Any book that was denounced on publication as a nightmare incoherence of sex and the supposed horrible mysteries behind it, such as might conceivably possess a man who was given to a morbid brooding over these matters has got to be worth reading. There are lots of Victorian Decadent texts with louche reputations that are rather disappointing when you dig them out. Not so The Great God Pan. Machens short text is a mosaic of fragments, of manuscripts, news reports, secret documents. It clearly borrows its structure from Stevensons Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, another story of horrifying events told through a collection of fractured and incomplete reports. Yet Machen has the dash of authentic occult world about him: he was a scholar of magical documents, and was briefly a member of the Order of the Golden Dawn at the time when it was caught up in a struggle between the poet W. B. Yeats and the Great Beast himself, the magician Aleister Crowley. Machens fragments combine to tell the story of a horrific scientific experiment on a young girl that seems to produce a woman so monstrous that an evening in her company leaves men dying of unbearable terror, or pleasure, or possibly both. Quite what she does is never made clear: what might it mean to look upon the face of the pagan god Pan? Helen V is the summit of all those horrifying femmes fatales imagined by the Victorians at the same time, the terrors are leavened by a strong suspicion that Machen is enjoying inventing a creature that can so naughtily cut a swathe through London Society.
Machen is surely one of the original models for the overlooked author. He seemed to relish obscurity, to seek it out. He made a splash with The Great God Pan after years of struggling as a journalist and writer. Yet he cherished his solitudes, and soon returned to an existence far beyond the literary world. The Hill of Dreams (1907) is a brilliant novel about the alienation of living in a garret in London, and also one of the great books about writers block. It is written in the tortured, ornamental style of the Decadents. Machen tried his luck as a journalist, his sensibility struggling with the grubby world of deadlines and column inches. Bizarrely, however, in 1916 one of his short fictions in the press invented the myth of retreating British soldiers being protected by a spectral vision of the archers of Agincourt a patriotic ghost story that was soon avowed as absolutely true by many soldiers. Machen was abused for trying to claim the origin by those who firmly claimed that they had witnessed the vision. This story suggests Machens genuinely mystical strain: he was all about catching fugitive shards of the divine in dusty London squares, glimpsing the holy Grail in the backstreets of Shepherds Bush, longing for a lost arcadia whilst shuffling through Finsbury.
Machen is rather like a fortified wine: you can sip, but too much soon has you dizzy and off your head. The Great God Pan is his great moment, not least because it is so beautifully compressed into a shivery tale that takes only a couple of hours to savour.
There are some slender editions of The Great God Pan available. To read it alongside other tales from the 1890s, try the Oxford Worlds Classics anthology, Late Victorian Gothic Tales (2005).