Thursday, October 6, 2011

'The Great God Pan' by Arthur Machen and a Brief Comment on Bookstores

Why do we bother with bookstores when we can buy online... 

Outside of brightening a dull street, bookstores open a physical window for the reading community, not only do they offer respite from a busy world but they also offer readers a conversation with 'bookish folk' as well as tactile browsing.

Independent stores, not only bookstores, are vital in adding colour to our society; they're a break from the chain stream norm, which a consumerist society is often sold on. Who doesn't want variety and culture?  In Perth, I tend to order from both Planet Books, New Edition, Stefen's Books - all fantastic independent bookstores; I also occasionally buy from Oxford Books, White Dwarf Books and Crow Books. I do this to support them – I don’t want them vanishing and they offer a far better selection than the chain stores.

I'd been tracking down the out-of-print The Great God Pan, but once reissued I ordered it from New Edition in Northbridge. The reasons for the buy vary: HP Lovecraft thought it a masterpiece; Jorge Luis Borges said it is a must read and the first true horror novel, which also greatly influenced his own work; and Stephen King (by the way, I’ve only read The Green Mile) stated: 

“The Great God Pan” is one of the best horror stories ever written. Maybe the best in the English language.

 The whole notion of a Victorian horror set in England and Wales, acclaimed by Borges, with bizarre links to the Pan’s essence, had reeled me in. 

Book Review: The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen. originally published 1894. Revised ed. 1916

Mary, a young girl in Wales is experimented on by Dr Raymond in an attempt to have  human contact with the deity Pan. The essence of a truly horrific Pan takes over. The girl grows up leaving a trail of deaths behind her. Mary, who is considered both repulsive and attractive, goes to London, where the characters rediscover her as Helen Vaughan. Helen, in turn, leaves another Hellish trail of fear and peril wherever she ventures.

The story grips the reader in terms of the characters tracking Helen’s actions and the unraveling of the unknown. The novella however, seems overly brief and does not achieve the dizzying highs I expected after reading the reviews. It has neither the depth nor the brilliance of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (published earlier in 1886). 

Although The Great God Pan, as per the era, is written in a somewhat antiquated style, it successfully fascinates in an historical sense with its capturing of a period in which many were obsessed by the Greco-Roman world. Tension is built throughout, but I would have preferred to have been placed into the story more so rather than following characters discussing events. The climax is more of an anti-climax, but I certainly did not regret the quick read and for those interested in Victorian gothic, it is appealing in terms of both the boundaries it broke and its context. 

At the time, the critics gave The Great God Pan a pounding for being too licentious. Machen even states in the revised edition’s foreword that it was very popular among England’s female readership who liked the 'salacious' text - thumbs up to Victorian women! Later critics, as earlier mentioned, lavishly praised The Great God Pan, making it the cult text it is today. 

Overall, The Great God Pan did not terrify me as it did with Stephen King and many other readers. While it isn't a 'must-read' it is a worthwhile text; it's also one of those stories that remains with you long afterwards.

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