pages in this section

Black Static


On Machen, misogyny and mad women in attics

25th Feb, 2011

Web Exclusive icon

By Rosanne Rabinowitz

NB: May contain spoilers for those who haven't read The Great God Pan

Women writers are used to improvising. I do that often when approaching classics of weird fiction and horror. These tales often exclude or misrepresent women, yet they still stir my emotions and exert a fascination that moves me to read myself into them. I always have the urge to construct and extend those stories as they could be if not limited by their era or the author's gender preconceptions.

In fact, there is a long tradition of writers - especially women writers - retelling or relocating the classics. Writers like Caitlin Kiernan or Ekaterina Sedia have taken inspiration from Lovecraft, for example, but are likely to come up with stuff that would have HPL rolling rapidly in his final resting place. And perhaps Arthur Machen is due for a few more spins too.

I first encountered Machen's writing when I read The White People at the age of 12. This novella opens with a couple of gents drinking whisky in a drawing room as they discourse on the nature of evil. One man presents the other with a green book, a young girl's diary. Through the diary we're swept along with the girl's search for the alluring 'White People', related in breathless stream-of-consciousness prose.

I think I was just at the right age for this tale of a neglected and imaginative girl who roams through the countryside near her father's house. She sings songs in secret languages and practises the Green and White and Scarlet Ceremonies. In her journey to learn 'the most secret secrets', she encounters rings of rocks dancing under bleak skies; grass-covered hills, hollows and mounds that form hidden messages. She kisses nymphs in a pool surrounded by dripping moss 'green as jewellery' and prepares to meet the pale folk as they emerge from concealed places.

I first encountered this tale in The Golden Road, an entrancing anthology edited by Damon Knight. Then I found a crumbling volume of Machen's collected stories in the local library and devoured the entire canon, starting with The Great God Pan.

I read this novella a few times, finding its collage of narratives rather puzzling.

I wasn't familiar with the word 'misogyny' at the time, but I pretty much got the message: 'evil, thy name is woman'. Though I later learned Machen had enjoyed long and evidently happy relationships with at least two women - unlike Poe and Lovecraft - there's more than a bit of ambivalence expressed in The Great God Pan.

Born from a botched experiment, half-human femme fatale Helen Vaughan has sexual appetites so dreadful that they cause heart attacks, seizures and 'utter collapse' in men who come into her orbit. Women have also fallen under her destructive spell; we read of the mysterious fate of 16-year-old Rachel, who had a relationship of a 'peculiarly intimate character' with Helen. Meanwhile, a series of well-heeled chaps commit suicide in the "West End Horrors" - significantly, these horrors are considered far worse than Jack the Ripper's killings of East End prostitutes.

Finally a gentleman by the name of Villiers, a connoisseur of occult London who enjoys a shuffle or two down 'queer street', confronts Helen. He threatens to call the police and expose her crimes unless she hangs herself with his 'thick hempen rope'. As to Helen's death... it is one befitting a woman who likes sex an awful lot.

This story has many weak points. For one thing, I always asked why a woman as well-connected as Helen Vaughan wouldn't think of contacting a good lawyer when confronted with such sketchy evidence. Yet I still love The Great God Pan for the way it evokes landscapes of both beauty and menace, of sunlight and 'swaying leaves' and 'quivering shadows on the grass'. Machen conjures up such a dark sense of foreboding in the breeze that blows through a field in Wales on a hot summer afternoon, the odour of decay lurking beneath the scent of wild roses, the turns of a dank street off a busy London thoroughfare. In each reading, I am filled with an uneasy wonder as the puzzle almost comes together. That's what strange fiction is all about.

It's been said that The Great God Pan and the best classic horror stories work by the power of suggestion. Yet there's a point where 'suggestion' becomes Victorian cop-out and I know there's much more that should be said. So what did Helen do that horrified those gentlemen to the point of madness and death, and what really happened to her pal Rachel when she disappeared in broad daylight?

I also wanted to know what it felt like to be Helen: brought up by a man who is convinced she is loathsome, shuffled between foster homes and boarding schools. She would have taken on a good measure of arrogance from her upper-class milieu but she also appealed to me as an outcast, someone who is literally demonised. She is, after all, partly human. She must have been lonely. She would be aware that she's different from those around her, and wonder why. Surely those visits from her secret companion would have been the only bright spot in young Helen's day.

I kept coming back again and again to The Great God Pan for clues, and those speculations grew into my novella Helen's Story. Here the allegedly wicked shape-shifting Helen Vaughan did not die in a primordial puddle of slime, but she's alive and well and living in Shoreditch. Having learned about drawing and painting from her old boyfriend Arthur Meyrick, she's set to take the Hoxton art world by storm with erotically-charged landscapes that'll show the hipsters what really lurks beyond the vanishing point.

I've always been interested in the 'other side' of classic stories, especially from the villain(ess)'s point of view. One of my favourite books is Jean Rhys' The Wide Sargasso Sea, which tells the story of Mr Rochester's mad first wife in Jane Eyre (you know, the one who's locked in the attic).

I've found The Great God Pan fascinating, haunting and infuriating by equal measure, which is why I wrote Helen's Story. And I've always thought that Helen - just like the first Mrs Rochester - should have her say.

Rosanne Rabinowitz has recently contributed to Black Static and the anthologies Conflicts and Never Again: weird fiction against racism and fascism. The latter is available from the pubisher, Amnesty International bookshops and from two fine London booksellers, Freedom and Housmans. Rosanne's novella Helen's Story will be published by PS Publishing in 2012.


Section items by date:

Pages in this section: