Society for Psychical Research in 1915 said of the first-hand testimony, "We have received none at all, and of testimony at second-hand we have none that would justify us in assuming the occurrence of any supernormal phenomenon". The SPR went on to say the stories relating to battlefield "visions" which circulated during the spring and summer of 1915, "prove on investigation to be founded on mere rumour, and cannot be traced to any authoritative source."
So it seems there were no angels, just as there were no Russian soldiers with snow on their boots coming down from the North of England in trains to defend her in her direst need, nor did the ghost of a Belgian child appear by the Kaiser's bed to plague him with nightmares (a possibility dreamed up by J. M. Barrie).

Appalling atrocities were committed by the German armies in Belgium, however. One of the most pernicious World War One myths is that the majority of these stories were somehow refuted in subsequent years. Some were, admittedly, repeated without clear confirming evidence, but the general tenor of their behaviour in 1914 bears more than a passing resemblance to the actions of the advancing German armies on the Eastern Front in 1941.

As for Arthur Machen, according to Wikipedia, at any rate:
Machen was associated with the story for the rest of his life and grew sick of the connection, as he regarded “The Bowmen” as a poor piece of work. He made little money from the story then or later.

John Coulthart: Arthur Machen (1988)

So who exactly was Arthur Machen? Well, for a start, that wasn't his name. He was born Arthur Llewelyn Jones in 1863, and died at the age of 84 in 1947. His main notoriety now is probably as the author of some of the most horrifyingly effective ghost stories - 'The Great God Pan' and 'The Novel of the Black Seal' prominent among them - in the English language, as well as having been a major influence on H. P. Lovecraft and his contemporaries.

  • Tales of Horror and the Supernatural. 1949. 2 vols. St Albans, Herts: Panther, 1975.
    1. The Novel of the Black Seal (1895) [short story]
    2. The Novel of the White Powder (1895) [short story]
    3. The Great God Pan (1894) [novella]
    4. The White People (1904) [short story]
    5. The Inmost Light (1894) [short story]
    6. The Shining Pyramid (1895) [short story]
    7. The Bowmen (1914) [short story]
    8. The Great Return (1915) [short story]
    9. The Happy Children (1920) [short story]
    10. The Bright Boy (1936) [short story]
    11. Out of the Earth (1915) [short story]
    12. N (1936) [short story]
    13. The Children of the Pool (1936) [short story]
    14. The Terror (1917) [novel]

Perhaps the best place to start reading him might be the collection above, reprinted in two paperback volumes in the 1970s:

That was really only a small part of his activities as a fin-de-siècle man of letters, however. He first achieved fame in a rather backhand manner, as the translator of one of the strangest classics of world literature, the Memoirs of the eighteenth-century adventurer and confidence trickster Giacomo Casanova:

Arthur Machen, trans.: The Memoirs of Giacomo Casanova di Seingalt (1922)

  • The Memoirs of Giacomo Casanova di Seingalt, Translated into English by Arthur Machen. Privately Printed for Subscribers Only. 1894. Limited Edition of 1,000 numbered sets. 12 Volumes. [+ The Twelfth Volume of the Memoirs of Giacomo Casanova; Containing Chapters VII. and VIII. Never Before Printed; Discovered and Translated by Mr. Arthur Symons; and Complete with an Index and Maps by Mr. Thomas Wright]. London: The Casanova Society, 1922[-1923].

  • Jacques Casanova, Chevalier de Seingalt. My Life and Adventures. Trans. Arthur Machen. 1894. London: Joiner & Steele, 1932. [abridged edition of the complete work]

  • Frederick A. Blossom, ed. The Memoirs of Jacques Casanova de Seingalt. Trans. Arthur Machen. 1894. Introduction by Arthur Symons. 1924. Illustrated by Rockwell Kent. Complete in Two Volumes. New York: Albert & Charles Boni, Inc., 1932.

  • Arthur Machen. Casanova's Escape from the Leads: Being His Own Account as Translated with an Introduction. London: Casanova Society, 1925.

Arthur Machen: Casanova's Escape from the Leads (1925)

Machen's translation can no longer be considered reliable, since he was obliged to make it from the then standard text, not known at the time to have been heavily expurgated and abridged from Casanova's original heavily Italian-influenced French by an officious editor, Jean Laforgue, in the early nineteenth century. The true, unbowdlerised version did not appear in print until the 1960s - first in the original, then in a wonderfully spirited English translation by Willard R. Trask - when its comparative frankness and directness of utterance caused a major sensation.

Giacomo Casanova: History of My Life, trans. Willard R. Trask (12 vols: 1967-71)

Despite its clear textual superiority, Trask's translation has never quite succeeded in replacing Machen's in popular favour. The many different ways in which his work was reprinted bears testimony to that. Not unreasonably, given how beautifully illustrated and bound some of them are. It's nice to have both, but important to remember how far from Casanova's actual words and deeds the earlier version strays.

A set of Machen's own collected works was published in 1923, the year after the 12-volume deluxe edition of his 'Casanova' pictured above:

Arthur Machen: The Caerleon Edition (9 vols: 1923)

The Caerleon Edition of the Works of Arthur Machen. 9 vols. London: Martin Secker, 1923:
  1. The Great God Pan / The Inmost Light / The Red Hand. 1894.
  2. The Three Impostors. 1895.
  3. The Hill of Dreams. 1907.
  4. The Secret Glory. 1922.
  5. Hieroglyphics. 1902.
  6. A Fragment of Life / The White People. 1906.
  7. The Terror / The Bowmen / The Great Return. 1915 & 1917.
  8. Far Off Things. 1922.
  9. Things Near and Far. 1923.
This, admittedly, contains only a few of his works, but in a particularly sumptuous form:

Arthur Machen: The Caerleon Edition (vol 1: 1923)

I have a few other books by him, but really only a small number of those he wrote:
  • Machen, Arthur. Dog and Duck, A London Calendar et Caetera. 1924. The Traveller’s Library. London: Jonathan Cape, 1926.

  • Machen, Arthur. The London Adventure. 1924. New Adelphi Library. London: Martin Secker, 1928.

  • Machen, Arthur. Holy Terrors: Short Stories. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1946.
The only other substantive selection of his works I own, I'm sorry to say, is the following:

Christopher Palmer, ed.: The Collected Arthur Machen (1988)

Christopher Palmer, ed. The Collected Arthur Machen. London: Gerald Duckworth & Co., 1988.
  1. A Fragment of Life (1904) [novella]
  2. Far Off Things (1922) [essay]
  3. The Hill of Dreams (1907) [novel]
  4. The Bowmen (1914) [short story]
  5. N (1936) [novella]
  6. The Ars Magna of London: A Machen Miscellany
  7. Introduction to A Handy Dickens (1941) [essay]
  8. The Mystic Speech (1924) [short story]
  9. A New Year Meditation [essay]

Arthur Machen: The Great God Pan (1894)

Here, then, is a (partial) list of those works, with those that I myself own marked in bold:
  1. The Chronicle of Clemendy (1888) [novel: incorporating short stories]
  2. 'The Lost Club' (1890) [short story]
  3. The Great God Pan (1894) [novella]
  4. 'The Inmost Light' (1894) [short story.]
  5. 'The Shining Pyramid' (1895) [short story]
  6. The Three Impostors (1895) [novel: incorporating short stories]:
  7. 'The Novel of the Black Seal' [novella]
  8. 'The Novel of the White Powder' [short story]
  9. 'The Red Hand' (1895) [short story]
  10. The Hill of Dreams (1907) [novel]
  11. Ornaments in Jade (1924) [prose poems]
  12. 'The White People' (1904)[short story]
  13. Hieroglyphics: A Note upon Ecstasy in Literature (1902) [essay]
  14. A Fragment of Life (1904) [novella]
  15. [with Arthur Edward Waite] The House of the Hidden Light (1904) [correspondence]
  16. The Secret Glory (1922) [novel]
  17. 'The Bowmen' (1914) [short story]
  18. 'The Great Return' (1915) [short story]
  19. The Terror (1917) [novel]
  20. Far Off Things (1922) [autobiography, 1]
  21. Things Near and Far (1923)[autobiography, 2]
  22. 'Out of the Earth' (1923) [short story]
  23. The London Adventure (1924) [autobiography, 3]
  24. Dog and Duck (1924) [essays]
  25. The Glorious Mystery (1924) [essays]
  26. The Canning Wonder (1925) [essay]
  27. Dreads and Drolls (1926) [essays]
  28. Notes and Queries (1926) [essays]
  29. Tom O'Bedlam and His Song (1930) [essays]
  30. 'Opening the Door' (1931) [short story]
  31. The Green Round (1933) [novel]
  32. 'N' (1934) [short story]
  33. 'The Children of the Pool' (1936) [short story]
  34. Holy Terrors {1946) [short story collection]
  35. Bridles and Spurs (1951) [essays]
  36. [with Montgomery Evans] Letters of a Literary Friendship, 1923–1947 (1994) [correspondence]

S. T. Joshi, ed.: The Best Weird Tales of Arthur Machen (3 vols: 2003-7)

Saturday, September 05, 2020

New Zealand Speculative Fiction website launch

Jack Ross: NZSF website

When Massey flew me to Beijing late last year, I foresaw a certain amount of downtime between classes. It does sound strange to say that, doesn't it? Imagine a state of affairs where one could simply fly from country to country with minimum fuss! All Science Fiction to us now, of course.

Accordingly, I decided that I'd better bring some stuff to work on - and what better project to concentrate on than my long-projected, long-protracted series of essays on NZSF (whether defined as 'Science' or "Speculative' Fiction).

Things went much as I forecast. Nothing focusses the mind like being away from home comforts, in the somewhat inimical precincts of the Ariva Hotel:

Some of the essays first appeared in such scholarly contexts as Ingrid Horrocks and Cherie Lacey's 2016 VUP anthology Extraordinary Anywhere: Essays on Place from Aotearoa New Zealand, and John Geraets' special 'New Writing 1975-2000' issue of the Journal of New Zealand Literature (2016). One, on Mike Johnson's Lear (1986), was published in brief magazine. Quite a few of the others first saw the light of day on this very blog.

All this meant a certain amount of rewriting and reconciliation of various competing referencing systems had to be accomplished before I could think of the end result as in any way unified.

It did take a while. The main work was done in those ten concentrated days in the hotel in China, but putting the website together has taken me quite some time, too. Funnily enough, a thing called the Coronavirus interrupted all my lofty plans for 2020, and - like everyone in the education industry - I've been struggling ever since to roll with the punches and try to keep on top of my students' needs.

It's good to have a hobby, though - and this has been mine for the past decade or so, before more intensive work on it started this time last year.

And what have I ended up with? A series of essays on what I believe to be some of the true masterpieces of NZSF. I don't claim that anyone else would compile the same list, and I'm certain I've left out a lot of wonderful books, but the great advantage of a website is that it can be added to over time. I've provided a chronology at the end which will certainly be supplemented frequently.

I suspect that new essays will be added as well, however. In any case, if you're curious to know more about it, you can find the table of contents here.

The SF genre seems to be exploding in Aotearoa New Zealand at present, so it will become harder and harder to compile a comprehensive summary such as this. It's hard to move forwards if you don't know where you've been, however, so I don't myself see too much of a problem in taking such a long lingering look at the past. Way back is way forward, as they say, and if I know anything about SF fans (I should do, since I'm one myself), they love detail.

If you have any comments, queries or corrections, feel free to share them with me on this site or the relevant page of the NZSF. As for my dominant metaphor, Psychogeography, you can find out more about that here.

Friday, July 24, 2020


Josephine Decker, dir.: Shirley (2020)

Bronwyn and I have an annex of our DVD collection which we devote to movies about writers. It contains most (though not all) of the titles included in my 2016 post on the subject. It can be matched up with two other categories: Movies about Creative Writing Teachers and Movies about English Teachers.

Andy Goddard, dir.: Set Fire to the Stars (2014)

Truth to tell, these labels have a tendency to bleed into one another - certainly in the case of Set Fire to the Stars, a film about Dylan Thomas's disastrous 1950 tour of America. It's told through the eyes of John Malcolm Brinnan, the poet and teacher who facilitated his visit, and whose subsequent book Dylan Thomas in America: An Intimate Journal (1956) was one of the essential documents of mid-century poetic confessionalism.

The reason that I mention it here is because it contains a memorable cameo by Scottish actress Shirley Henderson as a rather stylised version of American horror novelist Shirley Jackson.

You have to admit that they didn't do a bad job of converting the rake-thin Henderson to the somewhat blowsy Jackson:

All that pales into significance now with Elisabeth Moss's electrifying performance - or should I say embodiment? - of Shirley Jackson in the just-released semi-biographical fantasia Shirley.

Stephen King: Danse Macabre (1981)

Mind you, the resemblance between actress and subject is the least of the merits of this extraordinary and terrifying film. I guess I've been a Shirley Jackson fan ever since I first read Stephen King's short history of the horror genre, Danse Macabre, which contains a vivid account of her most famous novel The Haunting of Hill House, sometime back in the mid-1980s.

Susan Scarf Merrell: Shirley (2014)

The film is based on a novel, rather than either of the two biographies I compared in my blogpost Two Versions of Shirley Jackson a few years ago, so I should perhaps stress that it's not to be trusted as an accurate reflection of events.

Shirley Jackson: Hangsaman (1951)

I've also read the novel Hangsaman, which is one of the main pegs the plot of Shirley hangs on (pun intended). As I watched it, though, it did occur to me that there might be quite a bit in it which didn't make immediate sense to a non-American viewing audience.

Shirley Jackson: The Haunting of Hill House (1959)

American High School students (or so I've been led to believe) are generally forced at some point in their educational careers to read and discuss Jackson's notorious story "The Lottery," if not one or other of her two most famous novels, The Haunting of Hill House - recently travestied in a dreadful netflix TV series - and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, also filmed recently.

Shirley Jackson: We Have Always Lived in the Castle (2019)

In fact, though, Jackson wrote six novels, together with the opening chapters of a seventh, published after her death by her husband (and literary executor) Stanley Hyman. They are, in order:

  1. The Road through the Wall. 1948. Foreword by Ruth Franklin. Penguin Classics. New York: Penguin, 2013.
  2. Hangsaman. 1951. Foreword by Francine Prose. Penguin Classics. New York: Penguin, 2013.
  3. The Bird's Nest. 1954. In The Magic of Shirley Jackson: The Bird’s Nest / Life among the Savages / Raising Demons &c. Ed. Stanley Edgar Hyman. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966.
  4. The Sundial. 1958. Foreword by Victor LaValle. Penguin Classics. New York: Penguin, 2014.
  5. The Haunting of Hill House. 1959. New York: Penguin, 1984.
  6. We Have Always Lived in the Castle. 1962. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984.
  7. Come Along with Me. Ed. Stanley Edgar Hyman. 1966. New York: Penguin, 1995.

Shirley Jackson: Novels and Stories
Shirley Jackson. Novels and Stories: The Lottery / The Haunting of Hill House / We Have Always Lived in the Castle / Other Stories and Sketches. Ed. Joyce Carol Oates. The Library of America, 204. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 2010.

I've often felt that the Library of America missed a trick by not reprinting all of them in their otherwise fine edition of Jackson's Novels and Stories. Was it snobbery, perhaps? Did they feel that a 'genre' author of this type should feel complimented by being included in the series at all? Carson McCullers - to my mind a writer of approximately equal accomplishment - got two volumes, one devoted to novels, the other to stories.

All six of these novels are brilliant is the point I'd like to emphasise here. They are not mere precursors, or prentice works, dashed off before the supreme accomplishment of Hill House and Castle. One reason I feel particularly grateful for this new Shirley Jackson movie is that it attempts to disentangle the dark roots of her second novel, without belittling it in any way.

There would certainly have been enough material for an entire volume of collected stories, too. She only published one book of short stories in her lifetime, hot on the heels of the immense success of "The Lottery."

Shirley Jackson: The Lottery and Other Stories (1949)
The Lottery: Adventures of the Daemon Lover. 1949. London: Robinson Publishing, 1988.
This is reprinted in the Library of America Novels and Stories. Unfortunately, that leaves an overlapping series of posthumously published collections, none of which entirely supersedes any of the others. Shirley Jackson completists are therefore forced to include all of the following in their collections:

  1. The Magic of Shirley Jackson: The Bird’s Nest / Life among the Savages / Raising Demons &c. Ed. Stanley Edgar Hyman. 1954, 1953, 1956. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966.
  2. Come Along with Me. Ed. Stanley Edgar Hyman. 1966. New York: Penguin, 1995.
  3. Just an Ordinary Day: Part of a Novel, Sixteen Stories, and Three Lectures. Ed. Laurence Jackson Hyman & Sarah Hyman Stewart. 1997. Bantam Books. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc., 1998.
  4. "Other Stories and Sketches." In Novels and Stories. Ed. Joyce Carol Oates. The Library of America, 204. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 2010.
  5. Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings. Introduction by Ruth Franklin. Ed. Laurence Jackson Hyman & Sarah Hyman DeWitt. New York: Random House, 2015.
  6. Jackson, Shirley. Dark Tales. Foreword by Ottessa Moshfegh. Penguin Classics. London: Penguin, 2017.

Shirley Jackson: Dark Tales (2017)

To say the least, this has left her legacy in a somewhat untidy state, not least because the editorial policies of some of these volumes have been a bit on the inclusive side. Jackson wrote for money, and published a good deal in magazines that she might not have liked to have seen perpetuated in book-form.

It's hard for an obsessive such as myself to argue that I shouldn't have access to all of this material - after all, the same could be said of that wayward spendthrift F. Scott Fitzgerald - but it would be nice to see it reduced to some kind of order, given her immense accomplishments in this form.

Coming back to Shirley, though, it's rare for me to watch a movie that ticks all of the boxes with such relentless precision. True, it's a little arty in places, with drifting out-of-focus vignettes glimpsed through windows.

It's also completely inaccurate, given the decision to edit out the brood of children that infested Jackson and Hyman's house, and which must have made it a kind of Bedlam to spend any time in - for further evidence, see her books Life among the Savages (1953) and Raising Demons (1956), which cover precisely the period this story is set in. Those titles do rather speak for themselves.

It's hard to imagine a more flattering portrait of a writer, though. Shirley Jackson comes across as neurotic, manipulative, unpredictable, drunken, lazy, greedy, and obsessive - all at the same time. Above all, though, she's genuinely terrifying! Surely there's not a scribe alive who wouldn't like to be described in those terms?

I suppose that there was an extra treat for me, though, in the film's portrayal of Academia. A while ago I started writing a blogpost on the subject of writing a PhD. Central to the piece was the cartoon below, by Matt Groening, composed before he achieved worldwide fame with The Simpsons:

Matt Groening: Life in Hell (1987)

As Professor Stanley Hyman, Shirley Jackson's husband, tortured and mocked his new assistant, an aspiring young Academic whose wife is being simultaneously tormented by the mercurial Shirley, who needs her to act as a kind of double for the hapless "lost girl" protagonist of her new novel, I felt a vivid sense of déjà vu about the whole thing.

Those "little favours" asked for by the Professor which can never be turned down for fear that he won't put in a kind word for you when the chips are down (of course he won't); those repeated requests for him to "read your dissertation," or let you give a guest lecture, or show any signs of human charity at all ...

So, while it certainly doesn't need me to promote it, I do suggest that you treat yourself to an excursion to see Shirley if you have any interest in writing at all. She may have come down in folklore as a kind of mad witch, scribbling Gothic fantasies on the kitchen table, but in fact Shirley Jackson was a literary virtuoso with a Jamesian level of control.

The Haunting of Hill House can certainly be paralleled with "The Turn of the Screw," but it's worth remembering generally that an obsession with ghosts and haunted spaces was almost a given for all the great novelists of the nineteenth century. It's only in the modern era that such topics have been associated with pulp or popular fiction.

Shirley Jackson's work certainly constitutes formidable proof that psychological horror can coexist with the supernatural to create great writing. She's one of my literary heroes. It's nice to see her books back in print (thanks to Penguin Classics), and her genius finally beginning to be vindicated at last.

Shirley Jackson: We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962)