Wednesday, April 26, 2017

H.G. Wells's Boneheaded Review of Arthur Machen's The Three Impostors

The Saturday Review (London), 11 January 1896, pp. 48-49

“The Three Impostors.”  By Arthur Machen. London: John Lane. 1895.

Mr. Machen is an unfortunate man. He has determined to be weird, horrible, and as outspoken as his courage permits in an age which is noisily resolved to be “ ’ealthy” to the pitch of blatancy. His particular obsession is a kind of infernal matrimonial agency, and the begetting of human-diabolical mules. He has already skirted the matter in his previous book, the “Great God Pan,” and here we find it well to the fore again. This time, however, it simply supplies one of a group of incoherent stories held together in a frame of wooden narrative about a young man with spectacles. This young man falls into a circle of Black Magicians, who are practising indecorums and crimes at which Mr. Machen dare only hint in horror-struck whispers. Aghast—all Mr. Machen’s characters are aghast sooner or later—the young man takes to flight, and, instead of informing the police, runs to and fro about London, trying to hide. The chase assumes this form: Again and again a Mr. Dyson sees the young man, and again and again this Mr. Dyson is accosted by people who tell him stories, remotely apropos of the unhappy fugitive. They are members of the secret society, and bent apparently upon inciting Mr. Dyson to murder him. Mr. Dyson proving sluggish, the young man in spectacles is caught by other hands, tied down to the floor of a deserted house in the west of London, and live coals are, very properly, piled upon his chest, He smells of cooking, and perishes, and the ubiquitous Mr. Dyson comes in and sees his remains. Tableau. “They clung hard to one another, shuddering at the sight they saw,” did Mr. Dyson and Mr. Phillips, his friend. That is the climax of Mr. Machen’s invention; he ends there. Other effects are the murder of a respectable citizen, whose remains are, for no earthly reason, outraged by being incontinently mummified; a man who, also for no earthly reason, vanishes; a witches’ meeting in California; the inventor of an instrument of torture caught in his own trap, and the mongrel creature already alluded to. Mr. Machen has one simple expedient whereby he seeks to develop his effects. He piles them up very high, and makes his characters horror-struck at them.  This kind of thing:

“He seemed to pour forth an infamous jargon, with words, or what seemed like words, that might have belonged to a tongue dead since untold ages, and buried beneath Nilotic mud, or in the inmost recesses of the Mexican forest. For a moment the thought passed through my mind, as my ears were still revolted by that infernal clamour, ‘Surely this is the very speech of hell’; and then I cried out again and again, and ran away shuddering to my inmost soul.”

But it fails altogether to affect the reader as it is meant to do. It fails mainly because Mr. Machen has not mastered the necessary trick of commonplace detail which renders horrors convincing, and because he lacks even the most rudimentary conception of how to individualize characters. The framework of the book is evidently imitated from Mr. Stevenson’s “New Arabian Nights,” a humourous form quite unsuited, of course, to realistic horrors. Mr. Machen writes with care and a certain whimsical choice of words, so that his style is at least distinctive.

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