Arthur Machen: An author who was a victim of his own skill as a teller of tall tales

I’ve just finished The Angels of Mons by Arthur Machen, which is a clever little book I enjoyed, not so much for the story it contained, but for the author’s pieces both before and after it. It shows Machen, accidental father of an urban myth, trying to strangle the story. Instead, it roamed free and, because people believed it to be true, Machen was rarely credited for it, or paid for it. His career, although well thought of in certain circles, never reached the stellar heights might be expected of the writer of one of the best known of the stories of the First World War.

Machen wrote a story about Saint George, and the ghosts of the bowmen of the English forces that fought at Agincourt, reliving a beleaguered redoubt during the Battle of Mons. Now, there really was a Battle of Mons and the heavily outnumbered English did resist for a long time before retreating. The English people really needed a story which gave them hope at this point, because many had a sort of jolly expectation of tales of daring from the war, and couldn’t deal with the mechanical slaughter that was really happening. Machen’s definitive statement that God was on the side of the Allies fit the bill, and swept through parish newspapers. It even gets to the point where people write to him, telling him that he was wrong: that he did not make up the story.

Cover of The white people and other storiesMachen seems to have found the fuss embarrassing. He says The Bowmen wasn’t his favourite work, and is in some ways poorly written. It’s easy to agree, but in a time when 50 Shades of Grey is the most popular book in the country, that might be a little too picky.

Our Library Service has the story in the Penguin Classics edition, as part of The White People And Other Stories. This is a great collection of ghostly tales. The titular story was very influential on the pulp horror authors who followed, like Lovecraft.

I enjoyed the Librivox recording. It’s always hard to record ghost stories, and I’d like to commend the reader for his effort.