Contrary to rumours of her death, Helen Vaughan is alive and well and living in Shoreditch…
Some readers might have already met Helen in Arthur Machen’s classic novella, The Great God Pan. And like many other classics of weird fiction and horror, GGP reflects the time when it was written. Such tales often exclude or misrepresent women, yet they stir my emotions and fascinate me. They also inspire me to imagine and extend them as they could be – if not limited by their era or the author’s preconceptions.
In fact, there is a long tradition of writers – especially women writers – retelling or relocating the classics. Writers such as Caitlin Kiernan or Ekaterina Sedia have taken inspiration from Lovecraft, for example, but are likely to come up with stuff that would have HPL rolling rapidly in his final resting place. And perhaps Arthur Machen is due for a few more spins too.
The Green Book
I first encountered Machen’s writing when I read The White People in my early teens. The story opens with a couple of gents drinking whisky in a drawing room as they discourse on the nature of evil. One man presents the other with a green book, a young girl’s diary. Through the diary we’re swept along with the girl’s search for the alluring ‘White People’, related in breathless stream-of-consciousness prose.
The girl sings songs in secret languages and practises the Green and White and Scarlet Ceremonies. In her journey to learn ‘the most secret secrets’, she encounters rings of rocks dancing under bleak skies; grass-covered hills, hollows and mounds that form hidden messages. She kisses nymphs in a pool surrounded by dripping moss ‘green as jewellery’ and prepares to meet the pale folk as they emerge from concealed places.
Perhaps I was just at the right age to savour this tale about a neglected and imaginative girl who roams through the countryside near her father’s house, seeking the magical and unknown. I was hooked. Then I found Machen’s collected stories in the local library and devoured the extensive canon, starting with The Great God Pan. I read this novella a few times, puzzled and intrigued by its collage of narratives.
Born from a botched experiment, half-human femme fatale Helen Vaughan has sexual appetites so dreadful that they cause heart attacks, seizures and ‘utter collapse’ in men who come into her orbit. Women have also fallen under her destructive spell; we read of the mysterious fate of 16-year-old Rachel, who had a relationship of a ‘peculiarly intimate character’ with Helen. Meanwhile, a series of well-heeled chaps commit suicide in the “West End Horrors” – significantly, these deaths are considered far worse than Jack the Ripper’s killings of East End prostitutes.
Finally a gentleman by the name of Villiers, a connoisseur of occult London who enjoys a shuffle or two down ‘Queer Street’, confronts Helen. He threatens to call the police and expose her crimes unless she hangs herself with his ‘thick hempen rope’. As to Helen’s fate… it is one befitting a woman who likes sex an awful lot.
I wasn’t familiar with the word ‘misogyny’ at the time, but I pretty much got the message: ‘evil, thy name is woman’. Though Pan is shown as male, his elemental evil comes into our world in a highly sexual female form. And while Machen did create an evocative and ambiguous female narrative in The White People, Helen has no voice at all in The Great God Pan. Her only real engagement with a main character comes towards the end when Villiers barges into her bedroom to denounce her. At that point, I had to ask why someone as well-connected as Helen Vaughan wouldn’t think of contacting a good lawyer when faced with such sketchy evidence.
Beauty and menace
Taking all this into account, I still love The Great God Pan for the way it evokes landscapes of both beauty and menace, of sunlight and ‘swaying leaves’ and ‘quivering shadows on the grass’. Machen conjures up such a dark sense of foreboding in the breeze that blows through a field in Wales on a hot summer afternoon, the odour of decay lurking beneath the scent of wild roses, the turns of a dank street off a busy London thoroughfare. In each reading, I am filled with an uneasy wonder as the puzzle almost comes together.
It’s been said that The Great God Pan and the best classic horror stories work by the power of suggestion. Yet there’s a point where ‘suggestion’ looks like Victorian cop-out to the contemporary reader. So what did Helen do that horrified those gentlemen to the point of madness and death, and what really happened to her pal Rachel when she disappeared in broad daylight?
I also wanted to know what it felt like to be Helen: brought up by a man who is convinced she is loathsome, shuffled between foster homes and boarding schools. She would have taken on a good measure of arrogance from her upper-class milieu but she also appealed to me as an outcast, someone who is literally demonised. She is, after all, partly human. She must have been lonely. She would be aware that she’s different from those around her, and wonder why. Surely those visits from her secret companion would have been the only bright spot in young Helen’s day.
I kept coming back again and again to The Great God Pan for clues, and those speculations grew into Helen’s Story. I’ve always been interested in the ‘other side’ of classic stories, especially from the villain’s point of view. One of my favourite books is Jean Rhys’ The Wide Sargasso Sea, which tells the story of Mr Rochester’s mad first wife in Jane Eyre (you know, the one who’s locked in the attic).
I’ve found The Great God Pan intriguing, haunting and infuriating by equal measure, which is why I wrote Helen’s Story. And I’ve always thought that Helen – just like the first Mrs Rochester – should have her say.
Visit the Friends of Arthur Machen for more on his work and life