Arthur Machen – “The Great God Pan” (1890; 1894)


Two men pace the terrace of a secluded countryside estate. The pale one is Dr. Raymond, devoted these last twenty years to the study of transcendental medicine. The anxious one is Mr. Clarke.  Clarke is a respected man of business, whose secret life’s work is compiling “Memoirs to prove the Existence of the Devil.”  He has come to observe Dr. Raymond operate on a trusting and beautiful young woman named Mary; the doctor hypothesizes that a microscopical alteration to her grey matter will alter her consciousness, and reveal to her the hidden world. Unfortunately, the surgery lobotomizes her.  Dr. Raymond explains to the horrified Clarke these results are to be expected from contact with old gods.  Haunted by the incident, Clarke returns to London, determined to leave the mystic world behind.

Some years pass, and Clarke, still pining for the unseen, returns to old obsessions.  His only friend, Mr. Villier, knows nothing of Clarke’s unnatural preoccupations.  He does not know that Clarke’s  sole pleasure is reading, compiling, and rearranging his dark Memoirs, that engaged in this pursuit the evenings seem to fly and the nights appear too short.  One evening, Clarke, adding sinister stories to his collection, comes across the tale of a certain Helen Vaughan.  Helen, an orphaned child, is sent to a small village in Rome by a mysterious benefactor, to be raised by peasant farmers.  Helen’s new home sits where once had stood the temple of the “God of the Deeps.” Helen delights in wandering the ancient woods unattended, and she grows beautiful and terrifying to look upon.  She is implicated in the death of one child and insanity of another.  At age eighteen, Helen vanishes in the sunlight of a meadow.

This story fills Clarke with cold foreboding.  And on the heals of it, London is hit by a rash of suicides. In five weeks, five young men of wealth and prominence are found hanged and decaying in their fashionable gardens and bedrooms.  Fortunately, Mr. Villiers, who prides himself as a practised explorer of obscure mazes and byways of London life, and displaying an assiduity worthy of more serious employment, reveals to Mr. Clarke that the five deceased had consorted with the same mysterious woman.  Mr. Villers presents Clarke with a sketch of her.  Clarke recognizes Mary’s features, though they are twisted in the most vivid presentment of evil he has ever seen! Clarke and Villier learn that she is Helen Vaughan, though her real name is Helen Raymond.  They confront Helen, and persuade her to hang herself.  In her death throes, they call in a medical doctor, who watches in horror as Helen’s body transforms and dissolves.

After Helen’s death, Clarke writes Dr. Raymond, describing what has transpired.  Dr Raymond finds the news unsurprising.  For it was he who had sent Helen to Rome at age five, when her pagan nature had begun to assert itself. Mary was dead, had died immediately after Helen’s birth.  And Helen was born nine months after Mary’s surgery, nine months to the day of the ill-fated experiment which had exposed Mary to the old gods, and the old gods to Mary.


Accompanied by Krzysztof Penderecki’s Polymorphia

“Though horror and revolting nausea rose up within me, and an odour of corruption choked my breath, I remained firm. I was then privileged or accursed, I dare not say which, to see that which was on the bed, lying there black like ink, transformed before my eyes. The skin, and the flesh, and the muscles, and the bones, and the firm structure of the human body that I had thought to be unchangeable, and permanents as adamant, began to melt and dissolve.

“I know that the body may be separated into its elements by external agencies, but I should have refused to believe what I saw. For here there was some internal force, of which I knew nothing, that caused dissolution and change.

“Here too was all the work by which man had been made repeated before my eyes. I saw the form waver from sex to sex, dividing itself from itself, and 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 to the abyss of all being. The principle of life, which makes organism, always remained, while the outward form changed.

“The light within the room had turned to blackness, not the darkness of night, in which objects are seen dimly, for I could see clearly and without difficulty. But it was the negation of light; objects were presented to my eyes, if I may say so, without any medium, in such a manner that if there had been a prism in the room I should have seen no colours represented in it.

“I watched, and at last I saw nothing but a substance as jelly. Then the ladder was ascended again…for one instance I saw a Form, shaped in dimness before me, which I will not farther describe.  But the symbol of this form may be seen in ancient sculptures, and in paintings which survived beneath the lava, too foul to be spoken of…as a horrible and unspeakable shape, neither man nor beast, was changed into human form, there came finally death.”


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