Machen’s Impostors

Arthur Machen (1863-1947)

Arthur Machen’s 1895 book The Three Impostors, or The Transmutations, is a delightfully strange read. It consists of a short frame narrative interspersed with six standalone stories told inside the frame. Spoilers and musings follow.

First the background to the events, which the reader learns only in the sixth and last story inside the frame. The learned Dr. Lipsius is the leader of a secret Dionysiac cult in 1890s London, focused on sex, drugs and ritual murder. He recruits the young scholar Joseph Walters into the cult. After helping lure a victim to the cult HQ, Walters loses his cool, steals a valuable Roman coin with Bacchic imagery and disappears into the streets. Lipsius sends his three most trusted cultists, two men and a woman, to find Walters and retrieve the coin. These are the titular impostors.

Here’s where the book starts and the storyline turns from lurid to inexplicable. The frame narrative’s main viewpoint characters are two young friends, both wannabe writers of independent means: Dyson and Phillipps. By chance, Dyson gets hold of the coin, a fact that the cultists never learn. Despite not knowing this, they for no apparent reason seek out Dyson (and in one case Phillipps) repeatedly under false identities and tell five really long and elaborate make-believe stories that form the bulk of the text. This means that most of this book is told by really unreliable narrators, and Dyson and Phillipps don’t actually believe much of what they hear. Each of the stories features a character who looks exactly like the coin-thief: a young, nervous-looking man with spectacles and black whiskers. In the first story he stars as the leader of a Wild West outlaw gang. Then he appears as a supporting character in stories two, three and five: a school teacher, an assistant antiques scammer and a sinister private detective. But in the fourth story he doesn’t feature at all.

The only reason I can see for the impostors to pay any attention to Dyson is that he unwittingly shares a literary acquaintance with the man the cultists are chasing. But the impostors’ story-telling is so odd, long-winded and irrelevant that even Dyson and Phillipps find it ridiculous. When the bespectacled man is introduced again near the end of the fifth story, Dyson just snorts, stands up and leaves, and the female cultist/narrator breaks out into laughter. Finally the cultists place a watch on the aforementioned shared acquaintance, grab their quarry and kill him in a grisly fashion. Dyson happens to find poor doomed Walters’ notebook and in it reads the sixth story that explains everything to the confused reader.

This is such a strangely plotted book – best seen as a short-story collection that has had a really contrived frame narrative bolted onto it. What makes it worthwhile is the high quality of the individual stories. Two of them exerted a huge influence on H.P. Lovecraft. He eagerly grabbed several details and at least two of Machen’s main thematic preoccupations, that of sliding back down the evolutionary tree to a “lower” state of being and that of ancient evil cults surviving into the present day. But Lovecraft, a self-identified “mechanistic materialist”, certainly did not share Machen’s hostility towards rationalist science that keeps being voiced by characters in the stories. Machen had seen the world become entzaubered, disenchanted, and he really wanted to re-enchant it.

The Three Impostors is highly recommended if you like feeling slightly lost and confused yet intrigued and amazed by what you read. It’s available for free at

Childhood Horrors

chockKen & Robin have an interesting discussion in the most recent episode of their podcast, on childhood fears. Specifically, they talk about childhood responses to horror stories and movies. I was inspired to write about my own childhood horrors.

Luckily there were no actual horrors in my childhood. Nobody around me was violent or insane or very ill or destitute or hooked on drugs. The years of low-intensity schoolyard bullying were painful but nowhere near my breaking point. Still, I was really scared of some stuff, starting with Selma Lagerlöf.

Nobel laureate Selma Lagerlöf is one of the giants of Swedish literature. The first big book I read on my own at age five was her delightful 1906-07 tome The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, a tattered copy passed down for school use to my mother from her older sibs (I still have it). The book was originally commissioned to teach children Swedish history and geography. It does so by means of a fantasy conceit: the boy Nils gets shrunk to tiny size by the spell of a gnome and goes travelling across the country on the back of a migrant goose. But, having read Nils, I then unsuspectingly turned to other books by Lagerlöf.

The Löwensköld Ring (1925) is a ghost story about a nobleman who rises from the grave to reclaim a finger ring stolen from him at the time of burial. This really freaked me out, and not in a good way. But I moved on to The Treasure / Herr Arne’s Hoard (1904), and found to my dismay that this book starts with a gory description of a family getting killed by mercenaries. I never finished it and I’ve never read Lagerlöf since. A few years later a similar but even more graphically described massacre prevented me from finishing The Last Letter Home (1959), Vilhelm Moberg’s fourth novel about Swedish migrant farmers in Minnesota.

Another source of scares was comics. I read a graphic version of Dracula, and for years afterwards I didn’t like to look out of dark windows because I was afraid that the Count’s pale leering face would greet me. Particularly if it was on an upper floor, where of course only a vampire could peek inside. I wasn’t afraid of getting grabbed and blood-sucked by a vampire – just afraid that I’d see one. I did try sleeping with garlic over my bed once, but I made the mistake of peeling the clove and piercing it for a string, and the smell got too strong.

Then there was my buddy’s copy of the Swedish 70s horror comic book Chock. (I now find that it ran translations of Warren Comics from the 60s, apparently mainly out of Creepy and Eerie.) This particular issue contained Poe’s Masque of the Red Death, and a story about an escaped convict manacled to a corpse in a desert, and it scared me silly at age ten or eleven. But the really silly bit was the soundtrack. While I read that comic book at my buddy’s house, he played me what must count as the lamest Swedish pop tune of the 80s, the 1983 Vikingarna cover of F.R. David’s 1982 hit “Words”. For years afterwards I couldn’t hear either version of that damn song without a serious chill running down my spine.

Round about this time I was also afraid that dead bodies might be hidden in the walls of our house. I think I understood that the walls were too thin for that, but still I kept thinking about it and shuddering. I was horrified when I came across P.V. Glob’s book on Iron Age bog bodies, The Bog People (1965) with its many ghastly photographs. Little did I know how desensitised to human remains my work would make me as an adult, or that I would be quite happy to excavate people’s graves.