"I Dream in Fire But Work in Clay" - Arthur Machen


“There are sacraments of evil as well as of good about us, and we live and move to my belief in an unknown world, a place where there are caves and shadows and dwellers in twilight. It is possible that man may sometimes return on the track of evolution, and it is my belief that an awful lore is not yet dead.” 

“I dream in fire but work in clay.” -- Arthur Machen

Arthur Machen was born in Caerleon, South Wales, one hundred fifty-five years ago yesterday. Why should we care? We should care because Machen helped lay some of the foundations of the fantasy and horror literature we enjoy today. Far more than one might think. Joe Sommerlad, linking Machen the Welshman to St. David's Day, points out the wide cultural reach of Machen over the last century. From Lovecraft to Robert E. Howard to Neil Gaiman to Guillermo del Toro. Not bad for a Welsh country boy who died in barely comfortable obscurity. 

What is Machen's writing like? I'm not certain, but I think I might've come up with, "Machen reads like Tolkien, if Tolkien read Weird Tales." However, that's altogether too glib and no more accurate than it needs to be. For one thing, it gives the impression that JRRT somehow came first. Machen was a published and much-lauded author forty years before The Hobbit saw print. Perhaps saying that he's somewhere between Clark Ashton Smith, Algernon Blackwood and Tolkien would hit nearer the mark. At the end of the day, Machen is his own man, with a darkly numinous writing style that is uniquely his own.

When it comes to Weird Tales, Machen certainly had his admirers, especially amongst the Lovecraft Circle. Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, Robert Bloch, Fritz Leiber and HPL himself were all fans. Mythos scholar, Robert M. Price, has remarked that Robert E. Howard's take on the Cthulhu Mythos was one "with the Machen track turned all the way up."


As I've argued elsewhere, Machen became, perhaps, the first true pioneer of cosmic horror in the English language, starting with his landmark tale, The Great God Pan. It is a small--albeit bloody--leap from cosmic horror to sword & sorcery. We would not have "Worms of the Earth" without Machen. I have noted that Leiber was a Machen fan. Robert Bloch, unbeknownst to many, actually wrote an S&S tale and I would say the Machen influence is quite strong in it. In addition, when we consider the huge influence Lovecraft directly exerted over the entire first generation of sword & sorcery writers, then Machen's indirect influence through HPL looms quite large. If Machen cannot be said to be one of the "Grandfathers of S&S"--and I think an argument could be made for that--then he is certainly one of the genre's premier Dutch uncles.

Ramsey Campbell, who wrote some excellent S&S back in the 1970s, is an avowed fan of Arthur Machen. He has this to say:

Machen was one of the first great British writers of supernatural horror fiction. He was Welsh, and wrote in the 1890s and early 20th century. He conveyed a sense of spiritual dread in a way that nobody had before...One of Machen’s favourite themes was the old, barely human or inhuman race which reaches back to the dawn of creation, and which is often still lurking around in Wales, which is the landscape he very frequently uses. This sense of a haunted landscape is not new – the Gothic novel did it, Ann Radcliffe did it, Edgar Allan Poe refined it – but there’s a special numinous quality about Machen’s landscape that is unique up to that point.

Campbell is known for his tales of urban dark fantasy and horror. Machen pioneered that genre, leading the way for Campbell, Leiber, Gaiman and others. Again, it is but a short jump from urban horror to the occult detective and Machen pioneered that as well. His tales of "Mr. Dyson" are considered by many to have been the very first serial occult detective tales. After more than a century, all the Dyson stories were finally collected by Coachwhip Publications in The Dyson Chronicles. Pick up a copy. It's on sale. Three of the tales therein directly influenced Robert E. Howard's Little People/Worms of the Earth yarns.

From all I've read, Machen was a fairly reserved man, but also one who liked people. He especially liked observing all different kinds of folks out in the streets of his beloved London and, especially, in pubs. Arthur was also a man who, while able to live quite frugally when circumstances required it, liked good food and drink when he could afford it. So, feel free in raising a glass to the shade of a man who wrote and inspired so much enduring fiction.