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Book review: The Yellow Nineties by Catherine Fisher

28 Apr 2024 5 minute read
The Yellow Nineties (London Adventures #3) by Catherine Fisher is published by Three Imposters

Jon Gower

The occult books of Caerleon writer Arthur Machen cast long shadows, with many of today’s writers citing him as an influence, or celebrating his uncanny knack for crafting a good story, and usually a most uncanny story at that.

Indeed Stephen King thought The Great God Pan to be ‘Maybe the best horror story in the English language’ while other writers such as Neil Gaiman, Clive Barker and Alan Moore have all trumpeted their praises of it.

Now the garlanded Newport writer Catherine Fisher proves herself to be fully in thrall to Machen, or at least to be totally enthralled by The Great God Pan, with her playful dissection of the time in which the book was written.

‘The Yellow Nineties’ were, as she describes them, a wonderful and scandalous decade when ‘green carnations are in fashion’ and of ‘peacocks and absinthe, opium and sin.’

It’s a time busy with decadence when Oscar Wilde’s plays are packing them in in the West Ends, Debussy’s finished a piece called L’Après Midi d’un Faune, the in place is the Café Royal and ‘everyone has finally caught up with Baudelaire.’

One of the influential magazines of the time was ‘The Yellow Book,’ a literary periodical under the editorship of Aubrey Beardsley, which lends its colour to the title of Catherine Fisher’s own volume.


Amidst the indulgent excitements of the end of the century, Fisher charts the effect of Machen’s now classic on its readers.

Not everyone was won over by its dark meanderings at the time of publication and some of the reviews were far from flattering.

‘Not the ghost ort a creepy feeling will this story produce in the mind of anybody who reads it,’ opined the Echo.

‘The book is, on the whole, the most acutely and intentionally disagreeable we have yet seen in English’ was the condemning view of the Manchester Guardian. And yet the book had its fans, too, readers won over by a book which is ‘not lofty or enlightening, they do not raise the soul. In fact they take you down. Down into the deepest layers of the psyche, into dread, into fear, into the things that are so terrible they can only be hinted at.’


Fisher’s book is in part an account of The Great God Pan, introducing us to its complex plot and to its rather lurid cast of characters including the Frankensteinian mad scientist, Dr. Raymond and the artist Arthur Meyrick, whose drawings depict disgusting images of dark ceremonies.

These ceremonies are echoed in the secret rites performed in the woods by Helen, an olive-skinned, secretive, strange orphan. These various and vivid figures are introduced separately in loosely connecting narratives that overlap like coiled serpents.


In all of this Fisher reminds us of the beauty Machen found around him as he grew up in Gwent before upping sticks to get lost in the fogs of London, a city he got to know well despite the pea-soupers and wrote what is possibly the first psycho-geography of the English capital, being his London Adventures.

As The Yellow Nineties suggests ‘His books act as both guide-books and as portals:

The words take you into an alternative life, another existence, and, once you have surrendered, you have no way of stopping them; they catch hold of you and kidnap ou with the urgency of their narrative. The old grey house in the west, the silent valley above the wood and the mystic esses of its silver river – the smell of that mysterious landscape enters through your half opened window, your eager eyes and the power of the words on the page.

The Yellow Nineties is the third in the series of limited-edition London Adventures published by the Newport-based Three Impostors, following ones by Iain Sinclair and Xiaolu Guo and extends their busy history of championing Arthur Machen and introducing him to a new generation of readers.

Catherine Fisher’s inventive, sideways-slant approach to the original book, entertainingly mixing fact with fiction, manages to both explain and intrigue at one and the same time.

It’s a small book that analyses Machen’s Russian doll of a novel and also tells us about the fin-de-siecle in which it was written, shuttling from the absinthe-drinking salons of sophisticated London to the deep green borderland of Wales in Gwent’s Wentwood.

It’s a book that will satisfy the desires of Machen’s active cult of readers – he’s a writer who generates a special kind of devotion – and maybe hook some new ones, sending them back to encounter the weird mysteries surrounding The Great God Pan and learn of its horror-inducing legacy.

The Yellow Nineties by Catherine Fisher is published by Three Impostors and is available to buy here.

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