Arthur Machen isn’t exactly a household name. Ask anyone well-read in horror or weird fiction, however, and odds are they’ve heard of him. Most modern practitioners of the genre, from Neil Gaiman to Clive Barker to Stephen King to director Guillermo del Toro, have read and admire his work. In his later years, he turned toward mystical fantasy, but in the 1890s, Machen wrote some of the most highly regarded weird horror tales of all-time, including The Great God Pan, “The Inmost Light,” “The Shining Pyramid,” “The Red Hand,” and “The White People.” I love and can happily recommend them all, but for my money, none of Machen’s works is quite so resonant or so terrifying as his 1895 novel The Three Impostors.
The impostors are so villainous and frightening because their stories, titillating as they may be, are the true products of a materialist cosmos.From the book’s beginning, we are introduced to a trio of sadistic villains, two men and a woman, who are tracking down a man desperate to elude them. In the process of doing so, they frequently cross paths with two idle, would-be artists, Dyson and Phillipps, whose lives consist mostly of wandering the streets of London and musing on aesthetics. Convinced that these two men know something about their quarry (to which they are indeed strangely connected), the three impostors try to win their confidence, though they do so by telling ghastly and outlandish stories about their supposed pasts, many of which involve some mysterious supernatural component. Dyson and Phillipps are suitably horrified, though they never really turn the impostors away. I won’t give away the ending, which brings the novel’s beginning full circle in a tragically gruesome way.
What makes the book such an effectively terrifying read to me is that the horror comes from two directions. The first is in the individual stories the impostors tell. Each one is an effective weird tale in and of itself. Some have in fact been reprinted on their own and as such are themselves regarded as classics. “The Novel of the White Powder” tells of the terrible results when a young man begins taking a strange medicine. “The Novel of the Black Seal” follows a young woman who is drawn into a search for the inhuman intelligences lurking in the Welsh countryside. These chapters represent masterpieces of gradually escalating tension and revulsion. Those two in particular played on post-Darwinian fears that human beings may in fact be no more than physical objects, little different from any other animal… or thing—what scholar Kelly Hurley calls “abhumanness.”
But while these stories can be enjoyed as standalones, I find them even more disturbing in the larger matrix of The Three Impostors as a whole. Here, the fear takes on a new dimension. The climactic moments of the book implicate everyone, the readers included. It becomes a dark meditation on the power and ethics of storytelling and on the consequences of those stories. It forces us to confront our tendency to disregard moral considerations, as long as we’re suitably entertained. The shocking starkness of the final scene, juxtaposed against flighty and almost comic dialogue just pages earlier, is a wake-up call to the complacent, passive consumer of fictions.
Both strands of horror are intertwined. Because as weird master H. P. Lovecraft—himself a fervent admirer of Machen—recognized so powerfully in his fiction and essays, the reality of a world without God or metaphysics is dreadful. The Victorians were the first culture to have to reckoned seriously with the idea that human beings might be entirely material, and this reckoning led at the end of the 19th century to the fear of degeneration. If people had descended from animals—or primordial slime—could we not lose all our uniqueness and travel back that way? But threats to ethics also followed this attack on metaphysics. While many Victorian skeptics held to the value of some form of morality, others posed the obvious question: why be “good” or “virtuous” when such acts put us (individually or collectively) at a competitive disadvantage?
The impostors are so villainous and frightening because their stories, titillating as they may be, are the true products of a materialist cosmos. They illustrate a worldview in which humans are animals, and they are told out of lust for power with no regard for truth or virtue. Humans and human language alike become tools of the trio and their boss, who is described as “a relentless mechanism rather than a man” (228). Dyson and Phillipps spend the novel ambling along happily, self-consciously preferring style over substance.
But the true implications of such a philosophy are destructive, as Machen vividly represents. I have long thought horror to be among the most amenable literary genres for the Christian. It often affirms the supernatural in a disenchanted world or hews to surprisingly traditional standards of morality. Some of the most powerful horror, however, simply brings into the open the true dismay of inhabiting a godless cosmos. I don’t believe I inhabit such a cosmos—and Arthur Machen’s novel The Three Impostors is always a good reminder about why I’m glad I don’t.