“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.