See biographies by his wife, and also by O. Sandys (1946), and T. L. Williams (1970).
Arthur Machen (March 3, 1863 – December 15, 1947) was a leading Welsh author of the 1890s. He is best known for his influential supernatural, fantasy, and horror fiction. He also is well known for his leading role in creating the legend of the Angels of Mons.
Machen was born Arthur Llewelyn Jones, in Caerleon (now part of Newport), Monmouthshire, though he usually referred to the county by its Welsh name Gwent. His father, John Edward Jones, became vicar of the tiny church of Llandewi Fach, near Caerleon, and his son was brought up at the rectory there. His father had adopted his wife's maiden name, Machen, to inherit a legacy, legally becoming "Jones-Machen", and his son was baptised under this name, and he later used a shortened version of his full name, Arthur Machen, as a pen-name.
At the age of eleven, Machen boarded at Hereford Cathedral School, where he received an excellent classical education. Family poverty ruled out attendance at university, and Machen was sent to London, where he sat exams to attend medical school but failed to get in. Machen, however, showed literary promise, publishing in 1881 a long poem "Eleusinia" on the subject of the Eleusinian Mysteries. Returning to London, he lived in relative poverty, attempting to work as a journalist, as a publisher's clerk, and as a children’s tutor while writing in the evening and going on long rambling walks across London.
In 1884, he published his second work, the pastiche The Anatomy of Tobacco, and secured work with the publisher and bookseller George Redway as a cataloguer and magazine editor. This led to further work as a translator from French, translating the Heptameron of Marguerite de Navarre, Le Moyen de Parvenir (Fantastic Tales) of Béroalde de Verville, and the Memoirs of Casanova. Machen's translations in a spirited English style became standard ones for many years.
In 1887, Machen married Amy Hogg, an unconventional music teacher with a passion for the theatre, who had literary friends in London's Bohemian circles. Hogg had introduced Machen to the writer and occultist A. E. Waite, who was to become one of Machen's closest friends. Machen also made the acquaintance of other literary figures, such as M. P. Shiel and Edgar Jepson. Soon after his marriage, Machen began to receive a series of legacies from Scottish relatives that allowed him to gradually devote more time to writing.
Around 1890 Machen began to publish in literary magazines, writing stories influenced by the works of Robert Louis Stevenson, some of which used gothic or fantastic themes. This led to his first major success, "The Great God Pan". It was published in 1894 by John Lane in the noted Keynotes Series, which was part of the growing aesthetic movement of the time. Machen’s story was widely denounced for its sexual and horrific content and subsequently sold well, going into a second edition.
Machen next produced The Three Impostors, a novel composed of a number of interwoven tales, in 1895. The novel and the stories within it were eventually to be regarded as among Machen’s best works.
However, following the scandal surrounding Oscar Wilde later that year, Machen’s association with works of decadent horror made it difficult for him to find a publisher for new works. Thus, though he would write some of his greatest works over the next few years, some were published much later. These included The Hill of Dreams, Hieroglyphics, A Fragment of Life, the story "The White People", and the stories which make up Ornaments in Jade.
In 1899, Machen’s wife Amy died of cancer after a long period of illness. This had a devastating effect on Machen. He only gradually recovered from his loss over the next year, partially through his close friendship with A. E. Waite. It was through Waite’s influence that Machen joined at this time the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, though Machen’s interest in the organization was not a lasting one.
Machen’s recovery was further helped by his sudden change of career, becoming an actor in 1901 and a member of Frank Benson’s company of travelling players, a profession which took him round the country. This led in 1903 to a second marriage, to Dorothie Purefoy Hudleston, which brought Machen much happiness. Machen managed to find a publisher in 1902 for his earlier written work Hieroglyphics, an analysis of the nature of literature, which concluded that true literature must convey ecstasy. In 1906 Machen’s literary career began once more to flourish as the book The House of Souls collected his most notable works of the nineties and brought them to a new audience. He also published a satirical work, Dr Stiggins: His Views and Principles, generally considered one of his weakest works.
Machen also was at this time investigating Celtic Christianity, the Holy Grail and King Arthur. Publishing his views in Lord Alfred Douglas’s The Academy, for which he wrote regularly, Machen concluded that the legends of the Grail actually were based on dim recollections of the rites of the Celtic Church. These ideas also featured strongly in the novel The Secret Glory, which he wrote at this time, marking the first use of the idea in fiction of the Grail surviving into modern times in some form, an idea much utilised ever since as by Charles Williams (UK writer), Dan Brown and in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. In 1907, The Hill of Dreams, generally considered Machen’s masterpiece, was finally published, though it was not recognized much at the time.
The next few years saw Machen continue with acting in various companies and with journalistic work, but he was finding it increasingly hard to earn a living and his legacies were long exhausted. Machen was also attending literary gatherings like the New Bohemians and the Square Club.
Finally Machen accepted a full-time journalist’s job at Alfred Harmsworth’s Evening News in 1910. In February 1912 his son Hilary was born, followed by a daughter Janet in 1917. The coming of war in 1914 saw Machen return to public prominence for the first time in twenty years due to the publication of "The Bowmen" and the subsequent publicity surrounding the "Angels of Mons" episode. He published a series of stories capitalizing on this success, most of which were morale-boosting propaganda, but the most notable, The Great Return (1915), and the novella The Terror (1917), were more accomplished. He also published a series of autobiographical articles during the war, later published as Far Off Things. During the war years Machen also met and championed the work of a fellow Welshman Caradoc Evans.
In general, though, Machen thoroughly disliked work at the newspaper, and it was only the need to earn money for his family which kept him at it. The money came in useful, allowing him to move in 1919 to a bigger house with a garden, in St John's Wood, which became a noted location for literary gatherings attended by friends like the painter Augustus John, Wyndham Lewis, and Jerome K. Jerome. Machen’s dismissal from the Evening News in 1921 came as a relief in one sense, though it caused financial problems. Machen, however, was recognized as a great Fleet Street character by his contemporaries, and he remained in demand as an essay writer for much of the twenties.
The year 1922 also saw a revival in Machen’s literary fortunes. The Secret Glory was finally published, as was his autobiography Far Off Things, and new editions of Machen’s Casanova, The House of Souls and The Hill of Dreams all came out. Machen’s works had now found a new audience and publishers in America, and a series of requests for republications of books started to come in. Vincent Starrett, James Branch Cabell, and Carl Van Vechten were American Machen devotees who helped in this process.
A sign of his rising fortunes were shown by publication in 1923 of a collected edition of his works and a bibliography. That year also saw the publication of a recently completed second volume of autobiography, Things Near and Far—the final volume, The London Adventure, being published in 1924. Machen’s earlier works suddenly started becoming much sought after collectors items at this time, a position they have held ever since. In 1924 he issued a collection of bad reviews of his own work, with very little commentary, under the title Precious Balms. In this period of prosperity Machen's home saw many visitors and social gatherings and Machen made new friends such as Oliver Stonor.
By 1926 the boom in republication was mostly over, and Machen’s income dropped. He continued republishing earlier works in collected editions, as well as writing essays and articles for various magazines and newspapers and contributing forewords and introductions to both his own and other writers' works, but produced little new fiction. In 1927, he became a manuscript reader for the publisher Ernest Benn, which brought in a much-needed regular income until 1933.
In 1929, Machen and his family moved away from London to Amersham in Buckinghamshire, but they still faced financial hardship. He received some recognition for his literary work when he received a Civil List pension of one hundred pounds in 1932, but the loss of work from Benns a year later made things difficult once more. A few more collections of Machen’s shorter works were published in the thirties, partially as a result of the championing of Machen by John Gawsworth, who also began work on a biography of Machen that was only published in 2005 thanks to The Friends of Arthur Machen.
Machen’s financial difficulties were only finally ended by the literary appeal launched in 1943 for his eightieth birthday. The initial names on the appeal show the general recognition of Machen’s stature as a distinguished man of letters, as they included Max Beerbohm, T. S. Eliot, Bernard Shaw, Walter de la Mare, Algernon Blackwood, and John Masefield. The success of the appeal allowed Machen to live the last few years of his life, until 1947, in relative comfort.
From the beginning of his literary career, Machen espoused a mystical belief that the humdrum ordinary world hid a more mysterious and strange world beyond. His gothic and decadent works of the 1890s concluded that the lifting of this veil could lead to madness, sex, or death, and usually a combination of all three. Machen’s later works became somewhat less obviously full of gothic trappings, but for him investigations into mysteries invariably resulted in life-changing transformation and sacrifice. Machen loved the medieval world view because he felt it combined deep spirituality alongside a rambunctious earthiness.
Machen was a great enthusiast for literature that he felt to be expressive of the joy inherent in life, thus conveying a feeling of ecstasy. His main passions were for writers and writing he felt achieved this, an idiosyncratic list which included the Mabinogion and other medieval romances, François Rabelais, Miguel de Cervantes, William Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson, Thomas de Quincey, Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Allan Poe, and Robert Louis Stevenson. Those writers who failed to achieve this, or far worse did not even attempt it, received short shrift from Machen.
Machen’s strong opposition to a materialistic viewpoint is obvious in many of his works, marking him as part of neo-romanticism. He was deeply suspicious of science, materialism, commerce, and Puritanism, all of which were anathema to Machen's conservative, bohemian, mystical, and ritualistic temperament. Machen’s virulent satirical streak against things he disliked has been regarded as a weakness in his work, and rather dating, especially when it comes to the fore in works such as Dr Stiggins. Similarly, some of his propagandistic First World War stories also have little appeal to a modern audience.
Machen, brought up as the son of a Church of England clergyman, always held Christian beliefs, though accompanied by a fascination with sensual mysticism; his interests in paganism and the occult were especially prominent in his earliest works. Machen was well read on such matters as alchemy, the kabbalah, and Hermeticism, and these occult interests formed part of his close friendship with A. E. Waite. Machen, however, was always very down to earth, requiring substantial proof that a supernatural event had occurred, and was thus highly sceptical of Spiritualism. Unlike many of his contemporaries, such as Oscar Wilde and Alfred Douglas, his disapproval of the Reformation and his admiration for the medieval world and its Roman Catholic ritualism did not fully tempt him away from Anglicanism—though he never fitted comfortably into the Victorian Anglo-Catholic world.
The death of his first wife led him to a spiritual crossroads, and he experienced a series of mystical events. After his experimentation with the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the orthodox ritual of the Church became ever more important to him, gradually defining his position as a High Church Anglican who was able to incorporate elements from his own mystical experiences, Celtic Christianity, and readings in literature and legend into his thinking.
Machen's literary significance is substantial; his stories have been translated into many languages and reprinted in short story anthologies countless times. In the sixties, a paperback reprint in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series brought him to the notice of a new generation. More recently, the small press has continued to keep Machen's work in print.
Literary critics such as Wesley D. Sweetser and S. T. Joshi see Machen's works as a significant part of the late Victorian revival of the gothic novel and the decadent movement of the 1890s, bearing direct comparison to the themes found in contemporary works like Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Bram Stoker's Dracula, and Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray. At the time authors like Wilde, William Butler Yeats, and Arthur Conan Doyle were all admirers of Machen's works. He is also usually noted in the better studies of Anglo-Welsh literature. The French writer Paul-Jean Toulet translated Machen's The Great God Pan into French and visited Machen in London.
His popularity in 1920s America has been noted, and Machen's work was an influence on the development of the pulp horror found in magazines like Weird Tales and on such notable fantasy writers as James Branch Cabell, Clark Ashton Smith, and Robert E. Howard.
His significance was recognized by H. P. Lovecraft, who in his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature named Machen as one of the four "modern masters" of supernatural horror (with Algernon Blackwood, Lord Dunsany, and M. R. James). Machen's influence on Lovecraft's own work is substantial. Lovecraft's reading of Machen in the early 1920s led him away from his earlier Dunsanian writing towards the development of what became the Cthulhu Mythos. Machen's use of a contemporary Welsh or London background in which sinister ancient horrors lurk and are capable of interbreeding with modern people obviously helped inspire Lovecraft's similar use of a New England background. The story "The White People" includes strange references to curious unknown rites and beings, an idea Lovecraft uses frequently in the mythos.
Lovecraft pays tribute to the influence by directly incorporating some of Machen's creations and references, such as Nodens and Aklo, into his Cthulhu Mythos and using similar plotlines, most notably seen by a comparison of "The Dunwich Horror" to The Great God Pan and of "The Novel of the Black Seal" to "The Whisperer in Darkness". Other Lovecraft tales with a debt or reference to Machen include "The Call of Cthulhu", "The Festival", "Cool Air", "The Descendant", and "The Colour Out of Space".
His intense, atmospheric stories of horror and the supernatural have been read and enjoyed by many modern horror and fantasy writers, influencing directly Peter Straub, Ramsey Campbell, Graham Joyce, Simon Clark, Tim Lebbon, Mark Samuels, and T. E. D. Klein, to name but a few. Klein's novel The Ceremonies was partly based on Machen's "The White People", and Straub's novel Ghost Story was influenced by "The Great God Pan".
Machen's influence is not limited to genre fiction, however. Jorge Luis Borges recognized Machen as a great writer, and through him Machen has had an influence on magic realism. He was also a major influence on Paul Bowles, and Javier Marias. He was one of the most significant figures in the life of the Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman, who attributed to Machen his conversion to High Church Anglicanism, an important part of his philosophy and poetry. Sylvia Townsend Warner (a niece of Machen's second wife, Purefoy) admired Machen and was influenced by him, as is his great-granddaughter, contemporary artist Tessa Farmer.
Machen was also a pioneer in psychogeography, due to his interest in the interconnection between landscape and the mind. His strange wanderings in Wales and London recorded in his beautiful prose make him of great interest to writers on this subject, especially those focusing on London, such as Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd. Alan Moore wrote an exploration of Machen's mystical experiences in his work Snakes and Ladders. Aleister Crowley loved Machen's works, feeling they contained "Magickal" truth, and put them on the reading list for his students, though Machen, who never met him, detested Crowley. Other occultists, such as Kenneth Grant, also find Machen an inspiration. Far closer to Machen's personal mystical world view was his effect on his friend Evelyn Underhill, who reflected some of Machen's thinking in her highly influential book Mysticism.
To date, apart from a version of "The Shining Pyramid" for UK television in 1980 and the 1960 Mexican film El Esqueleto de la señora Morales (adapted from "The Islington Mystery"), Machen's works have not been adapted for film or television. While it is probably true that the strange and disturbing atmosphere of many of his stories (like Lovecraft's) would not be easy to translate to the screen, it could be argued that many of his works would be prime material for visual realisation. Films with Machen influences or references include Pan's Labyrinth, Lemora, and John Carpenter's 1980 film The Fog (which features a character named "Mr. Machen", portrayed by veteran actor John Houseman).
In music, the composer John Ireland found Machen's works to be a life-changing experience that directly influenced much of his composition. Mark E. Smith of The Fall also found Machen an inspiration. Likewise, Current 93 have drawn on the mystical and occult leanings of Machen, with songs such as "The Inmost Light", which shares its title with Machen's story. Some works on the Ghost Box Music label like Belbury Poly and We Are All Pan's People draw heavily on Machen. It is an interest also shared by film directors like Guillermo del Toro and Richard Stanley. Other notable figures with an enthusiasm for Machen have included Brocard Sewell, Barry Humphries, Stewart Lee and Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury.
An Arthur Machen Society was established in 1948 in the United States and survived until the 1960s. It was followed by the Arthur Machen Society based in the UK, in 1986, which in turn was replaced by the current literary society, The Friends of Arthur Machen.