Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Romances of the White Day: Stories in the Tradition of Arthur Machen

The three long stories in this new collection from Sarob pay tribute to Arthur Machen in part by simply reminding the reader just how complex and versatile a writer he was. The author of The Three Impostors (which provided the rough template for this book) was happy to play literary games with the reader and conjure up truly weird horrors. But he was also a nature mystic while remaining a Christian, and a man steeped in classic learning while owing a profound debt to his own Celtic heritage. Indeed, it may be easier to say what is not 'Machenesque', given the range and depth of his fiction. Fortunately that's outside my remit. So, on with the stories.

The first tale, John Howard's 'The Floor of Heaven', explores the strange, mystical aspects of London that Machen celebrated in 'N', 'The Inmost Light', and other tales. The story bridges the gap between Machen's city and the modern capital by way of a suitably occult device - an area of the city that is not to be found in the regular A to Z, but does feature in an elusive street atlas that is hard to obtain. 

We begin with Michael Snow, who apparently stumbles upon the strange district during the run-up to World War 2. The church in Alperton Square is closed to casual visitors, but a mysterious young woman offers Snow a chance to rest, and a draught of cooling water. Snow then has to leave the district to keep an appointment, and is later unable to find his way back. This experience turns Snow into an eccentric urban explorer and he writes a book, The Streets of Paradise, which fictionalises his obsession. 

Snow's book become a key influence on the next London adventurer, Stephen Vaughan, a photographer. Vaughan manages to obtain a copy of the mysterious street guide that eluded Snow, only to have it taken from him by strange assailants. The city casts its spell over certain individuals but, we are led to believe, some London knowledge is reserved for initiates. 

Vaughan's book of photographs of post-war London intrigues Adam Field, who finds his way to the mysterious church. Again, though, he is excluded from the mysterious ritual and can't hang on to the atlas. The gadgets of our time, internet and mobile, prove inadequate to the task of unearthing London's mysteries.

The second story, Mark Valentine's 'Except Seven', takes us to the Welsh borders. Michael Melchior pays a visit to a friend in Herefordshire, but as he walks along a country lane he senses that his route leads to 'unknown regions'. Melchior's friend Verrall is working on a monograph entitled 'Notes Towards a Topography of the Devil in England', and are soon involved in Machenesque erudite discussion of place names. But is the Devil represented locally, so to speak? 

It emerges that an old door in a local church is blocked by what seems to be a Romano-Celtic altar of murky provenance. Melchior, Verrall, and a group of the latter's local friends then gather at the church for a reading of an ancient Welsh poem. Each verse ends with the line 'Except seven, none returned...', but there are only six people present at the reading. Or are there? 

This story is subtle and difficult to sum up, as it's almost devoid of incident in the conventional sense. But the author does bring together very satisfyingly the diverse religious and mystical threads in Machen's fiction. 

Rounding off the collection, Ron Weighell's 'The Chapel of Infernal Devotion' is not just an erudite horror story but an extended essay on Machen's cultural significance. It follows a book collector who fails to secure a particular illustration at an auction. His researches reveal a link between the mysterious artist, who used the name Adam Midnight, and Machen. Midnight, whose real name was Philip Youlden, seems to have had a more than purely aesthetic interest in the occult. Our hero is inspired to try and find out more.

Thus begins an odyssey that takes the protagonist from the relatively comfortable world of book dealers to the strange house of Plas Gwyllion, where an elderly musician guards Youlden's bizarre and dangerous legacy. Along the way we encounter Sixties counter-culture and a sly reference to that noted Machen fan, H.P. Lovecraft. 'The White People' casts its spell, as does 'The Great God Pan'. There is more intense physicality in Weighell's approach to Machen's legacy, with the enduring theme of miscegenation between humans and other, older races. 

In reading this collection I was (yet again) prompted to ask whether Machen is over- or under-rated, and concluded (not for the first time) that I've really no idea. It is impossible to deliver a verdict because the jury is still out; indeed, the closing arguments are still far off. He is a writer whose work still lives to the extent that it inspires, entertains, and baffles modern readers. As this book shows, some of Machen's most attentive readers have been influenced by his visions and developed unique and interesting voices of their own. 

I must add that the cover, by Paul Lowe, manages to combine much Machenesque imagery with a landscape that evokes the hills of the Welsh Marches. There are carven stones, glowing figures, and on the back we find pale, straggling things lurking in the trees. Under the dust-jacket the cover is pure white, with blood-red lettering. 

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