The Great God Pan is an 1890 novella by the controversial Welsh ghost story writer Arthur Machen. On publication it was widely denounced by the press as degenerate and horrific because of its decadent style and sexual content, although it has since garnered a reputation as a classic of horror. In many ways the story reflects the author’s absorption with the wondrous, the uncanny and the unknown. “In every grain of wheat there lies hidden the soul of a star” Machen writes in an early page of The Great God Pan, which might be said to be the mystical doctrine that informs all of his principal writings. Machen’s novels and tales possess a thematic unity in that running through them all are two polarised strands – terror and wonder – and occasionally they meet and intertwine. Indeed, while the necromantic fantasies produced by Machen in the 1890s later led to him being labelled the ‘laureate of evil’, he had by then already assumed another mantle – that of the ‘apostle of wonder’, for the diabolic and the divine lie at the heart of his fiction. But Machen’s own life is perhaps his greatest creation; for it is exactly the life we might expect such a poet and visionary to have lived.
Born in 1863 in the village of Caerleon-on-Usk in Wales, Machen was fascinated since youth by the Roman antiquities in his region as well as by the rural Welsh countryside. When he failed an examination for the Royal College of Surgeons he went to London in the hope that his ardent enthusiasm for books might land him some literary work. But only poverty and loneliness awaited him in London, where he dragged out a meagre existence as a translator, tutor and cataloguer. It took the inheritance he obtained on the unfortunate death of his father in 1887 for Machen to gain the economic independence he required to write whatever he chose, without thought of markets or sales. It was during this period that one of his first works of fiction, The Great God Pan (click to read!), created a sensation when it appeared in book form in 1894. It shocked the moral guardians of an enfeebled Victorian culture as the diseased outpourings of a decadent mind; but the reviewers who condemned it as sexually offensive could not know that Machen shared the very inhibitions he seemed to be defying.
That Machen chose to work in the literature of the supernatural is of interest in itself. Like the best writers of weird fiction, he seemed to understand that supernatural motifs could serve as metaphors for the expression of truths about the human condition in a more vivid and pungent manner than in conventional fiction. Thus, The Great God Pan was the result of Machen’s childhood fascination with a lonely white house, Bertholly, gleaned through the trees of Wentwood, the ancient forest which rises north-east of Caerleon. This house “became one of the many symbols of the world of wonder that were offered to me, it became… a great word in the secret language by which the mysteries were communicated”, he wrote. Machen’s principal technique in the novella, which he would adopt for nearly all his weird tales, was to avoid explicit descriptions of visceral horrors and allow sinister hints to work on the reader’s imagination. Machen’s view was that a mystery revealed no longer remained a mystery, but this reticence may have alienated as many readers as it attracted, for on its publication the tale was ridiculed by a host of reviewers.
The much-debated title of the story was possibly inspired by the poem A Musical Instrument, published in 1862 by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, in which the first line of every stanza ends “… the great god Pan”. Machen’s story focuses on the classical arboreal deity Pan as a useful symbol for the power of nature and paganism. Despite its controversial nature, it has to be said that the novella was not without its admirers at the time, and its reputation has only grown over the years. H P Lovecraft praised the story, saying: “No one could begin to describe the cumulative suspense and ultimate horror with which every paragraph abounds”. In fact, the story’s depiction of a monstrous half-human hybrid inspired the plot of Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror, which refers by name to Machen’s tale. A more recent admirer is Stephen King, who wrote in the endnotes for his story collection Just After Sunset (2008) that his newly published novella N. was “strongly influenced” by Machen’s piece, which he later described as “one of the best horror stories ever written. Maybe the best in the English language”. That’s quite an endorsement!