Mar 17 2009 5:49pm

Arthur Machen and The London Adventure

“For if you think of it, there is a London cognita and a London incognita.”

I don’t claim to be a Machen scholar; for that you have the works of ST Joshi and John Gawsworth. I just like Machen. His work paved the way for the cosmic Horror genre of Lovecraft, but it also suggested something more positive, something closer to a genre of Awe. Among his most famous works are the short stories “The Bowmen” and “The White People,” and his novels The Three Imposters and The Great God Pan.

The London Adventure, or the Art of Wandering was first published in 1924, and it is the third of Machen’s three autobiographies. Not only is it an intriguing memoir, but it’s also the foundation of the urban fantasy genre as practiced by Fritz Leiber and M. John Harrison.

To be perfectly blunt about it, I’ll say it’s one of those books that can possibly change your life.

I remember a man of genius who, somehow, utterly missed his way, living in furnished rooms on the side of the steep, 1850, streets that ascend the hill... I always look upon this strange, unknown region as the country of the people who have lost their way.

Like most people of intellectual bent born into small rural villages (in this case Caerleon, Wales), Arthur Machen left home for the big city as soon as he could. Of course the metropolis proved vastly indifferent to his presence, and soon Machen was taking on a variety of jobs. He was a translator, an actor, and a Grub Street news reporter. He was affiliated with the decadent movement and after the death of his first wife he dallied with quasi-mystic groups such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. (Algernon Blackwood led an equally varied life, and his work might be the closest to Machen’s in scope and tone, although supposedly the two men did not care for each other.) Machen filtered all of these experiences into his work.

The London Adventure starts simply. Machen sets out to tell a straightforward story, the London Adventure, but as he starts to tell the story something jars his memory and he gets sidetracked into telling a different story. Finally he returns to telling us about the London Adventure, but not for long, because he notices something else and this starts another story. At first it’s frustrating, but Machen knows of no other way to tell the story. We walk the city as so many of Machen characters do, while Machen expounds his theories on the intersection of life and art and literature.

It is possible, just dimly possible, that the real pattern and scheme of life is not in the least apparent on the outward surface of things, which is the world of common sense and rationalism and reasoned deductions; but rather lurks, half-hidden, only apparent in certain rare lights, and then only to the prepared eye; a secret pattern, an ornament which seems to have but little relation or none at all to the obvious scheme of the universe.

Soon you realize Machen’s not only telling the story of the London adventure, but he is telling it the only way it can be told, as one story among many hinting at other possibilities but signifying none with certainty. It’s the only way one can make sense of the metropolis. And in the telling, Machen hints at the toll learning this story has taken upon him.

He is another one of those who have lost their way and become entangled in a maze of imagination and speculation. The common material world no longer holds any significance to him.

The London Adventure is a difficult book to come by and deserves a reprinting. Copies can be found on Amazon for fifty dollars. Some college town libraries might have a copy. Even on its own, separate from the rest of Machen’s work, it stands out as an entertaining and captivating piece of speculative nonfiction.

Tudza White
1. tudzax1
I found several works on Project Gutenberg, but not this one. When do you suppose it will be available?

Which of the ones available on Gutenberg US or Australia are recommended?
eric orchard
2. orchard
Machen is brilliant, one of my heroes and deserves to be more widely read.
Justin Howe
3. JustinHowe
@1. I don't know if anyone is planning on doing a reprint of it, but someone should.

From Gutenberg you might want to check out The Great God Pan (decadance and mad science in Victorian England) or The Hill of Dreams (adolescent boy in the English countryside more in touch with the past than the present encounters the supernatural). Good luck.

@2. Hell yeah!
Richard Bowes
4. Richard Bowes
Again, I discovered Machen as a kid - the dark fantasy aspect of him. I read a collection of his short stories that included the Great God Pan. That side is mainly how he's remembered now. Later I discovered he was at basis a London journalist/essayist in the great tradition of de Quincy. As with the later Shirley Jackson, the dark stuff was just a favorite sideline. He'd write about anything he was paid to write about and do it in a very amusing manner.

It turned out that the NYU/Bobst library has 'London Adventure'. I took it out this afternoon (the fourth person to do so in the last 12 years - enough to keep it from going off to storage in a New Jersey warehouse). It's the 1924 Martin Seeker edition - was there ever another one?

Machen operates on charm and anecdote. He compares the life of a hack, or of any worker unfavorably with that of a prisoner who at least has no choice in the boring tasks he's forced to do. After 20 pages I'm completely hooked.
Richard Bowes
5. GwilG
London Adventure is good Machen and this is a good post on its charms. I was at the Friend of Machen society's AGM on the weekend and it came up. It also is a favorite book amongst writers like Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd.

Actually Blackwood and Machen got on fairly well and they esteemed much of each others work. Machen just thought Blackwood's religious views were foolish... but Machen thought that about lots of people and I suspect Blackwood thought similar of Machen's views. I devoted much of latest edition of Machenalia to Blackwood.

There is a bit of a Machen revival building at the moment I think.
Richard Bowes
6. Mary Christianson
Machen absolutely great scholar.
Great Secrets
Richard Bowes
7. Mark Impostor
Dear Friends,
We have already republished Far Off Things - The first volume of Arthur Machen's autobiography in a scholarly, high quality edition in a limited run of 250 copies. As soon as we return enough from the sale of these books, we will print 250 copies of The London Adventure, in the same format. Followed by Things Near and Far, finishing the set. We know that the books are 'out of order' 1,3,2 but we thought the publicity from The London Adventure would help us secure enough cash to secure the third.
We have put out own money into this and will return no profit. We just love Machen's work and want to see him in print at a reasonable price.
We hope it's ok to 'advertise' here. If it isn't please delete our post and accept our apologies.

For and on behalf of 'The Three Impostors'

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