I had been wanting to check out Arthur Machen's 1906 collection of short stories, entitled "The House of Souls," for quite some time; even since I had read two highly laudatory pieces written about this work and its author. The first was H.P. Lovecraft's comments in his widely referred to essay "Supernatural Horror in Literature," in which he claims "Of living creators of cosmic fear raised to its most artistic pitch, few if any can hope to equal the versatile Arthur Machen." And, in Jones & Newman's excellent overview volume "Horror: 100 Best Books," T.E.D. Klein, in his essay on "The House of Souls," refers to Machen as "fantasy's pre-eminent stylist." Well, after years of looking, I finally managed to lay hands on a somewhat beaten-up copy of the 1928 Borzoi edition of this collection, and can now see what all the fuss has been about. My edition only contains four of the book's original stories; "The Novel of the Black Seal," "The Novel of the White Powder" and "The Red Hand" have been omitted. (Apparently, the book has had a complicated publishing history.) What remains, however, has served as a very fine introduction to Machen ("rhymes with 'blacken,'" Klein reveals) in my own case.
The Borzoi edition kicks off with the novella-length piece "A Fragment of Life," which tells of a newlywed couple, the Darnells, living in a London suburb. Machen piles on an enormous amount of fine detail to illustrate the Darnells' life; thus, we learn of their plans to redecorate a bedroom, how much they pay for groceries, the social life of their maid, the problems that Mrs. Darnell's aunt is having, and on and on. It only gradually dawns on the reader, and on Mr. Darnell, that this is, literally, just a fragment of life, indeed; that all this mundane nonsense is just a masklike covering that hides a greater reality. Like many of the characters of Algernon Blackwood and, much later, P.K. Dick, Mr. Darnell seeks to pierce the illusion of our so-called reality, and this initially prosaic story winds up being quite an eerie and mystical ride as a result. The next tale in this collection, "The White People," was Lovecraft's second-favorite horror story of all time, after Blackwood's "The Willows." In this one, a man is given the diary of a young girl by another man who wishes to demonstrate what the real nature of evil is all about. The bulk of the story consists of the girl's seemingly naive and rambling notes in her journal, and we learn that she is a sorceress of sorts, being trained by her nurse is some kind of dark arts. Nothing is really spelled out for the reader in this piece; rather, through the use of narrated fairy tales, strange incidents and almost hallucinatory journeys, a very unsettling aura is engendered. It is all very allusive and suggestive, demanding of the reader a great exercise of the imagination. I suppose that Lovecraft had a greater imagination than mine (no great surprise there, though!), because I was left wanting a bit more from this tale. Still, some pretty eerie stuff. The oft-anthologized "The Great God Pan" is up next, to my mind the strongest story of the bunch. In this one, a scientist performs a brain operation on a young woman to (again) pierce the veil that obscures an ultimate reality. Seventeen years later, a mysterious, debauched woman causes a rash of suicides in London high society, as a small group of men tries to figure out just what is going on. Reading like a late 19th century detective story crossed with the supernatural, this is one bravura piece of work from Mr. Machen, and concludes in a suitably gruesome and gooey manner. The story is a bit too dependent on coincidence in its telling, but remains most impressive. Finally, in my Borzoi edition, is "The Inmost Light," still another tale of a scientist trying to peer behind the curtain to behold a truer reality. Here, another woman is the subject of an experiment that produces horrifying results. The described image of Mrs. Black's hideous face in an upstairs window, as seen by our narrator from some distance away, is one that lingers in the memory. As in "The White People" and "The Great God Pan," most of the horrors are suggested rather than spelled out in this tale, which may be a disappointment to a modern reader steeped in the current tradition of gore and grue, but there is no denying the chilling mood that these stories can evoke.
I should perhaps mention here that "The House of Souls" was NOT that easy a read for me. There are dozens of references to English life of a century or more ago that may mean little to the 21st century reader (just what IS an "A.B.C. girl," anyway?), not to mention much British slang, Latin expressions and so on. A detailed street map of London proved invaluable to me as I read this book. Still, a little effort in these matters always results in a deeper appreciation, and there surely is much to appreciate in "The House of Souls." It is certainly well worth any reader's time. Thanks, T.E.D., and thanks, H.P.!