Author: Arthur Machen
In a nutshell: Flawed late Victorian Gothic with outstanding beginning and some powerful imagery.
Gothicity score: 70%
Summary: Mad neurosurgeon tries to see a Pagan God through surgery, with the result that her patient becomes special needs. Years later a mysterious lady is leading proper London gentlemen to their ends. Other proper gentlemen will try to discover what’s going on.
What a good beginning! And how disappointing the middle and anticlimactic the ending.
This is the best summary I can make of this Late Victorian Gothic novella. Plus saying that the book creates some very suggestive imagery, has a great damnation atmosphere in the first couple of chapters, and the prose is awful throughout. Yes, a book of highs and lows.
But the striking beginning is worth reading the book. It is so powerful that I was immediately inspired to start my second novel (even though I haven’t even finished the first one). But the rest of the story, especially after the third chapter, is weak and dated.
So that’s a surprising contrast because the beginning of the book is really modern. The first chapter begins with a quite contemporary technique called “media res” (in the middle of things). That is, straight into the action. We don’t get here the descriptive paragraphs and the slow cooking typical of the time. We begin in the middle of a conversation between two characters, and a very chilling conversation it is.
Also the brutal incident in the first chapter and the mention of a girl who had been seen with a strange “naked man” in the woods in chapter two, are unexpected and pretty daring for the time (1890). I loved the beautiful simple sentence with which it is described: “he saw [another child] Helen playing in the grass with a ‘strange naked man'”. It’s simple, but it’s creepy.
The presence of some uncanny evil is masterfully achieved in chapters two and three. But from there on, things start to decay. And the final 60% of the book is a very tame and unexciting narration. In that second half dreadful things are referred to all the time without describing them. The action keeps being narrated in a reported way by too many characters who witnessed the events or were, in turn, told about them. You are never in the action after chapter three.
I mean, both techniques are legit when they are well done. I can enjoy a narrator telling how the action happened even instead of “seeing” the action. But here it doesn’t work, it makes you feel detached.
Also, sometimes it’s good no to show in detail the “horrible things” that happen in horror stories, and instead let the reader’s imagination fly. But here it doesn’t work either. In chapter one and two the book included details about actual horrible things (at least for the 1890s, a strange naked man playing with a young girl in the woods was as disturbing as it gets) so that makes you think that more is to come. When you don’t get anything else for the remainder of the novel, you become more and more frustrated every time a character says: “and then she did some dreadful things, really dreadful, unthinkable things,” but you don’t get a pick of any of those things.
Although somewhat disappointed you’re still hopeful, you expect that towards the end, one of the characters will get finally tangled with the actual action, that there will come soon an ending scene in which you’ll finally get a first-hand experience of all that indescribable dread. But the opposite happens, the end is just still another report —and a rushed one— of what happened somewhere else, making the climax absolutely anticlimactic.
One of the main characteristics of Gothic novels is the presence of a forbidding setting. Although the mad doctor’s house in chapter one, a decaying house for rent and the city of London could be such a setting, none of these is developed enough to provide the strong sense of place of Gothic stories. So its Gothicity is not as strong as it could be.
However, it has many other Gothic elements that make it, if not a full-on Gothic, at least something definitely on the brims of the Gothic lit constellation: abused innocent girl, melodrama, powerful moody atmosphere, people losing sanity, etc.
Dialogues are horrendous: long chunks of monologue which are too long even for Victorian standards
+ people speak too poetically (again, even for Victorian standards).
The rest of the prose ain’t any better. It adds adjectives before all nouns in the way high school students do. So that afternoons are never plain afternoons but always “lonely afternoons”, and nights are “gloomy nights”.
But the worst is when the author mixes the cheap adjectives with the stilted dialogue and characters say when talking to each other: “It happened a lonely afternoon when…”.
There are so many characters in this novel that seem to be the same person: a respectable, learned British gentleman who is somewhat attracted by “the queer” but at the same time doesn’t want evil to prevail. They could have easily fused into a single, properly fleshed-out character.
This book must have one of the most anticlimactic endings [MAJOR SPOILER AHEAD]: After we learn that Helen is a powerful semi-demonic being, they defeat her by going to her house and threatening her to go to the police if she doesn’t kill herself. She, of course, accepts. Come on!
Plus the whole ending scene is (again) reported by somebody who was there, so we don’t even get to “experience” the ending just are told about in a rushed manner.
Isn’t it a beautiful title?
+ It feels modern (it just states simply the point of the book)
+ It resonates with something said in the first chapter and helps to create a momentous beginning.
All good Gothic fiction must have a strong sense of place or atmosphere.
In this case, we have a strong atmosphere: that of decadence (in the sense of the decay of moral standards of the wealthy so typical of the Fin de Siècle period), many of the aristocratic characters feel attracted by the “the queer”, and the action carried out by the “mad doctor” in the first chapter sets a tone of moral corruption difficult to surpass.
The setting is not as good, though. It is the same London of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, (published just 4 years earlier in 1886). But in that novel the foggy London setting is much better brought to life than here. Even the real crimes of Jack the Ripper are mentioned in this novel (as they happened around the same time in the real London: 1888-1891). But where you really get the Jack the Ripper’s London feel is in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, not here.
This is a bad book. It is bad. But it is also a great book in parts. And those parts have something really, really special. They are not well written, not even the good parts. But there’s something great there. That’s why many writers have become inspired by this novella. Both Lovecraft and Stephen King mentioned this book as one of the most influential to their writing. And I myself am starting a Gothic Mystery novel whose idea was triggered a few days ago when I finished this book.
The first two chapters
Boy, they are freaky and creepy: Victorian brain surgery (tick), old gentleman kissing minor in the mouth as if it is normal (tick), young girl playing with a strange naked man in the woods (tick).