Sunday, 20 October 2013
The Great God Pan
The Great God Pan (1894) By: Arthur Machen
Two men perform a brain surgery that is supposed to enable a girl to see the world between the physical and the spiritual, also called the domain of the great god Pan. Their experiment ails and she ends up mentally traumatized. Next we hear of a strange girl who's seen dancing in the woods with a naked man; this traumatizes a young neighbor boy before she disappears. Soon after, one of London's elite meets a friend who has fallen destitute. He claims it is because he married a beautiful and terrifying woman named Helen Vaughn.
Misogyny and creepiness in equal measure: No wonder Lovecraft was a fan. We're meant to be afraid of large rooms, drawings of women, people's eyes & faces, and people getting sick, but this reactionary form of terror only goes so far. Many great writers of horror have found Machen fascinating, but unless you're good at inventing terrors for yourself, you won't find any here.
Our Heroes, Well One of Them Is
The Gentlemen by Gaslight are all so similar and numerous that it is difficult to tell them apart. We switch point of view between Villiers, Clark and Dr. Raymond, but they're all so indistinct. Villiers is the one to finally confront Helen, Dr. Raymond creates her and Clark is there throughout.
Helen Vaughn is a woman who commits such nameless infamies that she drives men to suicide. Unfortunately, all we see are the aftermaths of her rampages. The characters come across a list of her crimes near the end of the novella, but they're "too terrifying to mention." The idea that the reader will think up more terrifying things than the writer can write has always been a crappy idea to base a story on; this is no exception.
All the horror in the novel relies on the reader feeling the reactions of the protagonists. Given their indistinctness and almost interchangeable nature, this is near impossible.
In the End
Okay, there is a section that describes the death of Helen that is the best in the book, but the end just kind of veers off after that with one final 'twist' and it's a lame one. Helen's death is in chapter VIII: Fragments and is the only passage that's really worth rooting out.
Much like Lovecraft, Machen does have some sense of horror, but he manages not to focus on the elements of his work that might actually be terrifying. It is understandable why horror writers like Lovecraft and King flock to him when their own ghoulish ideas can so nicely fill the gaps left by Machen. However, if you prefer a less mad-lib approach to horror, steer clear of Machen.
You can read it on Project Gutenberg and on Kindle for free.