Written in 1892, there are several notable things about this story.
Machen has turned has his back for good on writing society tales.
It’s also his first story with Dyson, a character in four Machen works who has sometimes been called an occult detective. However, he uses no apparatus like William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki does with his electric pentacle. He is not a student of the occult like Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence nor does Dyson claim psychic sensitivity.
Dyson calls himself a “man of science”, and his science (like many a Machen protagonist) is
the great city; the physiology of London; literally and metaphysically the greatest subject that the mind of man can conceive.
It’s also the only Machen story I would describe, after reading more than two-thirds of his fiction, as genuinely, viscerally horrifying.
The story opens with the narrator seeing a item in the newspaper thanking a gentleman who helped the writer in distress when she was at Victoria Station on the evening of November 15th. She would like to meet him again at the station at 6 PM on November 21st. The narrator saw the notice about a week ago since he likes to read “agony columns”, and he decides to watch this meeting which is suggestive of the “plots of shilling dreadfuls”.
The narrator, an accountant, tells us he’s a man of no vices and excellent morals.
Machen returns to weird fiction for the first time after starting “The Great God Pan“.
At first, it seems like another society story. We have two respectable members of society, Phillipps and Austin, meeting by chance as they wander London’s streets.
They dine together and then, coming back out on the street, we hear how they are “two slaves to duty and ‘legal business’” who enjoy, again repeating one of Machen’s favorite themes, the mysteries of London’s streets “full of fantasy”.
However, it starts to rain, and the two can’t find a cab. They take shelter in a doorway in Oxford Street. Phillipps realizes where they are in their wanderings since he was brought here by his friend Wylliams who told him there was a club nearby.
Then, coincidentally, they meet Wylliams. Austin asks to be taken to Wylliams’ club so they can get out of the rain.
In 1890, 27-year old Arthur Machen was still writing society tales.
But they won’t be for the St. James Gazette anymore. According to James Machin’s “’All Manner of Mysteries’: Encounters with the Numinous in The Cosy Room and Other Stories”, Machen’s friend Oscar Wilde liked “A Double Return”. Readers, however, were “annoyed and enraged”.
St. James Gazette wasn’t going to be buying any more Machen.
So this story got published in another magazine, Whirlwind.
The story uses a familiar plot device – the reuniting of old lovers who did not part on the best of terms.
It starts with two old acquaintances meeting again after seven or eight years. One is Villiers, a bachelor, and the other the older Richardson. (No, this is not the same Villiers of Machen’s “The Great God Pan. Machen tended to use the same surnames over and over again for his characters.) The latter has gotten involved with the Indian trade and made some money.
Villiers, like many another Machen protagonist, likes to wander around London making his studies. He could have inherited his dad’s China trading company, but he sold his interest.
Richardson married three months ago. Villiers congratulates him and wants to meet his wife. So they go to Richardson’s house.
This is another one of Machen’s society stories, written and published in 1890. It actually does have one of those covert sexual themes that S. T. Joshi says often showed up in these kinds of stories. It also has less dialogue than usual for a Machen “smart tale”.
Our protagonist is Frank Halswell, and he’s taking the train back home to London. He is a popular artist who has been on a “sketching tour in Devon and Cornwall”.
As his train nears Paddington station, he sees a train going the other way and in it a man who looks remarkably like him. However, he writes it off as his reflection in the window.
He thinks back to an acquaintance, Kerr, he met at a hotel in Plymouth. Kerr, oddly, would look like Halswell if Kerr was clean-shaven.
As with my last posting, this is another of Machen’s society stories. It’s also a bit of a science fiction story since it involves a fantastic invention.
The main character is the Reverend Arthur Hammond who has been reading his way through Butler’s Analogy. That’s a real book, and one of its main arguments, from what I found briefly online, is that breaking God’s commandments leads, frequently by the workings of the natural world, to punishment. That may bear on this story.
After finishing the book, Hammond looks through things in his study. His mind has been drifting from the page when his eye falls on the phrase “Personality is but a transient thing.”
All of a sudden, as he ponders the question and thinks back on the actions of his past life, he wonders if he is the same personality that did those things. There is some hint, coupled with the end, that he had sex with some girl when young.
In 1890, the British short story market was booming. The Education Act of 1870 had increased general literacy. The three-tier novel and the monopolies of lending libraries affiliated with publishers were giving way to magazines.
In 1887, after he had been in London for four years, Machen inherited some money from his father, and he had the time to devote himself full-time to writing.
The explosion of magazines meant many an author was experimenting with different styles and subjects to see which ones would make their reputation and make money.
In the year that it took Machen to complete all of the installments of the serialized “The Great God Pan”, he also turned his hand to society stories, or, as Machen dubbed them, “smart tales”. (And he said he knew absolutely nothing about “society”.)
At this point in our Machen series, we move from obscure works to one of his most famous works, indeed this story is probably Machen’s best known with the possible exception of some of the excerpted stories in his later novel The Three Impostors; or, The Transmutation or “The Bowmen” (and that one, as I’ve went on at length, only in its transmuted form.)
The figure at the story’s center, Helen Vaughn, the product of a woman mating with something from outside our world and beyond the veil of the senses. This tale may have inspired H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror”. It is regarded as a classic of weird fiction among scholars of the field.
However, while the story was popular when it was published, it was not well thought of by critics.
Machen, when the story was reprinted in 1916, quoted several bad reviews of it. It was a laughable “psychological bogey”. “Our flesh obstinately refused to creep”, said one review. The tale was tepid occultism. It was “elaborately absurd”. Not only ridiculous, said another review, but intentionally disagreeable. The story was “gruesome and dull”. And, perhaps more to the point, a reviewer for Westminster said:
an incoherent nightmare of sex and the supposed horrible mysteries behind it, such as might conceivably possess a man who was given to a morbid brooding over these matters, but which would soon lead to insanity if unrestrained . . . innocuous from its absurdity.
In that same introduction, Machen himself called the story “a silly business at the best”.
I’m late with this week’s weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing.
Review: “In the Penal Colony”, Franz Kafka, trans. Ian Johnston, 1919.
It’s tempting, given that Kafka’s stories, from what I’ve heard (and this is only the second I’ve read), often concern themselves with bureaucracies and that he worked as a bureaucrat in an insurance company, to see this as an allegory for bureaucracy and regime change.
The character names are certainly allegorical: Traveller, Old Commandant, New Commandant, Condemned Man, Soldier, and Officer.
The story takes place on an island somewhere outside of Europe. No name is given for the country.
The story centers around a planned execution in a bizarre, complicated machine that kills a person over 12 hours by inscribing, with needles and acid, the charge they are being executed for onto their body. I suspect it owes something to Kafka’s days as an insurance claims investigator and being involved in worker safety issues.