Essay: The Three Impostors; or, The Transmutations, Arthur Machen, 1895.
Written in 1894 and 1895, this is one of Machen’s most famous works, especially when you consider that many of its episodes – “Novel of the Black Seal”, “Novel of the White Powder”, and “Novel of the Iron Maid” – are frequently anthologized. Those episodes take on other meanings, raise additional questions in the context of the novel.
The title, said Machen in his 1923 “About My Books”, derives from some probably fake work of German occultism, De Tribus Impostoribus, he came across a reference to. He speculates the three impostors in that book were Christ, Moses, and Mahomet. (Machen’s piece can be found in The Secret Ceremonies: Critical Essays on Arthur Machen.)
But the plot itself was “An imitation, I regret to say, of [Robert Louis] Stevenson’s Dynamiter and New Arabian Nights.”
It’s Machen’s first novel of weird fiction, albeit an episodic one, of what he called “wonder fiction”. Coincidence is rife. The geographic settings range from London, Wales, and America. Given that so much of it is told by liars and criminals, multiple interpretation of events are possible.
Machen’s tells his story in a way that perversely and deliberately undercuts any build-up of suspense.
The novel opens with four people in an abandoned house in a London suburb. One is a beautiful woman of hazel eyes, Helen. Two are men. The fourth is on his way to quickly becoming a corpse. He’s Joseph Walters, “the young man with spectacles” as the others refer to him.
On orders from the absent Dr. Lipsius, the trio has been searching for Walters and finally ran him to ground.
The three bid farewell to their aliases, one each for the men and two for Helen who also bids a “farewell to occult adventures”.
The night hasn’t been entirely successful. The point of finding Walters was to find the Gold Tiberius. He didn’t have it on him. Helen opts for a sort of consolation prize and cuts off Walter’s right hand, “the hand that took the Gold Tiberius”, as a souvenir for the doctor.
The three leave the house, and, about five minutes later, the scene shifts to two gentlemen who are idling wandering the “forgotten outskirts of London”. They see the abandoned house and go to investigate, admiring its style.
A sinister and mysterious opening.
Those two men on their way to the house are Philip and Dyson. They will be our main characters, and, yes, the latter is the same Dyson as in “The Inmost Light”. He and Phillipps, two men of relative leisure who met at a tobacco shop, have wildly different views about literature. Phillipps, a man of science and amateur ethnologist with a box of stone arrowheads, likes his literature to have “a scientific basis”, to function as a criticism of life. Dyson, of course, revels in mystery, “the wonderful, the improbable, the odd coincidence.”
We next see them together in “The Adventure of the Gold Tiberius”. Dyson tells Phillipps about how he picked up a rare Roman coin tossed aside by a man running past him in the night, we think, “So that’s what happened to the coin! We will meet the three impostors again.”
But, in the very next section, “The Encounter at the Pavement”, Machen beings to change our perceptions of what’s going on.
As he walks along Oxford Street, Dyson encounters a man, seemingly enraged, looking at the traffic, and trying to find an opening to cross a busy and dangerous the street
When the man finally gets across, he “pounces” on Dyson, who he has seen studying the street as he always does. The man asks about another man who came out of a bread shop and jumped into a hansom cab three minutes back. Was he “a youngish-looking man with dark whiskers and spectacles?”, he asks. Dyson says the description is right; he did see the man. He offers to call a cab so the man can follow the young man. The man murmurs “How shall I face the doctor?”
The man apologizes to Dyson, and Dyson studies him. He finds him rather vulgarly dressed, but he senses there is something more to the man. When the man again apologizes and asks for direction to a place to eat, Dyson accompanies him.
The man introduces himself as Wilkins.
It is only here that the reader first senses that Machen isn’t telling his story chronologically. Here is a man, real name Richmond, using one of the aliases we heard earlier, looking for somebody that sounds like the now dead Walters, and who makes reference to a doctor.
Wilkins/Richmond offers Dyson an explanation of his behavior with “Novel of the Dark Valley”. We hear how Wilkins/Richmond, the desperate, unemployed son of a “poor but learned clergyman” (as Machen himself was) fell into employment with the sinister Mr. Smith.
He accompanied Smith on a trip to Reading, Colorado where Smith, it seems, headed a strange gang that sold “life for gold”. They seem to have magical means of killing. The locals are “lured by cunning devices from their homes and murdered with hideous tortures”. But Smith and his gang run afoul of vigilantes, and Wilkins/Richmond himself only escapes when a local woman vouches for him not being with the gang.
Wilkins/Richmond even has a newspaper clipping from a Colorado paper about the vigilantes’ actions. But he thinks Smith escaped and is back in London. And he’s looking for Wilkins/Richmond.
Dyson tells him he doesn’t have to worry. Smith didn’t look menacing but frightened. Dyson tells Wilkins/Richmond they will probably meet again. But Dyson finds something odd in Wilkins/Richmond’s demeanor.
In “Adventure of the Missing Brother”, Phillipps encounters another of the impostors one day in Leicester Square when he sits down and hears a sobbing woman. He graciously offers to help her. Her description as a beautiful woman with hazel eyes clearly hints she’s Helen.
She tells another story involving youthful poverty and being unable to go to college despite a good education. Her elder brother, in a similar situation, took up a job at a school. The woman became a governess.
Every week, they meet each other at the bench. This time, though, her brother didn’t show up.
Or, to be more exact, he showed up but didn’t approach his sister. Instead he seemed to be led around by another man, a man whose fleshless hand gripped her brother.
Being a kind and rational sort, Phillipps tries to console her and says her morbid turn of imagination caused her to hallucinate the man. He asks her to fix her mind on her brother, describe him.
She gives us a description of a young man with spectacles. (It’s worth noting that her story gives the other man a mutilated hand, thus foreshadowing what will happen to Walters.)
The woman isn’t convinced and calls Phillipps a “determined rationalist” which is true. She then asks him if he’s heard the name of Professor Gregg, an ethnologist. Phillipps knows him well. He respects him; he’s seen him lecture. But he thought Gregg was killed in a recent accident in the West of England. However, his body was never found.
She knows Phillipps is discreet and tells him Gregg was a devout Christian. He left his house one morning and never came back. Only his watch and chain, some money, and a ring where found in the nearby hills, wrapped in a parcel by a limestone rock. The inside of the wrapping had strange symbols.
Then we get the famous “Novel of the Black Seal”, one of Machen’s tales of the Little People. It’s the back story of Greggs’ decades long quest to prove that the pre-Celtic population of the British Isles still lives. Eventually he finds evidence leading him to Wales and a fatal rendezvous with the truth.
When she starts the tale, woman identifies herself as Miss Lally, one Helen’s aliases. She even provided some minor assistance to Gregg, no doubt one of the “occult adventures” she’s had.
It is, of course, a story that rivets Phillipps. It’s about a subject he’s interested in and about a man he admires. Lally’s even got several pages of Gregg’s final letter before he went on his fatal meeting, and she shows it to Phillipps.
We’re back to Dyson with the “Incident of the Private Bar”.
He’s been thinking about the Wilkins/Richmond’s story. It seems ridiculous, and Dyson has been hanging about the café they first met at hoping to meet him again.
One night, sitting in a pub and talking to himself, a man overhears and introduces himself as Davies. The third impostor, Davies/Burton, has re-entered the story.
Davies/Burton presents himself as a man, like Dyson, who studies the romance and mystery of life in London. He’s interested in literature too.
After some chatter, Burton/Davies ask about the young man in spectacles he heard Dyson talking about. Burton/Davies knows the man and is looking for him too Burton/Davies says the young man is “an agent for curiosities and precious things of all kinds”.
We then get a long story about how Burton/Davies and the young man with spectacles, who he calls Robbins, were involved in a con to get possession of The Stone of a Thousand and One Colours, the Khan Opal. The con worked but Robbins double crossed him.
Dyson points out Burton/Davies’ indignation at being cheated by Robbins is rather hypocritical given his con. Burton/Davies argues his is a reasoned system of ethics without which business can’t be done. (Machen frequently complained about businessmen.)
Before he takes his leave, Burton/Davies said he’ll look him up again some evening.
In “The Decorative Imagination”, we learn that Burton/Davies does look up Dyson several times over the next few weeks. Though Dyson finds Burton/Davies moral arguments “tinged with fallacy”, he still likes the strangeness Burton/Davies brings into his life.
One evening, Burton/Davies expounds on how modern life has grown decadent. Dyson admits life does have the ”general appearance of squalor” which requires philosophy to extract beauty and wonder from “Cromwell Road or the Nonconformist conscience”.
When Dyson asks Burton/Davies if he’s had other adventures besides the one with the Khan Opal, we get the “Novel of the Iron Maid”.
Essentially, it’s the story of how, about five years ago, Burton/Davies missed a train one night and had to walk nine miles home in London. He met, by chance, an old acquaintance, Mathias, who invites him home. There we learn Mathias likes to collect torture devices. In showing his latest acquisition off, an Iron Maid from Germany, Mathias dies after mistakenly activating it.
Dyson is skeptical about this story and considers it an outright lie after finding Burton/Davies stole one of his books.
The next section is “The Recluse of Bayswater” which has Dyson visiting his friend Edgar Russell, at Notting Hill. Russell has a new tenant in his house, a widow who only dresses in black.
As he’s leaving after one visit, that woman greets Dyson. She wants to discuss something privately with him.
We learn she is in hiding, and we get her story in “Novel of the White Powder”.
The woman’s name is Leicester – so this is Helen under another name.
She tells a story about how her brother Francis, struggling to be a lawyer, overworked himself and got sick. He asked for a drug from a local apothecary. This is sort of Machen’s version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde” in that Francis’ behavior changes drastically after taking the drug. He becomes a lover of the fine life, has found “his paradise in London”.
Eventually, we learn that Haberden has been physically changed to something else and eventually liquifies, all because of a chemist’s error in the medicine he gave Francis.
The story end exhibits Machen’s interest in mystery and sacrament. Dr. Chambers says:
Every branch of human knowledge if traced up to its source and final principles vanishes into mystery. . . . The whole universe, my friend, is a tremendous sacrament; a mystic, ineffable force and energy, veiled by an outward form of matter.
The powder Francis took, it turns out, was associated with the witch’s sabbath.
Like the “Novel of the Black Seal”, also told by Helen, this story concerns itself with transformations, or, as the novel’s title says, transmutation. (Of course, impersonating someone is also a transmutation of sorts.)
At the end of the story, (omitted when the story is reprinted as a single episode), Helen claims there are those who think she killed Francis. One of them is described as a youngish man with spectacles, supposedly a detective. She asks Dyson if he saw the man around Russell’s house.
Dyson — perhaps suspicious after hearing from three people asking him to look for the same man for different and contradictory reasons – politely declines to help.
In the next section, “Strange Occurrence in Clerkenwell”, Dyson is back at his rooms in Bloomsbury. Taking a break after actually writing for a whole five days in a row, he goes for a walk in the evening and ends up in a pub.
As he enjoys a smoke and a pint of beer, he notices a man in the pub is very nervous, starts at seeing him. Curious about his agitation, he’s about to go talk to him when another man goes up to the man. It’s Burton/Davies, now clean shaven.
And the frightened man fearfully asks Mr. Davies to have pity on him and then bolts from the pub.
Dyson now recognizes the man. It’s Burton/Davies, now clean shaven. And he recognizes the frightened man too. It’s the young man with spectacles.
Dyson knows immediately that “by a succession of hazards he had unawares hit upon the scent of some desperate conspiracy”. He has been privileged to “see the shadows of hidden forms”. It is an ecstatic moment of revelation.
In another coincidence, he finds a notebook dropped by the young man with the spectacles and reads it.
At last, Dyson is presented with a story probably true because it was not crafted for him. The sinister head of the group this episode talks about is Dr. Lipsius, mentioned in the prologue. It tells how the Gold Tiberius was stolen from a Mr. Headley and how Joseph Walters, the young man with spectacles, stole it in a panicked rush after learning Headley, whom he lured to Lipsius’ house, was murdered.
The concluding section, “Adventure of the Deserted Residence”, takes us back to the beginning of the book.
As they walk about a London suburb at night, Dyson explains what he’s found out to Phillipps.
They go to look at a deserted house. Dyson says it is, a “stage . . . decked out with symbols of dissolution”, a place of “decay and death”. More than they know.
They go inside it. It reeks of damp, it’s a “savage burlesque of the old careless world”, “the dance of the Loves had become a Dance of Death”.
Dyson thinks he hears groaning. Phillipps doesn’t hear it, but he smells something bad.
They hear a “hollow sound, a noise of infinite sadness and infinite pain”. Phillipps smells something burning. They go up the stairs. There they find a naked man on the floor, with arms and legs and pegged to the floor, his body mutilated and having the marks of hot irons.
The novel’s last line: “’The young man with spectacles,’ said Dyson.”
The novel is sort of an anti-detective story. The main crime, Walters’ death, is not stopped at all. (In fact, in none of the stories Dyson appears in, does he ever manage to save a life or bring anyone to justice.) The three impostors get away as does Lipsius.
In an unpublished work, “On Re-Reading The Three Impostors and the Wonder Story”, Machen did for an Arkham House collection of his work, he said the only parts of the book possessing merits were “Novel of the Black Seal” and the “Novel of the White Powder”, They were experiments in the “wonder story”. He said wonder stories
are beyond the ordinary range of human observation, of events which we roughly call impossible.
To write them, one has to
lure the reader on gently, to direct his attention in the first place to things which are credible and even probable . . . by imperceptible degrees . . . into a fantastic cave of marvels.
While “Novel of the Black Seal” had “certain slender foundations of fact” which also gave birth to legends of fairies and changelings, the “Novel of the White Powder” was wholly implausible and Machen’s own invention.
But a reader’s main question after finishing the book is are the tales of the three impostors based on anything “real”? Did Machen intend the actual history of his three impostors to be reflected in the tales they concoct? Their lies are, after all, very elaborate, way more elaborate than necessary to con a stranger to keeping an eye out for the young man with spectacles. Helen and Richmond even have documentary evidence for some of their stories. It is another mystery that the tales are so specific to Dyson and Phillipps interests, especially the “Novel of the Black Seal”. There is no evidence that the encounters of the imposters with the two men are anything more than coincidence. On the other hand, in “Young Man with Spectacles”, we know Lipsius is quite capable of setting up “chance” meetings for his own ends.
Helen’s tales seem to center around strange or occult transformations. Are they based on anything she or the real Lipsius did with white powders or strange tribes inhabiting Wales? Is the Wilkins/Richmond story about a criminal occult gang led by Mr. Smith an echo, a transmutation, of Lipsius’s organization? In “New Arabian Frights: Unholy Trinities and the Masks of Helen”, Roger Dobson suggests that Burton/Davies’ tale in “Novel of the Iron Maid” may be based on some murderous theft he committed for Lipsius. He also wonders if Helen partook in some of the orgies hinted at in Lipsius’s home. Is she the woman by Walters’ side?
Dobson notes that Machen practices an aesthetic criteria put forth later by M. R. James – leave a narrow and “not quite practicable” loophole to provide a rational explanation for supernatural events. Thus, maybe a large portion of the impostors’ tales are true, convenient bits of altered autobiography carefully brought out to entice recruitment of watchers.
(The essay also has much detail about Machen’s debt to the aforementioned Stevenson’s novels. It can be found in The Secret Ceremonies too.)
We learn very quickly in the story that Walters isn’t going to be saved. We know right up front that major portions of the novel are probably going to be elaborate lies. What was Machen up to by bleeding out these potentially suspenseful and mysterious elements of his story so early?
Machen did not like George MacDonald’s dream fantasy Phantasies because it started by revealing the narrative is all a dream. But Machen did something similar in The Three Impostors; or, The Transmutations.
Dobson sees Machen’s novel as a “burlesque of the wonder tale” inspired by Rabelais but without the “grossness” of that writer. It’s a pattern Dobson sees Machen using starting with Chronicle of Clemendy, a subversion of romance and demythologizing the mysteries presented. (I’d have to read it again and Rabelais for the first time to have an opinion on that.) Thus Machen’s plot comes from Stevenson, but his technique was just an application of a technique used in his first novel which was also episodic.
There is something else that may come from Stevenson, the character of Helen. She resembles Clara from Stevenson’s More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter. Both are beautiful, charming, and evil, Scheherazades of the sinister.
Helen is also a bit like her namesake in Machen’s “The Great God Pan”. She is cold. She seems unconcerned about her charges in “Novel of the Black Seal”. And she has, for one brief moment, before she commences telling that story, an erotic appeal when she presents her naked wrist to Phillipps so he can check her pulse.
The novel has an odd effect on a reader. Surface mysteries are immediately solved, but more mysteries are suggested and unsolved. We are given cunning criminal conspiracies, primitive races hiding out of sight, mysterious powders and magical powers, and transformations of the body. Liars may tell us of true wonders.