Thursday, 11 August 2011

Arthur Machen vs H.P. Lovecraft

(okay, so you know in advance which side I’m going to come down on…)

Arthur Machen by Nicolas Day, 1935
2013 will be the 150th anniversary of the birth Arthur Machen (1863-1947), and he will be the featured author at the World Fantasy Convention in Brighton. By then he will also have been published in Penguin’s iconic Modern Classics series. Machen is already in print with Tartarus Press (five as traditional print books, and two as ebooks--see below), and the National Library of Wales has recently published reasonably-priced paperbacks of The Hill of Dreams and The Great God Pan. There are also a number of print-on-demand titles of varying quality (and legality) available online. So, is the Arthur Machen Renaissance underway? 

H.P. Lovecraft, Algernon Blackwood and Lord Dunsany
Back in the 1980s, Arthur Machen’s writings were only available (alongside Lovecraft, Blackwood, Dunsany and others) in battered paperbacks left over from the fantasy resurgence of the 1960s and early 1970s. I found the majority of Machen’s work singularly difficult to track down after I had secured a copy of The Hill of Dreams. (That particular book, and the genesis of Tartarus Press, is described in John Shire’s Bookends, A Partial History of the Brighton Book Trade.) And so I turned to Lovecraft, buying the 1960s Gollancz collections as well as sending off dollar cheques to the industrious Necronomicon Press in the US. There was an underground industry in America promoting Lovecraft (spearheaded by the indefatigable Marc and Marie Michaud, S.T. Joshi and others), but other weird fiction authors did not have the same backing. Through the 1990s there were occasional publications of Machen by Duckworth and the Creation Press, and Tartarus was doing what it could with its limited means. However, Lovecraft eased ahead in terms of publicity and space on the shelves of specialist and then more general bookshops.
Arthur Machen and H.P. Lovecraft
My enthusiasm for Lovecraft quickly waned, however, while my fascination for Machen increased. Lovecraft was the master of an instant, obvious atmosphere, but the mountains of adjectives not only gave me verbal indigestion, but were also never quite so powerful when you went to a dictionary to discover how dull a “gibbous” moon really was, for example. The aliens were never entirely convincing, either, although they had a period charm. Machen’s writing, however, seemed to grow in power whenever I re-read him. Certainly he has his faults, but he was not only a master of beautiful, rhythmic, resonant language, but there was something in his philosophy that struck a chord. Agnostic that I am, I sympathised when Machen argued that there was more to the world than we see with everyday eyes. Because he suggested something mystical (rather than traditionally Christian), he offered endless possibilities that could be both astoundingly beautiful and frightening. In contrast, Lovecraft offered the existential angst of a void, which would have been much more powerful it hadn’t been populated by cartoon gods or aliens (depending on how you interpret Cthulhu and his chums.) For me, Machen’s writing offered a greater emotional depth, as well as a style that could not be faulted.

"The White People" by Lynd Ward and the cover to Lovecraft's Book of Horror

So will Machen follow Lovecraft in his inexorable rise to public consciousness? Somehow I doubt it. Lovecraft offers an immediate thrill that will always be appreciated by each new generation that comes along, even if many will later dismiss him as their literary tastes mature. His “mythos” is susceptible to fan-fiction, films and figurines, whereas Machen requires his readers to imagine for themselves what may be seen when the veil of reality is lifted.

Arthur Machen in print from Tartarus Press


  1. It is possible that my literary taste is regressing, but I seem to like Lovecraft better, the older I get.

  2. With me it was Machen first and then Lovecraft. The sense of place in both is the outstanding feature; Locecraft's New England and Machen's Caerleon and environs. Both are writers of genius and I would not be able to rank one above the other.

  3. Better schmetter ,I appreciate both artists. but Lovecraft did read and appreciate Machen. I read" the novel of the black Seal" today and the overall residual feelings involved from reading Machen ,I also get from Lovecraft. but it does say a lot when Machen hints at eldritch beings living along side modern man. Lovecraft used this idea extensively. great post btw.