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Occasional posts on subjects including field recording, London history and literature, other websites worth looking at, articles in the press, and news of sound-related events.

08 February 2015

Arthur Machen: the sounds from beyond the veil

ADVENTURES MADE EARLY in life can go on to define intellectual careers and reputations. Darwin was 22 when he set off on The Beagle. T. E. Lawrence built a personal mythos from his experiences as a young officer during the Arab Revolt of 1916–18. The anthropologist Margaret Mead was 27 when her book Coming of Age in Samoa was published, while Napoleon Chagnon spent his twenties studying the Yanonamo people, sometimes introducing himself to a new village by leaping into its central clearing with his face daubed in war paint, waving a shotgun.

The Welsh-born mystic and writer Arthur Machen moved to London in 1881 when he was in his late teens, a good age for the kind of long exploratory walks which can bring on a trance-like state of fatigue. He lodged briefly in south London before moving to Turnham Green, then Notting Hill Gate. With De Quincey’s opium-powered London wanderings sometimes in mind, Machen began first to explore the north and west of the city. His autobiographical works, such as Far Off Things (1922), suggest he gathered enough thoughts on London and its hinterlands during these expeditions to inform the rest of his literary career.

Arthur Machen


Machen’s descriptions of sounds often occur in the absence of seeing what’s making them. In The Terror (1917), a part of the Welsh countryside is haunted by an eerie, distant moaning, which is later revealed as people crying for help up the chimney flue of a barricaded cottage. A Fragment of Life (1899) features a nature spirit less benign than Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill, which whistles unseen at a couple walking in the fields near Totteridge. The confrontation is a foretaste of Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now:

Still, she felt it was no good bothering her head over what couldn’t be made out or explained anyway, and she was just settling down, when one Sunday evening it began all over again, and worse things happened. The whistling followed them just as it did before, and poor aunt set her teeth and said nothing to uncle, as she knew he would only tell her stories, and they were walking on, not saying a word, when something made her look back, and there was a horrible boy with red hair, peeping through the hedge just behind, and grinning. She said it was a dreadful face, with something unnatural about it, as if it had been a dwarf, and before she had time to have a good look, it popped back like lightning, and aunt all but fainted away.

Part of H.P. Lovecraft’s acknowledged debt to Machen also lies in hearing without seeing. Well before Lovecraft’s half-human ululations emanated from somewhere below ground, Machen’s The Three Impostors (1895) has Francis Leicester ingest a restorative white powder from a chemist, only to undergo a horrible physical degeneration. The process takes time, however, as his sister finds out:

“Francis, Francis,” I cried, “for heaven’s sake answer me. What is the horrible thing in your room? Cast it out, Francis, cast it from you!”

I heard a noise as of feet shuffling slowly and awkwardly, and a choking, gurgling sound, as if some one was struggling to find utterance, and then the noise of a voice, broken and stifled, and words that I could scarcely understand.

Sound in Machen’s writings can create a tunnel between the present and a different time or place. Another vignette from The Three Impostors underlines his influence on Lovecraft. A feeble-minded youth named Jervase Cradock is taken on as a gardener and suffers a fit while at his work:

I shrieked with terror, and Professor Gregg came running; and as I pointed to Cradock, the boy with one convulsive shudder fell face forward, and lay on the wet earth, his body writhing like a wounded blind-worm, and an inconceivable babble of sounds bursting and rattling and hissing from his lips; he seemed to pour forth an infamous jargon, with words, or what seemed words, that might have belonged to a tongue dead since untold ages, and buried deep beneath Nilotic mud, or in the inmost recesses of the Mexican forest.

In the semi-autobiographical The Hill of Dreams (1907), the young writer Lucian begins to disintegrate mentally amid his isolation in a west London suburb and his failure to achieve the numinous prose he strives for. The memory of a storm from his childhood in Wales comes back to him repeatedly:

He remembered one night at home when such a sound had roused him suddenly from a deep sweet sleep. There was a rushing and beating as of wings upon the air, and a heavy dreary noise, like thunder far away upon the mountain. He had got out of bed and looked from behind the blind to see what was abroad. He remembered the strange sight he had seen, and he pretended it would be just the same if he cared to look out now. There were clouds flying awfully from before the moon, and a pale light that made the familiar land look strange and terrible. The blast of wind came with a great shriek, and the trees tossed and bowed and quivered; the wood was scourged and horrible, and the night air was ghastly with a confused tumult, and voices as of a host.

The storm is violent and powerful enough to overwhelm the sounds of surburban life:

He leant back again, picturing the wet street without, the rain driving like fountain spray about the gas lamp, the shrilling of the wind on those waste places to the north. It was strange how in the brick and stucco desert where no trees were, he all the time imagined the noise of tossing boughs, the grinding of the boughs together. There was a great storm and tumult in this wilderness of London, and for the sound of the rain and the wind he could not hear the hum and jangle of the trams, and the jar and shriek of the garden gates as they opened and shut.

Machen develops the noise of the garden gate into a symbol of his traditionalist and conservative dislike of the newly-built London suburbs. Again from The Hill of Dreams:

He looked out into the grey street, and it stood a symbol of his life, chill and dreary and grey and vexed with a horrible wind. There were the dull inhabitants of the quarter going about their common business; a man was crying “mackerel” in a doleful voice, slowly passing up the street, and staring into the white-curtained “parlors,” searching for the face of a purchaser behind the India-rubber plants, stuffed birds, and piles of gaudy gilt books that adorned the windows. One of the blistered doors over the way banged, and a woman came scurrying out on some errand, and the garden gate shrieked two melancholy notes as she opened it and let it swing back after her.

Lucian can try to escape what Machen later called ‘the raw London suburb and its mean limited life’ through long, digressive walks in the tangle of streets or else westwards into what might now be termed Edgelands:

Now, however, when the new year was beginning its dull days, he began to diverge occasionally to right and left, sometimes eating his luncheon in odd corners, in the bulging parlors of eighteenth-century taverns, that still fronted the surging sea of modern streets, or perhaps in brand new “publics” on the broken borders of the brickfields, smelling of the clay from which they had swollen. He found waste by-places behind railway embankments where he could smoke his pipe sheltered from the wind; sometimes there was a wooden fence by an old pear-orchard where he sat and gazed at the wet desolation of the market-gardens, munching a few currant biscuits by way of dinner.

Booth’s Poverty Map, compiled towards the end of the 19th century, shows some of these west London outskirts. The triangle of Shepherd’s Bush Green lies to the lower right-hand side, with Wormwood Scrubs prison standing in isolation near the top:

Booth's Poverty Map


But these solitary journeys only make Lucian feel more cut off from humanity – the city is for him as ‘uninhabitated as the desert’. An alternative escape route offers him the possibility of communing with others, but only through a gradual dissociation from reality. One of the most striking passages in The Hill of Dreams recasts a Saturday night, possibly in or near Shepherd’s Bush, into the bacchanalia of a witches’ sabbath ‘loud with the expectation of lust and death’:

He had passed through the clamorous and blatant crowd of the “high street,” where, as one climbed the hill, the shops seemed all aflame, and the black night air glowed with the flaring gas-jets and the naphtha-lamps, hissing and wavering before the February wind. Voices, raucous, clamant, abominable, were belched out of the blazing public-houses as the doors swung to and fro, and above these doors were hideous brassy lamps, very slowly swinging in a violent blast of air, so that they might have been infernal thuribles, censing the people. Some man was calling his wares in one long continuous shriek that never stopped or paused, and, as a respond, a deeper, louder voice roared to him from across the road. An Italian whirled the handle of his piano-organ in a fury, and a ring of imps danced mad figures around him, danced and flung up their legs till the rags dropped from some of them, and they still danced on. A flare of naphtha, burning with a rushing noise, threw a light on one point of the circle, and Lucian watched a lank girl of fifteen as she came round and round to the flash. She was quite drunk, and had kicked her petticoats away, and the crowd howled laughter and applause at her. Her black hair poured down and leapt on her scarlet bodice; she sprang and leapt round the ring, laughing in Bacchic frenzy, and led the orgy to triumph. People were crossing to and fro, jostling against each other, swarming about certain shops and stalls in a dense dark mass that quivered and sent out feelers as if it were one writhing organism. A little farther a group of young men, arm in arm, were marching down the roadway chanting some music-hall verse in full chorus, so that it sounded like plainsong. An impossible hubbub, a hum of voices angry as swarming bees, the squeals of five or six girls who ran in and out, and dived up dark passages and darted back into the crowd; all these mingled together till his ears quivered. A young fellow was playing the concertina, and he touched the keys with such slow fingers that the tune wailed solemn into a dirge; but there was nothing so strange as the burst of sound that swelled out when the public-house doors were opened.

The next day the banality of the suburb re-establishes itself through the ringing of a chapel bell (‘tang, tang, tang’) and a ‘doggerel hymn whining from some parlor, to the accompaniment of the harmonium.’ Machen intends these sounds of the growing commuter belt to represent constraints on the possible range of experience. They are set up as a surface reality to be undermined later. The Three Impostors begins with life in Red Lion Square playing out with the regularity of Gog and Magog striking the hours at St Dunstan-in-the-West in Fleet Street:

By degrees in the houses opposite one window after another leaped out a square of light, now and again a figure would shape itself against a blind and vanish, and to all this semi-theatrical magic the runs and flourishes of brave Italian opera played a little distance off on a piano-organ seemed an appropriate accompaniment, while the deep-muttered bass of the traffic of Holborn never ceased.

In A Fragment of Life, the City clerk Edward Darnell inhabits the ‘grey phantasmal world’ which Machen claims is most people’s lot before becoming more aware of a different reality filled with ‘grotesque and fantastic shapes, omens of confusion and disorder, threats of madness’. The routine of the commuter is represented in the conversations Darnell hears on the bus from Uxbridge Road:

The customary companions of his morning’s journey were in the seats about him; he heard the hum of their talk, as they disputed concerning politics, and the man next to him, who came from Acton, asked him what he thought of the Government now. There was a discussion, and a loud and excited one, just in front, as to whether rhubarb was a fruit or vegetable, and in his ear he heard Redman, who was a near neighbour, praising the economy of ‘the wife.’

‘I don’t know how she does it. Look here; what do you think we had yesterday? Breakfast: fish-cakes, beautifully fried—rich, you know, lots of herbs, it’s a receipt of her aunt’s; you should just taste ‘em. Coffee, bread, butter, marmalade, and, of course, all the usual etceteras. Dinner: roast beef, Yorkshire, potatoes, greens, and horse-radish sauce, plum tart, cheese. And where will you get a better dinner than that? Well, I call it wonderful, I really do.’

Although a conservative, Machen suggests that revelation is within the grasp of anyone who wants to reach for it, rather than being the preserve of an elite of adepts. Darnell, after all, belongs to the lower middle class. In The London Adventure (1924), Machen recalls how a Salvation Army funeral service in Lower Clapton had rediscovered for itself the ancient patterns of call-and-response, and so people of ‘very indifferent education’ were capable of creating a ‘remarkable and impressive’ occasion.

In Machen’s world-view, what’s old is generally good, and what’s new is usually disagreeable and inferior. Not only do the new suburbs and vast late-Victorian cemeteries obliterate the precious countryside and its half-buried hamlets and taverns, but the London of the 1920s sounds worse than that of the 1880s. From Far Off Things:

And the carriages were of graceful form, and the servants of those days sometimes wore gorgeous liveries; and scores of those brilliant equipages followed on one another in an unending dazzling procession. That was the old way; now there are some “Snorting Billies” that choke and snarl and splutter as they dodge furtively and meanly in and out of the Park, like mechanical rabbits bolting for their burrows.

Part of Machen’s legacy is a way of writing about London by trying to re-enchant it. Few people now can summon up the same belief in the existence of a mystical reality alongside the everyday physical facts of pavements and buses. What survives into recent psychogeographical writing is the elegaic stance, the intense interest in the past, and it is significant that this has found a new resonance as London undergoes another spasm of rapid and profound change.

ADDENDUM: For a rejection of the argument that Lovecraft was influenced by Machen in his treatment of sound, see this post on the Tentaclii blog. In my opinion the parallels between sound-themes in The Three Impostors and Lovecraft’s work are too strong to be coincidental. But it is clear from the examples given on Tentaclii that Lovecraft’s use of ‘hearing without seeing’ was indeed established before he encountered Machen’s work in the early 1920s.

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