Howard Phillips Lovecraft, the high priest of horror, was born in 1890. In that same year, Welsh author Arthur Machen unleashed The Great God Pan upon the world, and this novella has since become a classic of the supernatural horror genre and was a major influence on Lovecraft himself—but how does it hold up in our modern, gore-saturated world? Let’s find out…
Arthur Machen – The Great God Pan (1890)
This story takes place over the course of a number of decades, and is told from the perspective a handful of different characters, each one relating another dark piece in a series of unfortunate occurrences that culminate in a series of suicides and (possibly) murders. In the first chapter of the book, a scientist performs a surgery on a young woman (she volunteers for the procedure, but there is a certain creepiness to the relationship between doctor and patient that will make most modern readers cringe) with the understanding that the surgery will enable the young woman to see aspects of reality that normal humans can’t perceive. The operation is a success, but the patient is almost instantly overwhelmed by her visions and experiences a complete mental collapse from the sheer terror. The rest of the novella is an exploration of the effects and ramifications of this strange experiment.
It’s important for readers to remember that the book is well over a hundred years old, so no one should be expecting slasher gore or extreme sexual content. However, Machen still does a great job of SUGGESTING that horrible things are going on, without explicitly describing them. There is also a decent body-count for a book that’s this old, with suitably unpleasant crime scene descriptions of at least a few of the corpses. But what Machen probably does BEST is evoke a sense of the uncanny. The mood in many of these chapters is the equal of Lovecraft or some of Poe’s tales, and that’s a good thing, BUT the pacing of the story is a bit slower than what modern readers are used to. The story is a stroll rather than a sprint.
The version of The Great God Pan that I read was available as a free download for my e-reader, and it’s definitely worth the tiny amount storage space and the few hours that it will take to finish reading. The story is enjoyable enough that I’ve read it a few times now, and I believe that it’s a classic for good reason, as Machen establishes mood well, and this story runs the emotional gamut, from the nicely suspenseful to the downright creepy. (For horror, what else do you need?) Again, I have to admit that the pacing is probably a bit slow for modern readers, but at least the book is short and can be read rather quickly (unlike The Woman in White, which seemed like it took YEARS to finish.) Those readers hoping for Clive Barker style thrills probably won’t be satisfied, but if you like Lovecraft or Victorian gothics, or if you’re interested in learning where modern horror CAME FROM, then this book is essential reading—and frankly, I find it a lot more fun than modern torture-porn, like Saw or Hostel, which I don’t find entertaining at all.
—Richard F. Yates
(Commander in Cheap of The Primitive Entertainment Workshop)