The Terror

I came to this short novel in researching fantastic fiction that touches on World War One and whose authors were adults during that war. I was interested in stories that use historic clasts from the Great War rather than transmuting the experience into metaphors.

I came across a reference to this work in the “World War 1” entry of the Encyclopedia of Fantasy. John Clute’s one line summation pretty much empties the reading experience of suspense and mystery. It also created some false expectations on my part.

I’ll deal with those in the additional thoughts and criticisms section after the main review.

As most of the readers of this blog know, reading older works in science fiction and weird fiction, genres which often rely on surprise conceptual revelations and plot twists and where yesterday’s novelty becomes today’s commonplace, requires a certain frame of mind. It’s a mental gaze rather like staring at aerial stereo photographs to construct topographical maps. The eyes must see two photos and yet must also relax and cross over to see the hidden information contained in those photos. So the reader of past genre fiction must see with the eyes of the past and their own time.

As with The Angel of Mons, I read this one out of The Works of Arthur Machen, the ebook from Delphi Classics.

Review: The Terror, Arthur Machen, 1917.The Terror

This is a novel of wartime dis-ease. It is not the dis-ease of loved ones returning from a foreign land dead or maimed. It is not the dis-ease of wartime rationing.

It is the dis-ease of a land which has been shelled by German ships, where munitions factories have blown up, where Zeppelins have dropped bombs from the sky. It is the dis-ease of a country whose social ties are becoming undone.

Written seemingly after the Somme Offensive began on July 1, 1916, most of the story takes place in England during the summer of 1915.

Wartime censorship has crippled the ability of the Englishman to know what is going on in his country. He has grown so used to trusting his beloved newspapers “that the old faculty of disseminating news by word of mouth has become atrophied.” Like Machen himself, the narrator is a journalist. He notes “Now a censorship that is sufficiently minute and utterly remorseless can do amazing things in the way of hiding … what it wants to hide.” Questioning into events often leads to suspicion of espionage.

The land is rife with rumors. German saboteurs are responsible for those explosion in munition factories. Trains packed with Russian soldiers hurtle through the night on their way to eventual deployment in France. The upper class has colluded, before the war, with the Germans and underground cities have been prepared and the Hun placed in them for the crucial hour. “It would be just like the Huns, everybody agreed, to think out such a devilish scheme as this; and they always thought out their schemes beforehand.”

Tensions are not eased by a series of strange incidents that the narrator investigates, their totality unknown by few except the government.

A deserted ship sails up the Thames. An aviator’s plane suddenly falls from the sky. A family is found dead in the road, their heads beaten in. A woman falls in a quarry. A man and his son fall off the path through a marsh. Panicking animals attack an army camp in Wales. Two schoolboys and a sailor drown.

In his investigations, reminiscent of Holmesian inductive reasoning and its literary offshoot, the occult detective, the narrator encounters many with explanations for the deaths: “ancient devils”, a German “Z Ray” to induce panic in animals, German commandoes offloaded from a submarine, Germans from those underground cities.

The story is a bit of a secret history, an account purporting to offer some of the reasons why the Allies had not prevailed on the Western Front in 1915 and 1916.

Of course, the narrator does arrive at a solution, interesting if not convincing. It is an ending showing Machen, a spiritual man living in the midst of a war with an unknown outcome, pondering what the war was doing to the order of the world

Short, interesting in its picture of wartime England, and suspenseful, this novel is worth a look even if its end does not entirely satisfy.

Additional Thoughts with Spoilers

The solution that Machen presents at novel’s end is a mystical one.

Clute summed it up well: “animals – at first mistaken for Germans – revolt against humanity’s corrupt and destructive rule.”

Do not, as I did, expect a sort of “revenge of nature” story a la those 1970 movies like Day of the Animals. This is not a story of polluted Earth avenging itself through animals.

As Machen ends the novel, it is something more spiritual:

I believe that the subjects revolted because the king abdicated. Man has dominated the beasts throughout the ages, the spiritual has reigned over the rational through the peculiar quality and grace of spirituality that men possess, that makes a man to be that which he is. And when he maintained this power and grace, I think it is pretty clear that between him and the animals there was a certain treaty and alliance.

…For long ages he has been putting off this royal robe, he has been wiping the balm of consecration from his own breast. He has declared, again and again, that he is not spiritual, but rational, that is, the equal of the beasts over whom he was once sovereign. He has vowed that he is not Orpheus but Caliban.

But the beasts also have within them something which corresponds to the spiritual quality in men — we are content to call it instinct. They perceived that the throne was vacant — not even friendship was possible between them and the self-deposed monarch. If he were not king he was a sham, an imposter, a thing to be destroyed.

Hence, I think, the Terror. They have risen once – they may rise again.

Machen was a student of many occult movements, but I don’t think you need to look any further for the religious idea at play here. It is the old notion of the Great Chain of Being. (Yes, there seems to be a whole blog to show how this idea shows up in literature.)

Machen’s novel has two bits of specific interest. One is a look back at his literary ancestor Edgar Allan Poe. The other may have helped H. P. Lovecraft crystalize one of his famous epigraphs.

Some of the deaths in this novel are asphyxiation by moths. There is a Poe story, “The Sphinx”, in which a man thinks he sees a great monster stalking the countryside outside his window. It turns out it’s just a moth on the window, a trick of perspective, mistaking the very close for something larger and more distant.

Machen’s description of a moth implicitly evokes that story then explains this monstrous manifestation of the Terror:

I have been amazed by the wonderful burning and the strange fiery colors of the eyes of a single moth, as it crept up the pane of glass, outside. Imagine the effect of myriads of such eyes, of the movement of these lights and fires in a vast swarm of moths, each insect being in constant motion while it kept its place in the mass . . . the moth race had entered, it seemed, into a malignant conspiracy against the human race.

I wonder if this section of the novel:

It was about this time, so far as the date can be fixed, that a whole district, one might say a whole county, was visited by a series of extraordinary and terrible calamities, which were the more terrible inasmuch as they continued for some time to be inscrutable mysteries. It is, indeed, doubtful whether these awful events do not still remain mysteries to many of those concerned; for before the inhabitants of this part of the country had time to join one link of evidence to another the circular was issued, and thenceforth no one knew how to distinguish undoubted fact from wild and extravagant surmise.

was not the inspiration for Lovecraft’s famous opening of “The Call of Cthulhu”:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.

And, while we’re on the subject of literary associations, the whole idea of secret subterranean cities staffed with Germans, literally underground subversion, struck me as an inversion of the plans of the artilleryman in H. G. Well’s The War of the Worlds. He plans to flee the Martian invasion and live underground.

I hope, in a future posting, to take a closer at the novel’s specific World War One elements.


More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

4 thoughts on “The Terror

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