Thursday, 12 January 2012

Codex Nodens

Arthur Machen is a revered but not widely read author. He wrote far more than his contemporary M.R. James, for instance, but his stories are not so frequently anthologised and you won't find popular paperback editions of Machen's work. This is a pity, because although Machen can be heavy going he is a fascinating author.

One problem is that Machen had a long career, and over time his style and general approach to fiction. His early work falls into the Decadent tradition of the late Victorian era. His short novel The Great God Pan is a horror story with hints of strange miscegenation. Greatly admired by HP Lovecraft and Stephen King, among many others, it is not exactly packed with drama, but instead relies on allusion and second-hand accounts of some very bizarre and disturbing events.

Machen toned down the Decadence a bit but remained a very unusual and at times contentious writer. His most accessible work is collected in Tales of Horror and the Supernatural, which has appeared in various editions. Tartarus Press does a mobi-for-Kindle version here. Oh, and it was Machen that popularised the idea (in fiction) that the Holy Grail might still be around, thus paving the way for such literary masterpieces as... Well, you know. Dan Brown and stuff.

Anyway, the point of this post is that Cardinal Cox (Peterborough's Living National Treasure) has produced Codex Nodens, a pamphlet of poems dedicated to Machen's mythos and offering some intriguing, not to say witty insights into the great man's ideas. So we have Celticism, strange doings, suggestions of weird sexitude, references to eltritch primordial races in these isles, and a ton of other stuff. As well as poems, Pete Cox contributes a wonderful vignette that captures the essence of Machenesque horror, especially the sense of something unutterably strange that we are always about to glimpse, but never see.

Handily, one of Cox's poems, 'Transmutations', sums up Machen's appeal rather better than I could: 'A person who reverts to protoplasmic gel/Ancient hidden races, secret of the ages...' And then we get the kicker, for me: 'Everything you thought you knew turns out to be lie/Life is but a house of cards kept up from within...' Machen was the original conspiracy theorist of popular fiction. My favourite story of his, 'The Inmost Light', is all about a shady cabal trying to acquire the result of a horrible experiment.

Machen's conspirators are sometimes human, and almost always deadly. But there can be conspiracies of light, albeit accidental: Machen's best known story to this day is a slight propaganda piece thrown off in a frenzy of wartime journalism. 'The Bowmen' almost certainly gave rise to the Angel of Mons legend in 1914, and in the poem 'No Sleep, No Sleep, No Sleep' the poet tellingly evokes the trench conditions that can make grown men believe in the impossible.

Other poems refer to The Great God Pan, faerie lore, Grail or Graal legends, and The Hill of Dreams, often considered Machen's finest novel. Several poems manage, like Machen's prose, to re-imbue the supposedly tame British countryside with a sense of mystery. Along the way, informative footnotes reveal some interesting facts. I didn't know that for the true adept the rituals of the Grail 'could work with a lightly boiled egg whose top had been removed'. Not sure if toastie soldiers are involved.

In a handwritten note accompanying my review copy, Cardinal Cox writes: 'One day (not soon) might do a Codex Silenci (on Algernon Blackwood) or Codex Carnacki (on Hope Hodgson).' Always leave 'em wanting more, eh?

If you would like a copy of Codex Nodens, follow the usual rigmarole:

Send a C5 SAE to

58 Pennington
Orton Goldhay
You can also email the Cardinal at


Anonymous said...

I was able to get both volumes of Machen's "Tales..." many years ago. To this day "The White People" remains one of the most mysterious stories I have ever read. One of those rare stories that actually make one feel that they are eperiencing a supernatural event (like Dryer's "Vampyr" film). That story made me a fan for life.

His writing style is definitely an acquired taste but it is very rewarding. The stories don't seem to depend on twists but they have this way of staying with you. In a way, if M.R. James is the greatest modern ghost story writer ever, then I would say, by comparison, that Machen was the greatest "modern" writer of fiction about the faeries. In Machen's works, faeries and their ilk, like the ghosts in James' stories, are not nice, benevolent creatures waving wands and happily helping the mortals. They are the embodiment of malevolence and woe be to the hapless person who crosses their path.

Of course, this is just my opinion. Now having said that, I'm going to reread "The White People".

valdemar said...

'The White People' is a true classic because so much is left unexplained, yet it has a shocking clarity.

James Everington said...

Agree with both of you, The White People, is one of the great horror stories - from what I've read the rest of Machen's work is pretty variable, but always interesting.

Completely unrelated, but also wanted to say thanks for featuring Adam Golaski's book on here a few months back - I put it on my Christmas list as a result, and having finished it the other day have to say it was absolutely brilliant. One of the best new writers I've found for ages. So yes - thanks.

valdemar said...

Glad you liked Adam's stories, James. He is indeed rather spiffing. I'm proud to say another tale by Mr Golaski will feature in ST21, due out later this year(mid-May, probably). And watch out for an impending video...

James Everington said...

Ahhh, have seen the video now... that would have been a far more appropriate place to make my comment!