This is going to be my last one for a little while, mostly because I’m starting to get a little bit bored of it, and the ‘short stories’ keep getting progressively longer and longer, which is my own damn fault because I read a lot of giant Victorian tomes, so anything under ‘Dickens-sized’ seems like an eligible candidate. “200 pages? Surely that’s not long enough to be a full book. Short story it is!”
Today I’m going to recap Arthur Machen’s 1894 novella The Great God Pan, which was originally an 1890 short story that he later expanded. This is a departure from my normal brand of short stories (which have been comedies, satires, and absurdist pieces thus far). This shit is straight-up horror, and it gave me chills on more than one occasion. Lovecraft listed this as one of his main influences.
You can read the original story here.
TRIGGERS FOR BRAIN SURGERY, CHILDHOOD TRAUMA, AND POSSIBLY RAPE.
Also, here be swears.
Also also, I wrote this as I was reading it, so any predictions are not spoilers.
The Great God Pan
For all your girl/goat relationship needs.
This dude Clarke is summoned over to his friend Raymond’s house. They fret about the relative safety of some sort of surgical operation. Raymond says he embarked upon a new form of medicine 5 years ago, and people have called him a charlatan, but he knows what he’s going to do is right, dammit!
You will be the first to get eaten. Or be the last one alive, in order to watch the destruction thou hath wrought.
Raymond talks a lot of hocus-pocus-spooky-scary about how what we perceive to be the real world is actually just smoke and shadows, and if you lift the veil that Sirius fell behind??? you will find the real world there, and it’s cuh-raaaazier than anything you could imagine, and when the ancients did it, they called it “seeing the Great God Pan”.
Ohhhhhh no, they’re going to do some brain choppin’. DON’T STICK KNIVES IN BRAINS. ‘MYSTICAL BRAIN DOCTOR’ IS NOT A RECOGNIZED DEGREE AT ANY ACCREDITED UNIVERSITY.
They’re not doing the surgery on themselves, but rather on someone named Mary. Mary is a child that Raymond rescued from the gutter years back, and because he’s fed and clothed her, he apparently now owns all right to conduct medical experiments upon her.
This man has never heard of ethics. Ever. In any context.
Raymond reaaaaally wants Mary to see the Great God Pan. Maybe it’s a euphemism. In fact, yes. Let’s go with that. If this gets scary, that will make this a less harrowing read.
They go into the lab, where SCIENCE happens. Raymond fetches Mary, and she is soooooooooo beautiful and dressed in the virginal white of virginal virginity, so you know nothing good is going to happen to her. With the sacrificial virgin Mary in place, they can begin their experiment.
Raymond cuts a giant hole in her scalp and then closes it up again in about 5 seconds. I’m not entirely sure what he did, but there is NO WAY he got through the skull to any brain matter. READ A MEDICAL TEXTBOOK, AUTHOR.
She wakes up soon after, and her eyes get all evil-sexy, as they tend to do when innocent virgins are seduced by ancient Grecian deities through the time tested magic of hasty lobotomies.
All of a sudden she starts convulsing in terror. Three days later, Clarke comes back to Raymond’s place. Mary is bedridden, writhing, and grinning senselessly. Raymond says [direct quotation], “it is a great pity; she is a hopeless idiot. However, it could not be helped; and, after all, she has seen the Great God Pan”
Has she, though? HAS SHE, RAYMOND? Or did you just stick sharp objects in her head until something bad happened? Has she been privy to another world, or is her whole brain now just a big lump of Malpractice Oblongata?
Some time later, we get to see Clarke in his own abode and find out a bit of his back story. Although he wants to be a skeptic about all this mystical crap, he still has a morbid fascination with the occult. In fact, he’s compiling a book called ‘Memoirs to Prove the Existence of the Devil”.
That sounds like a weird fucking hobby. He’s about two steps away from journaling like Kevin Spacey in Se7en.
On this particular night, he’s reading the account that’s been written up of a young girl named Helen V., a younger dead girl named Rachel M., and an even younger boy “imbecile”, Trevor W. These people lived in a small Welsh village that used to be a Roman encampment, near the forest. Helen V. was an orphan brought up by a distant relative, but he thinks she needs young playmates, so he sends her to this village to live with a farmer and his children. Helen is allowed to roam around and do whatever she wants.
So help me, if this turns into a “GUARD YOUR DAUGHTERS, WOMEN WITHOUT SUPERVISION GET MOLESTED/EATEN/STOLEN BY GOAT GODS” story, I am going to be supremely pissed off.
Oh, no wait, we find out that Helen has “foreign features”, so I guess it’s not supposed to be very sad if terrible things happen to her.
One day, Helen is seen making for the woods along the old Roman road. If this were a movie, this is when the Oboes of Soundtrack Doom would start playing.
Trevor, the soon-to-be-but-not-yet “imbecile” boy, also goes to play in the woods. People working in the fields start hearing him scream as though his life depended on it. They come running and find him in a cold sweat, saying that he had stopped to take a nap in the woods and woke up to see Helen and a naked man singing together. This, for some reason, terrified him and caused him to scream.
The townsfolk find Helen sitting exactly where Trevor said she was, and the father is like, “The hell is going on? Were you singing with a naked man? Did you . . . did you harmonize?”
And Helen is like, “WTF? Naked man? Uh, no.” And everyone’s like, “Well, Trevor is a little kid. Maybe he just had a bad dream?” And Trevor is like, “NO, I know what I saw,” and the father goes, “Yeah, something isn’t right here. My kid won’t even leave the house now, and he wakes up each night screaming, ‘The man in the wood!””
Trevor and his dad visit a neighbor’s house and as soon as they leave Trevor alone, he starts screaming his head off, falling into a fit and pointing around, saying “The man in the wood!” He has to be sedated by a doctor. The father looks where Trevor is pointing and sees that there is a stone carving of a faun or satyr above the door in the neighbor’s house. The neighbor is like, “Yeah, we were doing some excavations and we found this old Roman thing, isn’t it cool?” And the father and doctor examine it and can’t figure out what’s creepy about it.
This story just gave me chills. This is why I don’t go out in nature. Nothing good could ever happen in nature.
After this fit, Trevor becomes an “imbecile”. They question Helen again, but she claims to have no idea what’s going on and swears she did absolutely nothing to Trevor in the woods.
Several years later, Helen makes friends with a girl called Rachel. Rachel is prettier, although Helen looks less “foreign” than before, and is therefore less offensive to the eye than she once was. *eye-roll* The girls go out in the woods frequently, with Rachel sometimes coming back looking dreamy and not acting like herself.
One day she comes back from the woods sobbing. Her mother asks what’s wrong, and Rachel tells her an extraordinary story—
ONLY WE DON’T GET TO HEAR THE EXTRAORDINARY STORY BECAUSE THIS IS THE POINT WHERE CLARKE DECIDES TO STOP READING HIS WEIRDO BOOK OF CREEPY SHIT.
Goddamn it, Clarke, you are literally the worst.
Clarke thinks, “This is all balderdash. Our world would be a place of endless horrors if stuff like this really happened.”
But then he can’t help himself and opens up his book again, reading the line that says [verbatim], “Her flight remains a mystery to this day; she vanished in broad sunlight; they saw her walking in a meadow, and a few moments later she was not there.”
Rachel, or Helen?
Son of a bitch, you guys
I apologize for swearing
I’m only swearing because I’m scared
Then Clarke writes at the end of this story, “ET DIABOLUS INCARNATE EST. ET HOMO FACTUS EST”, which means “The devil is incarnate. And is made man.”
The Oboes of Soundtrack Terror are going to get huge paychecks this week from working so much overtime.
Then we completely switch gears. A guy named Villiers runs into his old school friend named Herbert, who is begging on the street. Herbert is very feeble and a bit out of it, and Villiers is like, “WTF happened to you?”
Herbert says, “I inherited my father’s fortune and enjoyed living the high life in society. Then I married a girl [direct quotation] ‘of the most wonderful and most strange beauty’”.
Calling it right now. It’s going to be Helen from the previous story.
He says she’s an orphan who had an Italian mother.
So they got married and she ‘corrupted his soul’. On their wedding night, she sat charmingly in bed and talked about foul black deeds that, even now, Herbert can’t bear to utter to anyone. Nothing revs a bridegroom’s engine quite like pseudo-Satanic discourse. Although we don’t actually know what she was talking about. Maybe he is just super Puritanical and didn’t like her enthusiasm for seeing his ‘Great God Pan’. I don’t know. Maybe this is secretly a feminist text.
So he does the only rational thing, which is to sell all of his property. With all of his assets liquidated, Helen steals the cash from her stick-in-the-mud husband and runs off.
Herbert says if he ever saw Helen again, it would kill him. He knows deep, dark things that Villiers couldn’t begin to imagine.
A few days later, Villiers runs into another old school friend named Austin. He asks Austin if he knew what had happened to Herbert. Austin says that Herbert was tied up in a sordid case three years ago:
A gentleman’s body was found dead near a house in London which was owned by Herbert and Helen. The man’s face betrayed an expression of terror, but he had not been robbed and no one could figure out how he had died, although one doctor claims that the gentleman died of fright. Herbert and Helen said they had no knowledge of the gentleman found dead on their doorstep. Evidence led police to think the gentleman had been murdered inside their house and shoved out the kitchen door, but they didn’t have quite enough to prove it.
Further, Helen and Herbert were suspicious people: nothing at all was known or could be found out about Helen’s background, and their neighbors strongly disliked them and never wanted to approach their house, although none could provide a good answer as to why. Those involved in the investigation thought Helen was the most beautiful and the most repulsive woman they’d ever seen, but didn’t know why.
Ultimately, nothing could be even remotely proved against them, so the gentleman’s death was swept under the rug.
NOW LET’S GO BACK TO CLARKE, WHO IS STILL SCRAPBOOKING
Villiers, who apparently knows Clarke, comes to visit. He says, “Hey, Clarke, you’re a completely rational man, right? Like, you’re the sort of guy who would never have a weird collection of esoteric occult shit, right?”
Clarke quietly slides his weird scrapbook out of view and goes, “. . . no . . . of course not . . . that would be out of character . . .”
Villiers says, “Good, because I’ve encountered something weird and I need someone with a level of Jonathan Creek-like rationality to present this to.”
Villiers than tells the story that Herbert told him. Clarke says, “So this guy had a crappy marriage and a crappier divorce. So what?” And then Villiers tells the story that Austin told him about the dead gentleman, and also said that he, Villiers, had gone to Herbert and Helen’s old house, which no one else had wanted to rent out since all of this unpleasantness three years ago.
Villiers had looked around their house and felt overwhelming terror in being there. It’s like he had discovered the Blair Witch’s summer home or something. It affected him so much that he was bedridden for a week afterwards. While he is bedridden, he sees an obituary in the paper for Herbert, who died of starvation.
Villiers suggests to Clarke that they try to unravel this odd series of events by tracking down Herbert’s wife. Villiers reveals that he discovered a creepy drawing in Herbert’s house, and produces it for Clarke.
Clarke freaks out, thinking it’s a sketch of Mary, but Villiers says that it’s actually the woman Herbert married. Clarke goes, “Oh, yeah, I guess it’s not Mary after all. And yet I recognize something familiar about her face.”
Well, I suppose demonic possession can’t be great for the physiognomy.
Then Villiers reveals that her name is Helen, which is a name Clarke recognizes from his evil scrapbook. He drinks. Heavily.
A few days later, Villiers gets a letter from Clarke saying, “I know some stuff about the picture and Helen and the weird house and the unnamable evil. However, I’m not going to tell you anything about it. Remove it from your mind forever, or else you’ll be sorry. Vague statements about mysterious threat, etc. etc.”
Because, of course, when someone tells you to stop thinking about something, that is EXACTLY the effect that advice has. There is no way that your secretive mumbo-jumbo is going to pique Villiers’s interest more, causing him to seek out the trouble that you apparently can’t be bothered to CliffNotes for him.
Jesus, guy, it’s like you don’t even know you’re in a horror novel.
So Villiers consults Austin about all of this bullshit. Austin brings him by the house of an acquaintance, “Mrs. Beaumont”, who is a fabulously wealthy widow with mysterious origins and a decidedly suspicious collection of ancient wine.
How convenient. We seem to have landed on Helen’s doorstep without any need for Villiers to search for her.
Now let’s add another subplot. Because Raymond, Clarke, Villiers, Austin, Herbert, Helen, and Rachel don’t currently have enough loose ends of their own.
Austin then brings out this book he received in the mail after the mysterious death of a friend. They examine the book together, only to discover some creepy Latin on one of the first pages that, in translation, reads:
“There is a universal silence throughout the day, and the place is hidden away and not without horror. It is lit up by night by fires, and a chorus of Aegipan resounds everywhere. The sounds of flutes and the ringing of cymbals are heard along the seacoast.”
Faaaaaantastic. Oh, there are also illustrations of fauns and shit.
Then Villiers notices an illustration in the book of the same woman in the drawing he found at Herbert’s old house. Clearly Austin’s dead friend ALSO knew Helen. The bodies are really piling up around this woman. However, this is the worst detective novel ever. All of the clues just fall into your lap.
Austin is all excited, saying that since there is clearly a connection between his dead friend and Helen, they’ll now be able to find out more details about Helen ever since she left her husband.
Villiers, to my intense shock, decides that this shit is too creepy for him. He advises Austin to burn the book, and just move on with his life.
Wow, Villiers, you are my absolute hero. I would love it if the rest of the story was about how Villiers and Austin decide to open a family-themed restaurant together, and stop poking their noses into supernatural death-traps, and nothing bad ever happens to anyone ever again.
Unfortunately, that is not to be the case. Let’s switch gears again.
Now we’re going to talk about this guy tangentially discussed in the story, named Lord Argentine. He was a cheerful, nice fellow, who is one day discovered by his valet to have committed suicide. The circumstances are, again, suspicious, but nothing else but suicide can be proved.
Then three more gentlemen died in the same way not long after.
It is discovered that Lord Argentine was “very close” to Mrs. Beaumont, and some of the other men have connections to her. Villiers and Austin decide to check it out. Villiers, after weeks of digging, discovers that she is Herbert’s wife, Helen, under an assumed name. Not that there was any big surprise there.
Villiers has apparently been stalking her, and saw her go into some sort of house of ill repute. He knew to find her there because—and brace yourself for this totally reasonable string of logic—if this Mrs. Beaumont had some sort of shady past, he couldn’t just go up to her, a complete stranger, and ask her to account for herself; so, assuming she did have a shady past, he decided to start asking around general shady characters in London. And within a maximum of three weeks, he found someone matching her description, and waited for her at one of her usual haunts.
ALL THE SHADY PEOPLE IN LONDON?
Do you know how many—
Where would you even begin to—
Okay, deep breaths.
I’m interested if they’re going to make some sort of argument about fate, since all of these stories interlink in tangential, improbable ways. I would be ALL for that, if somehow the Great God Pan is pulling these disparate characters into his gravitation field, so to speak, as soon as they start poking around.
However, that has not really been established at this point. I haven’t seen any evidence to support that, apart from the sheer unlikelihood of each event. [Note from the future: they do NOT make that argument. Woe.]
Okay, back to the story.
Villiers then shows Austin an account of one of Mrs. Beaumont’s ‘clients’. She’s been working as a high-class prostitute (I assume that’s what they’re inferring) and it nearly killed one guy. Austin attempts to read what happened in that specific encounter (we don’t get to read it, though), and before long he begs Villiers to take the paper away because what she did to him was too horrific, sexwise.
Villiers is aware that the Great God Pan is now embodying Helen/Mrs. Beaumont, and intends to go confront her in person. Austin, quite sensibly, tells him that her vagina is like unrefined plutonium, and he shouldn’t go anywhere near her. He’ll never get out of there alive.
Villiers brings out a rope, with which he and Clarke mean to kill Mrs. Beaumont. They plan on leaving her alone with the rope and telling her to hang herself, and if she hasn’t done it in 15 minutes, they’ll call a policeman.
TO ARREST HER FOR WHAT, EXACTLY? OVERLY-INVIGORATING SEX? SUSPICION OF DEMONIC GODLY POSSESSION?
Then we have a chapter break, and are told that the following account is from a London doctor named Matheson, who died of a seizure. He wrote the following manuscript in Latin. Creepy, creepy Latin.
Dr. Matheson writes that he has seen some fucked up shit. Something about a ladder, and bodies, and lava, and weird symbols, and I don’t know what’s happening. I believe the inference was that Dr. Matheson examined Mrs. Beaumont’s body after her death [wait, so Villier’s plan with the rope actually worked? Why on EARTH would she kill herself just because two strangers told her to?], and it did strange, inhuman things. But I’m not entirely sure.
Then there is another break, and Clarke addresses Raymond, he of the experimental brain surgery at the beginning of the novella. Clarke says that the woman he saw die (I’m assuming Mrs. Beaumont) looked exactly like Mary, even though he knows it wasn’t Mary.
Raymond writes back to Clarke, saying that the reason why Mrs. Beaumont reminds him so much of Mary is because Mary is actually Mrs. Beaumont’s mother. Apparently the whole weird brain surgery thing happened DECADES ago, and nine months after that night, Mary gave birth to Pan’s baby before she died, and Raymond gave the baby up for adoption, and THAT’S WHY Helen/Mrs. Beaumont looks foreign—because she’s half ancient Roman deity.
Lord. They did not make that time scale clear in the slightest. Helen’s childhood happened long after the weird surgery.
Raymond regrets playing around with the supernatural, and says he’s happy that Helen killed herself: “1 out of 10, would not lobotomize again.”
He says that when Helen was a very small child (when he was still raising her), he discovered her with a ‘playmate’—presumably her ancient magical goat father. Raymond says that Pan was horrible to behold, and so he sent Helen away.
But wait, what exactly happened to Rachel?
Who was the guy who died on Helen and Herbert’s front lawn?
How did Raymond come to know about Pan, and how to do the surgery? Did he perform it on anyone else?
What is Clarke doing with his weird scrapbook? Did that start because of Raymond’s surgery, or is it an independent thing?
What about Austin’s dead friend’s book? What’s he going to do with that?
Why did Helen kill herself?
What was Pan’s goal in having her work for him?
Now that she’s dead, is Pan banished to the other side of the veil?
I must say–because my swearing and frustration might not have made it clear–I really enjoyed this story and thought it was wonderfully creepy in the way that things you never fully see or understand are creepy. That we never know quite what Helen is doing to people, or what Pan does with her, or why, is great. I also love that we never actually meet Helen. She retains a lot more of her power and mystery that way. This story had a wonderful, feverish element to it where things don’t entirely make sense, and that’s okay, if not preferable.
Unfortunately, I don’t think Machen is entirely clear about some logistical things, like the time frame, or how these wonderful coincidences come to pass, or even who is currently narrating. It required me to go back and reread some sections a few times before I understood what was happening. I also think this could have benefited from being expanded into a full novel. It easily could have been a hundred pages longer, and had a more slowly-boiling detective story as Clarke, Villiers, and Austin start to piece things together and investigate this mysterious Mrs. Beaumont. The second half of the novel felt incredibly rushed to me. He could have taken his time with it far more.
Also, those gentlemen who had been killing themselves—is the implication that they had been visiting her in the brothel? And she sexed the will to live right out of them? Because that is amazing. She should put that on her CV.
If you guys want to read a FANTASTIC neo-Victorian novel which plays around a great deal with elements of this short story, read Alasdair Gray’s Poor Things. It has another young woman, upon whom men have decided to perform unorthodox brain surgery, who becomes a force of (benevolent) power, who goes around sexing the life out of men, only she does it purely because she wants to, and she narrates huge sections of the text, and is relentlessly cheerful. The anti-Helen. I can’t recommend it enough.