Arthur Machen was best known as a writer of short stories of horror and wonder. The publication of his work by specialists in decadence John Lane and the horrific and sexual nature of some of his stories meant he was associated with the aesthetic movement of the 1890s.
For the flaneur his work is of interest because of the way in which the city is used as a catalyst for the misadventures of his protagonists. The urban landscape is engendered with a profound and mystic quality. In the city all things both wonderful and terrible can occur. A chance encounter with a stranger, a mysterious tryst observed can lead the flaneur into a web of beautiful and dangerous possibilities.
The characters of Phillips and Dyson who feature in The Red Hand and The Three Imposters are flaneurs, gentlemen with time and money to pursue their arcane interests that is until a dark serendipity that can only occur in the city invades their doings and sets them on a different course. The Red Handunfolds as a singular mystery whilst The Three Imposters is a series of episodes linked by a common thread.
The Hill of Dreams is recognised as Machen’s strongest work and follows the descent of a doomed young writer, Lucian into despair and madness. Lucian’s ecstatic response to the landscape of his father’s home in rural Wales awakes within him a desire to pen his emotions and encapsulate his feelings in a literary masterwork. Inspired by his wanderings amongst the hills and wild places he is seduced by the phantasmagorical apparition of a nature spirit, manifest in the shape of a faun.
The embrace of a local farm girl inspires him further and after much struggling he submits a manuscript which is plagiarised by another author much to his chagrin. The death of a relative allows him to move to London and live on a small income in an effort to further his literary ambitions.
This is a novel about writing and the artistic pursuit of perfection. It typifies various decadent themes, the doomed artist, unnatural pursuits, dehumanisation and the decent into ill-health and madness. Lucian gorges himself on useless knowledge but he can’t shake the pagan awakening of dark spirits that occurred in the hills. He roams the streets of London, never resting, always close to despair for the masterwork that will never be written but always, ‘the anguish of the empty page,’ awaits him. The city is dark, brooding full of latent menace, the reader knows something dreadful will occur but is compelled to continue as the tension builds. This is not the city of the light-hearted flaneur but a dreadful place devoid of human feeling, always threatening an unnamed, wicked consequence.
‘All London was one grey temple of an awful rite.’ The young writer’s mind is haunted with occult terrors that escalate in their destructive nature until the book lurches on to an inevitable, terrible conclusion.
Lucian is destroyed by his pursuit of art, ‘Let us seek for more exquisite things,’ he says before his demise and that is what as flaneurs we must do to make life more tolerable for the benefit and enlightenment of our souls, damned as they are.
The Red Hand
The Three Imposters
The Hill of Dreams
All by Arthur Machen