A few years ago, I considered writing a short article entitled “Arthur Machen’s Cat.” I was not exactly certain of the subject the article would treat at the time. Nor was I even certain whether Arthur Machen ever in fact owned a cat (I assume he did). I am ashamed to say that as I sat down to write, I realized I did not know much about Arthur Machen aside from his literary works and various references scattered throughout essays on horror and weird fiction. I had a title I liked and nothing more. Needless to say, the article was never written.
Yet in sitting down to compose the piece, I did take the time to acquaint myself with the more recondite details of Machen’s life and career. While often considered one of the founders of horror, Machen was a versatile writer. If he is known for his works treating themes concerned with mysticism and the occult, he also turned out pieces of decadent fiction, numerous newspaper editorials, and even contributed propaganda to assist the British effort during the First World War. He was a regular among the Fleet Street journalists in London during the early 1900s and produced two volumes of an autobiography which remain among some of his finest publications. His reputation as an overlooked or “lost” writer during his lifetime—a mainstay of the Machen lore to this day—often obscures the fact that Machen was a well-respected cultural figure in his own period. The more I examined Machen, the less he seemed the unappreciated spinner of weird tales that critics tend to idealize. In fact, his extensive body of work did not appear to be a corpus heralding a new genre at all. Certainly, seminal works like “The Great God Pan,” or “The White People” fit this description, but as for other works it was difficult to peg Machen as an originator of “weird” tales as they are understood today. Where did this attribution come from? How had it come to be that Machen, a Welsh writer and actor who dabbled in numerous genres, was considered one of the forefathers of modern horror and the weird?
Although Machen was known for writing decadent horror or “shilling shockers” in the late Victorian period, this output was not what secured his reputation as a forerunner of weird fiction, a genre which hardly existed in his day. As with most aspects of weird fiction, it is necessary to turn to H. P. Lovecraft to understand Machen’s place in the pantheon. In his famous essay Supernatural Horror in Literature written between 1925 and 1927, Lovecraft acknowledged Machen as an author whose works embodied a “cosmic fear raised to its most artistic pitch . . . [in which] hidden horror and brooding fright attain an almost incomparable substance and realistic acuteness.” As Lovecraft firmly argued, Machen’s style of cosmic horror and mysticism marked “a distinct epoch in the history of this literary form.” This was a strong endorsement that cemented Machen’s place in a lineage chronicling the origins of modern horror and, ultimately, the brand of “weird” fiction that Lovecraft would promote in the years ahead.
The question of whether such accolades are merited or not is a moot point. More important is the fact that Lovecraft was providing weird fiction with what might amount to a canon and a history. He was, at base, constructing a genealogy through which his conception of supernatural horror could be made intelligible in light of his own influences. In Supernatural Horror in Literature, Lovecraft even offered a set of principles and criteria by which to identify weird fiction, setting it apart from cruder and more vulgar genres such as mere “horror.” As Lovecraft saw it, weird fiction did not “conform absolutely to any theoretical model.” Rather, weird fiction possessed “atmospheric touches” that affected readers. “We must judge a weird tale not by the author’s intent, or by the mere mechanics of the plot, but by the emotional level which it attains at its least mundane point,” he urged. “If the proper sensations are excited, such a ‘high spot’ must be admitted on its own merits as weird literature.” Simply put, Lovecraft saw weird fiction as an aesthetic rather than a genre. Weird elements can be found in works, but “weird” fiction is not guided by narrative conventions or particular literary structures. It is a mood or a sentiment. Whereas horror is concerned with the grotesque or arousing fear in the reader, weird fiction resides in the disturbing and the problematic nature of representations. To paraphrase Xavier Aldana Reyes, weird fiction emphasizes the limited knowledge of the natural world that we inhabit, a realization that is both frightening and awe-inspiring.
It is precisely this element that allows for the “cosmic” horror noted by Lovecraft. It is found in key works such as William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland (1908) or Algernon Blackwood’s classic “The Willows” (1907). Both works play upon a certain supernatural dread which looms over the characters, but which is never fully explained or made manifest by the conclusion. In “The Willows,” it is the impenetrability of the natural world that persistently reinforces the aesthetic of the weird. The menacing willows which haunt the two characters throughout the story signify the “keen sense of the horrible” that ultimately comes with unknowing. In Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland, the narrator not only faces grotesque creatures from the “The Plain of Silence” but also experiences an accelerated state of time as he watches the universe slowly extinguish and die around him. The sense of “cosmic” horror here is complete, whether in the sublime experience of gazing upon an obliterated cosmos or in the unsettling feeling which Blackwood evokes in a threatening natural world that is ultimately beyond our comprehension.
For all their originality, however, neither Hodgson nor Blackwood worked in a vacuum. They employed certain standard motifs such as characters lost in the wild or foreboding houses with troubling histories that were common to gothic horror written a century earlier. And yet, one would be hard pressed to label either of these writers as practitioners of gothic horror. From Horace Walpole to Edgard Allan Poe, the so-called “gothic romance” rested upon a sense of finite human history that frequently looked back to the Middle Ages. Old, decaying family lines and medieval castles frame settings that, if calling up a remote past, are still recognizable. Moreover, if gothic stories fed on the uncanny and grotesque, they often explained away seemingly supernatural events, providing readers with a sense of resolution. One need only consider Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue” in which a bizarre series of murders are revealed to be the doings of an escaped orangutan to grasp this explanatory tendency. Therefore, while the gothic tradition delved into concepts of psychological fear and elicited fright in its readers, it clearly stands apart from the type of “cosmic” horror Lovecraft attributed to weird fiction.
As recent scholars have noted, weird fiction utilizes a completely different chronological spectrum compared to its gothic predecessor. Coming of age in a period in which disciplines such as anthropology and geology were gaining primacy, weird tales often evoke the “deep time” that extends beyond the Anthropocene. It conjures up old, primeval horrors or distant future horizons that dwarf human conceptions of time and existence. We are in the realm of the “elder gods,” old lore, or the ancient civilization of Machen’s “Little People.” The extended sense of time that pervades weird fiction is what generates the sense of awe and unknowing central to so many works. It stretches the natural world across eons, showing it to be something apart from man with its own history, logic, and even destiny. To recognize deep cosmic time is to appreciate nature’s impenetrability, its utter vastness and inhumanity. Weird fiction grew up among a world that was increasingly seen in secular and scientific terms, and it often reflected such outlooks in its use of scientific motifs such as antediluvian monsters, conceptions of the cosmos, or an acute attention to nature. However, it also infused these elements with mystical and arcane meaning, shrouding them in an aura that is both horrifying and sublime.
In his autobiography Far Off Things (1922), Machen described the influence he believed the Welsh countryside which he grew up in had upon his fiction writing. “I shall always esteem it as the greatest piece of fortune that has fallen to me that I was born in that noble, fallen Caerleon-on-Usk, in the heart of Gwent …” he claimed. “Anything which I may have accomplished in literature is due to the fact that when my eyes were first opened in earliest childhood they had before them the vision of an enchanted land.” This “enchanted land” would play a role in many of Machen’s works, but it also expresses a broader goal of weird fiction: embedding mystical experience in the modern scientific world. This premise would, ultimately, provide the substance for later authors like Clark Ashton Smith, Robert Aickman and Ramsey Campbell, to name a few. It underscores the very idea of the “cosmic fear” theorized by Lovecraft.
In noting these various conceptual threads and thematic convergences that cut across authors such as Machen, Hodgson and Blackwood, we may ask whether we can speak of pre-Lovecraftian “weird fiction”? This question poses numerous problems. Lovecraft popularized the term “weird fiction” but he also provided it with a history as well as an aesthetic to a greater extent than others before him. In doing so, he constructed a genealogy that drew together the various parts and synthesized them into a veritable tradition. Did Lovecraft invent an aesthetic and retrospectively imprinted it upon his predecessors in order to validate his conception of “weird” fiction? Or, conversely, did he act as an objective critic, discovering and identifying these qualities already evident within the works themselves? This question is not so much theoretical as it is a matter of perspective. Nevertheless, it is not one that we need puzzle over here. Other nagging questions may demand our attention at present. I have yet to see a picture of Arthur Machen with a cat. It makes me wonder.
Noël Carroll, The Philosophy of Horror, or Paradoxes of the Heart. New York: Routledge, 1990.
Mark Fisher, The Weird and The Eerie. London: Repeater Books, 2016.
Matthew Hills, The Pleasures of Horror. London: Continuum Press, 2005.
James Machin, Weird Fiction in Britain, 1880-1939. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.
Alistair Rey, “A Horror So Sublime: From Poe to The Elephant Man,” Transmundane Press (25 July 2018).
Aaron Worth, “The Horror of Geologic Time,” The Paris Review (31 October 2008).
Alistair Rey began his career in Romania writing political propaganda for post-authoritarian governments. He has since advertised himself as an author of “fiction and parafiction,” an archivist, a political satirist and a dealer in rare books and manuscripts. His work has appeared in the Berkeley Fiction Review, Juked magazine and Weird Book, among other publications. A complete list of works and stories is available at the Parenthetical Review website (parentheticalreview.com).