Monday, October 18, 2010

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Great God Pan

I think it likely that H.P. Lovecraft, who thought very highly of Arthur Machen's 1894 novella, The Great God Pan, would object to my including it among the "pulp fantasies" I highlight in this series each week. Like Lovecraft, Machen, a Welsh writer known for his decadent, mystical worldview, did not consider his writings mere entertainments but rather expressions of his own unique philosophy. Unlike many, I don't consider the term "pulp fantasy" derogatory, since I use the term very broadly to describe works of the imagination intended for a mass audience that draw on eclectic sources for their own inspiration. Some pulp fantasies are undoubtedly mere entertainments (again, not a criticism), while others, such as the works of Lovecraft and Howard, can be appreciated as more. The Great God Pan certainly falls into the latter category.

That Machen should exert should a powerful influence over Lovecraft (who praises him profusely in his Supernatural Horror in Literature) is no surprise. The two men shared a great deal, perhaps chief among them being the "scientific" grounding of their weird tales. That is, both Lovecraft and Machen shared the belief that, far from liberating mankind from fear, science would in fact make him ever more aware of just how terrifying the cosmos actually was. It is this theme (among others) that The Great God Pan uses as its foundation and develops to remarkable effect.

The story begins as two men, Raymond and Clarke, discuss upcoming brain surgery to be performed on a young woman named Mary. Raymond wishes to perform the surgery in order to vindicate his theories about the universe:
"Look about you, Clarke. You see the mountain, and hill following after hill, as wave on wave, you see the woods and orchard, the fields of ripe corn, and the meadows reaching to the reed-beds by the river. You see me standing here beside you, and hear my voice; but I tell you that all these things—yes, from that star that has just shone out in the sky to the solid ground beneath our feet—I say that all these are but dreams and shadows; the shadows that hide the real world from our eyes. There is a real world, but it is beyond this glamour and this vision, beyond these 'chases in Arras, dreams in a career,' beyond them all as beyond a veil. I do not know whether any human being has ever lifted that veil; but I do know, Clarke, that you and I shall see it lifted this very night from before another's eyes. You may think this all strange nonsense; it may be strange, but it is true, and the ancients knew what lifting the veil means. They called it seeing the god Pan."
The surgery goes off as Raymond intends and the consequences, though tragic for Mary, are exactly as he expected:
"She will awake in five minutes." Raymond was still perfectly cool. "There is nothing more to be done; we can only wait."

The minutes passed slowly; they could hear a slow, heavy, ticking. There was an old clock in the passage. Clarke felt sick and faint; his knees shook beneath him, he could hardly stand.

Suddenly, as they watched, they heard a long-drawn sigh, and suddenly did the colour that had vanished return to the girl's cheeks, and suddenly her eyes opened. Clarke quailed before them. They shone with an awful light, looking far away, and a great wonder fell upon her face, and her hands stretched out as if to touch what was invisible; but in an instant the wonder faded, and gave place to the most awful terror. The muscles of her face were hideously convulsed, she shook from head to foot; the soul seemed struggling and shuddering within the house of flesh. It was a horrible sight, and Clarke rushed forward, as she fell shrieking to the floor.

Three days later Raymond took Clarke to Mary's bedside. She was lying wide-awake, rolling her head from side to side, and grinning vacantly.

The story then picks up years later, as several young men are dying under mysterious circumstances. The only connection between these deaths is that all of the men is a young woman named Helen Vaugh, who is described as "at once the most beautiful woman and the most repulsive they had ever set eyes on." One need not read the story to know that the prelude to The Great God Pan, involving the surgery done to poor Mary, and the later events involving Helen Vaughn are also connected, but I won't say here the nature of that connection, for fear of lessening the impact of the tale.

What's impresses me still is that, even though the central mystery of the story is one we have likely seen before, given how often Machen is pastiched (mainly through the influence of Lovecraft, who himself took more than a few cues from his older contemporary), it still possesses great power. Like Lovecraft, Machen has a tendency toward unnecessarily complex constructions, purple prose, and somewhat flat characters, but his ideas are so vibrant that they overcome all these flaws. Reading The Great God Pan is an unsettling experience and I wish I could say precisely why. As I said, the story, though original, even scandalous, in its time, has been copied so often in the last century or more that one would think it would no longer pack much punch -- and yet it does. If you've never read it before, I recommend doing so; I'll be curious to hear if anyone else finds it as disturbing as I do.


  1. Ever since I discovered this quote from H G Wells I've thought of him as a soul-brother to HPL... maybe I did before, but this strengthens it:
    "Science is a match that man has just got alight. He thought he was in a room - in moments of devotion, a temple - and that his light would be reflected from and display walls inscribed with wonderful secrets and pillars carved with philosophical systems wrought into harmony. It is a curious sensation, now that the preliminary splutter is over and the flame burns up clear, to see his hands lit and just a glimpse of himself and the patch he stands on visible, and around him, in place of all that human comfort and beauty he anticipated - darkness still."

    H G Wells:'The Rediscovery of the Unique' Fortnightly Review (1891)

  2. I do find The Great God Pan very unsettling, and always have. I think you're right to attribute that to Machen's ideas, but it also flows from his conviction; he seems to be writing about things he deeply believes.

    On another note: While I don't consider the term "pulp fantasy" to be derogatory, I do find your use of it awkward. "Pulp fantasy" has (or had) a more specific reference than you give it, and I find the definition "works of the imagination intended for a mass audience that draw on eclectic sources for their own inspiration" to be so broad that it's not much use for categorization. Your use would include everything from Robert E. Howard to The Hobbit to The Well of the Unicorn; at that point, one might as well just say "fantasy." What would you give as an example of non-pulp fantasy?

  3. You can find the The Great God Pan at Project Gutenberg.

    Thanks, James. I needed a good nightmare tonight...

  4. Stormcrow said: "You can find the The Great God Pan at Project Gutenberg."

    And onto the smartphone it goes. Thanks!

  5. Gee, we must both be channeling something since I just posted about Machen the other day. A guy who does not get as much love as he should. I think Machen is creepier than Lovecraft because Machen's vision is so humanocentric; the alien horror turns out to be, in some sense, us.

    I like the Great God Pan, although I think The White People is probably the most unsettling story of Machen's that I have read.

  6. I believe that The Great God Pan is also a favourite of Stephen King's - he mentions in his memoir "On Writing" that his own novella "N" was a tribute to Machen's. In this regard King reminds me of Henry Rollins: I'm not a fan of either of their bodies of work, but I am regularly interested in what they are reading or listening to.

    Meandering off the topic for a moment - I haven't read "On Writing", but the Amazon reviews mention one interesting snippet from the writing advice he gives:

    'He doesn't plot his stories. He puts "a group of characters in some sort of predicament and then watch them try to work themselves free." In fact he even goes as far as to say, "plot is shifty, and best kept under house arrest."'

    Actually, if you look at the Amazon preview of the book and search for 'plot', on page 159 there is this interesting statement:

    "I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our _lives_ are largely plotless, ...; and second, because I believe plotting and the sponteaneity of real creation aren't compatible."

    In King's terms, story being the actual events that take place through a novel, movie, or (I dare say) a game, whereas plotting is the act of pre-determining what direction those events will take and to what conclusion they lead. A perspective I wasn't expecting to hear from SK, once again his thoughts are more interesting to me than his work ...

  7. @PCB

    SK has a lot of self justifying stupidity to spew to all and sundry to vindicated whatever he's embarrassed about. He's just too lazy to work out plot. And he's happy to steal somebody else's. Dracula, The Haunting Of Hill House, and Of Mice And Men were all rewritten by SK as Salem's Lot, The Shining, and Blaze (unpublished). The Stand went beyond a thousand pages and became his "own Viet Nam", because he'd literally lost the plot. SK books have virtues, but I'm not keen on the self serving things the man says. Is Sidney Sheldon telling people how to write?

  8. It is not generally known, but Robert E. Howard was a HUGE Machen fan. He considered "The Novel of the Black Seal" to be as good as anything by Poe or HPL. A foundational influence upon "Worms of the Earth".

    REH once threatened to write a fannish letter to Machen. Perhaps he did.

    Machen certainly believed in what he was writing, at least on a basic level. Such belief was why he joined (and later left) The Golden Dawn. I wouldn't call his viewpoint particularly humanocentric. More "cosmically Christian" than anything.

  9. @ PCB

    That Stephen King quote is pure gold.

  10. @Larry - I expressed myself better here:

    But I do think HPL and Machen are actually 180 from each other.

  11. The story of how Machen reviewed Clark Ashton Smith's first collection of verse:

    Matthew: I read your post. While there are some points I agree with, I just don't see HPL and Machen as "180 from each other". How then did HPL write "The Lurking Fear"? Some have contended that "The Dunwich Horror" is a rewrite of/homage to "The Novel of the Black Seal" (I agree).

    If HPL was so non-simpatico with Machen's world-view, why did he only chide Machen for the latter's use of sex for "weird/horrific" effect (something HPL basically did in "The Thing on the Doorstep" and "The Shadow Over Innsmouth")?

    HPL, despite probably knowing Machen's Christian proclivities, doesn't seem to feel them worth remarking upon. A reason for that could be Machen's outlook was so far beyond the realms of "standard" Christian thought at the time that it essentially circled back around to something HPL could agree with. Not 100% congruence, but not "180 the other direction" either.

    Machen obviously had no profound objections to something like CAS' "The Star-Treader". He also corresponded with a couple of people connected with the Lovecraft Circle (check the link above). So, no, I don't agree with the "180 away from" position.

    Deuce Richardson

  12. On another note: While I don't consider the term "pulp fantasy" to be derogatory, I do find your use of it awkward. "Pulp fantasy" has (or had) a more specific reference than you give it, and I find the definition "works of the imagination intended for a mass audience that draw on eclectic sources for their own inspiration" to be so broad that it's not much use for categorization. Your use would include everything from Robert E. Howard to The Hobbit to The Well of the Unicorn; at that point, one might as well just say "fantasy." What would you give as an example of non-pulp fantasy?

    You're right that my typical usage of it is pretty broad, perhaps even too broad, but it's not completely without meaning. Generally, I don't include "epic" or "high" fantasy under the pulp fantasy rubric, so I'd never classify, say, Tolkien, Eddings, Donaldson, etc. as pulp fantasy. Likewise, most of what I call pulp fantasy is in short story or novella form, or at least is more "episodic" in nature. That excludes lots of series from the category. It's true I've discussed many books that violate these characteristics in my Pulp Fantasy Library posts, but I usually admit this upfront and, when I don't, it's probably because I think it's clear that the book exerted some influence over D&D and thus gets a pass.

  13. I keep meaning to read this story - I suppose someday I will.