The Great God Pan” one of the characters has this to say about the things he has experienced:
Villiers mused curiously over the story he had heard, and wondered
whether he had heard both the first and the last of it. “No,” he thought,
“certainly not the last, probably only the beginning. A case like this is
like a nest of Chinese boxes; you open one after the other and find a
quainter workmanship in every box. Most likely poor Herbert is merely
one of the outside boxes; there are stranger ones to follow.”
This is essentially the conceit of a truly fascinating story whose only modern parallel seems to be Ghost Story by Peter Straub. It’s a series of seemingly unrelated chapters that halfway through begin to coalesce around a particular woman described in this way: “Everyone who saw her at the police court said she was at once the most beautiful woman and the most repulsive they had ever set eyes on. I have spoken to a man who saw her, and I assure you he positively shuddered as he tried to describe the woman, but he couldn’t tell why. She seems to have been a sort of enigma.” The woman also seems to be the cause of death and carnage wherever she goes, and yet is as elusive as a ghost.
The story opens on the observations of a Mr. Clarke who is in the process of witnessing an operation to be performed by a Dr. Raymond. But this is not a medically sanctioned procedure. Raymond believes he has uncovered the secret to the existence of other dimensions that the human mind cannot comprehend in its present state. “You may think this all strange nonsense; it may be strange, but it is true, and the ancients knew what lifting the veil means. They called it seeing the great god Pan.” By altering the brain slightly he believes that he can allow humans to experience these other dimensions. “The present day men of science are unable to account for the presence, or to specify the functions of a certain group of nerve-cells in the brain . . . I can set free the current, with a touch I can complete the communication between this world of sense and a spirit-world.” The subject for this experiment is an orphan girl named Mary whom Raymond saved from poverty when she was a child. As Raymond prepares his operatory, Clarke waits in a chair and begins dreaming of a walk in the woods he had taken as a child, only this time with disturbing results. “For a moment in time he stood face to face there with a presence, that was neither man nor beast, neither the living nor the dead, but all things mingled, the form of all things but devoid of all form.” Finally Raymond brings the girl in to perform the operation, but Clarke is a little too squeamish to look directly at the surgical field. When she wakes up afterward it is clear things have not gone according to plan.
The muscles of her face were hideously convulsed, she shook from her head to foot; the soul
seemed struggling and shuddering within the house of flesh. It was a horrible sight, and Clarke
rushed forward, as she fell shrieking to the floor . . . Three days later Raymond took Clarke to
Mary’s bedside . . . “Yes,” said the doctor, still quite cool, “it is a great pity; she is a hopeless idiot.
However, it could not be helped; and, after all, she has seen the Great God Pan.”
The second chapter moves to Clarke at home. It soon becomes clear that his experience with Dr. Raymond is one of many that the man seeks out to satisfy his curiosity about unexplained phenomena in the world. “The horrors that he had witnessed in the dreary laboratory were to a certain extent salutary . . . Clarke had a fine contempt for published literature; the most ghostly story ceased to interest him if it happened to be printed; his sole pleasure was in the reading, compiling, and rearranging what he called his “Memoirs to prove the Existence of the Devil.” One of his manuscripts, given to him by a Dr. Phillips, concerns a young girl named Helen who was placed by her adopted father in a rural house in which to grow up. He paid the family plenty of money and left strict instructions to allow her to do whatever she wanted. Most of Helen’s days were spent wandering in the woods from sunup until dusk. The only clue to what she did out there came from a small boy who happened on her one day. He saw her playing with a “strange naked man” and became a frightened and fearful boy from that day on. It was only later, in the house of a gentleman his father was doing work for, that “they were both horrified by a piercing shriek and the sound of a fall, and rushing out they found the child lying senseless on the floor, his face contorted with terror.” It turns out the boy had seen a stone gargoyle that was believed to be in the form of a satyr, the implication being this was the strange man he had seen Helen with.
Helen’s story continues when she befriends another girl named Rachel, and the younger girl begins accompanying Helen on her nature walks.
“One evening, however, after Rachel had come home, her mother heard a noise which sounded
like suppressed weeping in the girl’s room, and on going in found her lying, half undressed, upon
the bed, evidently in the greatest distress. As soon as she saw her mother, she exclaimed, “Ah,
mother, mother, why did you let me go to the forest with Helen?” Mrs. M. was astonished at so
strange a question, and proceeded to make inquiries. Rachel told her a wild story. She said--"
Clarke closed the book with a snap . . .
At this point Clarke remembers Phillips telling him the rest of the story, so horrified at what happened that he couldn’t believe it. “‘My God!’ he had exclaimed, ‘think, think what you are saying. It is too incredible, too monstrous; such things can never be . . . There must be some explanation, some way out of the terror. Why, man, if such a case were possible, our earth would be a nightmare.’” This is a technique Lovecraft would use later, allowing the reader’s imagination to run wild, a force more powerful than anything Machen could have written down. Though he does end the chapter with Clarke writing in Latin: “And the Devil was made incarnate and was made into man.”
The third chapter concerns a Mr. Villiers who enjoyed walking through London’s more interesting neighborhoods at night. One evening when a beggar comes up to him he recognizes the man as gentleman he had gone to school with, a Mr. Herbert. After taking him home and feeding him Herbert begins to recount the story of his downfall, which began with his marriage to a woman named Helen. “The night of the wedding I found myself sitting in her bedroom in the hotel . . . I listened to her as she spoke in her beautiful voice, spoke of things which even now I would not dare whisper in the blackest night, though I stood in the midst of a wilderness . . . I have seen the incredible, such horrors that even I myself sometimes stop in the middle of the street and ask whether it is possible for a man to behold such things and live.” Apparently Herbert sold his entire estate, and Helen took the money and left him destitute. Later, Villiers meets another gentleman, Mr. Austin, and he is told the story of Herbert’s former house in London while he was married to Helen. A man was found dead in the front yard and even the doctors couldn’t determine a cause of death. When Austin confronted one of the doctors later, the physician had this to say: “I know perfectly well what caused death. Blank died of fright, of sheer, awful terror; I never saw features so hideously contorted in the entire course of my practice, and I have seen the faces of a whole host of dead.”
Chapter Four then returns to Mr. Clarke who is visited one night by Mr. Villiers, who tells him the story of his old schoolmate, Herbert. Clarke, however, has no idea that he was married to the same Helen that was in the story told to him by Phillips. It turns out that Herbert was found dead recently, starved to death in his room. Villiers had gone to Herbert’s former London home, which had remained empty since Herbert and Helen moved out, and discovered a drawing, which he hands to Clarke. After looking at the drawing, of a woman’s portrait, he experiences the same sensations as he had during the operation in Chapter One. Then he turns the picture over and finds the word “Helen” written on the back. While Villiers is intent upon finding the woman, Clarke has barely enough energy to usher him out of his house. In Chapter Five Villiers meets again with Austin, and shows him a letter he received from Clarke urging him to burn the portrait and cease his attempts to find Helen. As the two are walking they find themselves in front of the home of a wealthy widow named Mrs. Beaumont from South America. Austin’s rooming house is nearby and they go there. He tells Villiers about the death of an artist he knew, who died in Argentina, and left him a book of sketches. They turn out to be frightening images. “The figures of Fauns and Satyrs and Aegipans danced before his eyes, the darkness of the thicket, the dance on the mountain-top, the scenes by lonely shores, in green vineyards, by rocks and desert places, passed before him: a world before which the human soul seemed to shrink back and shudder.” And on the last page of the book is a portrait of Helen.
Chapter Six begins with the apparent suicide of one of the most happy and convivial gentlemen in all of London who had hanged himself, and with it a strong feeling by the reader that somehow Helen is responsible. In the coming weeks, three more men are found to have committed suicide in exactly the same manner, none of them with even the slightest possibility of an explanation. At this point it’s Austin who comes to see Villiers, curious about the man’s inquiries into the whereabouts of Mrs. Herbert. Clarke is apparently refusing to assist with the investigation, and since Villiers knew one of the men who killed themselves he hasn’t looked into things any further, except to believe she had gone abroad. When Austin tells about meeting Mrs. Beaumont, with whom the first victim had dined the night before, Villiers has the feeling that it might be Helen, though he doesn’t say it aloud. Then a paperboy comes up the street, and the news tells of a fifth hanging victim. Villiers, it turns out, had seen this man leaving the house of Mrs. Beaumont the night before, and ran away from him in horror. “I almost fainted as I looked. I knew I had looked into the eyes of a lost soul, Austin, the man’s outward form remained, but all hell was within it. Furious lust, and hate that was like fire, and the loss of all hope and horror that seemed to shriek aloud to the night . . . That man no longer belonged to this world; it was a devil’s face I looked upon.”
Three weeks later Austin returns to Villiers’ house in Chapter Seven and learns that he believes Mrs. Beaumont is actually Helen Herbert. Villiers claims he had no expectation of discovering Helen while searching into the past of Mrs. Beaumont, but nevertheless the two became one amidst his inquiries. For the reader, a shocking discovery happens when the origins of both women begin with her true identity, Mary Raymond, the girl that Clarke had seen operated on, who had evidently seen the great god Pan. His description of following Ms. Raymond / Mrs. Herbert has a distinct resemblance to Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, especially when he follows her to the house of Mrs. Beaumont and she goes inside. Villiers recounts going to see Clarke and receiving a manuscript of a man who escaped the Beaumont house with his life and little else. As Austin glances at the text he quickly says, “Take it away, Villiers, never speak of this again. Are you made of stone, man? Why, the dread and horror of death itself, the thoughts of the man who stands in the keen morning air on the black platform, bound, the bell tolling in his ears, and waits for the harsh rattle of the bolt, are as nothing compared to this. I will not read it; I should never sleep again.” Villiers’ plan is to confront Helen with Clarke, give her a piece of rope and tell her she has a choice before he calls the police. Austin gives Villiers one last piece of news before he goes. The woman his artist friend was seeing in Argentina before he died was Helen.
The final chapter begins with a fragment of text that, again, like Lovecraft enjoyed doing, could only hint at in words what the writer had experienced with his eyes. The story is from a Dr. Matheson, apparently describing a body he had been called in to look at.
I saw the form waver from sex to sex, dividing itself from itself, and then again reunited. Then I
saw the body descend to the beasts whence it ascended, and that which was on the heights go
down to the depths, even to the abyss of all being. The principle of life, which makes organism,
always remained, while the outward form changed . . . as a horrible and unspeakable shape,
neither man nor beast, was changed into human form, there came finally death
The fragment is part of a letter from Clarke to Dr. Raymond, telling about what he and Villiers had witnessed along with the doctor after Helen killed herself. Clarke goes on to wrap the story up by hinting at what Helen had done in the woods. But it’s the return letter from Raymond that provides the chilling conclusion, as he gives the true identity of Helen.
At the time it was published Machen managed to achieve accolades of sorts, with the general press severely criticizing the story as being too horrific and suggestively sexual, tantamount to a badge of honor for a writer of the macabre. Of course H.P. Lovecraft was a huge fan of the story, saying, “No one could begin to describe the cumulative suspense and ultimate horror with which every paragraph abounds.” But he was just as conscious of how far belief must be suspended in telling a story of this nature, much as he would have to do in his own work. “Melodrama is undeniably present, and coincidence is stretched to a length which appears absurd upon analysis; but in the malign witchery of the tale as a whole these trifles are forgotten, and the sensitive reader reaches the end with an appreciative shudder.” Ultimately it’s the structure here that is so compelling. It’s a lengthy story, but nothing is really superfluous. All of the pieces of the mystery gradually fall into place along the way, and the reader’s own calculations and predictions are used to fill in the rest of the tale.
There are a couple of unique aspects to the story, one being that the character of Helen is never really part of the plot, as such. That is because everything in the story is reported by someone else rather than having the reader experience it along with the narrator. Again, this is what connects the story to Peter Straub’s Ghost Story, for which Machen’s work must have been an inspiration. Straub used the idea of a woman who went after men and destroyed their lives, but took it across generations. He even had his protagonists sit around and tell ghost stories in their Chowder Society. Much has been written about Machen’s story but those detailed analyses tend to lose track of the point. Dr. Raymond created a portal for evil to come into this world when he operated on Mary, similar to what Lovecraft would write about his entire career. Part of Machen’s genius was to combine sex with the horrific, a perfect combination for Victorian readers. But the story is still impressive today in the way that it gradually unfolds its horrors for the reader. As such, “The Great God Pan” remains a classic for good reason.