The Cult of Arthur Machen

If you’re fond of the festive tradition for ghost stories, Arthur Machen should be your next literary discovery. It’s 120 years since the publication of his creepy story set in Clerkenwell – and he experienced mystical visions in the neighbourhood…

Authors don’t get much more cult than Arthur Machen, a Welshman who wrote of “the sense of the eternal mysteries” he experienced while wandering Clerkenwell. Machen described “wonders that lie to the eastward of Gray’s Inn Road”. He even wrote a story entitled Strange Occurrence in Clerkenwell, which appeared in The Three Impostors (1895). Almost 120 years later, these tales of an occult secret society are still strange and thrilling. Arthur Conan Doyle read The Three Impostors and wrote to a friend that Machen was a “genius” but that he would not take his chilling tales “to bed with me again”.

Machen’s visionary stories also influenced writers ranging from HP Lovecraft and Borges to Poet Laureate (and Clerkenwell resident) John Betjeman, who was deeply affected by The Secret Glory (1922), a novel about the Holy Grail. But while decadent, terrifying tales of pagan sexuality such as The Great God Pan (1894) caused a stir in fin-desiècle society – and impressed Oscar Wilde – Machen never became a bestseller.

Last year marked 150 years since his birth and there’s been a resurgence of interest in this cult author. Stephen King described The Great God Pan as “one of the best horror stories ever written”. In 2012, Machen finally earned Penguin Classics status with The White People and Other Weird Stories. Machen’s masterpiece is The Hill of Dreams (1907), a novel about a doomed artist from Wales who experiences a ghostly vision of Roman occupation. It was described as “the most decadent book in the English language”. Machen was also a pioneer of psychogeography: his memoirs included a lyrical exploration of urban and suburban life and the imprint of former lives.

Iain psychogeography, has paid tribute to Machen’s ability to “get lost creatively” on his rambles. The city has mystical possibilities in Machen’s tales. Having grown up in rural Monmouthshire, the clergyman’s son (born Arthur Llewelyn Jones) described his sense of awe upon first visiting London as a teenager. Machen moved there in the 1880s and worked as a struggling writer, tutor and translator (he later translated Casanova’s memoirs). By 1895, he was living at 4 Verulam Buildings, off Gray’s Inn Road, and his roaming of Clerkenwell and other parts of the city is documented in The London Adventure (1924), now re-published in a handsome new edition.

‘Fancy is infinitely more impressive than fact’

In his wonderfully meandering memoir, Machen wrote about the “signs, omens, messages” he found in the city, as well as “strange things I once experienced… in forsaken Rosebery Avenue”. On that bright November morning, Machen felt like he was “walking on air”, according to his biographer John Gawsworth. And in Claremont Square,

Machen was apparently assailed by great gusts of incense without any obvious source. Machen’s spiritual experience may have been a result of bereavement: his wife, Amy, died of cancer in 1899. Around this time he dabbled in the occult, joining magical order the Golden Dawn. He also threw himself into a second career as an actor and married a fellow thespian, Dorothie Purefoy Hudleston, in 1903. Perhaps the role Machen was most associated with was Dr Johnson, and in 1922 he was filmed playing him in Gough Square.

Machen had to provide for his family by working in journalism, which he despised for its deadlines and the prostituting of his literary talent. From 1910, he was on The Evening News and soon covering big stories like the Siege of Sidney Street, a gunfight between the police and anarchist burglars. But there were also more unusual assignments, such as the time he interviewed a Clerkenwell brass founder about a poltergeist.

His greatest journalistic coup came in September 1914 when The Evening News published The Bowmen, his wartime ghost story about phantom archers from Agincourt aiding British troops at the Battle of Mons. The tale had not been clearly labelled as fiction and by the following summer the ‘Angels of Mons’ had entered the folklore of the First World War. “Fancy is infinitely more impressive than fact,” as Machen once said.

The 1920s provided a brief surge of popularity, but he ended up a struggling man of letters with his family in Amersham. A Civil List pension of £100 a year provided some financial aid. He died, aged 84, in 1947. For many years his supernatural tales were largely forgotten, though he’s now acknowledged as a huge influence on modern masters of horror. The next time you find yourself lost in Clerkenwell, think of Arthur Machen and his visionary stories.

“The London Adventure” is published by Three Impostors.