The Horror of Geologic Time


Arts & Culture

Arthur Machen.

In 1895, the editors of a new magazine, The Unicorn, sought to make a splash by engaging a pair of literary hot properties to contribute parallel series of tales. The two writers were Arthur Machen and H. G. Wells, both fresh off recent publishing triumphs (in Machen’s case perhaps scandal is closer to the mark), and their contributions were to offer readers distinct modes or flavors of what we today would call genre fiction. The magazine, unfortunately, folded after a mere three issues, in which only one of Wells’s stories, and none of Machen’s, appeared. Machen related the episode, nearly three decades later, in characteristically self-deprecating fashion:

‘The Great God Pan” had made a storm in a Tiny Tot’s teacup. And about the same time, a young gentleman named H. G. Wells had made a very real, and a most deserved sensation with a book called ‘The Time Machine”; a book indeed. And a new weekly paper was projected by Mr. Raven Hill [sic] and Mr. Girdlestone, a paper that was to be called ‘The Unicorn.” And both Mr. Wells and myself were asked to contribute; I was to do a series of horror stories.

This obscure episode in late-Victorian publishing history is intriguing for a number of reasons. It would be interesting to know, for instance, just how Raven-Hill and Girdlestone phrased their offer; perhaps they requested “more stuff in the ‘Pan’ line.” Writing in the 1920s, Machen speaks of “horror stories” and “tales of horror,” but it’s unlikely that these were the expressions used at the time (unlikely, too, that the editors asked the young Wells for more “scientific romances,” let alone the entirely anachronistic designation “science fiction”). This was, after all, precisely the period during which the still fluid conceptual boundaries of emergent genre categories like science fiction, fantasy, and horror were beginning to be negotiated, shaped, and defined. But a more tantalizing question is this: If The Unicorn, and its editors’ scheme, had been a success, would the trajectory of Machen’s reputation have more closely resembled that of Wells’s—triumph after triumph, as well as worldwide celebrity, in the years to come? Machen’s star, by contrast, sank slowly back toward the horizon line of relative obscurity, then followed an irregularly wavelike course throughout his later life (and afterlife), ascending and again declining at periodic intervals. For Wells, 1895 marked the beginning of fame; for Machen it meant something like the end of it, until the next century at any rate. But what if Machen had become, as it were, the H. G. Wells of horror? 

In one sense, the question is moot for the simple reason that Machen found himself quite unable to write anything further in the “Pan” line. The thirty-two-year-old author of a small body of inventively appalling tales, when pressed to produce more of the same, extruded a quartet of mediocrities, which he was entirely relieved to be able to consign to oblivion. In the short term, at least, his imagination led him down less egregiously “horrific” paths, while the fin-de-siècle reading public supped on such fresh terrors as Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Richard Marsh’s The Beetle, to say nothing of Wells’s own bloodsucking octopus-Martians and surgically transformed beast-men. But it is also moot because in the end Machen would indeed become something very like the H. G. Wells of horror. Today he is widely accepted as a foundational figure—for some the foundational figure—in the development of modern horror fiction (though it is worth noting that he would have strenuously, and with justice, resisted the idea that he was simply or solely a horror writer). If, however, Machen is now so recognized, it is less by popular acclaim than by aristocratic consensus. Machen is, as Dante said of Aristotle, a maestro di color che sanno—a master of those who know, a high priest retroactively canonized by later practitioners of his weird art. This process of canonization may be said to have begun with H. P. Lovecraft’s influential essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” in which he writes:

Of living creators of cosmic fear raised to its most artistic pitch, few if any can hope to equal the versatile Arthur Machen; author of some dozen tales long and short, in which the elements of hidden horror and brooding fright attain an almost incomparable substance and realistic acuteness … His powerful horror-material of the ’nineties and earlier nineteen-hundreds stands alone in its class, and marks a distinct epoch in the history of this literary form.

Whether Machen was in fact a purveyor of “cosmic fear,” as Lovecraft conceived it, is open to dispute; certainly he shared neither Lovecraft’s atheism nor his fundamental belief in an amoral, indifferent universe. The point here is that Lovecraft was only the first of a long line of Machen admirers, including Stephen King, Ramsey Campbell, Clive Barker, and Guillermo del Toro, who have drawn upon Machen for inspiration in their own novels, stories, and films, which their fans have been content to enjoy without necessarily feeling compelled to pursue Machen’s distinctive note of weirdness back to the source. There are signs, however, that this may be changing. With ever-increasing interest in Machen on the part of both readers and literary scholars—there has been a veritable explosion of critical work on him in recent years—the acolytes of the “flower-tunicked priest of nightmare” are in some danger of losing their proprietary claims on him and his fiction. And since that fiction represents both a high point in the history of horror and the weird and a fascinating window into the fin-de-siècle cultural milieu within which most of it was produced, this is an entirely good thing.


The first literary form specifically associated with the generation of extreme sensations of horror and terror—the gothic romance of the eighteenth century—was inextricably, constitutively bound up with a fascination for the past. The same impulse consciously to revive archaic forms prompted Horace Walpole both to build an imitation medieval castle as his home and to pen the foundational gothic novel The Castle of Otranto (1764); his literary successors, from Clara Reeve and Ann Radcliffe to Edgar Allan Poe, wrote about ancestral curses, restless spirits, ancient houses, ruined abbeys. In large measure, this fascination was a historically specific one, part of the same broader interest in antiquity that helped give rise to such modern fields of historical inquiry as archaeology; as Clive Bloom notes, the original gothic sensibility “grew from an antiquarian interest in the peoples of the long distant past.” Yet—precisely because of the nascent or nonexistent state of such disciplines—the antiquarian imagination was necessarily hampered by what now appears to us as a crude and confused—and above all cramped—sense of history, to say nothing of prehistory. Many awoke in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to a new sense of wonder at the evidence of past ages to be found throughout Britain—Neolithic barrows, henge monuments, Roman ruins, Saxon artifacts—but lacked a framework for conceptualizing, or differentiating among, these historical periods with anything like the precision that we take for granted today. Sir Thomas Browne’s 1658 prose masterpiece Urn Burial was inspired by his discovery of Anglo-Saxon urns that he took to be Roman, and things hadn’t changed much by the time the future author of The Castle of Otranto joined the Society of Antiquaries of London in the next century.

Things had changed, however, and radically, by the time Machen came to make his own distinctive contributions to the gothic tradition, and not only in the development of historiography. Above all, the nineteenth century witnessed a revolution—one that would spread very quickly from the confines of scientific circles to the larger culture—in the conceptualization of temporality itself, a revolution whose dramatic—for some, traumatic—impact is difficult to overstate. The broad contours of this time revolution, while well known, are worth rehearsing briefly. Until comparatively recently, the world was believed, on the best authority, to be no more than some fifty or sixty centuries old, a scripturally sanctioned span that was felt to be quite old enough “for the unfolding of the whole of known human history and therefore for the natural world, the stage on which it had been played out.” Famously, in the middle of the seventeenth century the historian and archbishop James Ussher, no ignoramus or, in our sense, religious fanatic, fixed a precise date of 4004 B.C. for the Creation. And while subsequent theories of societal development, as well as discoveries by natural historians, might have chafed at times against this compressed chronology, it was not until the nineteenth-century emergence of geology as a science that it was seriously challenged—and, in rather short order, demolished. The world was suddenly—overnight, as it were—millions of years old.

The revelation of the earth’s deep past engendered, variously, feelings of exhilaration, consternation, and anxiety, but seldom indifference. Religious faith, especially when rooted in biblical literalism, was often a casualty; John Ruskin famously lamented, “If only the Geologists would let me alone, I could do very well, but those dreadful Hammers! I hear the clink of them at the end of every cadence of the Bible verses.” On the other hand, the prospect of an all-but-bottomless well of time made for exciting possibilities in other sciences. Pioneering works in evolutionary biology and paleoarchaeology followed in geology’s wake, consolidating the conceptual revolution begun several decades earlier. Deep time was an indispensable ingredient in Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection, as well as a spur to new disciplines exploring human prehistory, a word that now appeared for the first time. Archaeologists proposed the existence of Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages, while John Lubbock’s Pre-Historic Times as Illustrated by Ancient Remains (1865) introduced a further distinction between “Palaeolithic” and “Neolithic” humanity. Meanwhile, historians, for their part, largely shrank back from the challenge of allowing so longue a durée to cast its dauntingly attenuated shadow over their discipline, “fashioning instead a view of history that begins with the rise of civilization,” and accepting “prehistory” as a kind of conceptual “buffer zone.”

But what has all this to do with Machen, or the literary form that originated with The Castle of Otranto? One way to characterize Machen’s core contribution to modern horror is to say that he engaged in a thoroughgoing reconceptualization—a reboot, as we might say today—of the gothic mode in the aftermath of the Victorian time revolution. Arguably no earlier writer had attempted to inscribe the newly revealed abysses of deep temporality, with their disconcerting potentialities, within a recognizably gothic framework—certainly none so extensively, or so influentially. Machen’s haunted Wales is charged with deep time—it is not a landscape dotted with ruins of vaguely antique provenance but a coded, stratified space preserving traces of the historic, prehistoric, and prehuman pasts alike (even if these traces have a disconcerting habit of appearing where they are not supposed to be). And the historical sciences of geology, archaeology, and ethnology, as well as such kindred fields as philology and comparative mythology, are on prominent display in Machen’s fiction, where they are not mere window dressing but rather central to the articulation of his gothic vision.

These disciplines are particularly conspicuous in the stories of the 1890s featuring Machen’s recurring character Dyson (a Sherlock Holmes figure whose mind, unlike that of Conan Doyle’s iconic detective, is ever musing on the mysteries of the deep past). In “The Shining Pyramid,” for instance, Dyson, seeking to account for the anomalous presence in Gwent of a number of prehistoric flints, asks casually, “By the way … what is your geological formation down there?” His friend, while surprised, replies with promptitude and accuracy: “Old red sandstone and limestone, I believe … We are just beyond the coal measures, you know.” As for the flints, their appearance prompts Dyson to deduce the agency of the sinister race that represents one of Machen’s favorite conceits—his reimagining of the fairies of Celtic lore as survivors from the prehistoric past. In this and other tales, Machen clearly draws upon contemporary works of archaeology and anthropology in associating the material culture of the “Little People” with the Neolithic period. They possess “flint arrow-head[s] of vast antiquity,” “primitive stone axe[s],” a “primitive stone knife” resembling an “adze”—all artifacts that might have come straight from Lubbock’s Pre-Historic Times. (Dyson’s ethnologist companion declares the adze-knife, with authority, to have been “made about ten thousand years ago. One exactly like this was found near Abury [Avebury], in Wiltshire.”)

Other writers of the time, to be sure, engaged imaginatively with deep time, sometimes to create horrors; H. G. Wells once again comes to mind. Machen once described a sensation of “travelling in time—backwards, not forwards, as in Mr. Wells’s enchantment,” and subsequent commentators have imagined his and Wells’s countenances as the two faces of Janus—one looking to the past, the other to the future—seeing this as the essential difference between them. This is not quite right—Wells wrote, for instance, a set of “Stories of the Stone Age” in the 1890s, dramatizing the transition from Paleolithic to Neolithic culture—but there are indeed fundamental differences between Machen’s creative exploitation of deep time and its uses in science fiction. This can be seen quite clearly by simply comparing two subhuman, subterranean races, superficially not dissimilar, that appeared in works of British popular fiction in the same year, 1895: Wells’s Morlocks (in The Time Machine) and Machen’s Little People (in “The Shining Pyramid,” “The Red Hand,” and The Three Impostors). While Morlocks are the product of Darwinian evolution, descended from men over hundreds of thousands of years, the Little People are, as another of Machen’s ethnologists puts it, “unchanged and unchangeable,” perennially “repeating the evil of Gothic legend”—perpetuating the same rites, propagating the same symbols—throughout the ages. True, Professor Gregg, in a sop to the Darwinian idiom, suggests that they have “fallen out of the grand march of evolution,” but the enduring impression Machen leaves is of an utterly changeless evil, coeval with the geologic timescale itself; the “chronotope” of these stories, as the Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin would have put it, suggests the presence of a deep but not an evolutionary time. (In “The Red Hand,” Dyson, contemplating the inscriptions on one of the Little People’s tablets, is struck by “an impression of vast and far-off ages, and of a living being that had touched the stone with enigmas before the hills were formed, when the hard rocks still boiled with fervent heat”; in “The Novel of the Black Seal” Miss Lally reflects upon “awful things done long ago, and forgotten before the hills were moulded into form.”) Machen takes care, too, to draw an absolute, unbridgeable boundary line between the speech of these beings, “a jargon but little removed from the inarticulate noises of brute beasts,” and that of humans, echoing the anti-Darwinian position of the philologist Max Müller, who famously wrote, “Language is our Rubicon, and no brute will dare to cross it.”

And yet. They write. These ostensible “troglodytes” possess systems of symbolic inscription exactly akin to those associated with the first human civilizations (Machen makes pointed reference to Mesopotamian, Egyptian, and Hittite cultures), at just the moment in intellectual history when writing was being conceptualized as the defining marker of civilized man. They engrave their hieroglyphics on seals of black stone and scrawl them with bits of red earth on limestone rocks in Monmouthshire (eons later, yet without alteration of any kind; they are radically static culturally as well as racially). In one story Machen describes “a kind of cuneiform character, a good deal altered”; in another, an elaborate system of “fantastic figures, spirals and whorls.” And this calculated blending of Neolithic and post-lithic cultural forms, and their backward projection into the fathomless deeps of geologic time, is a good example of the kind of unsettling effect Machen sought to produce in these deep gothic tales. The chief horror of Darwinism lies in its reminder that we come from beasts, its intimation that underneath it all, the respectable vicar or barrister is a savage. But Machen travesties the very categories that were emerging within Victorian intellectual culture, historiography in particular, to distinguish “civilized” from “savage,” “history” from “prehistory” (and both of these from what came before). He articulates, in other words, the “deep history” that the later Victorian era was keen to repress.

Machen was haunted by the gap between vision and execution, the ideal and the real—by a sense of the writer he might have been. Indeed, if Machen had been permitted a glimpse of a world in which he had been transmuted into a classic, with his “shilling shocker” The Great God Pan included in a series alongside the masters he revered, he would surely have thought it the most improbable future imaginable. Modern readers of weird fiction, for their part, can be thankful for the particular sequence of forkings in Machen’s path that led him to London, unqualified for any vocation but the one he made for himself, in poverty and solitude. If, for instance, his father, Reverend John Edward Jones, had been able to send his son to Oxford, some smallish congregation in Monmouthshire might well have been edified by decades of lyrical, allusive sermons, known locally for their unusually vivid depictions of sin, death, and the punishments of hell. But the paths traced by the literature of fear and the uncanny, throughout the twentieth century and beyond, would have been profoundly different—and infinitely less interesting.


Aaron Worth is an associate professor of rhetoric at Boston University, having previously taught courses in English and American literature at Brandeis University. His book Imperial Media: Colonial and Information Systems in the British Literary Imagination, 1857–1918 was published by Ohio State University Press in 2014. He has published essays on Victorian literature and culture in leading journals including Victorian Studies, Victorian Literature and Culture, and Victorian Poetry, as well as original horror fiction in magazines including Cemetery Dance and Aliterate.

From The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories, by Arthur Machen. Copyright © 2018 by Arthur Machen, edited by Aaron Worth and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.