Arthur Machen

Born in Caerleon, 1863, Arthur Machen is known for his horror fiction. Indeed, H P Lovecraft, in his essay "Supernatural Horror in Literature", wrote: "Of living creators of cosmic fear raised to its most artistic pitch, few if any can hope to equal the versatile Arthur Machen."

Arthur Machen (1863 - 1947) was descended from a line of Anglican priests in South Wales including a grandfather - see later in this column- who was vicar of St Cadocs, Caerleon for many years. The house next door to the Priory Hotel carries a plaque commemorating Machen's birth there when it was the home of his widowed grandmother and her daughters.

In this extract from his autobiography, 'Far Off Things', the places mentioned will be familiar to Caerleon residents:

"I shall always esteem it as the greatest piece of fortune that has fallen to me, that I was born in that noble, fallen Caerleon-on-Usk, in the heart of Gwent. My greatest fortune, I mean, from that point of view which I now more especially have in mind, the career of letters. For the older I grow the more firmly am I convinced that anything which I may have accomplished in literature is due to the fact that when my eyes were first opened in earliest childhood they had before them the vision of an enchanted land. As soon as I saw anything I saw Twyn Barlwm, that mystic tumulus, the memorial of peoples that dwelt in that region before the Celts left the Land of Summer. This guarded the southern limit of the great mountain wall in the west; a little northward was Mynydd Maen - the Mountain of the Stone - a giant, rounded billow; and still to the north mountains, and on fair, clear days one could see the pointed summits of the Holy Mountain by Abergavenny. It would shine, I remember, a pure blue in the far sunshine: it was a mountain peak in a fairy tale. And then to eastward the bedroom window of Llanddewi Rectory looked over hill and valley, over high woods, quivering with leafage like the beloved Zacynthus of Ulysses, away to the forest of Wentwood, to the church tower on the hill above Caerleon. Through a cleft one might see now and again a bright yellow glint of the Severn Sea, and the cliffs of Somerset beyond. And hardly a house in sight in all the landscape, look where you would. Here the gable of a barn, here a glint of a whitewashed farmhouse, here blue wood-smoke rising from an orchard grove, where an old cottage was snugly hidden: but only so much if you knew where to look. And of nights, when the dusk fell and the farmer went his rounds, you might chance to see his lantern glimmering a very spark on the hillside. This was all that showed in a vague, dark world: and the only sounds were the faint distant barking of the sheepdog and the melancholy cry of the owls from the border of the brake."

Machen's life and writing reflect a deep commitment to the Orthodox Anglo Catholic faith and his books frequently explore aspects of the Old Religion and the Celtic Church whose colourful saints were of such interest to him. One such church was that of Llantrissant which appears in his writing from time to time, for example The Great Return. Machen's interest in spirituality was broader than that of a formal, regular church-goer as he sought to examine the often alarmingly close 'world beyond the veil' which manifests itself to those who are prepared and open to deep experiences of a psychic nature. An enjoyment of wine and tobacco was felt to be one way of entering this state of consciousness.

Because of the nature of his writing and the priority of altered states of consciousness amongst his 'tools of inspiration' Machen has been widely admired by other writers, musicians and people who recognise his efforts to explore the wellspring of creative thought. Many respected writers have acknowledged warmly the debt they owe to his work including horror writers such as Clive Barker and Ramsay Campbell, novelist and biographer Peter Ackroyd and entertainer Barry Humphries whilst the composer John Ireland dedicated some of his best music to Machen. More details of the 'Great and The Good' who claim to have got their inspiration from the Caerleon writer will be listed here later.

The following extract comes from "The Novel Of The Black Seal". The setting is very clearly the Usk Valley, though this is not stated in the text. (In fact the location is given as "the west of England, not far from Caermaen, a quiet little town, once a city, and the headquarters of a Roman Legion.")

"The days passed quickly; I could see that the professor was all quivering with suppressed excitement, and I could scarce credit the eager appetence of his glance as we left the old manor-house behind us and began our journey. We set out at midday, and it was in the dusk of the evening that we arrived at a little country station. I was tired and excited, and the drive through the lanes seems all a dream. First the deserted streets of a forgotten village, while I heard Professor Gregg's voice talking of the Augustan Legion and the clash of arms, and all the tremendous pomp that followed the eagles; then the broad river swimming to full tide with the last afterglow glimmering duskily in the yellow water, the wide meadows, the cornfields whitening, and the deep lane winding on the slope between the hills and the water. At last we began to ascend, and the air grew rarer. I looked down and saw the pure white mist tracking the outline of the river like a shroud, and a vague and shadowy country; imaginations and fantasy of swelling hills and hanging woods, and half-shaped outlines of hills beyond, and in the distance the glare of the furnace fire on the mountain, glowing by turns a pillar of shining flame and fading to a dull point of red. We were slowly mounting a carriage drive, and then there came to me the cool breath and the secret of the great wood that was above us; I seemed to its deepest depths, and there was the sound of trickling water, the scent of the green leaves, and the breath of the summer night. The carriage, stopped at last, and I could scarcely distinguish the form of the house, as I waited a moment at the pillared porch. The rest of the evening seemed a dream of strange things bounded by the great silence of the wood and the valley and the river.
The next morning, when I awoke and looked out of the bow window of the big, old-fashioned bedroom, I saw under a grey sky a country that was still all mystery. The long, lovely valley, with the river winding in and out below, crossed in mid-vision by a mediaeval bridge of vaulted and buttressed stone, the clear presence of the rising ground beyond; and the woods that I had only seen in shadow the night before, seemed tinged with enchantment, and the soft breath of air that sighed in at the opened pane was like no other wind. I looked across the valley, and beyond, hill followed on hill as wave on wave, and here a faint blue pillar of smoke rose still in the morning air from the chimney of an ancient grey farmhouse, there was a rugged height crowned with dark firs, and in the distance I saw the white streak of a road that climbed and vanished into some unimagined country. But the boundary of all was a great wall of mountain, vast in the west, and ending like a fortress with a steep ascent and a domed tumulus dear against the sky…"

The mood becomes more foreboding as the Professor's investigations approach their conclusion ...

"When the next morning I came down, I found Professor Gregg pacing the terrace in his eternal walk.
"Look at that bridge," he said, when he saw me; "observe the quaint and Gothic design, the angles between the arches, and the silvery grey of the stone in the awe of the morning light. I confess it seems to me symbolic; it should illustrate a mystical allegory of the passage from one world to another."
"Professor Gregg," I said quietly, "it is time that I knew something of what has happened, and of what is to happen."
For the moment he put me off, but I returned again with the same question in the evening, and then Professor Gregg flamed with excitement. "Don't you understand yet?" he cried. "But I have told you a good deal; yes, and shown you a good deal; you have heard pretty nearly all that I have heard, and seen what I have seen; or at least," and his voice chilled as he spoke. "enough to make a good deal clear as noonday…"

Machen's writing was a source of inspiration to, amongst others, the American exponent of horror H P Lovecraft, who continued the love affair with inscriptions which lead the reader into a world of demonic evil and horror.

See also:

Letters from Machen to John Gawsworth  describing local walks.

Extract from Machen's "
Dog and Duck", published in 1924. Childhood memories of a New Year's Day custom in Caerleon.

[Machen index page]

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