Thursday, February 18, 2016

Guest Post: "Arthur Machen and Other Walkers" by Dale Nelson

The volume and depth and intensity of the world is something that only those on foot will ever experience” – Werner Herzog, in Herzog on Herzog, ed. by Paul Cronin

I recently read again my favorite story by Arthur Machen, "N."  It was written some time after the Great War, so several decades after the composition of his well-known horror stories.   It exhibits Machen the Londoner and writer of familiar essays. 
It begins with leisurely and delectable pages evoking a few old friends sitting snug around a fireplace with drinks at hand, while beyond the drawn curtains a cold, dry wind is at work in the dusty streets.  The men are at their ease as they reminisce about old eating-places, shops, and once-common prints of pictures – not of masterpieces but things such as a cheerful scene of medieval life, Landseer’s Bolton Abbey in Olden Times, or a portrait of a good-looking housemaid offering Sherry, Sir? 
Machen’s gentlemen are sedentary as the story begins, but their conversation is largely about things they saw when they went walking (a situation to be found in other Machen stories too).  Now one may cite Herzog again, who in his travels on foot found that “when people take note of how far you have walked, they start telling you stories they have bottled up for forty years.”  Thus one of Machen’s gentlemen confides the story of a country cousin’s strange experience while walking in the city.  One of the clues that Machen’s tale of perichoresis or visionary “interpenetration” provides is an imaginary book by a Victorian clergyman, the Rev. Mr. Thomas Hampole, A London Walk.  That book must have had, as it were, innumerable unwritten prequels and sequels thanks to countless other walkers.

I found myself wondering if Machen ever learned to drive.  My sense is that he did not.  I thought about the Inklings.  Tolkien was -- I gather, only for a short time -- a driver, and an erratic one.  C. S. Lewis, as I understand, tried to get a driver's license but didn't succeed.  So far as I know, Charles Williams didn't drive.  Conversely, all four were confirmed walkers, in town, country, or city, though they didn't shun rail travel at least.  I won't attempt to run down a list of all the major fantasy writers, though Lovecraft would be another walker who, so far as I recall, didn't drive. 

Many stories of the fantastic let us pass an agreeable half-hour or so, but some of them offer more than a small measure of amusement, and get under our skins and become lifelong favorites.  I suspect that such stories were typically written by walkers, and that Herzog’s comment at the beginning of this piece has something to do with the matter.

© 2016 Dale Nelson


  1. Thanks for an interesting post, Dale. I'm sure you're right that Machen never learned to drive. Cars were a luxury item in Britain until the 1950s at the earliest and Machen was never well off. But in any case he was all his life a keen walker, from his youthful rambles in the Gwent countryside to his long perambulations of the obscurest London streets and squares. To add another example, John Cowper Powys was a formidable walker and even in old age took daily walks to trees and stones he revered.

  2. I'm sure you're right.In the late 50s in Scotland my father had a Morris 8, which looked like something from a gangster film,and the only other car in the area was a vintage Bullnose Morris owned by ancient lady farmers. In Machen's heyday only the wealthy had cars, and writers are sadly not often greatly rewarded.

  3. This discussion of cars and writers reminded me of a conversation had between Edith Wharton and Henry James. Wharton purchased her first automobile in 1904, a Pope-Hartford, and frequently upgraded to new and better models. She was a great fan of motoring, but never drove, employing a chauffeur as people of her class did then. When shown a new and gleaming car during one of his visits to Wharton's country house, "The Mount" and told it was purchased with some of the profits from her latest novel he replied: "With the profits from my recent novel I can buy a wheelbarrow and with the profits from my next novel I may have it painted." If you are ever in Lenox, Massachusetts, "The Mount" has been fully and gloriously restored in recent years, including the palatial garage where her cars and chauffeur were housed. Keeping to Wormwoodian themes, I think Edith Wharton's ghost stories are especially fine and should be better known. Machen, in my opinion, should be as well known and Wharton and James, but that is another story. Wharton's car was part of her luggage when she travelled to England. It is nice to imagine that when she visited her friend Howard Overing Sturgis at his house near Windsor Great Park and they motored about the countryside together with Henry James they may have passed Arthur Machen on foot by the side of the road. Stranger things have happened.

  4. I myself am a walker, though I have not done much lately due to poor weather. Also, even if he could afford a motor, I doubt that Machen, the fierce anti-materialist, would ever wish to drive a car when there is much more to be experienced by walking in the forgotten byways of London or the timeless countryside of Gwent.

  5. Ray Bradbury was another who never learned to drive. He had no problem taking the train or flying in an airplane.

    In his younger days he like to walk. An experience he had while walking inspired his story "The Pedestrian". Bradbury was walking late a night, and a copy went up to him and asked, "How come you not home watching TV?"