Thursday, September 10, 2020

Classic Ghost Story Writers: 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)


Richard said...

Thanks for alerting such as myself to this writer. I found I have one story 'The White Powder' in "Uncanny: Tales..." Chosen by Bryan A. Netherwood. [Jack does a feature on Netherwood!]. I'll keep an eye out for Machen. He had an interesting if a little difficult life but good all things considered.

Will also be pursuing some of those 'Speculative' writers as I like the idea of completing sets and I like Bill Direen's work (although 'Coma' was one I either 'missed' or something but I couldn't engage with it, but most other stuff is good.

And there are others on that list I would like. Fortunate you took books to China, esp. considering one might get 'marooned' I suppose anywhere

Back to Machen, it is interesting to see the origins of these stories and to learn that the meeting in WWI may have been apocryphal. If one goes into these things wars always contain massacres. It seems universal, but it also seems that, overall, such wars, or any large wars, most wars, are slowly diminishing in intensity and size. But this, if true might be bad news for some and good for others.

A project: what men read in or during wars. David Jones of the war poets is a strange exception with his Welsh history, Arthurian legends, simultaneity of history (Roman and the present of say being in the trenches, the eerie part is when nothing happens, or not much) and geology etc esp. in Anathamata. I know Wavell's 'Other Men's Flowers' was much read (or is that a false memory?). But it is hard to see Machen's horror being read but, then again, it may have distracted from the 'reality'. It they were able to get any stories. The angel story certainly spread as far as the Germans! Or so it is reported...

Dr Jack Ross said...

Yes, that's certainly an intriguing subject: I read of one Oxford man who spent his time in the trenches preparing a new critical edition of Boswell's Journal of his Tour of the Highlands with Dr. Johnson -- that certainly is a case where you'd feel a bit afraid of losing track of some of your books (he was in the artillery, though, so he may have had more of a fixed abode than others). C. S. Lewis read Browning's play 'Paracelsus' in the trenches; Robert Graves read Skelton ...

As for me, I didn't take many books to China -- just all the notes I'd made on them stored on my laptop. If I'd lost that I'd really have been in trouble ...

Richard said...

'Paracelcus' in the trenches! Browning wrote so much. Pound and Eliot liked him. I like his work. I have a basically complete my mother was given as prize. Sordello defeated me and I know, many others -- Pound in the Cantos "Hang it all Robert Browning, my Sordello or your Sordello" which S.H. echoed but had a NZ poet and another poem instead of Sordello...

Paracelcus, I think Bronwoski mentions him in his (badly named by very good book - TV series) 'The Ascent of Man'. Boswell I must read if time allows me, I'm in the trenches, almost!

Good point. Good to have things on your laptop. I like books but I understand, if in you shoes, a lap-top or something would be a must, but I still write things out of books by hand. But good you took notes. I suppose also it would be hard to link back to Auckland to any back up. Skelton? The book about poetry? Ah...the internet reveals all, a poet of Henry the VIII's court it seems...Is it Shelton? It is either. Graves etc digging out these obscure writers...amazing. In the middle of a terrible war. Life tries to go on.