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SUPER THREAD: getting "into" Machen
Posted by: Sawfish (IP Logged)
Date: 22 September, 2020 01:18PM
Over the course of reading a whole bunch of adult fantasy, usually by significant authors, I find great difficulty in connecting with Machen's work, and I'm not sure why.

Of course, as they say: "There's no accounting for taste...", but perhaps I've just not read the "right" stories to serve as introduction. I would also like to qualify what I'm willing to undertake to at least get a better view of his works: I am willing to read a number of short stories, and I would prefer to start with fairly accessible ones--accessible in the sense of no *GIANT* departures into his core belief systems initially. I might be willing to go there after becoming acquainted with the way he tells a story, but it could be that so far I've been put off by reading works that are just plain too "Machen-esque" as regards personal philosophies.

I'll note too that somehow I've gotten the idea that he was a sort of "kinder, gentler" Alestair Crowley, and to me, Crowley was a crackpot of the first order.

So to kick this off I would like to list a few authors of adult fantasy and give a simple "like/don't like" tag, along with a *very* brief rationale for *why* I hold the current (though always changeable) views.






HPL - Like

Atmospheric, produces a consistent product, familiar. Leans on certain devices I tend to like (as in an epic poem, likes to list out equipment to be used (Mountains of Madness is the best example--maybe it is the only pure one), known standards to be relied upon (references to Miskatonic U. as a source of first-rate state-of-the-art *scientific* knowledge--which acts as a foil for the supernatural elements) etc.

CAS - Like

He is careful to allow the reader to fill in the blanks as regards descriptions of the unnatural or hypernatural. Plus, like reading Kublai Khan, there is great pleasure in much of his concrete imagery.

He also uses irony extensively, and often humorously, and seem to have some experience with women. He has distinct characters with very human traits.


Robert E. Howard - Dislike.

There's a certain power and purity to his narrative, but his central characters--and perhaps *all* characters--are so informed by a very simplistic and predatory worldview that seems to revolve around the idea of the "racial hero". Overly reductive and of great self-certainty--which to the reader can seem laughably undeserved.

So far as I'm concerned, he could have written copy for Josef Goebbles. Very simplistic, and inviting no intellectual departures from the stated orthodoxy.



Tolkein - Like

A quality product that is comfortable and predictable. Sort of modernizes Northern/Celtic mythologies and personalizes them. They are a bit simple for my tastes, but his characterization is good, and he can build at least some level of suspense even though we already suspect the eventual outcome.



M. R. James - Like.

...but just barely.

Seems highly predictable and somehow "feels" narrow. The tale seems to follow a format--which is *good* in a certain way (Holmes stories do, too), but for some reason I often feel like I'm hearing essentially the same story, over and over. Not sure why.



Sheridan Le Fanu - Like

To me, he is a better quality James. Without a closer examination, not sure why.



de la Mar - Like.

When he is at his best, as in "All Hallows", he is, to my mind, truly great; concrete descriptions are nearly tangible, uses vague and ambiguous hints to set up suspense, and uses a quasi-ureliable POV, as related by the direct narrator. Very skillful stuff!

I have read his stuff that did not particularly connect with, and so will have to read more.

Possibly this is enough to prime the pump, so to speak.

I need all the help I can get... :^(

Sawfish
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
"Life is a tragedy to those who feel, a comedy to those who think."

Re: SUPER THREAD: getting "into" Machen
Posted by: Dale Nelson (IP Logged)
Date: 22 September, 2020 03:38PM
Sawfish, since you have tried some Machen short fiction, what about trying his autobiographies, starting with Far-Off Things, originally serialized as Confessions of a Literary Man? The sequel is Things Near and Far, with The London Adventure as a related work -- personally, I might like it more than Far-Off Things.

Do you remember which of his short stories you have read?

Re: SUPER THREAD: getting "into" Machen
Posted by: Sawfish (IP Logged)
Date: 22 September, 2020 03:57PM
I'll look at the Machen stuff I downloaded from Project Gutenberg and see if I can identify what I read.

Mostly, I tend not to care much about the author, himself, separating his work from his person.

Off-hand, I can't right now think of a writer whom I admire as a person. In the whole of my experience, I find very few with that distinction.

Sawfish
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
"Life is a tragedy to those who feel, a comedy to those who think."

Re: SUPER THREAD: getting "into" Machen
Posted by: Sawfish (IP Logged)
Date: 22 September, 2020 04:17PM
Dale Nelson Wrote:
-------------------------------------------------------
> Sawfish, since you have tried some Machen short
> fiction, what about trying his autobiographies,
> starting with Far-Off Things, originally
> serialized as Confessions of a Literary Man? The
> sequel is Things Near and Far, with The London
> Adventure as a related work -- personally, I might
> like it more than Far-Off Things.
>
> Do you remember which of his short stories you
> have read?


Hah. I just checked the stuff I got from Project Gutenberg. Inspecting what I have attempted to read, the problem might be simply that I cannot clearly identify a short story--all of it seems to be longer fiction.

I've got The Bowmen but have heard so much about it, for so long, that I am sickened by the concept as I understand it.

I have (as separate volumes):

Far Off Things
Hieroglyphics
The Angel of Mons: The Bowmen and other Legends of War
The Great God Pan
The Great Return
The Hill of Dreams
The House of Souls
The Secret Glory
The Terror: A Mystery
The Three Imposters; or The Transmutations

It could be simply that these freebies are not organized well enough for someone to casually identify a short story that is both reasonably short and/or representative of his fiction.

Sawfish
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
"Life is a tragedy to those who feel, a comedy to those who think."

Re: SUPER THREAD: getting "into" Machen
Posted by: Dale Nelson (IP Logged)
Date: 22 September, 2020 04:48PM
If you're interested in Machen's well-known horror fiction, you could try these:

The White People
The Black Seal
The Inmost Light
The Great God Pan*

Three of the four are in the collection The House of Souls. "The Black Seal" is here:

[gutenberg.net.au]

I've never been an admirer of "The Bowmen" either. I love "The Great Return," though. But it is a wonder tale, not horror:

[www.gutenberg.org]

*In my view, the first chapter, "The Experiment," could be regarded as a story complete in itself. I don't find that the whole novella impresses me all that much.

Re: SUPER THREAD: getting "into" Machen
Posted by: Sawfish (IP Logged)
Date: 22 September, 2020 05:12PM
Thanks, Dale!

Sawfish
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
"Life is a tragedy to those who feel, a comedy to those who think."

Re: SUPER THREAD: getting "into" Machen
Posted by: Dale Nelson (IP Logged)
Date: 22 September, 2020 10:26PM
“The Black Seal” is in The Three Impostors, but honestly that’s not a very good book even for horror fiction. “Seal” and “The Novel of The White Powder” are the only things worth reading, basically, and are self-contained.

Re: SUPER THREAD: getting "into" Machen
Posted by: Sawfish (IP Logged)
Date: 23 September, 2020 10:09AM
Hi, Dale.

I've read Black Seal and White Powder so far and I must say, these were very good recommendations for someone like me, looking for a way into Machen.

I'll comment more (will now try to find and read White People), and I'm thinking about the stuff of his that I just read, but I'd like to observe that, to my mind, the Black Seal is the stronger of the two. Both contain superb descriptive imagery, at about the most effective amounts (much more would ramble, and less would not be as good), and he also gets very wordy in the denouement, especially that circuitous explanation by the chemist in White Powder. But overall, a fine writer!

My gut feel at this point--and I may be prejudiced by my understanding of him, as a person--is that I suspect that he *believes* this general assumption that there's more to the cosmos than can be explained by late 19th C materialism. In this sense he may come off as a sort of proselyte, and would also like you to join him.

But we'll see.

Too, there is a really neat aspect: he is taking an anti-materialist stand in the context of 19th C Britain, perhaps the epicenter of militant rationalism. How many times have you seen, in a film set among well-educated the late 19th C British gentry and scholarly set, where the obvious is robustly denied even though all available evidence points to an answer that is non-conventional.

"Must have been the port and cheese I consumed last evening, old man...".

I'll have a lot more to say about this later.

Sawfish
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
"Life is a tragedy to those who feel, a comedy to those who think."

Re: SUPER THREAD: getting "into" Machen
Posted by: Dale Nelson (IP Logged)
Date: 23 September, 2020 11:39AM
"The White People" is in that book The House of Souls, so you haven't far to look, Sawfish.

Hmm -- the passage you describe as "very wordy" doesn't hit me that way.

Yes, Machen certainly thought that materialism did not give an adequate account of all things; and he certainly did feel at odds with much in the culture of his time. He can express that pungently and effectively at times, and at other times indulges in a kind of self-pity and ego-compensation that is probably the least attractive quality of some of his writing (I see it in The Secret Glory). He can evoke a sense that there is more above, and below, us than we commonly suppose or than our present social arrangements allow for. In such works of his as were marked by "Decadence," I think a lot of his purpose is an aggressive stance over against reductive materialism.

Re: SUPER THREAD: getting "into" Machen
Posted by: Sawfish (IP Logged)
Date: 23 September, 2020 11:58AM
Dale Nelson Wrote:
-------------------------------------------------------
> "The White People" is in that book The House of
> Souls, so you haven't far to look, Sawfish.
>
> Hmm -- the passage you describe as "very wordy"
> doesn't hit me that way.

OK. Maybe we are not talking about te same passage. For clarity, here's the part that seems more than a bit much...

Quote:
Machen

"You have known me, Haberden, for many years as a scientific man; you and I have often talked of our profession together, and discussed the hopeless gulf that opens before the feet of those who think to attain to truth by any means whatsoever, except the beaten way of experiment and observation, in the sphere of material things. I remember the scorn with which you have spoken to me of men of science who have dabbled a little in the unseen, and have timidly hinted that perhaps the senses are not, after all, the eternal, impenetrable bounds of all knowledge, the everlasting walls beyond which no human being has ever passed. We have laughed together heartily, and I think justly, at the "occult" follies of the day, disguised under various names,—the mesmerisms, spiritualisms, materializations, theosophies, all the rabble rant of imposture, with their machinery of poor tricks and feeble conjuring, the true back-parlor magic of shabby London streets. Yet, in spite of what I have said, I must confess to you that I am no materialist, taking the word of course in its usual signification. It is now many years since I have convinced myself, convinced myself a sceptic remember, that the old iron-bound theory is utterly and entirely false. Perhaps this confession will not wound you so sharply as it would have done twenty years ago; for I think you cannot have failed to notice that for some time hypotheses have been advanced by men of pure science which are nothing less than transcendental, and I suspect that most modern chemists and biologists of repute would not hesitate to subscribe the dictum of the old Schoolman, Omnia exeunt in mysterium, which means, I take it, that every branch of human knowledge if traced up to its source and final principles vanishes into mystery. I need not trouble you now with a detailed account of the painful steps which led me to my conclusions; a few simple experiments suggested a doubt as to my then standpoint, and a train of thought that rose from circumstances comparatively trifling brought me far. My old conception of the universe has been swept away, and I stand in a world that seems as strange and awful to me as the endless waves of the ocean seen for the first time, shining, from a Peak in Darien. Now I know that the walls of sense that seemed so impenetrable, that seemed to loom up above the heavens and to be founded below the depths, and to shut us in forevermore, are no such everlasting impassable barriers as we fancied, but thinnest and most airy veils that melt away before the seeker, and dissolve as the early mist of the morning about the brooks. I know that you never adopted the extreme materialistic position: you did not go about trying to prove a universal negative, for your logical sense withheld you from that crowning absurdity; yet I am sure that you will find all that I am saying strange and repellent to your habits of thought. Yet, Haberden, what I tell you is the truth, nay, to adopt our common language, the sole and scientific truth, verified by experience; and the universe is verily more splendid and more awful than we used to dream. The whole universe, my friend, is a tremendous sacrament; a mystic, ineffable force and energy, veiled by an outward form of matter; and man, and the sun and the other stars, and the flower of the grass, and the crystal in the test-tube, are each and every one as spiritual, as material, and subject to an inner working.

"You will perhaps wonder, Haberden, whence all this tends; but I think a little thought will make it clear. You will understand that from such a standpoint the whole view of things is changed, and what we thought incredible and absurd may be possible enough. In short, we must look at legend and belief with other eyes, and be prepared to accept tales that had become mere fables. Indeed, this is no such great demand. After all, modern science will concede as much, in a hypocritical manner. You must not, it is true, believe in witchcraft, but you may credit hypnotism; ghosts are out of date, but there is a good deal to be said for the theory of telepathy. Give a superstition a Greek name, and believe in it, should almost be a proverb.

I think that *some* of this would be fine, but...

>
> Yes, Machen certainly thought that materialism did
> not give an adequate account of all things; and he
> certainly did feel at odds with much in the
> culture of his time. He can express that
> pungently and effectively at times, and at other
> times indulges in a kind of self-pity and
> ego-compensation that is probably the least
> attractive quality of some of his writing (I see
> it in The Secret Glory). He can evoke a sense
> that there is more above, and below, us than we
> commonly suppose or than our present social
> arrangements allow for. In such works of his as
> were marked by "Decadence," I think a lot of his
> purpose is an aggressive stance over against
> reductive materialism.


Good term! "...an aggressive stance over against reductive materialism."

This nails it, and I would like to add that the characters whom he uses to represent contemporaneous materialism were themselves very militant in their assertions about the certainty of rational explanations.

You see this all the time in popular film, and perhaps is popular literature of the time. A well-educated member of the gentry, who wakes up in the middle of the night, looks out the window and sees a headless, shimmering body walk thru the garden, goes back to bed attributing it to overwork, "nerves", or indigestion.

These are themselves laughably irrational explanations--simple catch-all talismans against the inexplicable, in terms of the present state of knowledge. It is as if they had not yet realized that in knowing *something* rationally, they did not know it *all*.

They were not yet smart enough to realize the limits of their knowledge... :^)

Sawfish
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
"Life is a tragedy to those who feel, a comedy to those who think."

Re: SUPER THREAD: getting "into" Machen
Posted by: Dale Nelson (IP Logged)
Date: 23 September, 2020 12:47PM
Well, the passage is certainly rhetorical, but such rhetoric! : ) Comparable, from a very different point of view, with the sonorous opening of Wells's War of the Worlds.

Re: SUPER THREAD: getting "into" Machen
Posted by: Dale Nelson (IP Logged)
Date: 23 September, 2020 01:37PM
On the Joseph Campbell thread, Sawfish made a comment on Machen.


Sawfish -- about your comment regarding Machen as an "anti-rationalist" -- I wouldn't put it that way. He would be the first to say that reason is a real, necessary, part of human nature. He doesn't believe, rather, in the adequacy of materialism to account for everything. I don't see reason to think he would have objected to "procedural" materialism in the doing of experiments to gain a certain type of knowledge. But there were those who asserted that materialism could and must account for everything real, and that that which didn't lend itself to materialist "explanations" was unreal. To steal a line from E. F. Schumacher (I believe) that might help, Machen wouldn't say that problem is that scientists are specializing but that specialists are generalizing. (I'm thinking of Schumacher's A Guide for the Perplexed.

Thus Machen's horror stories tend to involve a disclosure, perhaps an implied disclosure, that commonplace 19th century assumptions about human nature are inadequate to the reality -- including the depths -- of a human being.

When materialists write horror, it seems that, if they are to be consistent, there are three sources for horror:

1.Something wants to hurt, kill, perhaps eat me.
2.Something wants to take my stuff. (These first two are the basis of The War of the Worlds, a classic of sci-fi horror.)
3.I must be going nuts.

Machen sees more possibilities for horror than these three, but discussion thereof can be postponed.

Re: SUPER THREAD: getting "into" Machen
Posted by: Sawfish (IP Logged)
Date: 23 September, 2020 02:16PM
Dale Nelson Wrote:
-------------------------------------------------------
> On the Joseph Campbell thread, Sawfish made a
> comment on Machen.
>
>
> Sawfish -- about your comment regarding Machen as
> an "anti-rationalist" -- I wouldn't put it that
> way. He would be the first to say that reason is a
> real, necessary, part of human nature. He doesn't
> believe, rather, in the adequacy of materialism to
> account for everything. I don't see reason to
> think he would have objected to "procedural"
> materialism in the doing of experiments to gain a
> certain type of knowledge.

You know, I screwed up...

I should have used "capital R" Rationalism. I meant that in the sense that Rationalism denies even the need for empiricism (making confirming experimenttion unnecessary!!!), he would be opposed to that position. Then a Rationalist (capital "R") on seeing that shimmering headless form in the garden at night would seek to explain it in terms of logic--hence indigestion, or barring that, outright denial.

I suspect that this is what you are getting at: that when a phenomenon is perceived and it has no logical explanation, if one does not wish to deny it outright, one must look elsewhere for answers.

Is this getting closer, Dale?


> But there were those
> who asserted that materialism could and must
> account for everything real, and that that which
> didn't lend itself to materialist "explanations"
> was unreal. To steal a line from E. F. Schumacher
> (I believe) that might help, Machen wouldn't say
> that problem is that scientists are specializing
> but that specialists are generalizing. (I'm
> thinking of Schumacher's A Guide for the
> Perplexed.
>
> Thus Machen's horror stories tend to involve a
> disclosure, perhaps an implied disclosure, that
> commonplace 19th century assumptions about human
> nature are inadequate to the reality -- including
> the depths -- of a human being.
>
> When materialists write horror, it seems that, if
> they are to be consistent, there are three sources
> for horror:
>
> 1.Something wants to hurt, kill, perhaps eat me.
> 2.Something wants to take my stuff. (These first
> two are the basis of The War of the Worlds, a
> classic of sci-fi horror.)
> 3.I must be going nuts.

These are very clear and useful distinctions, in my opinion.

Now we are talking about "materialist" horror writers versus the Machen type. You know, another way to view them might be whether or not the author believes his creation is plausible (Machen), or he does not (HPL). If this is valid, it has *tremendous* implications for the tone he tends to establish in his works.

What do you think? Of course, all other ED-ers are welcome to chime in, too.

>
> Machen sees more possibilities for horror than
> these three, but discussion thereof can be
> postponed.


It would be fun to go there, eventually.

Sawfish
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
"Life is a tragedy to those who feel, a comedy to those who think."

Re: SUPER THREAD: getting "into" Machen
Posted by: Dale Nelson (IP Logged)
Date: 23 September, 2020 04:45PM
Sawfish, yes, I suppose what you say is part of the issue for Machen, but I'd broaden the context... Machen lived the first 35 years of his life as a 19th-century man. He was exposed to utilitarianism, materialism, etc. in starkly visual ways as well as in the press, etc. He saw vestiges of what seemed to him an overall better way of life -- agrarian, traditional, poetic -- side-by-side with, and being replaced by, smokestacks, blackened earth and skies, slums, ruthless economics, survival-of-the-fittest ethics, and so on. The latter he associated with propaganda for "science" (as distinct from actual science).

This visual contrast was strong in Wales, where he grew up: deep valleys, hanging woods, winding rivers, traditional ways -- and slag heaps, shabby dwellings, expenditure of human life (miners' lives) as cheap labor, and with these grim things the false promise that this cruel industrialism could, should, would give way to a rationalized "utopia." He was born a few years after the erection of the Crystal Palace, in London's Hyde Park, which so dismayed Dostoevsky.

And Machen thought about this trajectory of society, so injurious to human flourishing, and where it must have come from. With some of his critique I agree & with some of it I don't, but I do feel I get Machen.

Lovecraft didn't have the visible contrast I've suggested for Machen, growing up. My sense at least is that the old/new contrast for Lovecraft wasn't in terms of agrarian, traditional, poetic culture being supplanted by utilitarianism, industrialism, etc. but a contrast between old Providence with its colonial and Anglophone culture being largely a refuge from the ethnic heterogeneity of New York, etc. When you think of poverty, for Machen think of slums, dirt, coughing, poor nutrition, etc. When you think of Lovecraft and poverty, you think of his self-approving way of getting by on a cheap diet of cheese, crackers, beans, etc. while maintaining, in his own mind, the decencies of a gentleman's life. Of course HPL had no dependents, but Machen did... but I'm losing my focus a bit.

Re: SUPER THREAD: getting "into" Machen
Posted by: Dale Nelson (IP Logged)
Date: 23 September, 2020 05:23PM
More on Machen's thought. I think too much is made of his attention to "the occult" and not enough of his love of Dickens. I need to read it again (after 40 years or so!), but I would expect to find in Dickens's relatively short novel Hard Times a kindred spirit with Machen. Both men were hostile to a utilitarian education and both were sure the soul needs more than "Facts" -- in the Dickens novel, it's symbolized by the circus, while in his nonfiction Machen liked to reminisce about being an actor, a "strolling player"-- which he took up after his first wife's death from cancer, as I recall. The circus and the traveling stage could be emblems of a way of life acknowledging the essential role of the imagination for a flourishing human life.

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