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Book review: <i>The Three Impostors And Other Stories</i> by Arthur Machen

the cover of the book

If this was a residence, it would be a garret in a boarding house in a part of town that was once architecturally significant and dignified but is now decrepit and largely abandoned. With the door nailed shut and a sulphurous smell. (In fact, I'm sure Machen could do better than "sulphurous"...)


Look, it's a century old, what do you want? OK, OK, my edition had a detail of a borrowed print by some Italian artist whose name escapes me. It was un-mysterious, irrelevant to the story, boring to look at, and unlikely to inspire even the consideration of its choice as a cover image.


Turn-of the century London. Two men, one a writer, one a man of science, discuss life over tobacco and brandy. The writer insists that the supernatural goes 'woo' just beyond our ken, but the scientist thinks him romantic. One evening the scientist witnesses an eerie chase down a deserted street, and as a result takes home a dropped treasure. He recognises the thing as rare Roman gold, coined by Tiberius, and thought to be cursed. On showing it to the writer, the men's views differ sharply. The writer considers the coin tainted with evil and insists the scientist discard it, but the scientist is certain that unseen forces of fate have the coin in their grip, and will, if he hangs onto it, draw in around him and lead to metaphysical revelation. Of course, this is exactly what happens. The three eponymous impostors are a trio of maleficent entities who, in various guises, approach the two men, trying to use them to find the Young Man With Spectacles, an individual hiding somewhere in London.

Basically, this lot is a framing device for a bundle of novellas, including Novel of The Dark Valley, Novel of the White Powder, and Novel of the Black Seal. All appear as tales told within the context of the Three Impostors overall narrative.

The Good

Well, now I know where H.P. Lovecraft got his style from: Poe, M.R. James, and Arthur Machen. I'll get it out of the way right now: If you're into Lovecraft, then you really need to read this, and I'd put money on you enjoying it greatly. Machen is, in fact, a far better writer than Lovecraft. His evocation of turn-of-the-century London does the job quite effectively (which is good, because it's where the framing narrative occurs); while the settings he creates may lack the dripping decay of Lovecraft's, they are crisply evoked and peopled, and there is a subtlety to the effects of atmosphere and tone which Lovecraft either couldn't manage or couldn't resist overwhelming with hysterics.

Machen's materials may be necessarily dated, but his prose holds up well. There may be some dust between paragraphs, but there's nothing obstructing the author's observative faculties. Also, the book's omnibus structure feels quite modern - if you stuck in a few face-stabbing breaks you'd have the framework of a funky post-modern horror film and a sweet Victorian setting to boot (or, to put it another way, everything Alone In The Dark absolutely was not but theoretically could have been).

The individual novellas all hold up fairly well, though I think I liked the Novel of the White Powder the most, for its thoroughly Lovecraftian conclusion. The third story, wherein a heroine accompanies a benefactor into the misty Welsh hillsides to research runic goings-on is also a treat, with a chilly atmosphere you can almost see your breath in. (Also, six months later, I find myself returning to the queerly deserted suburban stroll taken by the girl before she leaves for Wales. Grassy, moonlit valleys of a chapter in wild, western America have stuck with me too. Machen's atmospherics have teeth.)

The Bad

Unfortunately, the narrative which binds and titles the whole book is probably the weakest of the lot. Despite a wonderful evocation of London locales and the sort of quality language construction that they don't teach in schools any more, Machen cannot meet his task here. Admittedly, he's set himself a hard one - create a story, in itself scary, to supply cohesion for a handful of unconnected tales. I suppose we should be happy he didn't invent some storytelling "Cryptkeeper" character or something. As it is, he blends a few Holmes-era amateur sleuths with a pinch of menace and intrigue, but can't quite bring it to a head. The climax of White Powder, then, forms the climax of the novel. Which is not an entirely bad thing because it's probably the ghastliest bit of the book. Heaven knows what they thought of it in 1895 (well, initially they banned it, in fact - Oscar Wilde had just been busted and naughty stories of the fantastical were suddenly out of vogue).

Further, at the end of my edition of the book, in a piece of publishing genius I've never seen before, Machen's estate supplied the work's reviews, which the man himself carefully saved. They may not have had the internet a century ago, but I tell you what, they had a lot of little papers and periodicals, and most of them seem to have employed their own literary critic. It's a fascinating inclusion, and I'd love to see it become commonplace. (If you're interested, the reviews are thoroughly mixed - from "ghastly" to "great" to "competent" to "terrifying". When I say "make up your own mind" this time, I'll have evidence to back me up.)

I suppose I should admit I read Lovecraft, M.R. James and so on as much for their imaginations and ability to create a mood as anything else - only a dick could honestly call horror books "terrifying" (usually "revolting" would do the job). The fact is that we've expanded our license to shock and repulse so much that a century-old book just isn't going to compete. But the viscerals and viscera were always the basest elements of scary stories anyway. Atmosphere, tension and unease are the hard parts, and these older stories have them in spades.

The Three Impostors was a small-scale revelation for me. The cover may suck but everything inside was fascinating - if I'd realised Machen's work existed I'd have been reading it a decade ago. Like Lovecraft's stories, which obviously owed a great debt to Machen, there'll be a page or two where you wonder why you're reading century-old pulp, but then the atmosphere creeps down the chimney of your mind, slinks up behind your chair and touches you on the neck. Unlike Lovecraft, though, Machen doesn't wee on his eerie hearth-glow with architectural diversions, racist remarks or pages and pages of clumsy foreshadowing. As well as quality writing, Machen blessed The Three Impostors with an attention-getting structure, real squirms, and an eye for the phantasmagorical that got the book's publishing date pushed forward several years. He was ahead of his time.

What I Learnt

Who Machen was, and what the interior of a classic reprint ought to look like -
Chronology, biography, historical context, pre-introduction introduction, end notes, and freakin' REVIEWS!

In short

Title: The Three Impostors And Other Stories
Author: Arthur Machen
Publisher: Chaosium Inc
ISBN: 978-1568821328
Year published: 2007
Pages: 240
Genre(s): Fiction, Horror
Review Type: