Short Story Review: “The Terror” by Arthur Machen

Arthur Machen

While we’re on the subject of weird fiction, it bears to turn our attention to Arthur Machen, Welsh forbearer of New Englander H.P. Lovecraft, an industrious journalist and author who entered the pantheon of English literature with his tales of mysticism and horror. It helps that he pulled off an Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds on English newsreaders with his short story “The Bowmen,” giving rise to the myth of the Angels of Mons and going some way toward establishing him as a professional trickster who infused his stories with journalistic earnestness to linger further in readers’ minds. The versatile Machen is mostly preoccupied with dark fantasy, so it is rather remarkable how sympathetic he is to the humans he pits against the powers of the unknown. His characters, particularly the narrators often employed to achieve a twice-told feel and familiarity, generally share the flaw of being ignorant and unwitting in their encounters with the supernatural, all the better to accentuate their own blandness, and ultimately Machen’s intense attraction to defunct rituals and forgotten mysteries in a time of growing metropolises and rampant industrialization.

“The Terror,” in all honesty more novella than short story, follows his standard template to a point. Its slow burn is characteristic of a good weird fiction detective story, built on a series of dreadful observations more than an active investigation, but its central mystery isn’t based in the folklore Machen favors, instead finding a way to suggest that the supernatural can hide in plain sight, being a part of the mesh of reality we know and take for granted. Set at the height of World War I, it taps into the paranoia of the times as a Dr. Lewis comes across a string of bizarre deaths in fictional Meirion, Wales. German terrorists are suspected as reports of more killings come in from around the country, and Machen takes advantage of this fear of a known enemy to not only uncover the ugly side of humanity, but lay bare our confidence in the way the world works around us. The people’s misdirected suspicions leave them wide open to the greater danger, and we watch Dr. Lewis’s perplexity grow as he’s led from one mystifyingly produced corpse to the next.

This is Machen at his most reader-friendly, demonstrating the clarity of a trained journalist as he crafts a long-form story that doesn’t demand the mouth-drying ghoulishness of the likes of “The Inmost Light” or the fogginess of “The White People,” stories that drop the reader straight into the bowels of a dream-state straddling buried evils and banal civilization. It can also be his funniest, as Dr. Lewis’s cynicism comes into contact with the armchair philosophy of local crackpot Mr. Remnant, through whom Machen entertains a number of explanations for the wave of killings that are arguably farther out there than the actual cause. “The Terror” is more outwardly spiteful of mankind, the pessimistic yin to the yang of the sentimental “The Soldier’s Rest,” making the latter come across as a painkiller commissioned to comfort the parents of those lying dead in France. No such sympathy exists in “The Terror.” The titular menace doesn’t worship a nameless god, practice perverse rituals, or have any reason to sacrifice its human victims than for the crime of living. For once the plainness of people is outdone by the plainness of that which threatens them, a peculiar inversion for Machen, who uses it to criticize humanity’s endorsement of violence and presumptuous claim of stewardship to the earth during arguably the most devastating war of all time.

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