The Three Impostors

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The Three Impostors; or, The Transmutations
Three imposters.jpg
AuthorArthur Machen
CountryUnited Kingdom
PublisherJohn Lane
Publication date
Media typePrint (hardcover)

The Three Impostors; or, The Transmutations is an episodic horror novel by British writer Arthur Machen, first published in 1895 in The Bodley Head's Keynote Series. It was revived in paperback by Ballantine Books as the forty-eighth volume of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series in June 1972.


  1. Prologue
  2. Adventure of the Gold Tiberius
  3. The Encounter of the Pavement
  4. Novel of the Dark Valley
  5. Adventure of the Missing Brother
  6. Novel of the Black Seal
  7. Incident of the Private Bar
  8. The Decorative Imagination
  9. Novel of the Iron Maid
  10. The Recluse of Bayswater
  11. Novel of the White Powder
  12. Strange Occurrence in Clerkenwell
  13. History of the Young Man with Spectacles
  14. Adventure of the Deserted Residence


The novel comprises several weird tales and culminates in a final denouement of deadly horror, connected with a secret society devoted to debauched pagan rites. The three impostors of the title are members of this society who weave a web of deception in the streets of London—relating the aforementioned weird tales in the process—as they search for a missing Roman coin commemorating an infamous orgy by the Emperor Tiberius and close in on their prey: "the young man with spectacles".[1]


Publisher John Lane of The Bodley Head, wary of the atmosphere following the trial of Oscar Wilde, asked Machen to expurgate his manuscript; Machen refused.[2] Ultimately, however, Machen agreed to revise the description of the final scene of the book, in order to purge one word that Lane had found to be too explicit; the word was entrails.[3]

Machen's later reflections on the novel[edit]

Partly in response to criticism of the Stevensonian style of the book, Machen altered his approach in writing his next book, The Hill of Dreams. Following the death of his first wife in 1899, Machen developed a greater interest in the occult, joining the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. He noted that a number of events in his life seemed to mirror events in The Three Impostors, most notably a conflict in the order between William Butler Yeats (a "young man with spectacles") and Aleister Crowley, which reached its height around this time. (These experiences are reflected on in Alan Moore's Snakes and Ladders.)

In Things Near and Far (1923) Machen wrote:

It was in the early spring of 1894 that I set about the writing of the said "Three Impostors," a book which testifies to the vast respect I entertained for the fantastic, "New Arabian Nights" manner of R. L. Stevenson, to those curious researches in the byways of London which I have described already, and also, I hope, to a certain originality of experiment in the tale of terror.


At least two of the novel's tales, "The Novel of the Black Seal" and "The Novel of the White Powder" influenced the work of H. P. Lovecraft. In his survey Supernatural Horror in Literature, Lovecraft suggested that these stories "perhaps represent the highwater mark of Machen's skill as a terror-weaver".[4]

"The Novel of the Black Seal" was a model for some of Lovecraft's best-known stories: "The Call of Cthulhu",[5] "The Dunwich Horror",[6] and "The Whisperer in Darkness".[7] The story also bears strong resemblance to Lovecraft's story "The Lurking Fear", which tells of a deformed humanoid race living in a rural region of the Catskill Mountains. "The Novel of the White Powder", which Lovecraft said "approaches the absolute culmination of loathsome fright",[8] is pointed to as an inspiration for Lovecraft's stories of bodily disintegration, such as "Cool Air" and "The Colour Out of Space".

The story "Rx… Death!" in issue 20 of Tales from the Crypt is an adaptation of "The Novel of the White Powder", except the poisonous "medicine" contains digestive enzymes rather than a witch's brew.


  1. ^ Review of The Three Imposters, The Bookman, February 1896. Reprinted in Jason Colavito, A Hideous Bit of Morbidity: An Anthology of Horror Criticism from the Enlightenment to World War I (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2008), pp. 227–28. ISBN 978-0-7864-3968-3
  2. ^ "John Lane and Arthur Machen: A Correspondence". Faunus: The Journal of the Friends of Arthur Machen. 16. Summer 2007.
  3. ^ "Machen's Labrynth: The Master of the Macabre 60 Years On". Rare Book Review. Countrywide Editions. 35 (376): 13. February 2008. ISSN 1746-7101. OCLC 229510102 – via Google Books.
  4. ^ Lovecraft, p. 92
  5. ^ Joshi, S. T.; Schultz, David E. "The Call of Cthulhu". An H. P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia. pp. 28–29.
  6. ^ Price, Robert M. (1995). The Dunwich Cycle: Where the Old Gods Wait. The Cthulhu Cycle. Chaosium. pp. ix–x. OCLC 35563193.
  7. ^ Price, Robert M. (2006) [1993]. "Introduction". The Hastur Cycle. The Cthulhu Cycle (2nd ed.). Chaosium. pp. xi–xiii. ISBN 978-1-56882-192-4. OCLC 757756665 – via Google Books.
  8. ^ Lovecraft, p. 93.


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