The following review of Machen's Dreads and Drolls, was written by Douglas Campbell for All Hallows, the journal of the Ghost Story Society, but has remained unpublished until now.
Many thanks to Doug and to Barbara Roden for letting us reproduce it here.
Review by Douglas Campbell.
|Dreads and Drolls, Martin Secker, 1926|
The Machen most of us know best is the Machen of the eighteen-nineties, of The Great God Pan and The Three Imposters, some of the most neurotic Decadent writing in English. The Machen we meet here is in his sixties and has come through a lot in the intervening three decades: the tragic death of his first wife and ensuing breakdown; His much debated involvement with the magicians of the Golden Dawn; the curious business of the Angel of Mons; the premature obituary of Lord Alfred Douglas; and, perhaps most significantly for the tone of this book, some time in repertory theatre and a long period of work as a jobbing journalist. Strangely, these storms seem to have left Machen a man quite at peace with himself. The striking about these pieces is their easy charm, quite in contrast to the twisted intensity of the early work. It seems that Machen had become very much the literary lion by this point, and enjoyed holding court as a raconteur in the pubs and clubs of London. This warm, theatrical presence comes through on every page, and you feel your glass is being steadily refilled as the great man spins his yarns.
The focus ranges back and forth through history and makes stops around the globe, but Machen dwells most often on London and its scandals, byways, trials and 'orrible murders. Contemporary court reports are frequent sources, and literary Londoners like Shakespeare, Pepys and Dickens are regular reference points. In ‘A Lament for London’s Lost Inns’, he describes visiting The Cock, a tavern in near the corner of Chancery Lane in the early eighteen-eighties, looking for the coffee-house wits of city ‘about a hundred years too late’. It is slightly disorienting to imagine the young Machen, himself a legend now fading into a second century of literary myth, imagining himself a century or more further back in turn. ‘Before Wembley’ describes the pleasure gardens at Vauxhall in the eighteenth century, where one might enjoy theatre, music, food, drink and more drink in the open air until dawn, and be importuned by masked “wantons” in the shady groves. ‘The Gay Victorians’ describes the night-life of the mid-Victorian era, “one of the jolliest ages in our history”: crowds flooding out of the Haymarket Theatre at midnight for gargantuan suppers of chops, kidneys, eggs and toasted cheese, washed down with pint after pint of stout. These scenes are rendered in sensual and powerfully nostalgic tones, which may leave you wanting to throw on a frock coat and join the party. Their pungent vividness derives from the newly-puritanical context in which they were published. Machen refers bitterly to “the matter of closing hours” where “a glass of beer after ten becomes a penal offence”. As futile and protracted conflicts will, the First World War had proved a convenient pretext for introducing all kinds of petty authoritarian measures. Britain escaped prohibition, but early closing laws were imposed that shut down British nightlife early for more than fifty years. In a deeper sense, throughout the collection, Machen seems to be kicking against a world that is pulling down the shutters on the night and all of its magical possibilities.
|Arthur Machen by Nicholas Day, 1935|
|Dreads and Drolls, Tartarus Press, 2007|