“I bet you know what this is,” my dad would say each Christmas, as he passed me a rectangular package, unexpectedly heavy for its size. And he was right; I would always know what it was. The slight curve to one side, the ridges around the three others sides, the unmistakable feel of a hefty hardback. The latest Stephen King novel. I’d unwrap it eagerly, with the forlorn hope that the rest of the day could be spent with King and the equally ubiquitous chocolate coins and Cadbury’s Selection Box, dodging the washing-up and reading greedily into Boxing Day.
These days, with my dad no longer here, I buy my own Stephen Kings each Christmas. Truthfully, I rarely wait to read it until the day itself. Each autumn, as King reliably releases a new addition to the canon, I’m there. I’ve been with King from his fertile middle-youth (‘It’, ‘Misery’), into his first ‘sober’ novels (‘Needful Things’, ‘Insomnia’, ‘Rose Madder’) and through the hit-and-run years (‘Dreamcatcher’, ‘From a Buick 8’). I’m still there now – part of the joy of King’s work is just the sheer incredible volume of it, and the huge amount of ideas that he packs into his writing. It’s not been the smoothest ride, being one of King’s Constant Readers (his novels can be patchy in quality, and his editor sometimes seems to have hit the snooze button) but it has been enormously enjoyable. Besides, if you don’t like his latest book, you can be sure – minivan permitting – that there’ll be another one along in a few months time.
It was with great glee, then, that I picked up his latest, ‘Revival’, in Waterstones a few weeks ago. On a cursory inspection, it looks like classic King: a tale of small-town America where shop fronts and gas stations hide supernatural secrets – “Peyton Place meets Bram Stoker” as one reviewer said of ‘Salem’s Lot’. What really got me excited, however, was King’s unusual list of dedications.
“This book is for some of the people who built my house”, he declares, and goes on to list a stellar cast of spooky authors in order of their birth: Shelley, Stoker, Lovecraft, Ashton Smith, Wandrei, Leiber, Derleth, Jackson, Bloch and Straub. But at the bottom of the list, he’s reserved a special mention for one of the greatest writers of weird fiction: “And Arthur Machen, whose short novel ‘The Great God Pan’ has haunted me all my life”.
Arthur Machen, erstwhile member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, deserves this moment in the spotlight. I came to Machen as a teenager, unsure of how even to pronounce his name (I’ve settled on the sterner ‘Mak-en’ rather than ‘May-chin’, as it sounds more foreboding). I was on a mailing list for a few booksellers, and this was around the time that Creation Books re-issued ‘The Great God Pan’, complete with simply appalling cover art. The back cover provided a quote from The Westminster Gazette upon the book’s publication, labelling it an ‘incoherent nightmare of sex’, which sounded more than enough reason to enjoy it.
It’s a short novella – barely 63 pages in my edition – but like Stephen King, it packs a heck of a lot into its narrative while still managing to build a creeping sense of horror and dread.
We start in Wales, where Dr. Raymond is conducting an experiment on a young woman in an attempt to lift the veil of the human mind and to see “beyond the dreams and shadows that hide the real world from our eyes” – to reveal, as he says, the God Pan. What seems ostensibly to be some sort of trepanning (“a trifling rearrangement of certain cells”) goes horribly and fatally wrong, so that Mary, the subject of this horrible procedure ‘sees’ the great God Pan but loses her mind.
“Suddenly, as they watched, they heard a long-drawn sigh, and suddenly did the colour that had vanished return to the girl’s cheeks, and suddenly her eyes opened. Clarke quailed before them. They shone with an awful light, looking far away, and a great wonder fell upon her face, and her hands stretched out as if to touch what was invisible; but in an instant the wonder faded, and gave place to the most awful terror. The muscles of her face were hideously convulsed, she shook from head to foot; the soul seemed struggling and shuddering within the house of flesh. It was a horrible sight, and Clarke rushed forward, as she fell shrieking to the floor.
Three days later, Raymond took Clarke to Mary’s bedside. She was lying wide awake, rolling her head from side to side and grinning vacantly.
“Yes,” said the doctor, still quite cool, “it is a great pity; she is a hopeless idiot. However, it could not be helped; and, after all, she has seen the Great God Pan.”
Clarke, the unwilling witness to this horror, then takes over the story. Severely affected by Raymond’s experiment, he is compiling a book of ‘Memoirs to Prove the Existence of the Devil’, and years after the events in Wales, becomes aware of a young woman named Helen V. There are reports of her being adopted in a village on the border of Wales, where she had odd dealings with strange little men from a nearby forest, before leaving the village abruptly.
Now the story passes to a man named Villiers, whose friend Herbert has been driven almost to the point of madness by his mysterious, now missing wife – Villiers makes a connection between Clarke’s Helen V., Villiers’ wife and a woman implicated in the unusual death of a painter in South America.
Finally, we meet the mysterious Mrs Beaumont, a new arrival to the London scene whose appearance has coincided with a wave of suicides among rich men. It transpires, through letters between Clarke and Villiers, that she is the monstrous offspring of the god Pan and the woman in the experiment, and Villiers presents her with a choice of death, or exposure. Mrs Beaumont chooses death, and it is a horrible sight for those who witness it: “I saw the form waver from sex to sex, dividing itself from itself, then again reunited. Then I saw the body descend to the beasts whence it ascended, and that which was on the heights go down to the depths, even the abyss of all being.”
King’s character in ‘Revival’, the doomed clergyman Charles Jacobs, who builds a machine to cure addiction and illness, is a more sympathetic iteration of Dr. Raymond, but these are still men meddling with forces beyond all human comprehension. Looking beyond the veil, Machen and King indicate, is something that we really have no business trying to do – it will only end in madness and chaos. Of course, we know that from our weird fiction – Lovecraft’s curious young men, exploring strange geometries and stars; Robert W. Chambers’ mysterious playscript which induces insanity; William Hope Hodgson’s remote house on the borders of another universe. Inquisitiveness, in weird fiction, will be the downfall of us all.
So there’s something to be said for the familiarity of Christmas routines, for the opening of an expected present, for the customs we comfort ourselves with. It’s a time of the year when nights are long and the air is cold and thin – and what could be lurking on the other side of the fragile divide between this world and the next, trying to find a way in?