Coming off the M4 into the urban sprawl of Newport, the ancient Roman fortress I’m aiming for is surprisingly difficult to locate, with counterintuitive road signs seemingly sending me the wrong way before, at last, there’s a gap in the incessant straggle of houses and I’m crossing a muddy-banked tidal river. Finally, I’ve arrived in the small Welsh town of Caerleon. The location is steeped in history and archaeology with its impressive Roman ruins, and its later associations – it’s the site where Geoffrey of Monmouth’s twelfth-century chronicle of British monarchs, Historia regum Britanniae, places the court of King Arthur, and where, some 350 years on, Thomas Malory staged the legendary figure’s coronation in Le Morte D’Arthur. Tennyson came here too, in 1856, apparently writing part of the epic Idylls of the King in the town’s Hanbury Arms. And a nearby cave is said to harbour the sleeping monarch and his knights until the day they are needed by the nation, a local variant of the same piece of folklore that was to spawn Alan Garner’s Weirdstone of Brisingamen trilogy.
It’s a place on the borderlands: the ancient Kingdom of Gwent (now covering Monmouthshire and Newport) once spanned the area between the Usk and Wye rivers, while the course of the latter, twelve miles to the east, still forms much of the modern-day boundary between Wales and England. Caerleon and its surrounding hills, and tracts of timeless woods, was also the childhood home of one of the most remarkable writers of the supernatural: one whose work reaches out with an inherent strangeness.
The writer is Arthur Machen (pronounced ‘Macken’), born in 1863, though making his literary name during the decadence of fin-de-siècle London with his novella The Great God Pan. Much to Machen’s delight the Manchester Guardian described the book as ‘the most acutely and intentionally disagreeable we have yet seen in English. We could say more, but refrain from doing so for fear of giving such a work advertisement.’ The 1895 review’s level of criticism appears harsh today, and Machen’s novel, though far from his best, remains effective and atmospheric. In it he sets out many of the themes that were to become key features of his writing. Most noticeably, we are introduced to Machen’s search for the meaning of life’s hidden mysteries – ‘the shadows that hide the real world from our eyes’ – and the timeless pagan forces of (and beyond) nature, embodied as a carnal, faun-like deity, which corrupt both the flesh and the spirit of those exposed to them: those who ‘see the god Pan’.
The appearance of Pan reflected the zeitgeist, as the goatish figure (depicted rather androgynously in Aubrey Beardsley’s illustration for Machen’s first edition) was to become prevalent in literature over the course of the next three turbulent decades, celebrated by writers as diverse as Aleister Crowley, D. H. Lawrence and E. M. Forster. Perhaps most notably (and unexpectedly), a gilded, horned Pan appears on the cover of Kenneth Grahame’s 1908 children’s novel of anthropomorphised badgers, moles, toads and water voles, The Wind in the Willows, in which he takes the form of a protective god of nature and the wild – the ‘Piper at the Gates of Dawn’.
Arthur Machen was the son of an Anglican clergyman. His father John Edward Jones had adhered to the family tradition, studying Divinity at Jesus College, Oxford and thereafter becoming curate at Alfreton in Derbyshire before taking over as the interim vicar of St Cadoc’s in Caerleon on the death of Arthur’s grandfather in 1857. In the following year John Jones was given his own parish, Llanddewi Fach with Llandegfedd, a sprawling rural collection of farms and cottages five miles north of the town. In March 1863 Arthur was born in his grandmother’s house on Caerleon’s main street: a blue plaque marks the site, though there is little other obvious commemoration of the author elsewhere in the town today. He was christened Arthur Llewellyn Jones-Machen, as his father incorporated the surname of his Scottish wife into their name as part of a family legacy settlement; Arthur would later drop the Jones.
Contemporary Caerleon is dominated by its three grand reminders of the Roman legionary fortress of Isca: the amphitheatre on the edge of the town – lauded, by the reign of Elizabeth I, as the site of King Arthur’s Round Table; the Fortress Baths, which remained buried in Machen’s day, being painstakingly uncovered between 1964 and 1981, and now housed inside an impressive edifice; and the Roman Legionary Museum – known in Machen’s time as the Museum of Antiquities – which, along with many items from its collection, features in The Great God Pan, and in his semi-autobiographical The Hill of Dreams. Here in this hard-to-classify novel we can explicitly see the influence the landscape of Machen’s youth had upon his writing. I particularly love the atmosphere of the scene in which its protagonist Lucian takes an unfamiliar route home across the fields: ‘A dark wild twilight country lay before him, confused dim shapes of trees near at hand, and a hollow below his feet, and the further hills and woods were dimmer, and all the air was very still.’
In addition to the Gwent landscape, Machen’s work is dominated by the vast mystery of London – the place where he was to spend the majority of his of adult life. The seventeen-year-old Arthur was enchanted by the city from the off, after taking the six-hour train journey from south Wales with his father for the first time, in June 1880. On that foremost evening they walked along the Strand: ‘it instantly went to my head and my heart, and I have never loved another street in quite the same way.’
Machen returned the following summer for his initial attempt to become a journalist and learn the craft of writing, a time spent living alone in Turnham Green, which he described later as ‘rather a goblin’s castle than a city of delights’. Things were gradually to improve for the young Arthur after he moved to Clarendon Road in Notting Hill Gate and procured a job at a small publisher’s. One of his tasks was to catalogue a collection of esoteric works on the occult, though he still occasionally terrified himself by trudging northwards through grim suburbs to the ‘goblin city’ of Kensal Green Cemetery – ‘a terrible city of white gravestones and shattered marble pillars and granite urns, and every sort of horrid heathenry’. This was a vast Victorian land of the dead; its famous under-the-earth dwellers would come to include Wilkie Collins, author of the sensation novels The Woman in White and The Moonstone.
In August 1887, only a few weeks after the death of his father, Machen, who by this time had been living on and off in London for six years, married the bohemian Amy (Amelia) Hogg. Thirteen years his senior, and an acquaintance of Jerome K. Jerome (soon to find fame with his comic novel Three Men in a Boat) and A. E. Waite, she introduced Arthur to Waite – a folklorist and member of the so-called Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a society devoted to occult, alchemical and spiritual study – initiating the two men’s lifelong friendship.
The Machens were married for twelve years, for half of which Amy was engaged in a struggle against an unspecified form of cancer. This trying time happened to be a period of surprising creativity for Arthur, during which he wrote many of his best works of fiction. Yet mentions of Amy in his autobiographies, written a quarter of a century later, are notable by their absence. Just a single sentence in the second volume, Things Near and Far, alludes to the enormous sense of loss and grief that overwhelmed him following her death in 1899: ‘Then a great sorrow which had long been threatened fell upon me: I was once more alone.’
In his own memoir, Jerome K. Jerome (who two years after penning his most famous book wrote Told After Supper, a collection of ghost stories that fuse humour and the supernatural) recalled visiting the couple at their Gray’s Inn house shortly before Amy’s death:
‘The windows looked out onto the great garden, and the rooks were cawing in the elms. She was dying, and Machen, with two cats under his arm, was moving softly about, waiting on her. We did not talk much. I stayed there until the sunset filled the room with a strange purple light.’
Excerpt from Ghostland by Edward Parnell (William Collins, 2019), adapted from Chapter Seven, ‘Goblin City’.
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‘A uniquely strange and wonderful work of literature’ Philip Hoare
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In his late thirties, Edward Parnell found himself trapped in the recurring nightmare of a family tragedy. For comfort, he turned to his bookshelves, back to the ghost stories that obsessed him as a boy, and to the writers through the ages who have attempted to confront what comes after death.
In Ghostland, Parnell goes in search of the ‘sequestered places’ of the British Isles, our lonely moors, our moss-covered cemeteries, our stark shores and our folkloric woodlands. He explores how these landscapes conjured and shaped a kaleidoscopic spectrum of literature and cinema, from the ghost stories and weird fiction of M. R. James, Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood to the children’s fantasy novels of Alan Garner and Susan Cooper; from W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn and Graham Swift’s Waterland to the archetypal ‘folk horror’ film The Wicker Man…
Ghostland is Parnell’s moving exploration of what has haunted our writers and artists – and what is haunting him. It is a unique and elegiac meditation on grief, memory and longing, and of the redemptive power of stories and nature.
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Latest posts by Edward Parnell (see all)
- Ghostland: Arthur Machen, King Arthur and ‘Goblin City’ - October 17, 2019
- Redwings and Bramblings: A Gap in the Lore of Our Winter Migrant Birds - January 5, 2017
- The Traditional Games of England, Scotland and Ireland - August 25, 2016