Earlier this year I finished reading H.P. Lovecraft: The Fiction. Inspired by Lovecraft’s essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” I decided to search out stories which inspired and were inspired by Lovecraft. I didn’t find much help in the local used bookstores in my hometown, but on a trip to California last month I hit the jackpot. I was able to find The House on the Borderlands by William Hope Hodgson, The Last Incantation by Clark Ashton Smith, The Cthulhu Mythos anthology which collects August Derleth’s mythos work, Mysteries of the Worm which collect’s Robert Bloch’s mythos work, and Tales of Horror and the Supernatural Volume 1 by Arthur Machen. And since I am a huge fan of the H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast, I subscribed to their premium feed (which I highly recommend once you work your way through their coverage of Lovecraft) and have been reading along with them.
This week I completed Arthur Machen’s novella The Great God Pan. This is a fascinating story. It was written in the 1890s. Lovecraft praised it in “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” and many Lovecraft scholars and fans have noted the influence Pan had on his own story “The Dunwich Horror.”
The Great God Pan is told in eight chapters. It moves jarringly across a handful of years and characters, making the story a bit difficult to follow at times. Machen wrote it early in his career, and it is unpolished. There are a few places where the story is unclear or where the reader has to work a bit to figure out what, exactly, is being said. But what balances Machen’s often clunky prose is his grasp of untold horrors. In some places, Machen only gives us enough details to start the imagination, then stops and lets us fill in the rest of the scene. The unmentionable, indescribable atrocities that occur behind closed bedroom doors, in secret whisperings in high-society dinners, or in Welsh meadows near ancient Roman markers are only as chilling as the reader’s imagination. In fact, the story was denounced at the time because it was considered scandalous and sexually disturbing. By modern standards, the sexual content is so subtle that it can be missed. But this lack of concrete detail serves to emphasize Machen’s personal worldview: a suspicion of naturalism and a love of mysticism. Although a skeptic of the supernatural, Machen did try out some of the mystic orders that existed at the time (including the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn), but Machen never entirely turned away from his Christian beliefs. He favored the mysteries and unknown in the spiritual world rather than the strict adherence to a physical, material existence. But where Lovecraft emphasizes cosmic indifference to humanity, Machen emphasizes the dangers to humanity when it acts without wisdom and respect to the spirit world. The ultimate villain of this piece, the one who allows evil to enter the world, is a scientist who is trying to prove a theory. He is cold and clinical, a truly despicable character who views his subject, Mary, as his to experiment on as he pleases. He exposes her to an unfiltered view of reality, which destroys her mind and let’s something evil step into our world.
While The Great God Pan certainly has problems with its prose, the story is still a masterwork of horror and dread. In many places it is very subtle (perhaps too subtle) but it rewards close reading, and I believe it is well-suited for analysis. There is a timelessness to this story that enables it to endure, even if it only endures just beneath the surface of the mainstream.
The Great God Pan can be read online for free at Project Gutenberg. It can also be purchased at Amazon.com. You can subscribe to the H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast’s premium feed here and hear all four parts of their coverage of The Great God Pan.