It has variously been described as ‘without doubt the most decadent book in all of English literature’ and ‘the most beautiful book in the world’. Notions of aesthetic decadence inevitably shift with time, since later generations smile or puzzle over works that outraged our grandparents, but Arthur Machen’s The Hill of Dreams still merits the claim to be the most exquisite novel ever written. One of the finest hymns to the power of the imagination, in which prose is elevated to poetry, a new edition of the book is being published this summer by Parthian in their Library of Wales series. ‘I will not say it is the greatest book written in the English language (that for the idle critics),’ wrote Henry Miller in 1925, ‘but I can say that it has bereft me of emotion.’ Yet most modern readers have never heard of this classic, let alone read it.
Machen began The Hill of Dreams in the fateful year 1895, just months after Oscar Wilde’s ‘feasting with panthers’ led to the dramatist’s imprisonment for homosexual offences. A backlash erupted against the ‘artists in sin’ and anything redolent of perversity and decadence in literature. Machen’s publisher John Lane, proprietor of The Bodley Head (dubbed ‘The Sodley Bed’), which produced The Yellow Book, had his offices in Vigo Street stoned by a mob after Wilde’s arrest. ‘The Nineties began in 1889 and ended in 1895,’ as Wilde’s biographer Richard Ellmann has observed. In such a febrile atmosphere no publisher would touch Machen’s book. The Hill of Dreams was viewed as an intoxicating and unwholesome mix of drug addiction, sensuality and sadomasochism, with hints of paganism and witchcraft. One of the hero’s esoteric pursuits is to tear his flesh with thorns in secret ceremonies as a martyr for love. A passage seems to hint at lesbianism, thirty years before Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness ran into controversy and an indecency trial. One can understand why Victorian publishers were nervous. It was only in 1889 that the elderly publisher Henry Vizetelly, whom Machen knew, had been jailed for issuing translations of Zola that were judged obscene.
But who was Arthur Machen? The short answer is that he is English literature’s best kept secret. The godfather of magic realism was mixing the miraculous with the mundane back in the Beardsley era when ‘yellow bookery was at its yellowest’. Machen combines the demonic imagination of Edgar Allan Poe, the visionary powers of William Blake, with Dickens’s genius for evoking Gothic London and Thomas Hardy’s gift for capturing landscape. ‘The most wonderful man writing English to-day and nobody knows him!’ enthused one of his American disciples, Carl Van Vechten, in the 1920s. The sentiment could hold true in 2010 save that ‘the Apostle of Wonder’ is once again at the centre of an international literary cult as in the 1920s. His admirers include such diverse figures as Stephen King, Barry Humphries, Mick Jagger, The Fall’s Mark E. Smith and graphic novelist Alan Moore; while among the illustrious dead John Betjeman, Jorge Luis Borges, cinematic genius Michael Powell and Bernard Herrmann, Hitchcock’s regular musical collaborator, were Machen devotees. Some of the loveliest melodies of John Ireland were inspired by Machen’s tales.
A thriving Machen society exists (www.machensoc.demon.co.uk): the third of its kind. An occult library is named after him in Guillermo del Toro’s film Hellboy, while del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth owes much to Machen’s short story ‘The White People’, acknowledged as one of the greatest of all weird tales. If he had written only this work Machen’s immortality would have been assured. A kind of diabolical Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, it is the first-person account of an innocent young girl’s corruption by her nurse and how she becomes ensnared in practising magic. Not the least of the story’s poignant elements is that the reader never learns the girl’s name. John Carpenter’s The Fog features a teller of spooky tales called Machen, played by John Houseman, a Churchillian doppelgänger of the author in his seventies.
Ironically Machen is best remembered for a minor piece – ‘perhaps his least interesting work’, Barry Humphries has noted. Published in a London daily in September 1914 ‘The Bowmen’ is a slight, though poignant, flag-waver in which ‘Heaven’s Knight’ St. George and spectral archers from Agincourt aid hardpressed British troops at the Battle of Mons. Nothing in the newspaper indicated that the piece was fiction, and word of mouth quickly inflated the tale. By 1915 the enduring Angel of Mons legend had swept the nation, and the myth remained an albatross around Machen’s neck until his death in 1947. He was howled down when he patiently suggested the phenomenon had sprung from a distorted variation of his fantasy: St. George and the Agincourt archers were transmuted into angels, more appropriate agents of divine grace. No one would accept the existence of legions of ghostly soldiers, but the jury is still out on the existence of angels.
A further irony was that later authors developed Machen’s imaginative concepts, either consciously or unconsciously, turning them into global bestsellers. Machen’s The Great God Pan (1894) – also newly reprinted by Parthian, with ‘The White People’ – a heady brew of sex and Satanism execrated by the critics of the day, predates Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby by seventy years. The Terror (1917), the story of animals rising against humanity, may have partly inspired Daphne du Maurier’s ‘The Birds’. Scenes of possession from Machen’s ‘The Inmost Light’ (1894) and ‘A Fragment of Life’ (1904) anticipate William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist. Robert Bloch’s Psycho bears striking similarities to Machen’s ‘The Islington Mystery’ (1927), a blackly comic murder story. It was memorably filmed in Mexico in 1959, the same year as Hitchcock’s Psycho, as The Skeleton of Señora Morales.
Jerome K. Jerome wrote of Machen, ‘For ability to create an atmosphere of nameless terror I can think of no author living or dead who comes near him.’ After Jerome gave Arthur Conan Doyle Machen’s supernatural crime thriller The Three Impostors (1895), a pastiche inspired by Stevenson’s New Arabian Nights and The Dynamiter, Doyle endured a sleepless night. ‘Your pal Machen is a genius right enough,’ said Doyle, ‘but I don’t take him to bed with me again.’ John Betjeman wrote of The Three Impostors that it frightened him more than any other book. Machen’s lyrical romance of the Holy Grail The Secret Glory (1922), which awkwardly marries its spiritual themes with a satire on the public school system, converted the young Betjeman to High Church Anglicanism while a student at Marlborough College. ‘I really owe A. M. more than money can buy,’ he declared in 1943. Betjeman pays tribute to The Secret Glory’s influence in his verse autobiography Summoned by Bells. Machen’s verdict on the book was that it was ‘an experiment, and men do not love experiments in literature’.
Mystery formed the keynote of nearly all Machen’s work, and became the principal metaphysic for his fiction; though the theme is subordinated in The Hill of Dreams, his greatest work. He wrote in the novella ‘A Fragment of Life’ (1904) – the portrait of a marriage, a non-comic Diary of a Nobody melded with a Grail romance – that ‘man is made a mystery for mysteries and visions’. Machen was passionately anti-science and anti-materialist, since he felt that science dealt solely in surface realities. ‘Not one of us understands the universe,’ he argued. ‘We see nothing real, we can no more see anything real than we can take our afternoon tea in the white, central heat of a blast furnace. We see shadows cast by reality.’ While sceptical of all occult lore and the occultists’ claims to manipulate events through magic or through the power of the will, he accepted the existence of the supernatural. Using the central image from Henry James’s short story ‘The Figure in the Carpet’, he believed that the pattern in his own carpet was ‘the sense of the eternal mysteries, the eternal beauty hidden beneath the crust of common and commonplace things; hidden and yet burning and glowing continually if you care to look with purged eyes’.
The furore over the Angel of Mons has long overshadowed The Hill of Dreams, but the novel remains Machen’s golden book. When his second wife, Purefoy, was asked if she was proud of her husband having created the angels myth, she replied, ‘I was proud of him long before he wrote “The Bowmen”. Have you ever read The Hill of Dreams?’ Quasi-autobiographical, it tells the tragic story of Lucian Taylor, like his creator the son of a poor clergyman from the hills above Caerleon-on-Usk in Monmouthshire, South Wales. Machen was born at Caerleon on 3 March 1863, famous in legend as King Arthur’s court – it seems likely that he was named in Arthur’s honour – and in history as the Roman city of Isca Silurum, the camp of the Second Augustan Legion.
Like Machen, Lucian is enchanted by the mystic beauties of the landscape, with its dark woods, domed hills and mysterious druidic circles and tumuli, the relics of the ancient Silurian race. Like Machen, Lucian in his writings attempts to find fictional correlatives for the countryside in prose. Capturing the essence of nature was something Machen strove to do all his life. He sought ‘to invent a story which would recreate those vague impressions of wonder and awe and mystery that I myself had received from the form and shape of the land of my boyhood and youth … Could one describe hills and valleys, woods and rivers, sunrise and sunset, buried temples and mouldering Roman walls so that a story should be suggested to the reader?’
Lucian is haunted from his boyhood by the sinister yet seductive aura radiating from an ancient Roman hill-fort near his rectory home. One burning summer day he climbs to the summit and falls asleep, only to awake feeling defiled. He flees from the unspecified pagan presences he senses possessing the fort. ‘He had fallen asleep as he gazed at the knotted fantastic boughs of the stunted brake about him, and when he woke he was ashamed, and fled away fearing that “they” would pursue him. He did not know who “they” were, but it seemed as if a woman’s face watched him from between the matted boughs, and that she summoned to her side awful companions who had never grown old through all the ages.’ Psychosexual critics have interpreted the scene in masturbatory terms. The Hill of Dreams has been hailed as the first novel in English literature to tackle that outlawed subject – Joyce’s Ulysses being the second. Newly uncovered material by Machen supports this theory. The episode clearly has a sexual dimension but Machen’s writing is so subtle that other readings are equally valid. So often it is what Machen does not say that makes his work so powerful and evocative.
Throughout his fiction Machen took authorial reticence to new heights, writing of spiritual mysteries through a glass darkly. ‘He keeps the thaumaturgic secrets as the alchemists were bidden to do,’ writes Carl Van Vechten in his novel Peter Whiffle. ‘Instead of raising the veil, he drops it. Instead of revealing, he conceals.’ Decades ahead of authors playing metafictional games, Machen unknowingly invented the concept of interactive literature: readers must do their share of the work and bring their imaginations to bear on his texts.
The hypocrisies and cruelty of the inhabitants of nearby Caermaen, a thin disguise for Caerleon, alienate Lucian and, suffering from unrequited love of a farmgirl, Annie Morgan, he seeks refuge from the world’s horrors in his imagination. In the sensuous, bejewelled fourth chapter Lucian conjures up a dream-world of the lost city of Isca Silurum, antique Caerleon, in his mind and dwells there as a citizen named Avallaunius. ‘The Garden of Avallaunius’ was one of the novel’s early titles. Lucian’s retreat into his dream-world anticipates, a century in advance, the internet craze of Second Life, where players enjoy vicarious lives online. Machen possessed an uncanny prophetic streak: The Great God Pan predicts radio and satellite technology and The Terror the fifth column – the concept of the enemy within – years ahead of its emergence in the Spanish Civil War. In his dream-idyll Lucian witnesses the city’s decadent delights, and consorts with priests of Mithras and Isis, seeing legionaries carouse with lovely women. A Roman beauty, her face ‘full of the ineffable sadness of lust’, tells Lucian how she seduced her Asian slave before sending the boy to die in the arena. Charles Evans, the head of Heinemann, informed Machen that the Roman chapter was ‘a clear case of reincarnation’, but Machen demurred: ‘I believe he meant well; but I never care to be told how I do these things.’
Midway through the story Lucian escapes from Monmouthshire for a Shepherd’s Bush bedsitting-room, where he attempts to write and, like one of Machen’s heroes, Thomas De Quincey, falls victim to laudanum. Machen’s foreshadowing in the novel is masterly. The Hill has an elaborate symmetry in that the scenes of exotic beauty in the Roman chapter are contrasted with bacchanalian episodes of drunkenness and debauchery which the virginal Lucian witnesses outside West London taverns. An illuminated manuscript created by Lucian in an early chapter is mirrored by the chaos of his final manuscript at the close. He flees from the hill-fort after seeing what he thinks is an unearthly female face. In Notting Hill he runs from the prostitute who will bring him to ruin, for ‘there was death in the woman’s face’. A Rabelais devotee, Machen was no puritan but for dramatic purposes he views eroticism darkly. The patterning continues to the end, when the novel’s opening line, ‘There was a glow in the sky as if great furnace doors were opened’, is reprised as a lamp shines through Lucian’s ‘dead eyes into the dying brain, and there was a glow within, as if great furnace doors were opened’. Lucian’s isolation and frustration over his inability to write drive him to the verge of madness, and he fears he has become inhuman, something cut off from the rest of the race: ‘he could not gain the art of letters and he had lost the art of humanity’.
Machen designed The Hill of Dreams to be ‘a “Robinson Crusoe” of the soul’, representing loneliness not on a desert island but in the midst of myriads. Lucian is ‘oppressed by the grim conceit that he himself still slept within the matted thicket, imprisoned by the green bastions of the Roman fort. He had never come out, but a changeling had gone down the hill, and now stirred about the earth.’ The climactic seventh chapter is a fugue-like tour de force, with Machen pioneering stream-ofconsciousness technique, which hardly existed at this period, to create a symphony of existentialist horror. As Lucian lies dying at his desk in narcotic delirium his memories of idyllic wanderings in Wales are overshadowed by the terrors of the Roman fort and inextricably merge with his unhappy months, or perhaps years, in London to form a demonic phantasmagoria. ‘Phantasmagoria’ was the book’s first title. ‘Truth and the dream were so mingled that now he could not divide one from the other.’ London assumes the nightmarish form of a labyrinth, the dark mirror image of the visionary Isca Silurum Lucian earlier built in his imagination.
Living with a beautiful, flame-haired prostitute in a leprous cottage – a grotesque distortion of the splendid dwellings of his Roman idyll – Lucian fantasises about worshipping at a black mass on the hill-fort with the woman. The unnamed streetwalker, unveiled at the dénouement as a callous, Cockney golddigger, encourages Lucian to kill himself through a drug overdose so that she and her secret lover, who is perhaps her procurer, can benefit from Lucian’s humble legacy. Lucian’s final manuscript, which the reader infers will be discarded by his mistress, is revealed as an illegible mass of frenzied scribblings: he has failed in his quest to achieve the holy grail of literature – fashioning a work of high art.
John Batchelor states in The Edwardian Novelists (1982), ‘The Hill of Dreams could be taken to exemplify the epistemological crisis: none of the supposed facts in the novel are reliable, Lucian’s hallucinations and the outer reality are indistinguishable until they are put into perspective by the novel’s close … For most of the novel’s length the reader is trapped in the inner drama of Lucian’s consciousness and finds himself in a treacherous continuum of experience of which the elements are inseparable’. Lucian, the narrative states, has a book issued, The Amber Statuette, apparently inspired by the beauty of his goddess-like lover, yet at the end of the final chapter the woman says, ‘He’d got it into ’is ’ead he could write a book; he’s been at it for the last six months’. Why is she ignorant of the existence of The Amber Statuette? Does this hint that the book is a figment of Lucian’s drugaddled imagination; mere wish-fulfilment that he could ever successfully complete and publish anything? Perhaps: it would serve to make his tragedy all the more profound.
Lord Alfred Douglas, reviewing The Hill in his journal The Academy in 1907, wrote, ‘The last long chapter with its recurring themes is a masterpiece of prose, and in its way unique’. Modern critics have compared this chapter, with its emphasis on memory, with Proust. While Machen denied the book was autobiography – ‘since I am still alive’ – Lucian’s solitary life in London reflects his youth. In 1881, aged eighteen, he moved to the metropolis to work as a bookseller’s cataloguer. Enduring agonising loneliness, and surviving on a starvation diet of bread, tobacco and green tea in a Notting Hill lodging-house, he experienced much bitterness over what he perceived as his failure to translate his golden visions of Monmouthshire into books. His evocative memoirs Far Off Things and Things Near and Far, published in the early 1920s, reveal just how much The Hill of Dreams owes to his own poverty-stricken struggles. In 1923 he calculated that he had earned only £635 from forty-two years’ work.
Lucian’s agonies over his unfinished book echo Machen’s own valiant battle to perfect The Hill: ‘It was an interminable labour, and he had always known it to be as hopeless as alchemy. The gold, the great and glowing masterpiece, would never shine amongst the dead ashes and smoking efforts of the crucible, but in the course of the life, in the interval between the failures, he might possibly discover curious things’. Like Machen, Lucian yearns ‘To win the secret of words, to make a phrase that would murmur of summer and the bee, to summon the wind into a sentence, to conjure the odour of the night into the surge and fall and harmony of a line; this was the tale of the long evenings, of the candle flame white upon the paper and the eager pen’. Despairing over authorship, Lucian, and doubtless his creator, judges ‘every book wholly impossible till the last line of it was written … the masterpiece was always the rainbow cup, a little way before him’.
Machen slaved at The Hill from autumn 1895 to spring 1897. He begrudged the work no pains, and was so frequently sidetracked that he despaired of finishing. He found himself in the middle of a ‘black wood’ and an escape path seemed elusive. Years later he explained, ‘It is true that I discovered Buddhism by the way – the doctrine of the ego as an illusion – but this had been done two thousand five hundred years before, and, anyhow, it was not to the purpose of the book’. The end, when finally accomplished, seemed almost miraculous: ‘again I struggled desperately for many weeks, trying to find the last chapter. False tracks again, hopeless efforts, spoilt folios thick about me till by some chance or another, I know not how, the right notion was given me, and I wrote the seventh and last chapter in a couple of nights. Once more the thought of the old land had come to my help …’ His achievement was all the more remarkable since Machen’s first wife Amy was suffering from breast cancer: her death in 1899 brought him to the edge of a nervous breakdown. After apparently experiencing some inexplicable psychic disturbances, Machen sought relief by joining the occult society the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, whose members included W. B. Yeats and Aleister Crowley. Crowley, soon to sew chaos among the magicians after being refused admission to the inner élite, the Rosae Rubae et Aureae Crucis, was ‘a quite unspeakable person’ according to Yeats. Crowley admired Machen’s works but the respect was not returned. ‘If I were you I would have no sort of dealings with him; not of the most distant kind,’ he advised Vincent Starrett, one of his admirers, when Crowley spent the First World War in America.
One of the Golden Dawn’s magical techniques – replacing the visible world with an alternate reality – was independently formulated by Machen while chronicling Lucian’s voyage into antiquity. Realising that its origins were bogus and its wisdom dubious, Machen, disguising the Golden Dawn as the Order of the Twilight Star in Things Near and Far, wrote that it ‘shed no ray of any kind on my path’. After his wife’s death Machen abandoned literature for a time and became an actor with Frank Benson’s Shakespeare company.
With the Wilde scandal damaging the prospects for his masterpiece, Machen found publishers uniformly rejecting The Hill of Dreams. Many other authors would have spent their lives complaining about the Wilde blight. Machen alludes to the problem just once in his memoirs, and does not assign any blame to Wilde, whom he does not name in this connexion. Publishers urged him ‘for the sake of my own reputation never to publish this dull, futile, unhappy failure’.
His collection of exotic and decadent ‘experiments’, Ornaments in Jade, was also judged ‘impossible’, and it was 1924 before the book was published, in the U.S., by Alfred A. Knopf. Nowadays even children’s books contain sexually explicit scenes. Literature in Machen’s day, other than underground pornography, was not permitted to go beyond the bedroom door, nor even to acknowledge that such things as bedrooms existed. The past is not merely another country, but another world. The boldly sexual elements that Machen managed to inject into his fiction during the late-Victorian period were astonishing. By contrast, in the serialisation of Tess of the d’Urbervilles in the family paper The Graphic in 1891, Thomas Hardy was obliged to have Angel Clare use a wheelbarrow to avoid intimate contact while ferrying the dairymaids across a flood, and Sorrow, Tess’s illegitimate child, could not even be alluded to.
In ‘The Idealist’, one of the daring and bizarre vignettes in Ornaments in Jade, an ostensibly puritanical clerk, Symonds, later revealed as a peeping tom spying on people’s secret pleasures, assembles a lay figure, dressing it in perfumed silk and lace, in his bedsitter. What Symonds does with the figure is left to the reader’s imagination, though it is scarcely one of the greatest mysteries in the Machen canon. The encounter seems to be foreshadowed by an episode earlier in the story when Symonds is walking home to Fulham from his city office: two clouds writhe and finally merge above the Strand.
When the poet and Machen biographer John Gawsworth gathered the Ornaments in Jade sequence in The Cosy Room and Other Stories (1936) ‘The Idealist’ was thought to be beyond the pale and excluded; yet in another of the vignettes, ‘Witchcraft’, which begins as innocently as a Jane Austen story, Machen smuggled in an allusion, though cloaked in ambiguity, to what appears to be female masturbation. This enormity apparently slipped unnoticed past Knopf and the publishers of the Cosy Room, Rich & Cowan.
An edited version of The Hill was serialized in, incongruously, Horlick’s Magazine, produced by the Horlick’s Malted Milk company. The editor was Machen’s bosom friend A. E. Waite, the mystic scholar and Golden Dawn adept. ‘I do not know that the sale of the Malted Milk was unfavourably affected,’ Machen commented.
Ten years after its completion The Hill finally appeared in book form from Grant Richards. Reviews were hostile or lukewarm. ‘It is an extraordinary performance and a work of art; but art, fallen, we think, on unclean and fatal days,’ wrote one critic. It was denounced as sickly, repulsive, morbid, inhuman, monotonous, fatiguing and tedious. ‘The book is not of much practical interest, as one feels that [Lucian’s] death, with which the story ends, is the best possible solution of his difficulties.’ It was a further ten years before American writers and critics recognised the novel as a work of genius.
When the United States discovered Machen towards the close of the First World War, he was working as a star descriptive reporter for the Evening News, but was sacked in 1921 after publishing an unsympathetic obituary of Lord Alfred Douglas. He described the Douglas lineage as degenerate: ‘It would not be true to say that all ancient races are degenerate; but there were very marked signs of degeneracy in the House of Douglas’. Douglas ‘might have done anything, and, his poetry excepted, he did nothing, and worse than nothing’ was Machen’s judgement. Not an unfair summary, but Douglas still happened to be alive at the time: rumours of his death had been exaggerated. Machen’s articles on Christianity published in The Academy during the Edwardian period had led Bosie back to the faith. Despite their differences, Douglas contributed to Machen’s eightieth birthday appeal fund in 1943.
On his rediscovery all Machen’s books were subsequently republished in Britain by Martin Secker and introduced to American readers by Alfred A. Knopf. Over the next few years Machen was enthusiastically hailed as a mystagogue, a hierophant of the secrets of art and life. ‘The flower-tunicked priest of nightmare’ wrote of hell, he said, because it was not given him to write of heaven. American aesthetes went into ecstasies over his neglected books and his elevated prose. His influence can be traced in the works of James Branch Cabell, John Dos Passos, Ben Hecht and John Steinbeck. The Weird Tales pulp fiction school of H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith owes an enormous debt to Machen’s supernatural fiction. Lovecraft’s biographer, S. T. Joshi, is currently editing an annotated selection of Machen’s finest tales for Penguin Books.
In the 1920s The Hill of Dreams, condemned as futile by London publishers twenty years earlier, was acclaimed as a masterwork by the American literati. ‘No more wonderful epic of the artist’s soul have I seen till now,’ cried Henry Miller, who loved its exotic lexicon: ‘gouts, gallipots, neumes, rath, Pushtu, fortalice, argent, verjuice, whorls, barmy, chrysoberyl, obsolescence, kraal, dingles, spume, ilex, tessellated, fume …’ One critic, Harry Hansen, wrote in The Chicago Daily News, ‘Such cadence! Sentences that sing in faultless melody. Such technique! Simple as is all great writing. Such mystical searching for exquisite ecstasies!’
Machen was hailed not merely as a foremost author of romance in the Stevensonian vein but as a seer and mystical guru who controversially mingled doctrines of High Church Christianity with occult, pagan and sexual themes. Philip Van Doren Stern, the original author of It’s a Wonderful Life, wrote of Machen that his art was ‘firmly based on the belief that the mystical interpretation of life is the only one worth holding. Machen is the artist of wonder, the seeker for something beyond life and outside of time … who sees the physical world as the outer covering of a glowing inner core that may some day be revealed’.
Machen’s fiction built upon the foundations established by Poe and Hawthorne, penetrating the unseen worlds that surround outwardly mundane existence. He believed he was following in the paths of his favourite authors, Rabelais, Cervantes and Dickens. All three, he wrote, revealed ‘that there is a wonder in everything, a vast and exquisite relish in everything; yes, even in the very meanest thing on earth. Strip the veils of illusions, and there is nothing common or unclean, for all things are rare, all things have the radiance of a certain secret star that dwells within them.’ In 1918 he defined literature in a letter to Vincent Starrett, the Chicago journalist and author who did much to spread his fame in America, as ‘a series of adventures, explorations, experiments in the unknown territory of the universe. I have no interest in making the same journey twice – which is exactly what all good publishers require you to do … There is no goal, no haven; but there are curious spectacles and discoveries on the way.’ Machen promoted his artistic credo in his little book Hieroglyphics (1902), arguing that the finest literature must possess the indispensable element of ecstasy. ‘Substitute, if you like, rapture, beauty, adoration, wonder, awe, mystery, sense of the unknown, desire for the unknown. All and each will convey what I mean; for some particular case one term may be more appropriate than another, but in every case there will be that withdrawal from the common life and the common consciousness which justifies my choice of “ecstasy” as the best symbol of my meaning.’
The boom in collecting Machen limited editions did not outlast the twenties. His friend the writer Henry Savage wrote in 1929 that his ‘star is on the wane with collectors in these days but will, think, gleam brightly again in due time. I can’t see The Hill of Dreams and The Secret Glory passing to oblivion’. That due time has arrived.
Paradoxically, despite all the praise lavished on him, Machen never felt he had succeeded in illuminating nature in the majestic prose that would do it justice. As with Lucian Taylor, ‘the great work’ always eluded him. Even The Hill of Dreams failed to match his early vision of the book. Writing to Vincent Starrett in 1917 he commented of his novel, ‘I looked over it the other day; it struck me as a depressing book.’ His many acolytes could only disagree. As Starrett wrote, ‘Among other things, posterity is going to demand of us why, when the opportunity was ours, we did not open our hearts to Arthur Machen and name him among the very great.’