‘The Great God Pan’ by Arthur Machen

I suspect this is technically a novella and therefore a cheat, but Machen’s high-gothic and frankly often bonkers tale of mad scientists, femme fatales and late-Victorian brain surgery is far too much fun to leave off my list. Opening on a scene so overblown it could have been shot by Mel Brooks, a scientist operates on a young woman who is rendered insane after glimpsing a universe beyond the elemental world and things more or less progress from there. We leap forwards to Victorian London and from here find ourselves embroiled in a string of accidental and often inexplicable deaths, all of which seem somehow tied to a beautiful yet sinister woman named Helen and an apparent manifestation of the pagan god Pan. 

The plot is overripe with all the usual anxieties of the fin-de-siècle and abounds with corrosive sexuality, semi-vampiric women and moral decay. It’s gossipy, spooky and includes a character who is, in all seriousness, writing a book titled Memoirs to Prove the Existence of the Devil. Machen was enormously admired by Lovecraft, who described him as a master of suspense, and the similarities between the two are evident. Enjoyable enough as a straight horror story, ‘The Great God Pan’ is almost more entertaining when viewed as a piece of high camp.

First published in partial form in The Whirlwind, 1894. Most recently collected in The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories, Oxford World’s Classics, 2018, and available to read online here

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