‘The White People’ by Arthur Machen

Tales of horror and the supernatural, making Christianity sexy one story at a time. Machen’s tales find fertile ground in the persistence of pagan energy and ideas in the British/European countryside. Has to be some horror in this list and I remember these from when I was a kid. Machen’s influence on writers like Lovecraft, M John Harrison, Stewart Lee, Alan Moore and Robert Holdstock and undoes the received view of what it means to be English, British or whatever, revealing, hinting at, a seething otherness below.

First published in Horlick’s Magazine, 1904. Collected in The House of Souls, Grant Richards, 1906 and, most recently, The White People and Other Weird Stories, Penguin Classics, 2012

‘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

‘N’ by Arthur Machen

Arnold, Perrot and Harliss, three old men, gather one winter night in Arnold’s comfortable second floor rooms, to rehearse shared—and not so shared—memories of London streets. It all goes quite slowly. They make punch, they maunder on “about the old-fashioned rather than the old”, and suddenly they’re arguing about Stoke Newington, that “wild no man’s land of the north”, and N. What is N? Well, N is a park, a park which according to one testimony has long been built over, and is now just a lot of dull once-prosperous streets with names like “Park Crescent”; but according to another is like

finding yourself in another country. Such trees, that must have been brought from the end of the world: there were none like them in England, though one or two reminded him of trees in Kew Gardens; deep hollows with streams running from the rocks; lawns all purple and gold with flowers, and golden lilies too, towering up into the trees, and mixing with the crimson of the flowers that hung from the boughs. And here and there, there were little summer-houses and temples, shining white in the sun, like a view in China

Perhaps N as glimpsed is an earlier state of the world, visible from unlikely angles. Or perhaps N is Stoke Newington, full of the deep alchemical plasticity of the ordinary. Arnold, briefly obsessed, searches vainly through records written and oral: he even visits Stoke Newington. But the more he pursues it, the more N, so briefly held in superposition between the memories of Harliss and Perrot, slips out of view. There’s no one left to ask if it was ever there, not these days, now the three old men are gone. Machen was 75 when he wrote this.

First published in The Cosy Room, 1936. Widely collected, including in The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories, Oxford World’s Classics, 2018, and available online, including here