“The Autophone”

Review: “The Autophone”, Arthur Machen, 1890.

Cover by Matthew Jaffe.

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. 

Just then, the inventor of the autophone shows up at his door. He was referred to Hammond by other clergy members. 

The autophone brings the voices of the past, Hammond’s past using a music box, to life. 

Again, we get the sense that Hammond had some sexual encounter with a girl. Hammond hears himself “singing those shameful lines”. 

He curses the inventor who merely laughs and leaves. 

Hammond is found dead, his music box upside down and playing “Pop goes the weasel”. Cause of death is held to be brain fever. 

If we take the hint from Butler’s work, Hammond is being – albeit in a way not usually associated with the normal workings of life, perhaps even in a supernatural way given the way the inventor acts – punished for his past sins.

This is, for Machen, an unusual addition of the fantastic into one of his “smart tales”.

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