Arthur Machen wrote The Great God Pan and first published it in 1894. It is considered a major piece of decadent literature, containing elements of occultist and horror fiction. In his introduction to the 1916 edition, Machen attempted to disaccoiate himself from what he called ‘those ‘nineties of which I was not even a small part, but no part at all.'” 1 However, his connection to the decadent movement as “the most notorious period the British literary movement” (here termed the “‘nineties”) is more complicated than he allowed in this quote. 2 For example, in the same introduction, Machen also mentions that it was Oscar Wilde (the figure whose 1895 public disgrace made Decadence unfashionable) who first inspired him to write short stories. 3
In his introduction, Denisoff argues for an understanding of Machen’s work as part of the Decadent tradition, rather than as foundational horror or weird texts:
…his approach to literature and life could be understood as a fresh and innovative form of Decadence marked by a fusion of a symbolism influenced by the occult and the French Symbolists with pagan and Christian myths, ultimately comprising records of both a transhistorical spirituality and the zeitgeist of his time. (2)
Denisoff defines Decadence as a “movement… recognized as championing an aesthetic undermining of bourgeois social values and normative cultural assumptions by developing new formal innovations in prove and poetry, as well as in periodical design…During this period, British Decadence gradually became enmeshed with Pre-Raphaelitism, net-paganism, the new woman movement, Symbolism, scientific theories of degeneracy and eugenics, and especially Aestheticism” (3). He adds later that “Decadence is, in this context, a reaction against literature as a rigid form, language as corpse. The aesthetic engagement with a reality beyond immediate experience, and beyond the conventions of realism, requires an especially flexible imagination” (9).
John Sutherland’s Stanford Companion to Victorian Fiction defines Decadence as “a loose term for an end-of-century literary movement which took in all the arts and popularized a fashionable life-style…Novels in the style are self-consciously sensitive to atmosphere and ‘tendencies.’ Frequently they affect French mannerisms and deal with the contemporary problems of the so-called new woman. Pessimism is a dominant mood and hedonism the dominant philosophy…Urban decay and racial decline were favorite subject-matters. In their psychology, decadent writers were fascinated by the dark places of the human mind…A cultish interest in diabolism was also associated with the movement.” (177). Sutherland lists Wilde, Thomas Hardy, and Robert Louis Stevenson, as well as Machen, as major writers within this tradition.
Clarke agrees, somewhat unwillingly, to bear witness to a strange experiment performed by his friend, Dr. Raymond. The ultimate goal of the doctor is to open the mind of someone so that he may experience the spiritual world, an experience he notes the ancients called “seeing the great god Pan“. He performs the experiment, which involves minor brain surgery, on a young woman named Mary. She awakens from the operation awed and terrified but quickly becomes “a hopeless idiot”.
Years later, Clarke learns of a beautiful but sinister girl named Helen Vaughan, who is reported to have caused a series of mysterious happenings in her town. She spends much of her time in the woods near her house, and takes other children on prolonged twilight rambles in the countryside that disturb the parents of the town. One day, a young boy stumbles across her “playing on the grass with a ‘strange naked man,'”; the boy becomes hysterical and later, after seeing a Roman statue of a satyr‘s head, becomes permanently feeble-minded. Helen also forms an unusually close friendship with a neighbour girl, Rachel, whom she leads several times into the woods. On one occasion Rachel returns home distraught, half-naked and rambling. Shortly after explaining to her mother what happened to her (never revealed in the story), Rachel returns to the woods and disappears forever. Clarke relates these events in a book he is writing entitled Memoirs to Prove the Existence of the Devil.
Years later, Villiers happens across his old friend Herbert, who has become a vagrant since they last met. When asked how he has fallen so low, Herbert replies that he has been “corrupted body and soul” by his wife. After some investigation with Clarke and another character, Austin, it is revealed that Helen was Herbert’s wife, and that a well-to-do man killed himself after seeing something that terrified him in Herbert and Helen’s home. Herbert is later found dead.
Helen disappears for some time; according to rumor, she spent the time taking part in disturbing orgies somewhere in the Americas. She eventually returns to London under the pseudonym Mrs. Beaumont. Soon after, a group of stable, happy men in London commit suicide; the last person known to have been in the presence of each of them was Mrs. Beaumont, whom they are implied to have slept with. Villiers and Clarke, each learning of Mrs. Beaumont’s true identity, band together and confront Helen in her house with a noose. They tell her that she must kill herself, or they will expose her. Helen has a very abnormal death, transforming between human and beast, male and female, and dividing and reuniting, before turning into a jelly-like substance and finally dying.
This is followed by a fragment of a document about the remains of a pillar honoring the Roman god Nodens. The inscription on the column reads “To the great god Nodens (the god of the Great Deep or Abyss), Flavius Senilis has erected this pillar on account of the marriage which he saw beneath the shade.” The document says that historians are puzzled as to what the inscription refers to. The novella ends with a fragment of a letter from Dr. Raymond to Clarke, which reveals that Helen was the child of Mary, who died shortly after her daughter’s birth. In the letter, Raymond informs Clarke that Mary became pregnant after his experiment caused her to see the god Pan, implying that Pan fathered Helen. 4
Notes & Quotes
- Denisoff notes that Machen’s The Great God Pan as well as his other fiction contain depictions of London that fit within the urban gothic, as well as other genres which Machen’s work overlaps. In this instance, London is used “as a metaphor for the convolutions of the human mind both maniac and depressing” (20). This also fits with the general narrative structure of the novel, which refuses any one narrator or perspective, jumps across time, and is purposefully convoluted. Denissoff ascribes narrative liveliness to Decadence (which challenged dead conceptions of literature). The Great God Pan certainly fits this aspect of the definition, as it is just as maniac and convoluted as Machen’s London. I think this is a really great aspect of Machen’s work to compare with Louis Stevenson’s London in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which was also distressingly confusing and is considered a Decadent work, with a non-decadent work like Sir Conan Doyle’s The Sign of the Four, which refuses to allow London to become confusing and maniac as Sherlock Holmes navigates and labels the urban streets successfully even when blindfolded. Below are two major passages from The Great God Pan that describe London:
Austin put down the paper in mute horror. “I shall leave London to-morrow.” He said, “it is a city of nightmares.” (36)”…it is an old story, an old mystery played in our day, and in dim London streets instead of amidst the vineyards and the olive gardens…” (42-3)
The Great God Pan also contains reference to the “sordid murders of Whitechapel,” or the Jack the Ripper murders, a major true rendition of the urban gothic crime narrative. However, Machen’s narrator is clear to highlight the ways in which his narrative reverses the story of Jack the Ripper- the victims here are all wealthy males rather than poor women, the murders here occur in the fashionable east end, rather than the West, and all of the male victims were “of good positioned ample means…to all appearances in love with the world” (33).
- There is definitely some role that class plays in this novel. Not only do the attacks of suicidal mania focus solely on rich males, but in the opening chapter, Dr. Raymond explains his choice of experimental subject in Emily through the power he has over her: “…As you know, I rescued Mary from the gutter, and from almost certain starvation, when she was a child; I think her life is mine, to use as I see fit…” (4).
- Machen is complex in his stance on the new women issue. Although the women in this novel are either silent, evil, or both (Helen doesn’t speak once in the entire novel), Denisoff lists the ways that Machen links Helen to his own life and biography and how his two marriages were to women who challenged traditional gender norms and behaviors.