Arthur Machen profiled in The Guardian as “forgotten father of weird fiction”

Arthur Machen (1863-1947)

Arthur Machen (1863-1947)

I was pleasantly surprised to see this story come cross the Internet transom today:

Machen is the forgotten father of weird fiction
Damien G. Walter, The Guardian online, September 29, 2009

The slug line accurately indicates the article’s content: “Arthur Machen might be little read today, but his ideas lie at the heart of modern horror writers Stephen King and Clive Barker.”

The whole piece is really worthwhile; for me personally, these paragraphs are the most striking:

The qualities which made Machen’s work important are the same that have driven the tradition of weird fiction. From his early story “The Great God Pan,” through his acclaimed masterpiece The Hill of Dreams to his later work on The Secret Glory, Machen remained determined to take readers into worlds of mysticism and the supernatural. In a society gripped by Christian zeal, he drew on pagan and occult ideology to energise his writing. At a time when scientific rationalism was coming fully to the fore, Machen and other writers of weird fiction continued to argue for the mystical experience as an important tool for understanding the modern world. It is an argument which is still being made today.

Machen’s writing may now be little read, but his influence lives on in other writers of weird fiction. HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos was heavily influenced by Machen, and through it Machen’s ideas are at the heart of the modern horror genre and the work of writers like Clive Barker and Stephen King. British comic book writers of the 80s and 90s including Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman were also influenced by Machen in their own explorations of the supernatural and occult.

And novelist Graham Joyce, five-time winner of the British Fantasy Award, places his writing in the tradition of Machen and weird fiction. Joyce’s stories illustrate the power of weird fiction to delve into the most primal aspects of life and find meaning there. That is why weird fiction in all its guises continues to fascinate us as readers today.

The article has already received a lively round of reader comments, some of them lamenting the perceived fact that Machen’s influence is so muted in or absent  from current horror fiction, and expressing the desire to see a rebirth of the genre.

Such thoughts may as well have been deliberately designed to capture my attention, because the renaissance in question is something to which I have devoted a great deal of thought, and is in fact a phenomenon that’s already well underway.

Roughly coinciding with the turn of the millennium, horror began to reemerge from its 80s-90s burnout in a greatly matured form. The new generation of authors — some of us mainly and specifically working in the horror genre, others using horror as a distinct mode to be periodically employed — possesses a much more highly developed literary sensibility, generationally speaking, than the previous one, along with a much more extensive, effective, and self-aware grounding in the genre’s venerable history. Last year Peter Straub edited an anthology centered around this very subject (Poe’s Children: The New Horror) and used the introduction to offer up some cogent thoughts about the trend. From 2007-8 I edited a private electronic journal titled Erebos that was devoted to the same subject.

The upshot is that the present cultural moment is a fairly exciting and rewarding one for both horror readers and horror writers. And in this evolving milieu, Machen’s contribution, as correctly indicated by Walter in his Guardian article, is foundational. But contra the lament expressed by some of the commenters, it’s an influence that’s palpable. Thomas Ligotti, for instance, had his introduction to weird horror fiction via Machen. Mark Samuels is the Secretary of the Friends of Arthur Machen. Laird Barron regularly names Machen as one of his major influences. And all three of these authors are receiving ever-increasing attention.

About Matt Cardin

Teeming Brain founder and editor Matt Cardin is the author of DARK AWAKENINGS, DIVINATIONS OF THE DEEP, A COURSE IN DEMONIC CREATIVITY: A WRITER’S GUIDE TO THE INNER GENIUS, and the forthcoming TO ROUSE LEVIATHAN. He is also the editor of BORN TO FEAR: INTERVIEWS WITH THOMAS LIGOTTI and the academic encyclopedias MUMMIES AROUND THE WORLD, GHOSTS, SPIRITS, AND PSYCHICS: THE PARANORMAL FROM ALCHEMY TO ZOMBIES, and HORROR LITERATURE THROUGH HISTORY.

Posted on September 29, 2009, in Arts & Entertainment and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Glad you liked the article Matt. Machen has been a discovery for me, and now I have a few more discoveries to make after reading your blog.

  2. Thanks for commenting, Damien. As I indicated, I loved your Guardian piece. And I’m glad I could provide some more reading fodder for you.

  3. Beyond just horror, all works of imagination have had an upsurge of popularity: movies, graphic novels; and, within fiction, speculative fiction in general.

    In movies, this can partly be explained increasingly better special effects and graphic novels have been piggybacking superhero movie boom. In general, I think movies have made accessible realms of imagination that were outside of the norm in the past. I think the popularity of fantasy fiction is directly linked to the changes in movie-making. Even someone like Machen probably wasn’ all that popular in the past except amongst the literati.

    There are a couple of other reasons that imagination has been let loose.

    First, many of the censorship laws applied to the movie and comic book industries stifled creativity for many decades… or at least forced creativity outside of the mainstream and into the black market. Comic books such as the Watchmen were direct commentary on this dark period of the American imagination.

    Second, I think that imaginative and speculative art in all its forms captures the public attention during times of social upheaval and stress. The American public has been under great stress this past decade, and it seems the fear-mongering has hit a high point recently. People want to escape reality and also imagine new possibilities.

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