“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