Review: The Three Impostors shows why Machen’s writing continues to seduce readers today

The Three Impostors

Jon Gower

If straight-up weird’s what you’re after then the Caerleon writer and mystic Arthur Machen is your go-to-guy.  A cult figure, even in his day, the work of this “master of the macabre” is shot through with grand moments of horror or ecstasy and The Three Impostors, first published in 1895, is no exception.

Within this Russian doll of a book, you find 13 tales of such things as human sacrifices in London suburbs, disappearing gentlemen, torture dens and public lynchings, often included within tight, oddball novellas such as the ‘Novel of the Black Seal’ and the ‘Novel of the White Powder.’

Machen plays fast and loose with narrative and gives us what might be seen as an outsize crossword puzzle, yet the prose seduces and pulls you along.

The publication of their namesake title by Newport-based Three Impostors underlines their ongoing commitment to re-presenting Machen to a new audience and features specially commissioned prints by the Penarth artist Pete Williams which both decorate and interrogate the text, adding value and extra meaning to an already lovely edition.

The main protagonists of the book are two decadent, literary fellows, the Orientalist Dyson and the rationalist Phillips who enjoy nothing quite so much as wandering London, much as Machen did.  As one of the book’s characters puts it ‘Before us is unfolded the greatest mystery the world has ever seen – the mystery of the innumerable, unending streets, the strange adventures that must infallibly arise from so complicated a press of interests.”

Indeed Machen’s The London Adventure, or the Art of Wandering (1925) is a mad gazetteer of those self-same thorughfares and one of the earliest psychogeographies to boot, helping to spawn a genre in itself.  It is, perhaps no coincidence that Machen was chronicling the strange adventures of the city streets in The Three Impostors at the same time as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was sending Sherlock Holmes out into the murky world from his flat in Baker Street.

Mesmerising

The Three Impostors first appeared a couple of years after Machen’s The Great God Pan came out to much public acclaim in a series of books by publisher Bodley Head which expressly tested the limits of what was then acceptable reading. This was a time when lending libraries such as W.H.Smith protected their customers from shock by censoring their bookshelves.

This year, though, was the one that saw Oscar Wilde being charged with gross indecency, which fired up an almighty moral fervour so that Machen was asked to tone down his new work.  Machen being Machen categorically refused.  And so we have naked corpses branded by red hot irons, a tale about a collector of torture instruments being trapped in his latest purchase, being a steel-toothed Iron Maiden, which fatally closes about him and rapine fairy folk and their demonic Sabbaths in the Gwent hills who bear no resemblance whatsoever to the Walt Disney incarnations of today.

It’s mad stuff, intoxicatingly so and best read by daylight unless you actually crave the stuff of nightmares.

Machen was often drawn to the atavistic, the notion that old forces were at work in the modern age, and to the sort of inexplicable horror that led to his writing darkly mesmerising books which in turn inspired other horror writers such as Stephen King and H. P. Lovecraft.  For Machen another world existed pretty much in tandem with the everyday, so that a man might be sauntering along a quiet, sober London street and in a moment ‘a veil seems drawn aside, and the very fume of the pit steams up from the flagstones, the ground glows, red hot, beneath his feet, and he seems to hear the hiss of the infernal cauldron.’  The ‘lust of the marvellous’ attracts his characters just as surely as Machen’s writing continues to seduce readers today.

The Three Impostors is a perplexing read, with jarring dislocations and fractured storylines left hanging but if you surrender to it it’s a fully immersive experience which changes the way you see things, or at least imagine you do.

The Three Impostors (215pp)  is available as a limited hardback edition of 200 copies, costing £28 each direct from the publishers of the same name.  An exhibition of Pete Williams’ prints, specially commissioned for the book can be seen at Barnabas House arts’ centre in Newport which runs until July 20th.

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