Nearly a century before Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen trilogy and decades before H.P. Lovecraft’s Dunwich Horror and From Beyond there was Arthur Machen’s story The Great God Pan. Originally published in 1890 and then expanded by an anonymous author in 1894 this gothic horror tale was so far ahead of its time that it scandalized readers and reviewers of the era. Even though it came along earlier than Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula Machen’s great work dealt with such a brand of horror and with such adult themes that movies – silent and then early talkies – wouldn’t dare adapting it for the screen.
Thus denied the cinematic exposure that made names like Dracula, Frankenstein, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde household words The Great God Pan fell into undeserved obscurity, much like The King in Yellow by Robert W Chambers, a work reviewed previously here at Balladeer’s Blog.
Like so many of the best horror stories Machen’s tale begins with a mad scientist, in this case Dr Raymond, who invites his friend Mr Clarke to witness him perform an operation that represents the culmination of ten years of work in what Dr Raymond calls “transcendental medicine.” Clarke, one of those thrill-seekers in the seedier side of late 1800’s life that gothic fiction is so full of, partakes of the forbidden jollies inherent in observing this renegade operation. For his human guinea pig Dr Raymond calls upon Mary, a young former prostitute he saved from a drunken death in the gutter, and whose life the mad doctor therefore feels is his to do with as he pleases.
Raymond sedates Mary and then drills a hole in her head to begin the brain modification surgery he wanted Clarke to see. The not so good doctor’s theory is that the unused portion of the human brain can be stimulated in order to allow us to see those hidden elements of the world which surround us, but which are invisible to us because of our uncomprehending senses. In this particular case Raymond has altered Mary’s brain to enable her to see the half-man, half-goat pagan god Pan.
Anyone the least bit familiar with mythology will recall that Pan’s man-goat appearance and his association with “sinful” debauchery, etc was part of the reason Satan began to be depicted as part man and part goat, complete with horns, hooves and tail. No doubt if Machen could have gotten away with it in 1890 he would have just gone ahead and used Satan instead of a pagan substitute but even with a Devil surrogate The Great God Pan was roundly condemned for its supposed “indecency” and “blasphemous horror.”
To resume this recap, while Clarke and Dr Raymond look on, Mary “sees” Pan before her, and literally “panics” (since this god is the source of that word), and finds herself being sexually assaulted by that horrific entity, because being able to perceive him makes her immediately susceptible to attack from him. H.P. Lovecraft would use a similar “stimulation” concept in his story From Beyond and as for dark gods of the past mating with mortal women Lovecraft’s Dunwich Horror and other tales incorporated that idea. Even Stephen King credits Machen’s story for inspiring his own work, titled N.
Mary’s mind is permanently shattered and she does not long survive giving birth to the great god Pan’s child, a baby girl that Dr Raymond names Helen. Years later Raymond sends Helen off to live with distant relatives in another part of England, passing her off as his twelve year old adopted daughter. Helen, already noted for her beauty, brains and self-reliant ways also proves exceptionally strong and is fond of quiet time in the woods. Helen is thought to be alone in those wilderness sojourns until a little boy from the community sees her playing with a naked man-like creature on one occassion.
The boy is scared half to death by what he saw and takes to bed nearly comatose. By the time he is able to talk again and is making it clear what he saw Helen intervenes to ensure the boy is never able to talk again. A little girl named Rachel is friends with Helen and, as she is often proclaimed to be the prettier of the two, Helen arranges an unspeakable fate for her out of spiteful jealousy.
We next learn of Helen when she is nineteen and has been living in Italy for some time. She seduces and marries Mr Herbert, a visiting and wealthy Englishman. Part dominatrix and part standard femme fatale, Helen takes over her husband’s life, luring him into unholy rituals and exotic sex practices. Her luscious body has become, to borrow a phrase from Aleister Crowley, “both god and altar to god” for her enthralled husband. Eventually even taking the lives of others is just part of being with Helen, and when Mr Herbert’s soul is blackened with sins, his body ravaged by alcohol and drugs and of course when all of his money has been spent, Helen abandons him.
Mr Herbert becomes a drunken beggar and, while panhandling one night encounters Mr Villiers, an old chum from Oxford. He tells his old school pal about how he was reduced to his present state and Villiers, another Victorian age seeker of the forbidden side of the city, begins investigating Helen’s activities, the same as Mr Clarke from the beginning of the story has begun doing. Villiers is soon joined by another well-to- do thrill-seeker named Mr Austin (“seeker of forbidden thrills” was a thriving profession in the late 1800’s I guess) and the pair begin investigating the abandoned residence of Helen and one of her male conquests.
This abandoned lair of the sinister Helen and one of her long line of loved and dumped men is haunted by a menacing residue from the unholy acts that took place there and proves unrentable from then on. Even pictures of Helen when shown to witnesses induce fear in all those bystanders in her malevolent life. And so it goes as our heroes trail the sultry but destructive Helen and her shattered former lovers into higher and higher social and artistic circles in British society. Is Helen seeking, like her ancient namesake, to instigate a war between the world’s major powers?
At last when Mr Clarke meets Villiers and Austin they all compare notes from their research into Helen’s past and present. Her dark plans are obviously nearing fruition, and she is going through some of the most powerful men in England at an ever greater speed. Now when Helen is through with her men she influences them into committing ritual suicide so that Villiers and Austin can’t interrogate them about her activities.
Our heroes hatch a plot to end Helen’s unholy life and plan to confront her before any more lives are destroyed and then snuffed out. Throw in small nubs of horns under Helen’s hair like the three sixes under Damien’s hair and close with a grotesque and hellish death scene that must have REALLY turned the stomachs of readers in the 1890’s and enjoy! The Great God Pan is a truly pioneering work of horror fiction that any serious fan of the genre owes it to themselves to read.
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