The Great God Pan
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"The Great God Pan" is a novella written by Arthur Machen. A version of the story was published in the magazine The Whirlwind in 1890, and Machen revised and extended it for its book publication (together with another story, "The Inmost Light") in 1894. On publication it was widely denounced by the press as degenerate and horrific because of its decadent style and sexual content, although it has since garnered a reputation as a classic of horror. Machen’s story was only one of many at the time to focus on Pan as a useful symbol for the power of nature and paganism. The title was possibly inspired by the poem "A Musical Instrument" published in 1862 by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, in which the first line of every stanza ends "... the great god Pan."
Dr. Raymond's ultimate goal is to devise a way to open the mind of man so that he may experience all the world has to offer. He calls this, "seeing the great god Pan." After much study of the human mind he devises an experiment which involves minor brain surgery. He performs this experiment on a young woman named Mary, but when she awakes she is terrified and mentally crippled. Years later, the beautiful but sinister-looking Helen Vaughan is reported to have caused a series of mysterious happenings in a small nameless town. She spends all her days in the woods, scares a boy so much he is hospitalized, and leads to the rape of her best friend Rachel. Helen then moves to the London social scene and marries a man named Herbert. Years later Herbert is found by his former friend Villiers to be a beggar and vagrant. When asked how he has fallen so low, Herbert replies that he has been "corrupted body and soul" by his wife. Helen disappears for some time, supposedly taking part in disturbing orgies somewhere in the Americas. When she returns as Mrs. Beaumont she is followed by a series of suicides. Villiers discovers that she is in fact Helen and goes to confront her. He persuades her to hang herself and she has a very abnormal death, transforming between human and beast before finally dying. Ultimately, it is discovered that Helen is the child of Mary and Pan, who was let in when Raymond opened her mind up to him.
In "Supernatural Horror in Literature" (1926; revised 1933), H. P. Lovecraft praised the story, saying: "No one could begin to describe the cumulative suspense and ultimate horror with which every paragraph abounds"; he added that "the sensitive reader" reaches the end with "an appreciative shudder." Lovecraft also noted, however, that "melodrama is undeniably present, and coincidence is stretched to a length which appears absurd upon analysis." Bennett Cerf described the story as a "masterpiece". The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1993) notes "The story begins with an sf rationale (brain surgery) which remains one of the most dramatically horrible and misogynistic in fiction."
"The Great God Pan" was brought to the stage in 2008 by WildClaw Theatre Company in Chicago. It was adapted and directed by WildClaw artistic director Charley Sherman.
The story's depiction of a monstrous half-human hybrid inspired the plot of Lovecraft’s "The Dunwich Horror", which refers by name to Machen’s story. According to Lovecraft scholar Robert M. Price, "The Dunwich Horror is in every sense an homage to Machen and even a pastiche. There is little in Lovecraft's wonderful story that does not come directly out of Machen's fiction." It has also been suggested that Michael Arlen's 1934 novel Hell! Said the Duchess alludes to "The Great God Pan" (Arlen was influenced by Machen's work). It also inspired Peter Straub's Ghost Story. The book was translated into French by Paul-Jean Toulet (Le grand dieu Pan, Paris, 1901), and it was a major influence on his first novel, Monsieur du Paur, homme public.
Stephen King wrote in the endnotes for his story collection Just After Sunset (2008) that his newly published novella N. was "strongly influenced" by Machen's piece, which he noted, "surmounts its rather clumsy prose and works its way relentlessly into the reader's terror-zone. How many sleepless nights has it caused? God knows, but a few of them were mine. I think 'Pan' is as close as the horror genre comes to a great white whale." In another interview he stated: "Not Lovecraft; it’s a riff on Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan, which is one of the best horror stories ever written. Maybe the best in the English language. Mine isn’t anywhere near that good, but I loved the chance to put neurotic behavior—obsessive/compulsive disorder—together with the idea of a monster-filled macroverse." King has also cited Machen's piece as an influence for many of his other works, such as his 2014 novel Revival.
- "Arthur Machen, celebrated English [sic] author of such masterpieces as "The Great God Pan" and "The Hill of Dreams"..." Bennett Cerf, "Trade Winds", The Saturday Review of Literature, March 20, 1943, (p. 26).
- Price, Robert M. (1996).The Dunwich Cycle: Where the Old Gods Wait. Hayward, CA: Chaosium. pp. ix-x.
- Stableford, Brian (1988), "Arlen, Michael". St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost and Gothic Writers, ed. David Pringle. Detroit: St. James Press, 1998. ISBN 1558622063
- Wilson, Neil (2000). Shadows in the Attic: A Guide to British Supernatural Fiction, 1820–1950. London: British Library. pp. 35–6. ISBN 0712310746.
- Bosky, Bernadette (1988). "Peter Straub: From Academe to Shadowland". In Schweitzer, Darrell. Discovering Modern Horror Fiction II. San Bernardino: Borgo Press. p. 8. Retrieved 8 April 2013.
- "SELF-INTERVIEW By Stephen King 10:50am September 4th, 2008
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