I read today’s story for the first time only recently, though it had been on my reading list for a long while. It is considered a classic of weird fiction, and the delay was in part because I was waiting to get my hands on a nice hardback copy and read it when I was alone in the house on a dark, stormy evening. (It was mid August and there was no rain, but I enjoyed reading it all the same.)
The story was also an influence on H.P. Lovecraft, and it was with this in mind that I became captivated by the opening scene. Clarke is our initial point of view character, a man invited to a country house by one Dr. Raymond, who has a scientific experiment to perform that requires an independent witness. He already has a subject, Mary, on which he intends to perform a minor unspecified surgery. But why?
“Look about you, Clarke. You see the mountain, and hill following after hill, as wave on wave, you see the woods and orchard, the fields of ripe corn, and the meadows reaching to the reed-beds by the river. You see me standing here beside you, and hear my voice; but I tell you that all these things—yes, from that star that has just shone out in the sky to the solid ground beneath our feet—I say that all these are but dreams and shadows; the shadows that hide the real world from our eyes. There is a real world, but it is beyond this glamour and this vision, beyond these ‘chases in Arras, dreams in a career,’ beyond them all as beyond a veil. I do not know whether any human being has ever lifted that veil; but I do know, Clarke, that you and I shall see it lifted this very night from before another’s eyes. You may think this all strange nonsense; it may be strange, but it is true, and the ancients knew what lifting the veil means. They called it seeing the god Pan.”
And it is this surgical operation that will, under controlled conditions, allow Mary to see the great god Pan. The experiment unfortunately works, but by the time it is over Mary is quite incapable of telling what she saw.
This ends the first section. The sections are at first seemingly unrelated scenes, told by either Clarke or Villiers. Clarke reads of a young girl who loved the woods, who insisted her father lived in the woods, who was once glimpsed with a naked man who had the face resembling one carved into a recently unearthed pagan temple. Villiers encounters a formerly wealthy friend now reduced to penury, who lost his reputation after a body was found in his house having died of terror; his wife, who perhaps had a hand in it, soon vanished. And by the time Villiers and Clarke meet and compare stories, a cohesive, worrying picture begins to develop as the body count grows.
I’ll be interested to compare my reaction when I reread this story a few years down the line. Right now my perception is skewed from false assumptions: knowing that it influenced Lovecraft, and the first scene in the vein of cosmic horror, meant that the rest of the story was a bit of a letdown; it was still good, but the human-scale threat felt a bit pedestrian after the opening’s build-up. Still, there’s a strong tone of mounting concern as the characters and reader start linking all of the disparate things they’ve seen into a single threat, and the first scene would make an effective little story on its own.
The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen
Availability: free online (out of copyright), free audio, print
Word count: 21,700
First published: The Great God Pan and the Inmost Light, collection, 1894, John Lane
A free audio is available from Librivox here
The Arthur Machen Reader, collection, 2013, CreateSpace
The 13 Best Horror Stories of All Time, edited by Leslie Pockell, 2002, Warner Books
H.P. Lovecraft’s Book of Horror, edited by Dave Carson & Stephen Jones, 2008, Fall River Press