For this week’s Deal Me In challenge story, I drew the 9 of Hearts – Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan, first published in 1894. I thought this a lucky draw, as it’s thematically appropriate for the season, it’s also on my Classics Club list, and I could include it in my Dewey’s Read-a-Thon stack, as well. When I first included it on my Deal Me In list, I thought it was a short story, as it is often listed as such and has been frequently anthologized. But no…it’s at least a novelette, perhaps a novella. I’m uncertain of the word count, but it’s longer than what I would normally call a “short” story.
Specifics be damned! It’s on my roster, and I’ve finished reading the darned thing…so here we go!
In theory, this story has many elements I usually adore – psychological mucking about, weird science, arcane mysteries, mythological connections, an atmosphere of dread… I am generally a fan of Gothics, especially the stranger and less predictable ones. I’ve read other works by Machen that I enjoyed, so I expected this one would be no different. I’ve also read many glowing reviews by authors who were inspired by this particular piece. Well, I hate to be a wet blanket, but my expectations have led me astray, and I don’t quite understand what so many others have seen in this story.
A brief summary: Dr. Raymond has long studied ways to allow a person to “lift back the veil”, to see the world of the uncanny behind our own. He is bitter than others see him as a charlatan and a quack. He has invited a friend who is fervently interested in proving the existence of “the devil” to his estate to bear witness to his ultimate experiment. He intends, through the device of an extremely over-simplified and silly brain surgery, to enable Mary – his teenaged ward whom he rescued from certain death on the streets when she was a toddler and with whom his relationship has a creepy, pedo-vibe – to “see the great god Pan.”
“Consider the matter well, Raymond. It’s a great responsibility. Something might go wrong; you would be a miserable man
for the rest of your days.”
“No, I think not, even if the worst happened. As you know, I rescued Mary from the gutter, and from almost certain starvation, when she was a child; I think her life is mine, to use as I see fit. Come, it’s getting late; we had better go in.”
His experiment is of mixed success; Mary certainly “sees” something, but she is left a gibbering idiot. Nearly two decades later, an “exotic” teenaged girl is connected to a series of odd occurrences. There are terrors and rapes and murders and suicides, providing strange births and stranger deaths. How do these things connect back to Mary and the experiments of the doctor?
Right off, one might suspect that this story is a bit goofy, and one one would be quite right. But it is also meandering, messy, constructed piecemeal and lurching, ham-fistedly insensitive, racist in oddly specific ways and deeply misogynistic…even for the Victorians. Everyone is a one-dimensional, ridiculous stereotype. Women are both somehow simultaneously fluffy, brainless idiots and over-sexed harlots itching to get it on with a devil. The men in the story are either completely cold and lacking in any ethics whatsoever or fetishy and obsessive. Modern hindsight makes any given line unintentionally hilarious, and the whole thing drips with both anti-pagan hysteria and a strange fetishization of the allure of same, as well as the stupid, ingrained old-school masculine fear of women’s hidden “beastial” sexuality. Feh.
Machen was adored by both Aleister Crowley and H. P. Lovecraft. Personally, I was in danger of permanently damaging myself from rolling my eyes so hard. I laughed out loud (and I assure you it’s not intended as a comedy) and shouted aloud at the text many times. The story was widely panned as “perverse” upon publication, which seems a fair reaction from a pathologically prudish Victorian audience. I don’t know that I agree, but I do have another “p” word for it: preposterous. There are so, so many far better Gothic Victorian works out there.