"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Friday, October 27, 2017

Uncanny ecstasies: Ritual and Other Stories by Arthur Machen

In the last five weeks I have read nothing but the works of Arthur Machen. It has been a wonderful experience. I now understand why Machen's fans are so passionate.

My least favorite Machen stories are the short pieces he wrote during World War One. But though they smack of bourgeois chauvinism, even in these stories the craftsmanship and authorial pleasure are evident.

I paticularly appreciate Machen's late stories from the 1930s. They are not the exuberant tales of the 1890s, endlessly inventive and flowing with incident. But they are perhaps more architecturally arresting.

Ritual and Other Stories by Arthur Machen
Introduction by R.B. Russell
Tartarus Press

                         *     *     *

Ritual and Other Stories is a magnificent survey of Arthur Machen's career as a writer. The stories are presented chronologically, with year of composition provided.

The first two tales are wonderfully acute pastiches of Rabelais. (At least I think so; Machen's inventiveness and confidence is like a thousand freshets).

"The Priest and the Barber" (1887) features the titular duo swimming through a vast private library of occult books published over centuries. An ebullient musical comedy bibliography.

The Spagyric Quest of Beroaldus Cosmopolita (1888) admonishes:
....do not tamper with the faith, or your fate will be like that of the student who undertook to see a girl named Faith home from the fair, and was afterwards burnt alive for heresy: he had tampered with Faith. Let this be a lesson to you.

The Canon sat alone in his room, which smelt like the Bottomless Pit smells on melting-day when there is a heavy consignment of fat heretics, smug water-drinkers, and blasphemers of joyous diversions to be boiled down....

"The Town of Long Ago" (1890) switches to an elegiac tone and mounts a folklorish staging of supernatural elements.

....[The old wagon] was a very symbol of past uses and forgetfulness.

The hood to keep off the rain from passengers was patched and torn to infinity, and the very patches stood in need of patching. The paint on the wood had faded to a sort of neutral tint, varied by the green of dampness and decay. One could see that the wood was mouldering to dust; it was soft to the touch, and full of wormholes. One of the shafts had broken long ago, and had been strengthened with two splints of wood and half a dozen nails; but the splints had broken too, and then there had been an operation performed with rope. About half the spokes had fallen out, and the rest had been put in at odd times, according to the fancy of various wheelwrights. The very bolts and nuts of iron were rapidly rusting, and the two long seats inside looked as if they would not have supported a sparrow.

The whole wagon was quite hopeless. And yet one more journey it may perform; a stranger journey than ever it made in the days when every inch of wood in it was sound to the core. Shadowy horses are harnessed to the shafts; a ghostly driver cracks his whip on a mouldering seat; and we sit behind him, and slowly pass down the lonely lane. It is a long lane, indeed; for while we make our way beneath the hedges, the hands of the clock fly back and suns long set return again, and the dim light (or is it haze?) of the old time shines out upon the land. It is market day, and the market town to which we are bound is the town of Long Ago.

"Candletime" is an 1889 prose poem:
........There is no light like candlelight, it illumines, and yet it leaves dark shadows and half tones between dark and light in the corners of a room, and so the eye is pleased with the islands of light, and can rest in the vague dimness beyond. This is the time whether it be in winter or summer, for a well-filled pipe, for a flagon of good cider, for listening to a good tale, and for weaving many a pleasant fancy. Day-dreams may be sweet, but for us the dreams of candletime are far sweeter.

"Cidermas" (1889) is a graceful holiday almanac:
....When skies grow grey and winds blow cold, when the rain lies in the furrows and the acorns have fallen, when the noise of the hunter’s horn rings through the woods and down the valleys, when hips and haws are at their reddest, and hollies begin to glow; then does the farmer prepare to celebrate this high and joyous festival. It has been a good year; the sweet-scented pink and white blossom that decked May so merrily, the increase of June suns and July showers, the hot August noons and the still warm airs of September have filled the dry loft with rich store of apples, red and gold and green, gathered in their ripest ere the October blasts began to blow and the orchards were bare, and now ready for the trough and the revolving wheel.

Every feast has its appropriate weather. Petertide is gay with roses and scented with the rich perfume of the elder flower; Christmas has its snow and holly-berries; Michaelmas its fields of stubble and garnered corn; St Luke his afterglow of summer; Allhallowmas its wild winds and driving rain. What, then, of Cidermas? A pale grey sky, with fleeting gleams of sunlight; red ploughed fields and meadows reeking with rain; lanes thick with fallen leaves; hedgerows black and bare, but hung with rich wreaths of briony berries; swollen brooks and withered bracken; and a cold wind sweeping from the mountains and sighing about the chimneys . . . these are the signs of Cidermas. Bring basket and barrow, old hamper and bucket, to the loft, fill up with apples and bear them to the mill. All the day from loft to mill; the procession of apple bearers goes and returns, while the old horse patiently turns round and round in his circle, and the stone wheel crushes the fruit, grinding rind and pulp and kernels all together. Then the horsehair cloths and the press receive the ‘pomage,’ as they call it, and the rich red-brown liquor runs into the tubs, even now sweet and pleasant to the taste. The cider festival can claim no associations of smiling vineyards, of warm southern suns, of olive orchards, or of picturesque peasants of France or Italy keeping the vintage feast in good classic sort; the frantic thyrsis, the vine tendrils, the leaping fauns, Silenus on his ass and Bacchus drawn by pards, are all unknown to the Muse that inspired John Philips to sing of Cider....

"Over the Gate" (1890) celebrates bee-loud fecundity:
....The wild bee is a merry fellow, a downright good companion, and sings (somewhat) as Doctor Luther sang,

Who loves not honey heath, and song,            
Remains a fool his whole life long.

He would lead us a long journey, could we follow him; for he flies fast over the close grass of the hillside, over the bracken opening out fronds of tender green, over tall wild hedge and gorse and broom, over many a meadow, many a brook, over bramble and briar—till at last the sun sets, and he hies to his home beneath the roots of the old oak in the dark wood, booming forth his song all his merry way. Here we may imagine him and his companions carousing, like the good Rabelaisians they are: there is something jovial in the very appearance of your prosperous wild bee, and his friends declare that he has never been known to sting....

"Of the Isle of Shadows" (1890) is an abstract fantasia about a mythical land where the pagan and Christian seem to coincide. Machen works in a simple style here, but his music is lacking.

"A Further Account of the Academy of Lagado" (1890) is a droll satire of warring fashions in science and academia:

....I heard a warm debate between two professors about the best diet to preserve life, and to keep men temperate and their blood cool. The one doctor was all for a diet of fair water and nothing else; affirming that if a man would break his fast on a glass of cold water, dine on a tankard of warm water, and sup on a few spoonfuls of hot water, he would live to a good old age and die at last in the course of nature and not from disease. He also affirmed that if the King would make a decree that all his subjects should eat no meat, but only drink water, there would be an end of all evil in the body spiritual and temporal, that fevers and agues would disappear, thieves no longer steal, the sun no longer burn, ice be cold no more, liars speak the truth, and pigs fly. But as he urged the good results of his scheme of temperance (as he called it) he bawled and roared so vehemently that he broke a blood-vessel and fell down in a fit. The other professor with whom he had been debating was all for a regimen of grass, which he said would make men humble and meek-spirited, like cows and sheep; and thus there would be no wars, battles, revolutions, parricides, black eyes, or bloody noses. But shortly after my leaving the Academy I heard that this ingenious and pacific gentleman had in a debate with another professor so banged, kicked, butted, clapper-clawed, bit, and battered his opponent that the surgeons despaired of the poor man’s life....

"Tales from Barataria" contains several funny anecdotes from that imaginary land that "recount some piece of trickery; barratry, whence Barataria, means the stirring up of litigation."

Until this point, Ritual and Other Stories has charmed and raised a few laughs and nods. But the story "Sir John’s Chef" (1890) is of an entirely higher order of artistry. It might be a model for the hair's-breadth society suspense tales of Saki.

"Rus in Urbe" (1890)
‘Why don’t you go to the park if you are so fond of the country?’

Well?  "....though fields and trees and hedges may survive, the spirit has left them, and here as elsewhere the great god Pan is dead."

"By the Brook" (1890) is another sylvan prose poem, recalling Richard Jefferies at his best.

"The Autophone" (1890)
....‘Curse you!’ he cried; ‘whoever you are, take your infernal machine away. It’s a lie; I never did this.’

"The Brook Farm" (1890)
....The whole place gives us a strange suggestion of having been designed by men’s hands; it might well have been a stronghold of that dim race whom the Celts found in possession of Britain when they came, as the bard says, ‘from the land of summer.’

"A Remarkable Coincidence" (1890)
....‘I really believe there are no real Bohemians left in London. Upon my word, I think we were the last of the race.’

‘I fancy you are right. Bohemians wear dress-clothes in these days. We didn’t. I have heard of Bohemians entertaining the Prince of Wales. In our time the Prince of Wales round the corner entertained us—for a consideration. It was good beer, though. Do remember the taste? A fine solid drink I used to think it....’

"A Double Return" (1890)
....On the Cornish roads he had seen those many ancient crosses, with their weird interlacing carving, which sometimes stand upon a mound and mark where two ways meet; and as he put his portfolio beside him he could not help feeling a glow of pride at its contents. ‘I fancy I shall make a pretty good show by next spring,’ he thought. Poor fellow! he was never to paint another picture; but he did not know it.

"A Wonderful Woman" (1890)
....‘My dear Villiers, you know I always liked you very much; your poor father was very kind to me; it’s a great pity. But, to tell the truth, Agnes is very particular; she has evidently heard some stories about you (I am afraid, Villiers, you have never lived a very strict life), and she says that as a married woman, she would not care to meet you again. It grieves me, I assure you, to have to say this; but, after all, one would not wish one’s wife . . .’

Villiers had been staring in stupid astonishment, but at this point he burst into a wild peal of laughter, which echoed above the clamour of Cornhill. He roared and roared again, till the tears ran down his cheeks....

"The Lost Club" (1890) is an striking and unexpected story: where would the modern thriller be without such germinal matter? It begins the the meeting of an archetypal duo of Machen protagonists; follows them through the London night, delivering them straight into the arms of coincidence. In Machen's hands, coincidence carriers with it a dreamlike atmosphere of inevitability which dismisses all objections. Nothing else could the reader expect from adventures in "the lonely expanse of Piccadilly Deserta."

"An Underground Adventure" (1890)
‘Good heavens! Do you want to marry me?’ I blurted out, jumping to my feet aghast.

‘Young man,’ she said, sternly, ‘think before you speak, do not rashly refuse my offer. You do not know what you are throwing away. Say yes, and you will be the happiest man on earth. Say no, and you will repent it all your life, and will make me the most miserable of women.’

"Jocelyn’s Escape" (1891) is an electrifying antithesis of "The Double Return." The is not sure what party of Mr. Jocelyn's extremely banal afternoon to sweat over, but the sweat starts promptly all the same.

"The Red Hand" (1895) gives us a London adventure of Mr. Dyson and Mr. Phillipps. Naturally, they stumble on a murder scene, and Dyson sets to work:

‘....Do you know, Phillipps,’ said Dyson, as he strolled at ease up and down the room, ‘I will tell you how I work. I go upon the theory of improbability. The theory is unknown to you? I will explain. Suppose I stand on the steps of St Paul’s and look out for a blind man lame of the left leg to pass me, it is evidently highly improbable that I shall see such a person by waiting for an hour. If I wait two hours the improbability is diminished, but is still enormous, and a watch of a whole day would give little expectation of success. But suppose I take up the same position day after day, and week after week, don’t you perceive that the improbability is lessening constantly—growing smaller day after day? Don’t you see that two lines which are not parallel are gradually approaching one another, drawing nearer and nearer to a point of meeting, till at last they do meet, and improbability has vanished altogether? That is how I found the black tablet: I acted on the theory of improbability. It is the only scientific principle I know of which can enable one to pick out an unknown man from amongst five million.’

"The Rose Garden" (1897)
....He had shown her that bodily rapture might be the ritual and expression of the ineffable mysteries, of the world beyond sense, that must be entered by the way of sense; and now she believed.

"The Turanians" (1897)
Another of Machen's courageous and deeply unsatisfied heroines reaches out for a piece of the older world.

....Though everybody called them gipsies, they were in reality Turanian metal-workers, degenerated into wandering tinkers; their ancestors had fashioned the bronze battle-axes, and they mended pots and kettles.

"The Idealist" (1897)
Sheltered young clerk Mr. Symonds leaves his vulgar coworkers and returns home in the evening. In his one room he puts an ideal together.

"Witchcraft" (1897)
Miss Custance goes to an old woman in the woods and obtains the desired potion. A fine tale of jealousy and single-mindedness.  Machen's women are incredibly potent characters, and he shows a real sensitivity to contradictions imposed upon them by patriarchy and class oppression.

The Ceremony” (1897)
....She often used to think of the strangeness of very early life; one came, it seemed, from a dark cloud, there was a glow of light, but for a moment, and afterwards the night. It was as if one gazed at a velvet curtain, heavy, mysterious, impenetrable blackness, and then, for the twinkling of an eye, one spied through a pin-hole a storeyed town that flamed, with fire about its walls and pinnacles. And then again the folding darkness, so that sight became illusion, almost in the seeing. So to her was that earliest, doubtful vision of the grey stone, of the red colour spilled upon it, with the incongruous episode of the nursemaid, who wept at night.

Psychology” (1897)
'....every day,’ he went on, ‘we lead two lives, and the half of our soul is madness, and half heaven is lit by a black sun. I say I am a man, but who is the other that hides in me?’

Torture” (1897)
Machen gives us a few days in the youth of a monster:
....He dropped the parcel that he held under one arm. It broke open and the contents fell to the ground. There were three or four fantastic instruments, ugly little knives made of green bottle-glass, clumsily set into wooden handles. He had stolen a broom for this purpose. And there were some lengths of rope, fitted with running nooses. It was the idea that he had so long cherished.

Midsummer” (1897)
....The moon shone bright from above the tree-tops, and gave a faint green colour to the track which ascended to an open glade; a great amphitheatre amidst the trees. He was tired, and lay down in the darkness beside the turfy road, and wondered whether he had lit on some forgotten way, on some great path that the legions had trodden.

Nature” (1897)
....‘I always told you that the earth too, and the hills, and even the old walls are a language, hard to translate.’

The Holy Things” (1897)
A brief story in the mode only Machen could produce, the frustrations of urban life find their antidote in religious ecstasy on the same streets that bred despair.

The Young Man in the Blue Suit” (1913)
Wisdom by contraries:
....by the end of that summer all liberalisms, materialisms and republicanisms were drained and dredged and drenched out of my system as if they had never been there. Hearing these doctrines expressed by another man, I was convinced once for all that I had no part in them.

The Soldiers’ Rest” (1915)
One of Machen's strongest war stories, superior to "The Bow-Men." The depiction of Hunnish brutality still has  shocking power superior to tabloid rhetoric.

The War Song of the Welsh” (1914)
A short piece of chauvinist flattery for the holy cause served by Welsh soldiers in the trenches.

The Monstrance” (1915)
....May 4—It looks like a white robe. There was a strong smell of incense today in the trench. No one seemed to notice it. There is decidedly a white robe, and I think I can see feet, passing very slowly before me at this moment while I write.

The Dazzling Light” (1915)
Delamere Smith has a vision while still a civilian; it only makes sense when he gets to France as a new lieutenant.

The Little Nations” (1915)
‘Quod superius est sicut quod inferius.'

The Men from Troy” (1915)
Machen enlists the ancient Greeks to fight on the British side  Gallipoli. Cleverly, he wraps this conceit in a couple of layers of narrative distancing, and flatters the reader at each turn.

The Light That Can Never Be Put Out” (1916)
Bardolatry in wartime. But a great set-piece of our protagonist getting lost on a country road at night.

“The Story of Sergt. Richard Haughton and What Happened to Him on the Somme” (1916)
....it was with a curious eye that I detected in the descriptions of the battle of the Somme something that broke through the calculated reserve of the correspondents. There are all the actualities; the mud and the grime and the ugly shell craters and the ground broken into ragged confusion, the cheerful commonplace of soldiers’ talk, the bits of slang, the gossip about eggs and bacon for breakfast before battle. All the usual matter of such correspondence is there; but there is something more. These witnesses confess, in spite of themselves, that they have seen things incredible and have mingled with immortals. They have been for a while in a world of supernatural ecstasy, in which agony has been joy, and destroying flames have blossomed into festal flowers, and death itself has become the supreme delight and rapture. By the Somme, on those low hills and in the shadow of those dark woods the common fashion of this world was changed; for a moment a hidden glory was manifested to the witnesses.

The Calvary of Azay” (1916)
The brave French ally is acknowledged.

Drake’s Drum” (1919)
A "Bow-Men" treatment for the Royal Navy.

A New Christmas Carol” (1920)
....It was Christmastide. Scrooge was sitting before his roaring fire, sipping at something warm and comfortable, and plotting happiness for all sorts of people.

7B Coney Court” (1925)
A real rarity among Machen's stories: the tale of a haunted chamber. And very cleverly executed.

Munitions of War” (1926)
A reporter's memoir of a ghostly, but patriotic, wartime night.

The Gift of Tongues” (1927)
Several strange anecdotes about people speaking in languages they do not know precedes a story about a Methodist minister who (in a trance) performs a Latin mass on Christmas morning.

The Islington Mystery” (1927)
A murder mystery. Machen gives us several anecdotes about odd killings before narrating the unfortunate actions of a London taxidermist married to a ptarmigan.

Johnny Double” (1928)
A dry, droll tale of a boy given to visions and able to appear two places at once. Only in adulthood does the most dramatic vision make sense.

The Cosy Room” (1929)
A very un-cosy story of murder and the hysteria of the hunted man.

Awaking” (1930)
A wonderful evocation of the world seen with a child's eyes, and dismissed contemptuously by adults.

Opening the Door” (1931)
A masterful late story in the tradition of "The Shining Pyramid."

The Compliments of the Season” (1934)
'....There is a prehistoric stone, a menhir, beside the path. The flat limestone was nearly covered with green moss, and as I looked, about half a dozen small birds came flying with moss in their beaks, and filled up a bare patch. They had made—I saw it, mind you, and I saw sparrows putting the last touches to it—a perfect little figure, like a doll, lying in a cradle of moss; made out of twigs of evergreens, and bits of straw, and reeds, and flowers. And on each side of this doll, they had stuck those two lilies from Mrs Voyle’s greenhouse. They looked like candles....'

The Dover Road” (1935)
A great story about a haunted house, Morton Grange, psychic investigators, and the disappearance and reappearance of Sir Halliday Stuart.

The Exalted Omega” (1936)
This is a fine example of Machen's gift for presenting the isolated elements of a collage, then allowing the reader to assemble it, then telling the reader the facts are at best unreliable. The story requires patience and rewards several re-readings.

The Tree of Life” (1936)
The vigour and authority of Machen's late stories nearly latches the creative energy and dynamism of his work in the 1890s. I would place "The Tree of Life" in the top five of any list of Machen stories I treasure.  I have read it four times in the last month, and the story delights me every time. The writer gives us a story, building suspense and a weird atmosphere of dread and pathos. Then he retells the story from the "other side of the board," and it takes my breath away each time.

Out of the Picture” (1936)
A sovereign and cunning horror story set in the forgotten little side streets and peculiar steps of London.

Change” (1936)
Certainly a weird story to match if not surpass Miss Lally's fraudulent "Novel of the Black Seal." I'm re-reading it tonight.

Ritual” (1937)
The uncanniness with which Machen imbues setting and anecdote in this short story are unforgettable. Children, among themselves and unsupervised, play games for mortal stakes.


27 October 2017

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