Thursday, March 3, 2016

1895 Review of the Great God Pan by Arthur Machen


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THERE are probably many people who will put this book down with a shudder when only half way through it. It certainly is not a book that the average man will read at one spell. But the people who put it down half read will be sure to take it up again and finish it. When once the author has got his grip of the attention further resistance is useless. There are two stories in the book, and they are both artistically horrible, and, what is of more importance, absolutely original. The author completely convinces us for the time that his theories and experiments are all practicable, and with stories dealing entirely with the spiritual world this is surely high praise. So many of the remarkable events are told in the form of conversation by ordinary men, amidst ordinary surroundings, that it becomes an easy thing to lose sight of the author, and to read his chapters, not as fiction, but as reports of actual occurrences.

In the first of the two stories a Dr. Raymond endeavours to establish communication between the material and the spiritual world. To do this a young girl has to be employed as a sacrifice. An operation is performed, and the result leads to converting the woman into an insane beast. In this condition she gives birth to a strange monster with the outward form of a fair woman.

The author has gone down to that gloomy gulf which underlies the soil of human nature and has brought up a living shapeless figure that, though it is a thing of horror, fascinates us. Through its eyes we can almost see down to that strange swamp of evil from which the very roots of our own nature draw their sap.

The second story, though not so original as the first, is better constructed, and therefore stronger. The teller of the story sees a living thing, a creature from another world:

"While I was getting out my pouch, I looked up in the direction of the houses, and as I looked I felt my breath caught back, and my teeth began to chatter, and the stick I had in my hand snapped in two with the grip I gave it. It was as if I had had an electric current down my spine, and yet for some moment of time, which seemed long but which must have been very short, I caught myself wondering what on earth was the matter. Then I knew what had made my very heart shudder and my bones grind together in an agony. As I glanced up I had looked straight towards the last house in the row before me, and in an upper window of that house I had seen for some short fraction of a second a face. It was the face of a woman, and yet it was not human. You and I, Salisbury, have heard in our time, as we sat in our seats in church in sober English fashion, of a lust that cannot be satiated and of a fire that is unquenchable, but few of us have any notion what these words mean. I hope you never may, for as I saw that face at the window, with the blue sky above me, and the warm air playing in gusts about me, I knew I had looked into another world; looked through the window of a commonplace brand-new house, and seen Hell open before me."

The woman dies, how—no one can say. At the inquest one of the doctors who had made a post-mortem examination of the body was called. This is his statement:

'At the commencement of the examination I was astonished to find appearances of a character entirely new to me, not with-standing my somewhat large experience. I need not specify these appearances at present, it will be sufficient for me to state that as I proceeded in my task I could scarcely believe that the brain before me was that of a human being at all.' There was some surprise at this statement, as you may imagine, and the coroner asked the doctor if he meant to say that the brain resembled that of an animal. ‘No, he replied, ‘I should not put it in that way. Some of the appearances I noticed seemed to point in that direction, but others, and these were the more surprising, indicated a nervous organisation of a wholly different character from that either of man or of the lower animals.’

In a later chapter we have the life story of this woman's husband told by himself:

Ever since I was a young man I devoted all my leisure, and a good deal of time that ought to have been given to other studies to the investigation of curious and obscure branches of knowledge. . . . . My professional studies, however, and the necessity of obtaining a degree, for some time forced my more obscure employment into the background, and soon after I had qualified I met Agnes, who became my wife. . . . . I had learnt enough of the paths I had begun to tread to know that they were beyond all expression difficult and dangerous, that to persevere meant in all probability the wreck of a life, and that they lead to regions so terrible that the mind of man shrinks appalled at the very thought. Moreover, the quiet and peace I had enjoyed since my marriage had wiled me away to a great extent from places where I knew no peace could dwell. But suddenly, I think, indeed it was the work of a single night, as I lay awake on my bed, gazing into the darkness—suddenly, I say, the old, desire, the former longing, returned, and returned with a force that had been intensified ten times by its absence; and when the day dawned and I looked out of the window, and saw with haggard eyes the sunrise in the east, I knew that my doom had been pronounced; that as I had gone far, so now I must go farther, with steps that know no faltering. . . . My experiments were many and complicated in their nature, and it was some months before I realized whither they all pointed, and when this was borne in upon me in a moment's time. I felt my face whiten and my heart still within me. But the power to draw back, the power to stand before the doors that now opened wide before me and not to enter in, had long ago been absent; the way was closed, and I could only pass onward. My position was as, utterly hopeless as that of the prisoner in an utter dungeon, whose only light is that of the dungeon above him; the doors were shut, and escape was impossible. Experiment after experiment gave the same result, and I knew, and shrank even as the thought passed through my mind, that in the work I had to do there must be elements which no laboratory could furnish, which no scales could measure. In that work, from which even I doubted to escape with life, life itself must enter; from some human being there must be drawn that essence which men call the soul, and in its place (for in the scheme of the world there is no vacant chamber)—in its place would enter in what the lips can hardly utter, what the mind cannot conceive without a horror more awful than the horror of death itself. And when I knew this I knew also on whom this fate would fall. I looked into my wife's eyes. Even at that hour, if I had gone out and taken a rope and hanged myself, I might have escaped, and she also, but in no other way. At last I told her all. She shuddered and wept, and called on her dead mother for help, and asked me if I had no mercy, and I could only sigh . . . . . One night my wife consented, with the tears running down her,beautiful face, and hot shame flushing red over her neck and breast, consented to undergo this for me. I threw open the window, and we looked together at the sky and the dark earth for the last time, it was a fine starlight night, and there was a pleasant breeze blowing, and I kissed her on her lips, and her tears ran down upon my face. That night she came down to my laboratory, and then, with shutters bolted and barred down, with curtains drawn thick and close so that the very stars might be shut out from the sight of that room, while the crucible hissed and boiled over the lamp, I did what had to be done, and led out what was no longer a woman. . . . My wife had only asked one thing of me—that when there came at last what I had told her I would kill her. I have kept that promise.

This is not a book to be put into the hands of an imaginative child, and many people will find a prejudice against reading it at night. But to the jaded reader of novels, who is tired of the conventional plot and characters, this book will come as a most welcome change. W. P.

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