This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.
To some people’s tastes, Arthur Machen did the whole H.P. Lovecraft thing better than Lovecraft himself did. Although I tend to disagree, at least to the extent that Lovecraft and Machen’s personal philosophy differed greatly and those differences were expressed in important ways in their work (Machen could never have written At the Mountains of Madness, Lovecraft could never have written The Hill of Dreams), it is true that Machen’s work was a great influence on Lovecraft; in fact, Lovecraft would heavily promote it in Supernatural Horror In Literature, his most widely-read and reprinted essay, in which Machen is the first mentioned among the “modern masters” of the genre. Borges, for his part, also greatly appreciated Machen, and in some of Machen’s more subtle intrusions of the spiritual and the extra-normal into ordinary life we see the seeds of some of Borges’ own work – and, through that, the magical realism genre in general.
At the same time, Machen’s bibliography is intimidatingly large, in keeping with a career which began in the 1880s and kept producing interesting pieces right into 1937. Whilst the major, important pieces are well-known and widely reprinted, at the same time there’s some gems to be found in his less well-known work, though a lot of it is obscured by less distinguished pieces.
Part of the reason for this is that Machen’s career had a number of startling highs and lows, with the result that his finances were often perilously stretched. (It wasn’t until in later life, when his status as a literary national treasure prompted efforts to secure him a suitable pension, that he’d be without money worries.) Although his major works had rocketed him into the spotlight in the 1890s, his extremely oblique, allusive references to socially-disapproved forms of sexuality led to him being associated in the popular and critical imagination with the Decadents (despite the fact that actually, he personally disapproved of the sexual stuff he was hinting at just as much as society did).