a1 Boston University
In what is surely his best-known “shocker” of the 1890s, Arthur Machen has one of his ubiquitous bachelor heroes (Clarke by name) try to warn another off his pursuit of the truth about a preternaturally dangerous femme fatale figure, a woman responsible for the hideous deaths of a number of English gentlemen. “I am,” he writes to his friend, “like a traveller who has peered over an abyss, and has drawn back in terror. What I know is strange enough and horrible enough, but beyond my knowledge there are depths and horrors more frightful still” (“Pan” 89). But to what “depths,” exactly, does the fearful Clarke refer? What “horrors”? And why, here as elsewhere in this text, do depth and horror seem so intimately interconnected? The tale in question, “The Great God Pan” (1890), bristles with multifarious horrors, to be sure. In the novella's opening episode, a mad scientist figure performs experimental brain surgery on a young woman (“a slight lesion in the grey matter, that is all,” he says to an over-scrupulous chum), causing her to “see the god Pan,” and reducing her to idiocy and death (“Pan” 62, 68). The bulk of the subsequent narrative concerns a sequence of seemingly unrelated tragedies – the mysterious death of one gentleman in London, a rash of particularly horrid suicides by a number of others, the demise of an English artist in Buenos Aires – which prove all to be connected to a single figure of monstrous evil, a woman who goes by the name of Helen Vaughn (among others). She is, it turns out, the offspring of the subject of the surgical experiment and Pan himself, and her own (forced) suicide at the end of the story leads to a gruesome tableau of bodily dissolution reminiscent of Poe's M. Valdemar (or, to update the reference, the gooey, B-movie slime Slavoj Žižek seems to have claimed in the name of the Lacanian Real).