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Far Off Things

Arthur Machen

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    I am a big fan of Arthur Machen, though he is probably not a household word, as other authors from his time in late Victorian England to the early part of the 1900s. In his own time, he enjoyed a brief popularity, but then suffered a decline, setting him back where he started, in quite dire poverty. Fortunately. a group of financially successful authors stepped in for him at the end of his long life, and created a fund that would enable him to live out the rest of his years in relative comfort. Machen died at age 84. As for me, I had not heard of him until I read The Three Impostors, which I really did not "get" the first time I read it through. After the second reading, however, I most definitely did "get it," and I understood then that I had been reading the work of a genius. I have been a follower ever since. Fortunately, there has been a resurgence in the appreciation of Machen's works, and with resources such as Project Gutenberg, many of them are now available as free eBooks.
    Machen was, and is known mostly for his weird fiction, delving into the seriously creepy, demonic side of the paranormal. Yet, at least as far as his personal self has been revealed, he was nothing like what he wrote. I don't very often say this about authors, but I think I would have liked him as a person. This present book is an autobiography of the early years of his life, and there is so much here that I can relate to. From what I've read, lots of well-knowns in the artistic world felt the same, because his influence reached far and wide. Lest you think an autobiography might be dry or stuffy, think again. This one is filled with wry humor, often gained at the expense of Machen putting down himself for stupidity! OK, so he couldn't learn arithmetic or shorthand, but he had a certain genius for writing. But even that came with a struggle, in fact his entire life seems fraught with great effort. The other thing I can so much relate to is his early childhood, growing up in the deep country of Wales (Caerleon, Monmouthshire), as an only child. Much of his time was spent exploring and reveling in the beauty of nature, and a good deal of the rest of his time was spent reveling in the beauty of books, two activities quite dear to my own heart.
    But he, like myself, heard the inner call to move to the city—mine was Cincinnati and his was London. I moved back home, as was always my plan when I had achieved my city goals, but he fluctuated, being miserable in the city, yet needing it, and loving the country, yet knowing he couldn't achieve his goals in that place. My life in Cincinnati, however, wasn't terribly grueling. I wasn't experiencing the levels of near starvation and extreme loneliness that Machen survived, at least the first eighteen-month stint. His first impressions of London were that of excitement and gaiety. But he quickly discovered that those luxuries were only for those with money, and lots of it, so he just as quickly grew disenchanted with city life, and saw it only for its horrors, and of that I, too, can relate. But all his experience contributed to subject matter for his writings, and the horrors spilled out on paper, as well as the elements of Pagan and Roman lore from his Welsh countryside, resulting in such chilling classics as The Great God Pan, and The Three Impostors.
    As Machen recalls his childhood experiences, he also analyses how his method of writing developed, even before he had an inkling that he was destined to be an author. I can deeply relate to his emotional relationship with the rural environment:

I should put it thus: this group of pines, this lonely shore, or whatever the scene may be, has made the soul thrill with an emotion intense but vague in the sense in which music is vague; and the man of letters does his best to realise—rather, perhaps, to actualize—this emotion by inventing a tale about the pines or the sands.

    And he did just that, of course—the scenery became part of the emotional aspect of his writing, rather than just a setting. He also jokes that his father, the country parson, really did not know his people as well as he thought!

I feel certain that my father, if asked by a Royal Commission or some such valuable body, "What influence has astrology on your parishioners?" would have answered: "They have never heard of such a thing." In later years I have wondered as to the possible fields which extended beyond the bounds of our ignorance. I have wondered, for example, whether, by any possibility, there were waxen men, with pins in them, hidden in very secret nooks in any of the Llanddewi cottages.

    Again, it was that essence of the Pagan element that captured Machen's attention, and was integrated into his stories. He also goes on to describe his process of picking out a book to read from somewhere in the house. He would have a certain one on his mind, but get distracted at all the possibilities, and end up exploring something totally different. Of that I can relate!! Here, in 2017, however, it is eBooks that I download and put on a flash drive, or save the link on my eBooks link doc. I must have over 200! He also recognizes the fact that, at a very young age, he became interested in alchemy, or what I would call metaphysics. That "Thrice Great Hermes" (Hermes Trismegistus) keeps popping up lately for me, and here he is again!
    Machen covers a bit of everything, including detailed descriptions of food: cheese, bacon, cider, and desserts, much of which sounds absolutely disgusting. But he also makes a point of saying that there was little poverty where he grew up, because everyone had a bit of land, and some, more than that, and everyone grew food. Of that I can relate, too, because, when I was growing up, many of us were "poor" but didn't even know it because food we grew was plentiful, and when you have enough food to eat, nothing else seems too bad, at least back then. After food, he moves on to architecture, and, again, a detailed description of their "parlor," and other rooms, in which many good memories of sitting, curled up with a book, still linger.
    One of the very interesting aspects of this book is Machen's comparison of life in his early years to his late ones, and progress would not describe it. In fact, especially dealing with London, he sees nothing but decline. Where once there was charm and elegance, even in the deep of the city, development, ugly brick buildings, and sprawling construction overtook what gave London once a unique character. He spends quite a bit of time describing the "decline" of London, and his own personal disenchantment.

While I contrast the London of my young days and the London of my old—or present—days, I would like it to be remembered that I am, so far, only contrasting the two cities from one point of view, the point of view of smartness. I have not been saying that 1880 London was more sensible than 1915 London; but merely that the former struck an outsider as a more brilliant place than the modern city.

    But as the book goes on, his experience of the more wretched aspects of the city continue to grow—his near starvation, and terrible living conditions. This part actually sent chills down my spine, knowing that his novel, The Hill of Dreams, was partially autobiographical. Of course, Machen ended up returning home, to a loving and supportive home, unlike his character in the novel who came to a tragic end. But I cannot help but wonder, if there were not inklings of this impending tragedy in his real life. I am glad that these events did not come to pass.
    Even in Machen's most serious moments, he seems able to insert bits of wry humor. For instance, here is his description of trying to learn shorthand.

And here again comes a chapter as sad as that which I have written on my arithmetic. I never learnt shorthand effectively, because I was too stupid to learn it.

    Machen puts himself down quite regularly in this reminiscence, but I would certainly never use the words "stupid" or "incompetent" to describe him!
    If you are unfamiliar with Machen's works, I highly suggest changing that. You may visit his Index Page to read all my reviews thus far, and by clicking the title at the top of this page, you will access Project Gutenberg, which then links to the page listing all his works they have digitized so far. I believe that everything I have read is available to read online or on a reader.
    And as for this book, if you like history, I highly recommend it, because it supplies a great historical portrait of turn-of-the-century London, as well as the pastoral beauty of the Wales countryside during that period.

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