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Abominable transformations: becoming-fungus in Arthur Machen's The Hill of Dreams.

Here I look at one of the lowest of biological species that had become more than ever before a source of fear and fascination in the late nineteenth century. My discussion focuses on Arthur Machen's The Hill of Dreams (1907), a work of supernatural fiction composed in the 1890s that calls attention to hideous fungi in order to explore the strange and horrifying conclusions issuing from nineteenth-century theories of biological life. (1) Machen's novel participates in the longstanding Victorian debates about the ways in which, as Kelly Hurley writes, 'new discoveries in the biological and geological sciences required a radical rethinking of humanity's position relative to its environment'. (2) It is not of course the case that earlier writers had no interest in mycological life-forms. References occur in Shakespeare, Shelley, and Dickens, (3) but the increasing 1890s cultural engagement with fungal life (4) remains obscure because this topic has received virtually no attention from scholars outside of specialists in the field of mycology, upon whom it has devolved to chronicle the fungus's long history in myth, folklore, and literature. (5)

I argue that the fungus joins the ranks of literary monstrosities in the late-nineteenth century because the extreme morphological plasticity characteristic of this phylum graphically figures the essential formlessness of life in the wake of Darwinism, which stressed that organisms were continually changing in response to selective pressures in the environment. Far from holding the promise of a radically open-ended and continuous human evolution, the dysmorphic fungal body instead poses the threat of human devolution and a degrading return to a less organized primordial state of being. These devolutionary concerns have been researched by critics like William Greenslade and Susan Navarette. (6) With Darwinism, the sense of the human as a created being emanating from God is undermined. Wildly variant fungal morphology erodes the religious notion of the teleological finality of divinely-created life. Instead of radiating from on high as the eternal image and emanation of God, the fungus sprouts up from down low, emerging from excreta and decayed remains only to return to them after the briefest season lived in darkness and filth. As a both a product and agent of decay, the fungus is simultaneously of and for death. I contend that what is at stake in The Hill of Dreams is not so much the matter of one particular species of life becoming-fungus, but rather the abysmally horrific becoming-fungus of life itself. I argue that Machen uses fungal life in the novel as a site to stage the confrontation between opposed nineteenth-century theories of vitalism and materialism. Rather than simply resolve the conflict between these theories, the inherently contradictory tendencies of fungal life reveal a disturbing tension within biological life, one that suggests neither the reality of a universal life-force nor of matter, but rather the horrifying unreality of life.

Machen was born in Gwent, the borderland between England and Wales that, as Mark Valentine so insightfully puts it, 'was for him also a borderland between this world and another world of wonder and strangeness.' (7) In the first part of his autobiography Far Off Things (1922), Machen writes that
   I shall always esteem it as the greatest piece of fortune that has
   fallen to me that I was born in that noble, fallen Caerleon-on-Usk,
   in the heart of Gwent ... anything which I may have accomplished in
   literature is due to the fact that when my eyes were first opened
   in earliest childhood they had before them the vision of an
   enchanted land. (8)

The only son in a line of Welsh priests and scholars, Machen and his family faced the hardships of poverty when the great agricultural 'smash' of 1880 wiped out the parish and forced Machen's father to declare bankruptcy. Nevertheless, the youngster found in nature an enduring source of comfort and inspiration, and took to going on long walks 'in solitude and woods and deep lanes and wonder.' (9) Next best to communion with nature was time spent in his father's old library, which contained the works that were to have a decisive influence on his imagination. Machen cherished The Arabian Nights, Don Quixote, Parker's Glossary of Gothic Architecture, Wuthering Heights, and the well-researched series of essays on alchemy that appeared in Charles Dickens's Household Words periodical. (10) His favorite authors included Sir Thomas Browne, William Hazlitt, and Thomas De Quincey, writers 'whose prose was all carven and curious with twisting simile and gilded metaphor', writes Valentine (11).

Machen eventually moved to London in order to secure work as a journalist. His London years were
   a time of penury and isolation, during which he got work where he
   could, as a junior in a publisher's office, and as a private tutor,
   and spent his free time wandering in London as he had in his home
   country, shocked and morbidly compelled by the squalor and crudity
   of the surroundings. (11)

These experiences doubtlessly fueled Machen's later tales of the weird and supernatural. His literary career started to take off with the publication of The Anatomy of Tobacco (1884), an ode to the pleasures of smoking that parroted Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy. He followed this comedic essay with a translation of Marguerite de Navarre's The Heptameron, the first full-length translation of this work. (12) By the 1890s, he was regularly producing fiction and articles for periodicals like the Globe, Whirlwind, and St James Gazette. In 1894, John Lane's Bodley Head press--which was notorious for producing The Yellow Book, a quarterly that featured writings and graphic art by Aesthetic and Decadent artists--published Machen's novella The Great God Pan, which prompted a public outrage due to its outre and sexual content. Oscar Wilde famously congratulated Machen on 'ungrand succes.' (13) Indeed it was, and in more ways than one, for The Great God Pan secured Machen's reputation as a master of the horror genre.

The Hill of Dreams, a semi-autobiographical novel, recounts the story of Lucian Taylor, a country priest's son who struggles to become a writer in fin de siecle London. This bildungsroman focuses on episodes from Lucian's dream-like and haunted childhood, the formative event therein being his exploration of the ruins of a Roman fortress. I will close read this event later, but for now it suffices to say that it culminates in a mystical experience that determines the course of his life. Impoverished and forced to withdraw from school, Lucian retreats to his father's library, studying treatises on magical arcana, alchemy, and exploded philosophical systems. He soon takes to writing, honing his verse and penning a Don Quixote-like novel. As Lucian is increasingly subjected to the shocking cruelties capitalism heaps upon the poor, he flees into a hermetic world of dreams, imagination, and bizarre rituals that recall the medieval ascetics' mortifications of the flesh. Ever in search of experiences that enhance his literary creativity, Lucian turns to masochism and starvation to induce mystical ecstasies. The second part of the novel sees him in London, eking out a dreary existence in a nightmarish urban wasteland. Despite some hard-won success, he still leads the difficult life of a Grub Street hack. This picture of Lucian becomes unnervingly suspect, however, as Machen suggests his insanity. The novel ends with a nasty surprise: Lucian's death and the realization that he was not only appallingly abused unto his last, but also frustrated in his highest ambition of becoming a writer. Mere minutes after his death, swindlers who took advantage of his mental illness descend to claim his paltry estate, while the discovery of his manuscripts reveal them to be nothing more than reams of paper covered in hieroglyphic scribbling.

It would be easy to interpret the novel as a tale that explores the dangers of following a Decadent ethos of composition that recommends sensory derangement and ego dissolution for the sake of art. Lucian idolizes the opium-eaters Coleridge and De Quincey, and the last eighty pages of the work descend into the maelstrom of Lucian's drugged and dying brain, coupling the act of fictional composition with the progressive decomposition of reality. Yet these details can distract us from what lies at the heart of Machen's fictional enterprise, which is the metaphysical status of mystical experience and subjective vision, an issue that I argue is taken up by the novel's treatment of biological life. The decisive event in Lucian's life is his exploration of the titular hill of dreams, Isca Silurum, the Roman fortress outside of the Welsh village of Caermaen. This adventure culminates in a visitation from the great god Pan, while the rotting periphery of the fortress has been colonized by his hideous denizens: cankered trees, lichen-mottled rocks, strange species of nettle, and poisonous herbage. In the deepest part of the thicket about the fortress, where no antiseptic rays of sunlight can penetrate, Machen writes that '[t]he earth was black and unctuous, and bubbling under the feet, left no track behind. From it, in the darkness where the shadow was thickest, swelled the growth of an abominable fungus, making the still air sick with its corrupt odor, and he [Lucian] shuddered as he felt the horrible thing pulped beneath his feet.' (14)

Here Machen imagines the fungus as the very nadir of life, or more specifically, a life-form indistinguishable from the nonliving base material out of which it composed and into which it decomposes. R. T. and F. W. Rolfe note that many species in the genus Coprinus 'erect their caps, fructify, and deliquesce into a collapsed, black and semi-liquid mass, popularly regarded as a "horrible putrescence."' (15) This autophagic deliquescence is actually a reproductive strategy that disperses spores and returns water and nutrients to the environment for future generations. (16) Physically continuous with the bubbling, nigrescent excretions issuing from the earth's bowels and its own decaying parts, the fungus cannot be conceived of as a living organism separate from the nonliving black ooze. In this respect, the fungus and its puddle are analogous to the slime in Machen's 'The Great God Pan' (1894) and The Three Imposters (1895), works that Susan Navarette argues reflect anxieties over T. H. Huxley's researches into the physical basis of life. (17) In 1869, Huxley proposed that 'a semifluid, semitransparent, colorless substance called 'protoplasm' must be 'the physical basis of life' and that this viscid compound was common to all the diversities of vital existence.' (18) While both protoplasm and the fungus are symbols of the materialism that threatened theological narratives and human autonomy, Machen's depiction of the fungus is especially distressing because it captures the organism in the middle of the process of emergence, such that it is half-fungus and half-slime, or rather half-alive and half-dead. Thus the fungus brings out the terrifying news that is only implicit in protoplasmic physicalism: life is always already dead. Despite the steady creep of life, it seems as if the fungus could never actually complete its ascent from the black primordial substrate and enter a distinct phase of being called life that ends in death. If it could do so, it already would have, and Lucian would have discovered just a fungus, its decayed remains, or nothing at all. Therefore, the fungus replaces a linear conception of life with a cyclicality or processuality wherein vital and non-vital matter enter an intimate exchange that disrupts the conceptual difference between life and death.

This materialist conception of life runs throughout The Hill of Dreams, but it is especially prominent when the novel broaches the vexatious theme of cruelty. After he witnesses some boys amusing themselves with the torture and hanging of a puppy, Lucian shudders with disgust--the same reaction he had when he crushed the fungus underfoot (139). Machen writes that '[t]he young of the human creature were really too horrible; they defiled the earth, and made existence unpleasant, as the pulpy growth of a noxious and obscene fungus spoils an agreeable walk. The sight of those malignant little animals with mouths that uttered cruelty and filth, with hands dexterous in torture, and feet swift to run all evil errands, had given him [Lucian] a shock' (138-9). Here Lucian compares the boys to fungi in an attempt to think the unthinkable: an appalling form of human life that, bereft of thought, emotion, and spirit, has become patently inhuman and capable of unfathomable cruelty. Fungal life is also pervasive in the dehumanizing and decaying London cityscape of the second half of the novel. As the fungus at Isca Silurum depicted life trapped in the primeval sludge of its own becoming, Machen writes that '[n]othing exquisite, it seemed, could exist in the weltering suburban sea, in the habitations which had risen from the stench and slime of the brickfields. It was as if the sickening fumes that steamed from the burning bricks had been sublimed into the shape of houses, and those who lived in these grey places could also claim kinship with the putrid mud' (220). During one of his perambulations, Lucian encounters a dilapidated house that he is inexplicably drawn to. Machen writes that 'the old house amongst its mouldering shrubs was but a dark cloud, and the streets to north and south seemed like starry wastes, beyond them the blackness of infinity. Always in the daylight it had been to him abhorred and abominable, and its grey houses and purlieus had been fungus-like sproutings, an efflorescence of horrible decay' (230). The passage draws on the black boundlessness of outer space to suggest a nihilistic cosmology of prototypically fungal rotting matter that is gradually deteriorating into the void.

I argue, however, that there is another conception of life at work in the novel that issues from the paradox of living death that is the hallmark of fungal life. Thinking life and death as synchronous negates them both, leaving two possible outcomes: that, as we have seen, there can only be death and inanimate matter, or that there can only be life and vitalized matter. Returning to the undead flora and fauna of Isca Silurum, these organisms' mode of being in the world suggests an ontological contradiction that is the very stuff of horror. It might be objected that science does an adequate job of explaining these creatures--that there is nothing genuinely contradictory or supernatural about them--but the issue here concerns Lucian's perceptions of these animals and his insight into the inherent strangeness of nature that is amplified by the horror genre's stock-in-trade zombies and living marionettes, figures that suggest a vital force behind the scenes, busy animating dead bodies and wreaking metaphysical mayhem. From this perspective, the undead ecosystem evokes not so much a rotting liveliness, but the liveliness of rot itself. Here, a metaphysical vital force is glimpsed through the decomposed and diseased lineaments of physical being. Indeed, the withered and twisted trees seem to thrive both because of and in spite of their disease and deformity, as if they were animated by something that freed biology from the space-time constraints of materialism: 'stunted and old, crooked and withered by the winds into awkward and ugly forms,' the trees nevertheless form a 'dense thicket of ... beech and oak and hazel and ash and yew' (84). This horticultural catalogue indicates a productive biodiversity or, as hinted at in the entwinement of the trees, an even deeper inter-species penetration, a miscegenation that produces strikingly new individuals 'of no common kind'--something that might be said of Lucian himself, an ancient Roman soul in a modern body (147).

Lucian's journey from the periphery to the center of the Roman fortress charts a devolutionary movement that passes through a botanical series of decreasing biological complexity en route to the very origin of life. Lucian first encounters oak trees, then nettles, the aforementioned thicket of degraded trees, lichens, and finally the abominable fungus mired in nigredo (83-4). When one considers the fungus's classification by nineteenth-century systematic biology, the contours of this regressive movement become even sharper. Not until the last three decades, with the appearance of molecular techniques, were fungi revealed to be more closely related to animals than plants. Nineteenth-century science predominately accounted for their evolutionary history by proposing a degenerative theory that held that fungi were plants that lost their chlorophyll, the light-sequestering pigment that allows carbon fixation and sugar synthesis. (19) Fungi could no longer produce their own food, an ability called autotrophy. Thus the fungus was a degenerate, a shameful criminal organism that turned to heterotrophy and forfeited its self-sufficiency within the solar economy. Lucian walks over this degenerate and arrives at the center of the fortress only to have another encounter, one that indicates there is more to life than base materiality and that we will see suggests a vitalistic metaphysical paradigm of life. Stumbling out of the noxious thicket, Lucian discovers that the center of the fortress is open and bathed in sunlight. Exhausted, he lies down, removes his clothes, and drifts to sleep. Machen writes that Lucian glanced
   all the while on every side at the ugly misshapen trees that hedged
   the lawn ... there were forms that imitated the human shape, and
   faces and twining limbs that amazed him. Green mosses were hair,
   and tresses were stark in grey lichen; a twisted root swelled into
   a limb; in the hollows of the rotted bark he saw the masks of men.
   His eyes were fixed and fascinated by the simulacra of the wood ...
   the wood was alive. (87)

I would like to put pressure on the most important word in this passage: 'alive.' Machen does not mean that the wood is alive in the prosaic sense that science would declare it to be so, that is, consisting of organisms displaying metabolism, growth, reproduction, sensation, and so forth--all the cookbook characteristics of life. Given the literal anthropomorphizing of the wood, Machen suggests the possibility that the wood is alive because it is imbued with the same vital force as human beings. It stands to reason that this force would be immanent to all life. The double meaning of 'wood' suggests the extension of this indwelling creative power into the dead wood of the blasted trees, making both basic biochemical substances and raw matter alive. Consequently The Hill of Dreams contains a current of vitalism that, in the words of Evelyn Underhill, 'is materialism inside out: for here what we call the universe is presented as an expression of life, not life as an expression or by-product of the universe.' (20) This vitalism is contrapuntal to the physicalist interpretation of fungal life in which organisms are not alive insomuch as undead.

After these fantastic visions, Lucian falls sleep, and in his dreams is visited by a faun. In Roman mythology, Faunus is equivalent to the Greek god Pan. As vitalism resembles a sort of Pantheism that posits the cosmic life's identity with the universe, Pan or Faunus is a nature spirit animating all of creation. Thus the faun expresses the truth of the vital force in a mythological and divine register. At this point, we must ask some questions that bear on the viability of the novel's two competing paradigms of life. Are Lucian's dreams and visions real? If so, how are they real? In the sense that there really is a faun, or that they intuit the vital force of which the faun is only the outward symbol? Affirmations of these questions produce mystical and vitalist readings, respectively, of the text. There are many grounds, however, on which to negate such affirmations. Perhaps the notion that pure life is revealed to Lucian in the guise of the Faun posits that vitalism, despite its philosophical lineaments, is at core no different from the superannuated religious beliefs and mythologies from which Faunus is drawn. This reading corroborates the bildungsroman's progressive physicalism and Lucian's renunciations of his childhood fantasies and visions. Moreover, much of the horror of the novel springs from the reduction of Lucian's life to its sheer materiality--to the point of leaving him a corpse--and in way that reveals all of his thoughts, dreams, literary work, and selfhood to literally be nothing. In his death spasms, Lucian considers that '[a]ll his life ... had been an evil dream, and for the common world he had fashioned an unreal red garment, that burned in his eyes' (233). The vital fire suffusing the first half of the novel dwindles to a simulacrum of a flame compassed by the cold eye of a dead man.

It would be easy to argue that The Hill of Dreams does not attempt to resolve the philosophical quandary of life. At the conclusion of the novel, the vital flame that bathed nature during the account of Lucian's childhood comes to rest in his eye: '[t]he flaring light shone through the dead eyes into the dying brain, and there was a glow within, as if great furnace doors were opened' (236). A vitalist reading of this quotation might hold that the 'glow within' suggests some sort of indwelling life-force or transcendent spiritual life, which is made all the more evident--and miraculous--precisely because it manifests itself in Lucian's outwardly lifeless body. A vitalist reading might also suggest that Machen's placement of the fire in Lucian's eye indicates the truth of his youthful subjective visions, in which he saw metaphysical forces inhabiting nature. Quite to the contrary, a materialist reading would have it that the 'vital' flame is merely a reflection, playing across the glassy surface of Lucian's dead eye, of the meager lamplight put before his corpse. This interpretation would deflate Lucian's subjective visions, denouncing them once and for all, with the finality of his death, as mere illusions. If there is any sort of 'vital' flame in Lucian's eye, so goes the materialist reading, it is the sputtering remainder of his life which is burning low, about to be totally extinguished in the eternal darkness of death. Rather than argue that Machen's novel could make no other intervention into the debate between vitalism and materialism than to declare it un-decidable, I would like to give the author more credit than that, and take seriously the idea that the catastrophe for life hinted at by fungal materialism necessitates a more sophisticated response, one more complicated than merely positing the impossibility of a decision between the two paradigms of life. Certainly, Machen believes life to be a mystery--one that is by turns both fantastic and horrifying, as the bipartite novel would indicate--but the apparent un-decidability here should be read not as the impossibility of deciding between vitalism or materialism, but rather that life's strangeness and richness exceeds that which these possibilities allow for. Put differently, I want to suggest that life is 'sinful' in a way similar to how Vincent Starrett describes it in his essay on Machen:
   [Machen's] books exhale all evil and all corruption; yet they are
   as pure as the fabled waters of that crystal spring De Leon sought.
   They are pervaded by an ever-present, intoxicating sense of sin,
   ravishingly beautiful, furiously Pagan, frantically lovely; but
   Machen is a finer and truer mystic than the two-penny occultists
   who guide modern spiritualistic thought ... I am speaking of sin as
   an offense against the nature of things, and of evil in the soul,
   which has very little to do with the sins of the statute book. Sin
   ... is conceivable in the talking of animals. If a chair should
   walk across a room, that would be sinful, or if a tree sat down
   with us to afternoon tea. The savage who worships a conjurer is a
   far finer moralist than the civilize who suspects him--and I use
   the name moralist for one who has an appreciation of sin. (21)

Starrett's comments allow us to see how Machen defines sin: as a transgression against the normal order of things, a metaphysical paradox that assails our notions of reality and plunges us into the fantastic. Starrett cites examples of anthropomorphized animals and objects, and in these figures of animated materials, we can glimpse how life itself, conceived of as a disturbing vitalization of raw matter, can be considered 'sinful' or supernatural in the sense that Machen uses the term. With Starrett's passage in mind, we can appreciate one of the most profound horrors The Hill of Dreams has to offer us: its investigation of biological life insinuates that it is a thing that should not be. The story's essential weirdness inheres in how it takes the mundane fact of organismic life and transforms it into a figuration of the starkest supernatural horror, of being 'dead-alive,' which is evident in Machen's treatment of mycological life. Following Eugene Thacker, we might say that the fungus, in all its putrescent vigor, is an exemplar of 'blasphemous life,' a life that is so repugnantly contradictory in its mode of existing that it should not be living at all. (22) Thacker crucially adds that '[t]his contradiction is not a contradiction in terms of medical science; the blasphemous life can often be scientifically explained and yet remain utterly incomprehensible' (104). This comment bespeaks a quintessential gesture of Weird fiction and indicates the genre's relationship to philosophical thought. To elaborate on the former, the Weird presents nature as preeminently unnatural, as rived with 'supernatural' phenomena such that the occult and the scientific not only exist in a continuum, but inquiries undertaken in one field can lead directly into the precincts of the other. Michel Houellebecq incisively illustrates this point when he asks,
   [w]hat is Great Cthulhu? An arrangement of electrons, like us.
   Lovecraft's terror is rigorously material. But, it is quite
   possible, given the free interplay of cosmic forces, that Great
   Cthulhu possesses abilities and powers to act that far exceed ours.
   Which, a priori, is not particularly reassuring at all.' (23)

As for the latter, the Weird often pursues the vector of scientific inquiry far beyond its rationally-circumscribed, epistemological limits by speculating about metaphysical forces that are recalcitrant to being directly or absolutely known, and that underlie scientifically intelligible phenomena and objects.

To return to Machen's novel, the fungoid corrodes the notion of life at its root, problematizing it by recasting it as undead animation. Thus life is not what lives so much as what remains, a fact evinced by the deteriorating, decadent life-forms that shelter among the ruins of the fortress at Isca Silurum; the species of rare Roman nettle that Lucian finds there, called urtica pilulifera, that is the living remainder of a dead civilization (87); and finally Lucian himself, who is possessed of, and by, an ancient Roman soul named Avallaunius (147). If anything, in a novel so willing to dwell with and in death, it is life itself that ironically seems to be the spectral revenant that haunts the tale, pressing us with proofs of its existence--such as the experiences, thoughts, and memories of Lucian--immaterial though these may be. If life is but the persistence of the dead, then it bespeaks the emptiness of vitality. This nothingness at the heart of life recalls Thacker's theorization of 'Dark Pantheism' in After Life (2010), which he calls 'the thought of the conjunction of immanence and life, under the sign of the negative. And the question this poses would be, quite simply: does life = generosity = nihil?' (24) Dark pantheism dissolves the vital force within the void, and so life can be generous--that is, immanent to everything--through its very inexistence. This idea stems from the works of Eriugena, Pseudo-Dionysius, and Nicholas of Cusa--thinkers that Machen, given his occult and mystical interests, would likely have been familiar with.

Here, however, I am not arguing that Machen was a card-carrying Dark Pantheist, nor that such a complicated novel could be reduced to an unambiguous endorsement of this or that philosophy (with the exception, perhaps, of Machen's own). Rather, I cite Dark Pantheism because it demonstrates a tendency in the history of philosophical thought to dispense with the concept of life altogether --and 'tendency' may be a far too dispassionate way to put it. Dark Pantheism's courting of the void, and the manner in which it weds nothingness to vitality, betrays not so much suspicion as an unremitting pessimism towards life. In the wake of life's negation, however, Machen--unlike the good Dark Pantheist--seems less interested in tarrying with nothingness than he does with exploring the ramifications that follow from the liquidation of life. To wit, considering that life and human experience are commonly taken as grounds for the existence of some reality, if our lives amount to nothing, then we are immersed in the unreal. This notion is implicit in fungal life, which in revealing biological life to be unreal, also suggests that life in the sense of subjective lived experience is equally as unreal. It is this horrifying possibility of being steeped in phantasmal unreality that The Hill of Dreams poses to the reader, rather than just being a narrative of Lucian's progressing insanity. Hence Lucian's lament that '[a]ll his life ... had been an evil dream, and for the common world he had fashioned an unreal red garment, that burned in his eyes' (233). Accordingly, Machen's novel might be read as an antirealist, idealist work of horror in the sense that Thomas Ligotti describes it in his collection of notes and aphorisms, 'We Can Hide from Horror Only in the Heart of Horror' (1994). The 'ideal horror tale' crafts
   a thoroughly symbolic universe, its every aspect contemplated and
   expressed in the Symbolist manner, portraying the horrific essence
   of things and creating with the greatest possible intensity the
   dream-sense of the world's horror ... [the] [b]ehavior of
   characters always betrays their lurid knowingness anent the
   nightmarish nature of their world ... [the] [w]aking world requires
   a superficial sense of cause and effect, which occultism provides;
   dreams, the true occult realm, need no such ersatz rationalism,
   only the sensation of revelations that feel horribly true ... [the]
   [w]orld [is] populated exclusively by vile creatures like Aubrey
   Beardsley's ideally grotesque world. (25)

The 'ideal horror tale' exchanges the tangible certitudes of stable reality for the fluid, metamorphic unrealities of nightmares, fantasies, and hallucinations. The nature of the cosmos in the 'ideal' tale of horror is 'nightmarish' in the most exacting sense of the term; more than just superlatively malignant, it is cruelly capricious, utterly inscrutable, and as imaginatively perverse as the hermetically sealed fever-visions of the most brain-sick Symbolist mind. To ignore the novel's questioning of reality and the stakes attendant upon it, and to read The Hill of Dreams as nothing more than an account of a man's descent into madness, induced by a degenerate genetic inheritance from Roman ancestors or decadent experimentation with psychotropic drugs, would be interpretations just as vulgar as that which reduces the novel to a programmatic statement of whatever philosophy.

In contrast to, say, Lovecraft's later works, which wrest from the deep time and space of the cosmos a realist, naturalistic system of thought, the merits of The Hill of Dreams are to be found less in some coherent worldview or theory of life than in the web of tensions it creates between the sacred and the horrible; the physical and the spiritual; mind and body; reality and unreality; agony and ecstasy; life and death; and the plenitude of the phenomenal life-world and the desolation of existential horror. In the novel, one member of each of these couplets alternately haunts its counterpart, making the novel into series of ordeals and ecstasies that adumbrate a true picaresque of the soul. Seeking out the shadow-spaces between immanence and transcendence, the novel finds there both proof of the human spirit and a chilling lack thereof. In his influential study The Weird Tale (1990), S. T. Joshi observes that Machen's 'whole work is inspired by one idea and one only: the awesome and utterly unfathomable mystery of the universe.' (26) He then cites a crucial passage from Machen's Beneath the Barley (1931) that illuminates the author's conception of literary aesthetics:
   [f]or literature, as I see it, is the art of describing the
   indescribable; the art of exhibiting symbols which may hint at the
   ineffable mysteries behind them; the art of the veil, which reveals
   as it conceals. (13)

Similarly, Machen's literary-theoretical treatise, Hieroglyphics (1902), asserts that '[m]an is a sacrament, soul manifested under the form of body, and art has to deal with each and both and to show their interaction and interdependence.' (27) The aesthetic effect of such literature is to produce 'ecstasy', which Machen describes in the aforementioned work as
   rapture, beauty, adoration, wonder, awe, mystery, sense of the
   unknown ... In every case there will be that withdrawal from the
   common life and the common consciousness which justifies my choice
   of 'ecstasy' as the best symbol of my meaning. (28)

Joshi contends that these characteristic ideas of ecstasy, the veil, and the sacrament are 'sufficient to unlock the mysteries of Machen's entire output' (14). I close this paper by briefly suggesting how my reading of The Hill of Dreams complicates these ideas, which in Machen studies have become a bit too familiar for their own good, by questioning both their metaphysical implications and their status as interpretive keys. As Joshi points out, in much of Machen's oeuvre, sacrament, ecstasy, and veil are figurations of cosmic mystery that gesture toward a transcendent reality. Often religious in nature, this reality implies that horror is but one visage of a Janus-faced God, or the expression of overwhelming intensity --indeed trauma--that the face of the divine inspires when it is beheld by human eyes. This is the horror of the rent or diaphanous veil. While sacrament, ecstasy, and veil are prominent in The Hill of Dreams, I argue that they do not work to generate horror in the straightforward, schematic way that they are laid out to do in much Machen criticism, as well as in the author's own literary-theoretical works. Rather, I argue that they create horror insofar as they are themselves called into question by the events of the tale, such that the higher realities that they are supposed to represent are jeopardized, threatened to be exposed as no more than the most hollow and desperate of human dreams. Thus Lucian's vision of the faun may be one of those vivid dreams of adolescence (or, given its sexually-charged oneirism, the first subconscious stirrings of eros); his wanderings in the Garden of Avallaunius, in which he defies time to explore antique civilizations and converse with Roman aristocrats, just flights of imagination; his whole account of life in London, and all its failures and triumphs, the delusions of a drugged and damaged brain; and the Pentecostal tongue of flame in his eye not a soul, but a life disappearing into the night forever. The bildungsroman harnesses the agon between these possibilities to teach painful lessons, to expose the ecstatic realities behind the veil and the sacrament to darkness and debasement, just as human beings, from Machen's perspective, seemed to be one part soul and the other part slime: divine filth akin to the grotesqueries of the haunted ecosystem at Isca Silurum, or the degraded witches' sabbath in London. Of course, it is only in exposing the figures of sacrament, veil, and ecstasy to jeopardy and emptiness that they have any meaning whatsoever, and can persist as genuine spiritual mysteries. Only under the condition of their possible nullity can they truly be believed in. Thus The Hill of Dreams not only rigorously questions physical realities, but also contests metaphysical ones. This explains why the novel is not explicitly supernatural, as the unequivocal manifestation of extraordinary beings or events--as in The Great God Pan--would entail transcendent realities. In the novel, every appearance of a faun or a witch is suspect. By dint of this approach, Machen probably horrified his religiously-inclined readers even more so than if he had treated them to a work that was conventionally supernatural. Yet there is more at stake here than just a weird horror writer's desire to unsettle his readership. For Machen, great mystic and staunch Anglican, his semi-autobiographical novel was to be a record of his own spiritual agon, with all of its ordeals, ecstasies, and wild terrors.

In the end, it seems that the only thing that we can deem real in The Hill of Dreams is horror itself. Ligotti contends that the one thing we know that is real is horror:
   [i]t is so real, in fact, that we cannot be sure it could not exist
   without us. Yes, it needs our imaginations and our consciousness,
   but it does not require our consent to use them. Indeed, horror
   operates with complete autonomy. Generating ontological havoc, it
   is mephitic foam upon which our lives merely float. And, all said,
   we must face up to it: horror is more real than we are. (29)

Less about the horror of reality than the reality of horror, Machen's exquisite The Hill of Dreams is in at least in one respect like the reams of hieroglyphics found in Lucian's apartment after his death: it is all fevered dreams, and fire in our eyes.

Anthony Camara

University of California, Los Angeles

Address for correspondence

Anthony Camara, Department of English, University of California, Los Angeles, CA 90095. Email:


(1) See H. P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature (New York: Dover, 1973). Here, Lovecraft has the following to say about Machen's novel and career: 'Mr Machen, a general man of letters and master of an exquisitely lyrical and expressive prose style, has perhaps put more conscious effort into his picaresque Chronicles of Clemendy, his refreshing essays, his vivid autobiographical volumes, his fresh and spirited translations, and above all his memorable epic of the sensitive aesthetic mind, The Hill of Dreams, in which the youthful hero responds to the magic of that ancient Welsh environment which is the author's own, and lives a dream-life in the Roman city of Isca Silurum, now shrunk to the relic-strewn village of Caerleon-on-Usk. But the fact remains that his powerful horror-material of the nineties and earlier nineteen-hundreds stands alone in its class, and marks a distinct epoch in the history of this literary form' (88).

(2) Kelly Hurley, The Gothic Body (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 56.

(3) See R. T. & F. W. Rolfe, The Romance of the Fungus World (New York: Dover Publications Inc., 1974) for a thorough discussion of the history of fungi in mythology, folklore, and literature. In addition to outlining this cultural history, the authors detail various aspects of mycological anatomy, physiology, and ecology, and offer a wealth of miscellanea pertaining to fungal life.

(4) This interest is evident in the scientific romances of H. G. Wells. See his short story 'The Purple Pileus' (1896), which details the effects of psychoactive mushrooms, and his novel The First Men in the Moon (1900), which includes a description of a rapidly-growing lunar jungle of fungi. The Weird fiction of the twentieth century evinces the persistence, if not intensification, of this fascination with fungal life. William Hope Hodgson's short story 'The Voice in the Night' (1907) narrates the grotesque becoming-fungus of a man and his fiancee, while his novel The Boats of the 'Glen Carrig' (1907), an episodic tale of high-seas adventure written in an archaic style, features encounters with killer mushrooms and fungi grown into hideous simulacra of trees with human faces. Appearing later in the century, H. P. Lovecraft's short story 'The Whisperer in Darkness' (1931) suggests the evil designs of a race of fungoid aliens called the Mi-Go, and 'The Shunned House' (1937) narrates a descent into a habitation infested with a malicious mycological specimen. Notably, Lovecraft's sonnet cycle is titled Fungi from Yuggoth (1943). The fungus seems to vie for popularity with the cephalopod as the preferred natural-supernatural menace among practitioners of Weird fiction, a genre in which Machen deserves recognition as both a pioneer and master.

(5) A recent, notable exception is Ben Woodard's Slime Dynamics (Winchester: Zero Books, 2012), which investigates the philosophical implications of fungal life and its various representations in Weird horror fiction. Woodard is particularly interested in drawing out the problematic ontological ramifications of fungal life as a materialized process that binds generation to decomposition, making putrefaction creative. 'The fungal', he writes, 'as the spatial extension of unified production and decay is ultimately troublesome as it appears as a corrupting production' (36).

(6) See William Greenslade, Degeneration, Culture and the Novel 1880-1940 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994) and Susan Navarette, The Shape of Fear (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1998). All subsequent references are to these editions. Page numbers will follow in parentheses in the body of the text.

(7) Mark Valentine, Arthur Machen (Bridgend: WBC Book Manufacturers, 1995) p. 7. All subsequent references are to this edition. Page numbers follow in parentheses in the body of the text. John Powell Ward indicates the value of Valentine's biography of Machen as well as a revival of interest in the author's work when he states that '[s]ome of our society's current preoccupations--fin de siecle, green landscapes and horror suggest that we need Machen back again' (147).

(8) Arthur Machen, The Autobiography of Arthur Machen (London: The Richards Press, 1951) p. 18. The first part of Machen's autobiography, Far Off Things, was published in 1922, while the second part, Things Near and Far, appeared a year later.

(9) Valentine, Arthur Machen, p. 9.

(10) Valentine, Arthur Machen, p. 10.

(11) Valentine, Arthur Machen, p. 14.

(12) Machen did extensive work as a translator. In addition to The Heptameron, he translated The Memoirs of Jacques Casanova and Le Moyen de Parvenir by Beroalde de Verville.

(13) Quoted in Valentine, Arthur Machen, p. 25. Machen distanced himself from Aestheticism and Decadence, although many of his fictions are clearly indebted to these movements. Valentine notes that in The Hill of Dreams 'Machen allies himself with the Decadents by wickedly parodying a typical society reviewer, who fulminates against "the abandoned artist and the scrofulous stylist", preferring "a faithful reproduction of the open and manly life" ... Though he [Machen] had no time for the emblems of the movement, "peacocks and lilies and sunflowers" as he summarized them, there is no doubt that his imagination was imbued with the themes associated with the Decadents, implying a deeper familiarity than he ever admitted' (23).

(14) Arthur Machen, The Hill of Dreams (New York: Dover Publications Inc., 2006) p. 84. All subsequent references are to this edition. Page numbers will follow in parentheses in the body of the text.

(15) Rolfe, The Romance of the Fungus World, p. 258.

(16) Rolfe, The Romance of the Fungus World, p. 259.

(17) Navarette, The Shape of Fear, p. 182.

(18) Navarette, The Shape of Fear, p. 182.

(19) Rolfe, The Romance of the Fungus World, p. 42.

(20) Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism (New York: Penguin Books, 1974) p. 27.

(21) Vincent Starrett, Arthur Machen: A Novelist of Ecstasy and Sin (Chicago: Walter M. Hill, 1918), pp. 13-5.

(22) Eugene Thacker, In The Dust of This Planet (Winchester: Zero Books, 2011) p. 104. All subsequent references are to this edition. Page numbers will follow in parentheses in the body of the text.

(23) Michel Houellebecq, H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life (San Francisco:

Believer Books, 2005) p. 32.

(24) Eugene Thacker, After Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010) p. 234.

(25) Thomas Ligotti, 'We Can Hide from Horror Only in the Heart of Horror: Notes and Aphorisms', originally in Das Schwarze Geheimnis, ed. Marco Frenschkowski (No. 1, 1994), available online at horror_e.htm, accessed 18 March 2014.

(26) S. T. Joshi, The Weird Tale (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990), p. 13. All subsequent references are to this edition. Page numbers will follow in parentheses in the body of the text.

(27) Quoted in Joshi, The Weird Tale, p. 14.

(28) Quoted in Joshi, The Weird Tale, p. 13.

(29) Thomas Ligotti, "Professor Nobody's Little Lectures on Supernatural Horror," Songs of a Dead Dreamer (Burton, MI: Subterranean Press, 2010), p. 211.

Notes on contributor

Anthony Camara is a lecturer in the Department of English at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). His research focuses on intersections between science and literature in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century, with a special emphasis on the genre known as Weird Fiction. His work has appeared in the refereed journals Women's Writing, Horror Studies, and O-Zone. His current book project investigates how seminal Weird fictions converse with the materialistic science and philosophy prevalent at the fin de siecle.
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Author:Camara, Anthony
Publication:Gothic Studies
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:May 1, 2014
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