The Great God Pan

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The Great God Pan
Author Arthur Machen
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre Horror novella
Publisher John Lane
Publication date
Media type Print (hardcover)

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 the Greek God 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."


Clarke agrees, somewhat unwillingly, to bear witness to a strange experiment performed by his friend, Dr. Raymond. The ultimate goal of the doctor is to open the mind of man so that he may experience the spiritual world, an experience he calls "seeing the great god Pan". He performs the experiment, which involves minor brain surgery, on a young woman named Mary. She awakens from the operation awed and terrified but quickly becomes "a hopeless idiot".

Years later, Clarke learns of a beautiful but sinister girl named Helen Vaughan, who is reported to have caused a series of mysterious happenings in her town. She spends much of her time in the woods near her house, where a young boy stumbles across her talking to a strange man one day; the boy becomes hysterical and later, after seeing a Roman statue of a satyr's head, becomes permanently feeble-minded. Helen also befriends a neighbour girl, Rachel, whom she leads several times into the woods. On one occasion Rachel returns home distraught; afterward, she returns to the woods and disappears forever.

Years later, Villiers happens across his old friend Herbert, who has become a vagrant since they last met. When asked how he has fallen so low, Herbert replies that he has been "corrupted body and soul" by his wife, who is later revealed to be Helen. Soon after, Herbert is found dead.

Helen disappears for some time, supposedly taking part in disturbing orgies somewhere in the Americas. She eventually returns to London under the pseudonym Mrs. Beaumont, her appearance followed by a series of suicides. Villiers and Clarke, each learning of Mrs. Beaumont's true identity, band together and confront Helen in her house. They persuade her to hang herself, and Helen has a very abnormal death, transforming between human and beast before finally dying.

It is finally revealed that Helen is the child of Mary and the great god Pan, who was let in when Dr. Raymond opened her mind up to him.

Critical opinion[edit]

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".[1] 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 the 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."[2] 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).[3][4] It also inspired Peter Straub's Ghost Story.[5] 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."[6] King has also cited Machen's piece as an influence for many of his other works, such as his 2014 novel Revival.

This story is also quoted sporadically throughout Rachel Klein's "The Moth Diaries" as the main character reads the novel during her school year and takes great interest in its meaning in relevance to Vampirism and her own experiences.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Arthur Machen, celebrated English 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).
  2. ^ Price, Robert M. (1996).The Dunwich Cycle: Where the Old Gods Wait. Hayward, CA: Chaosium. pp. ix-x.
  3. ^ Stableford, Brian (1988), "Arlen, Michael". St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost and Gothic Writers, ed. David Pringle. Detroit: St. James Press, 1998. ISBN 1558622063
  4. ^ Wilson, Neil (2000). Shadows in the Attic: A Guide to British Supernatural Fiction, 1820–1950. London: British Library. pp. 35–6. ISBN 0712310746.
  5. ^ 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. 
  6. ^ "SELF-INTERVIEW By Stephen King 10:50am September 4th, 2008

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