Arthur Machen’s The Imposters

The Three ImpostorsIt was a fine autumn evening, and a faint sunlight shone on the yellow walls of the old deserted house, and showed the patches of gangrenous decay, and all the stains, the black drift of rain from the broken pipes, the scabrous blots where the bare bricks were exposed, the green weeping of a gaunt laburnum that stood beside the porch, and ragged marks near the ground where the reeking clay was gaining on the worn foundations. It was a queer rambling old place, the centre perhaps two hundred years old, with dormer windows sloping from the tiled roof, and on each side there were Georgian wings; bow windows had been carried up to the first floor, and two dome-like cupolas that had once been painted a bright green were now gray and neutral. Broken urns lay upon the path, and a heavy mist seemed to rise from the unctuous clay; the neglected shrubberies, grown all tangled and unshapen, smelt dank and evil, and there was an atmosphere all about the deserted mansion that proposed thoughts of an opened grave.

What is not to love about such gothic prose? Arthus Machen’s The Imposters is quite splendid all round, not least because Machen does not lack a sharp edge to him. On Dyson and Phillips he writes:

By the mistaken benevolence of deceased relatives both young men were placed out of reach of hunger, and so, meditating high achievements, idled their time pleasantly away, and revelled in the careless joys of a Bohemianism devoid of the sharp seasoning of adversity.

What I loved most about the book though, was how it moved between city streets and country villages in ways such books rarely do, but people do all the time. It moves from haunted ruins in deep countryside to London carrying the same atmosphere but now describing streets I know. Though of course, this is not as I know them, the gibbet-like contrivances and pantechnicon warehouses are all gone …

I went out and wandered rather aimlessly about the streets; my head was full of my tale, and I didn’t much notice where I was going. I got into those quiet places to the north of Oxford Street as you go west, the genteel residential neighborhood of stucco and prosperity. I turned east again without knowing it, and it was quite dark when I passed along a sombre little by-street, ill lighted and empty. I did not know at the time in the least where I was, but I found out afterwards that it was not very far from Tottenham Court Road. I strolled idly along, enjoying the stillness; on one side there seemed to be the back premises of some great shop; tier after tier of dusty windows lifted up into the night, with gibbet-like contrivances for raising heavy goods, and below large doors, fast closed and bolted, all dark and desolate. Then there came a huge pantechnicon warehouse; and over the way a grim blank wall, as forbidding as the wall of a jail, and then the headquarters of some volunteer regiment, and afterwards a passage leading to a court where wagons were standing to be hired. It was, one might almost say, a street devoid of inhabitants, and scarce a window showed the glimmer of a light. I was wondering at the strange peace and dimness there, where it must be close to some roaring main artery of London life, when suddenly I heard the noise of dashing feet tearing along the pavement at full speed, and from a narrow passage, a mews or something of that kind, a man was discharged as from a catapult under my very nose

And this…this is what all of long for sometimes is it not? For the strange, the weird, to irrupt into the daily humdrum:

“It is all more strange than I fancied,” he said at last. “It was queer enough what I saw; a man is sauntering along a quiet, sober, every-day London street, a street of gray houses and blank walls, and there, for a moment, a veil seems drawn aside, and the very fume of the pit steams up through the flagstones, the ground glows, red hot, beneath his feet, and he seems to hear the hiss of the infernal caldron. A man flying in mad terror for his life…

It seems ever harder now for this to happen, London of Machen’s time seems to lend itself to such possibilities much easier. Perhaps though, as Raymond Williams writes, each generation turns from the ugliness and meanness of the present towards a nostalgia of the past. But some things don’t seem to change, it is still true that almost everyone comes to London at some point — and if not London, then the big city near their town or village. Youth from all over the country come to be part of the action, to remake themselves, become something they can’t become within the confines of small tight communities.

I felt that there was nothing for me to do in the country, and as usually happens in such eases, London drew me like a magnet. One day in August, in the early morning, while the dew still glittered on the turf, and on the high green banks of the lane, a neighbor drove me to the railway station, and I bade good-bye to the land of the broad moors and unearthly battlements of the wild tors. It was six o’clock as we neared London; the faint sickly fume of the brickfields about Acton came in puffs through the open window, and a mist was rising from the ground. Presently the brief view of successive streets, prim and uniform, struck me with a sense of monotony; the hot air seemed to grow hotter; and when we had rolled beneath the dismal and squalid houses, whose dirty and neglected back yards border the line near Paddington, I felt as if I should be stifled in this fainting breath of London. I got a hansom and drove off, and every street increased my gloom; gray houses with blinds drawn down, whole thoroughfares almost desolate, and the foot-passengers who seemed to stagger wearily along rather than walk, all made me feel a sinking at heart. I put up for the night at a small hotel in a street leading from the Strand, where my father had stayed on his few brief visits to town; and when I went out after dinner, the real gayety and bustle of the Strand and Fleet Street could cheer me but little, for in all this great city there was no single human being whom I could claim even as an acquaintance.

For all its lure, there is something lost. There are desires unfulfilled, hopes destroyed, lives that never reached their promise.

It takes a long time to know it, much less achieve anything there.

“You were wrong to give in so completely,” he said, when I was silent. “A month is too short a time in which to feel one’s way in London. London, let me tell you, Miss Lally, does not lie open and undefended; it is a fortified place, fossed and double-moated with curious intricacies. As must always happen in large towns, the conditions of life have become hugely artificial; no mere simple palisade is run up to oppose the man or woman who would take the place by storm, but serried lines of subtle contrivances, mines, and pitfalls which it needs a strange skill to overcome. You, in your simplicity, fancied you had only to shout for these walls to sink into nothingness, but the time is gone for such startling victories as these. Take courage; you will learn the secret of success before very long.”

Machen does not just sharpen his wit on Dyson and Phillips, but on London’s monotony and mean streets as well, never losing sight of this veil of gothic prose and imaginings that he is pulling over it.

I also love this dig at Paris, and it resonates entirely with what I felt while there, under that veil there really is something after all…

“I see you can find the picturesque in London,” he said. “To me this great town is as I see it is to you, the study and the love of life. Yet how few there are that can pierce the veils of apparent monotony and meanness! I have read in a paper which is said to have the largest circulation in the world, a comparison between the aspects of London and Paris, a comparison which should be positively laureat, as the great masterpiece of fatuous stupidity. Conceive if you can a human being of ordinary intelligence preferring the Boulevards to our London streets; imagine a man calling for the wholesale destruction of our most charming city, in order that the dull uniformity of that whited sepulchre called Paris should be reproduced here in London. Is it not positively incredible?” … They had lingered at the corner of a street on the north side of the Strand, enjoying the contrasts and the glamour of the scene. Dyson pointed the way with a gesture, and they strolled up the comparatively deserted streets, slanting a little to the right, and thus arriving at Dyson’s lodging on the verge of Bloomsbury. Mr. Burton took a comfortable armchair by the open window, while Dyson lit the candles and produced the whiskey and soda and cigarettes.

And this paean to a suburb? This evocation of phantasy and gothic horror in such surroundings left by everyone else to everyday staid graspings after economic prosperity and their meanness?  The chance happening of adventure here? Happiness.

Nay, I will say that he who has stood in the ways of a suburb
and has seen them stretch before him all shining, void, and desolate at noonday, has not lived in vain. Such a sight is in reality more wonderful than any perspective of Bagdad or Grand Cairo. And, to set on one side the entertaining history of the gem which you told me, surely you must have had many singular adventures in your own career?”

Before me was the long suburban street, its dreary distance marked by rows of twinkling lamps, and the air was poisoned by the faint sickly smell of burning bricks; it was not a cheerful prospect by any means, and I had to walk through nine miles of such streets, deserted as those of Pompeii. I knew pretty well what direction to take; so I set out wearily, looking at the stretch of lamps vanishing in perspective; and as I walked, street after street branched off to right and left,–some far reaching to distances that seemed endless, communicating with, other systems of thoroughfare; and some mere protoplasmic streets, beginning in orderly fashion with serried two-storied houses, and ending suddenly in waste, and pits, and rubbish heaps, and fields whence the magic had departed. I have spoken of systems of thoroughfare, and I assure you that, walking alone through these silent places, I felt phantasy growing on me, and some glamour of the infinite. There was here. I felt, an immensity as in the outer void, of the universe. I passed from unknown to unknown, my way marked by lamps like stars, and on either band was an unknown world where myriads of men dwelt and slept, street leading into street, as it seemed to world’s end. At first the road by which I was travelling was lined with houses of unutterable monotony,–a wall of gray brick pierced by two stories of windows, drawn close to the very pavement. But by degrees I noticed an improvement: there were gardens, and these grew larger. The suburban builder began to allow himself a wider scope; and for a certain distance each flight of steps was guarded by twin lions of plaster, and scents of flowers prevailed over the fume of heated bricks. The road began to climb a hill, and, looking up a side street, I saw the half moon rise over plane-trees, and there on the other side was as if a white cloud had fallen, and the air around it was sweetened as with incense; it was a may-tree in full bloom. I pressed on stubbornly, listening for the wheels and the clatter of some belated hansom; but into that land of men who go to the city in the morning and return in the evening, the hansom rarely enters, and I had resigned myself once more to the walk, when I suddenly became aware that some one was advancing to meet me along the sidewalk. The man was strolling rather aimlessly; and though the time and the place would have allowed an unconventional style of dress, he was vested in the ordinary frock coat, black tie, and silk hat of civilization.

I did love The London Adventure, but this to me stands hands above it, both in terms of page-turning story but also psychogeographic evocations of the city, and these — the places we find for ourselves in our cities where it is not quite so mean or uniform, where gardens and fragrances can cheer us though poverty:

Amongst the many friends who were favored with the occasional pleasure of Mr. Dyson’s society was Mr. Edgar Russell, realist and obscure struggler, who occupied a small back room on the second floor of a house in Abingdon Grove, Notting Hill. Turning off from the main street and walking a few paces onward, one was conscious of a certain calm, a drowsy peace, which made the feet inclined to loiter; and this was ever the atmosphere of Abingdon Grove. The houses stood a little back, with gardens where the lilac and laburnum and blood-red may blossomed gayly in their seasons, and there was a corner where an older house in another street had managed to keep a back garden of real extent; a walled-in garden whence there came a pleasant scent of greenness after the rains
of early summer, where old elms held memories of the open fields, where there was yet sweet grass to walk on. The houses in Abingdon Grove belonged chiefly to the nondescript stucco period of thirty-five years ago, tolerably built with passable accommodation for moderate incomes; they had largely passed into the state of lodgings, and cards bearing the inscription “Furnished Apartments” were not infrequent over the doors. Here, then, in a house of sufficiently good appearance, Mr. Russell had established himself; for he looked upon the traditional dirt and squalor of Grub Street as a false and obsolete convention, and preferred, as he said, to live within sight of green leaves. Indeed, from his room one had a magnificent view of a long line of gardens, and a screen of poplars shut out the melancholy back premises of Wilton Street during the summer months. Mr. Russell lived chiefly on bread and tea, for his means were of the smallest; but when Dyson came to see him, he would send out the slavey for six-ale, and Dyson was always at liberty to smoke as much of his own tobacco as he pleased.

What better way to grasp the feeling of a London still being built into the form we know today, the feeling of wandering through them in the night, the sights and sounds of the local pub, the mystery of moving from high to low, grace to squalor, darkness to light:

He had turned, without taking note, to the northward, and was passing through an ancient fallen street, where now notices of floors and offices to let hung out, but still about it there was the grace and the stiffness of the Age of Wigs; a broad roadway, a broad pavement, and on each side a grave line of houses with long and narrow windows flush with the walls, all of mellowed brick-work. Dyson walked with quick steps, as he resolved that short work must be made of a certain episode; but he was in that happy humor of invention, and another chapter rose in the inner chamber of his brain, and he dwelt on the circumstances he was to write down with curious pleasure. It was charming to have the quiet streets to walk in, and in his thought he made a whole district the cabinet of his studies, and vowed he would come again. Heedless of his course, he struck off to the east again, and soon found himself involved in a squalid network of gray two-storied houses, and then in the waste
void and elements of brick-work, the passages and unmade roads behind great factory walls, encumbered with the refuse of the neighborhood, forlorn, ill-lighted, and desperate. A brief turn, and there rose before him the unexpected, a hill suddenly lifted from the level ground, its steep ascent marked by the lighted lamps, and eager as an explorer Dyson found his way to the place, wondering where his crooked paths had brought him. Here all was again decorous, but hideous in the extreme. The builder, some one lost in the deep gloom of the early ‘twenties, had conceived the idea of twin villas in gray brick, shaped in a manner to recall the outlines of the Parthenon, each with its classic form broadly marked with raised bands of stucco. The name of the street was all strange, and for a further surprise, the top of the hill was crowned with an irregular plot of grass and fading trees, called a square, and here again the Parthenon-motive had persisted. Beyond the streets were curious, wild in their irregularities, here a row of sordid, dingy dwellings, dirty and disreputable in appearance, and there, without warning, stood a house genteel and prim with wire blinds and brazen knocker, as clean and trim as if it had been the doctor’s house in some benighted little country town. These surprises and discoveries began to exhaust Dyson, and he hailed with delight the blazing windows of a public-house, and went in with the intention of testing the beverage provided for the dwellers in this region, as remote as Libya and Pamphylia and the parts about Mesopotamia. The babble of voices from within warned him that he was about to assist at the true parliament of the London workman, and he looked about him for that more retired entrance called private. When he had settled himself on an exiguous bench, and had ordered some beer, he began to listen to the jangling talk in the public bar beyond; it was a senseless argument, alternately furious and maudlin, with appeals to Bill and Tom, and mediæval survivals of speech, words that Chaucer wrote belched out with zeal and relish, and the din of pots jerked down and coppers rapped smartly on the zinc counter made a thorough bass for it all.

This sums up so many of my own walks in a way: ‘…he made a whole district the cabinet of his studies, and vowed he would come again…’ I wish Arthur Machen had made more money, had not inhabited this shadowy place of Grub Street writers, had been able to write more of what he wanted to write. But perhaps then I would not have loved it quite so much. He tries to escape with us the dirt and dreary realities of the city, the hackwork. I think he succeeds here.

But we both of us know all that we are escaping is still there.

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