Two Gothic Horrors: Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan (1894) & Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872)

Arthur Machen – The Great God Pan (1894)

This novella is one of the foundational texts of the modern fantasy horror genre and weird literature. It influenced and has been praised by many authors, from Bram Stoker to Lovecraft to Stephen King, but at the time it wasn’t received with much enthusiasm and for a while actually hurt the reputation of Welsh author Arthur Machen. The reason for that was some implied sexual stuff, such as supernatural sex changes, androgyny, orgies and more. Strange that its standing has changed so much over time, but that can happen with disruptive novels.

The story starts with a Mad Scientist figure, Dr. Raymond, who has devised a neurosurgery procedure that with a quick cut in the brain would allow a patient to see beyond the veil of our world and observe directly the supernatural. Dr. Raymond tests his procedure on a docile foundling girl, but when she wakes up, she screams in horror and becomes a mental vegetable. And, in the act, something may have crossed the boundary from that supernatural place back to ours. You can see the influence Machen had on writers like Lovecraft. The narrative then turns into a detective story as Dr. Raymond’s friend Clarke is on the hunt for a woman, Helen V., who leaves a trail of missing, dead or catatonic people behind her. It may be connected to Dr. Raymond’s experiment…

Machen wastes no time getting to the supernatural elements of the story. There is a large number of incidents in the story, which makes for an exciting read. It can be analysed on multiple levels. One way is to look at all the references to Greek and Roman mythology, because the story is full of depictions of fauns, which Machen equates to devils, and it is interesting to note that Machen was enamoured with the Roman ruins in Wales where he grew up. Note that Helen is a Greek name, and as a character she carries both Welsh identity and Paganism inside her, and that sort of mirrored how Machen felt about himself. Another interpretation is that the story is about male fear for female sexuality. Helen, carrying the god Pan in her, is like Lucy from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, who became very promiscuous after turning into a vampire.

I liked this story quite a bit. Except for that the second half starts to drag a bit, and it concludes in a chapter called “fragments” which indeed gives us a fragmented ending where I felt that Machen could have given us something more exciting. 

Sheridan Le Fanu – Carmilla (1872)

This book is famous for being The Vampire Book Before Dracula. Written 20 years before and having quite some similarities to Bram Stoker’s more famous novel, it had been a great source of inspiration for him. And for modern readers it is interesting to see the old vampire tropes finding their way in Gothic literature. Like in Dracula, Le Fanu’s Carmilla sees in vampirism an allegory for sexuality. Most notably the kind of love that was frowned upon. The vampire in question is an attractive lady, and she preys upon a young noblewoman living in a castle in the dark woods of Austria. The haunting takes the form of a romantic lesbian attraction.

I said preys, but the feeling is mutual between the vampiric girl and the lady; love at first bite. Le Fanu is never explicit about any sexual act, but romantic and sexual tension is in the air from the moment the two meet. Make no mistake: this is still meant to be a horror story. Carmilla the vampire is possessive, and the lady feels attraction and revulsion both. Meanwhile there are messages of girls from all over the region falling ill. Interestingly, the story is dominated by a group of female characters, including maids and a governess, while the few males are rather ineffectual, something you don’t often see in Victorian age novels.

These old gothic novels have a way of spelling everything out so that every reader knows what is happening, except for the characters who just can’t see what’s in front of them. It happened in The Great God Pan and here as well. Who could know that the girls Carmilla, Millarca and Mircalla are the same person? The ambiguity and enigma is part of the fun, as is spotting all the hints that there is a vampire loose. The vampire has similar magic powers to Dracula, and there is a Van Helsing character making a brief appearance at the end.

I liked this more than Dracula. It has a tight narrative and plays fun games with the mystery of the vampire.

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16 Responses to Two Gothic Horrors: Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan (1894) & Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872)

  1. Bookstooge says:

    Given Machen’s influence on the King in Yellow mythology, at some point I’ll read him. I’m in no rush though.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I never heard of The King in Yellow. Thanks for bringing it to my attention! Those stories sound intriguing.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Bookstooge says:

        If you like cosmic horror, the KiY will definitely be up your alley.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Paul Connelly says:

        The fantastic or horror related stories by Chambers are such a small part of his total oeuvre that it’s ironic he’s remembered for those. Even in the often reprinted collection, The King in Yellow, half the stories have no fantastic content and are about young American expats bumbling about in Europe, trying to be artists or other species of decadent. I gather that he has several other fantastic stories that aren’t in that collection, which I haven’t found yet.

        In the collection, the stories that are definitely fantastic are “The Mask”, “The Court of the Dragon”, “The Yellow Sign”, “The Demoiselle D’Ys”, and “The Repairer of Reputations” (which I really wonder if Nabokov was exposed to before writing Pale Fire). All of those but “The Demoiselle D’Ys” are part of the same King in Yellow mythos. “The Street of the Four Winds” seems reminiscent of Poe, while “The Prophets’ Paradise” is more like Stephen Crane (Crane’s The Black Riders collection was published the same year).


  2. Ola G says:

    I see you’ve dug up some treasures in your archeological adventures, Jeroen! I’m quite tempted to read both of these, as they promise to be short and venerably entertaining 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Dawie says:

    Man i saw the movie Pan a few years back and i was disgusted and intrigued at the same time. That stuff is not what a kid should watch late at night. As for Varmilla, milou and I had the audio book read too us while building a puzzle a few halloweens ago, the voice actors over sexualized the talking parts so much i nearly dnfed the thing😂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Alex Good says:

    Haven’t read The Great God Pan in years but I seem to remember liking the fragmented and abrupt ending even while it was a bit frustrating. I thought it left more to the imagination about what was going on, and sort of underlined that a mortal couldn’t understand or perceive the full picture anyway. But I might be wrong. Been looking forward to reading it again sometime.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, it was certainly different. I had no trouble understanding what was going on, but I think it would have been more exciting if we had followed the men entering the house and confronting Helen. I read that the author had a lot of trouble with ending the story and that it took him a long time to come up with something.


  5. Having not too long ago read The King in Yellow, I’m definitely curious about the first book now. And that second one sounds pretty good too. I wasn’t a huuuuge fan of Dracula when I read it last year but you mentioning that you liked this more makes me want to give it a shot too.


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