Friday, 4 January 2013

Dreads and Drolls reviewed

2013 marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Arthur Machen, and so it seems appropriate for Machen to be the subject of our first blog post this year.

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and Drolls, was written by Douglas Campbell for All Hallows, the journal of the Ghost Story Society, but has remained unpublished until now.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.

Dreads and Drolls by Arthur Machen; 241+vii pages; Tartarus Press; 2007; £35.00/$70; inc. p&p ; ISBN 978-1-905784-04-2

Review by Douglas Campbell.
Dreads and Drolls, Martin Secker, 1926
First things first: this is not a book of ghost stories as such, though it is full of ghosts of one kind and another, along with all manner of other strange things out of the past. Instead, it collects a series of more-or-less factual articles written by Arthur Machen for the London Graphic magazine in the mid twenties under the general title of Dreads and Drolls. Martin Secker brought twenty-nine of these pieces together in hardcover while the series was still running. The Tartarus edition adds the uncollected articles from the rest of the series, rounding the total out to sixty, and throwing in full bibliographical details and an introduction by Ray Russell.  As Russell points out, what Tartarus do not give and could not have given are footnotes and references. These are anecdotes, often from unreliable sources, and, perhaps, unreliable memory. Machen himself admits, in the note to the original edition included here, that although most of the Dreads and Drolls are “strictly veridical”, “here and there imagination plays a small part”. This reminds me of the sideshow impresario Jim Rose being asked the question ‘On what occasions do you lie?’ He responded that, under the terms of the United Kingdom Circuses Act, he was not permitted to lie – but he could embroider. If there is embroidery here, it is fine work.

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.

Arthur Machen
Machen seems to have been given free rein to divert the readers of the Graphic with whatever was on his mind. Having read widely and well over half a century, he is well placed to dredge up strange treasures. I was reminded of great miscellanies of marginal strangeness like Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, Edith Sitwell’s English Eccentrics and the works of Charles Fort. Subscribers to Fortean Times will find much to enjoy here: Apparitions, magic, bilocations, witch trials, the monster of Glamis and the Little People in the Congo and the Forest of Dean. (Here, Machen repeats his pet theory that a nation of small, dark people were driven underground by the Celtic invaders, are remembered in fairy tales, and may yet survive.)

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
I had approached this Dreads and Drolls with slight apprehension, through having read that, at this point in his life, Machen was deeply committed to promoting his own peculiar brand of conservative Anglo-Catholicism. This is a world-view I’m distinctly resistant to, and my tolerance for sermons of any kind is limited. However, those tolerances are not tested here. Instead, Machen seems to be using his succession of strange anecdotes to gently probe the limits of a rationalist view of the world. He seems particularly fascinated by court cases where significant witnesses disagree, and the supporting evidence is drastically inconsistent or unsatisfactory. The implication is that life itself is often like that. Wherever you may be coming from, it is hard to disagree. Although this may not be one of Machen’s major works, it is a charming and consistently entertaining book, wonderful to dip into. As a cabinet of curiosities, its appeal will extend even to those who have never been introduced to the Great God Pan, and Machen makes the perfect host.

Dreads and Drolls, Tartarus Press, 2007
Copies of Dreads and Drolls are available direct from Tartarus Press here.


  1. "Machen was deeply committed to promoting his own peculiar brand of conservative Anglo-Catholicism."

    Isn't everyone -- or shouldn't they be -- committed to their particular world view? Which author doesn't have one and is totally neutral? I can't think of any. That being the case, singling out Machen's mature world view seems rather odd and subjective. Intolerant in fact.

    1. Is the author of the comment and reflections on Machen's mature world view entitled to express his/her own view, as you have by calling it intolerant?

    2. Is the author of the comment and reflections on Machen's mature world view entitled to express his/her own view, as you have by calling it intolerant?


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