31 Stories in May at Hay!: Day 30 - ‘The Gift of Tongues’ by Arthur Machen
Every day throughout May, you will be able to visit the Library of Wales website to download your free story, drawn from Story, vols I and II - a collection boasting the finest Welsh short fiction ever written and featuring some of the most talented literary names from both past and present, including the legendary Dylan Thomas and the award-winning Rachel Trezise, as well as read all about the chosen author.
Day 30: ‘The Gift of Tongues' by Arthur Machen
(Taken from T.P.’s and Cassell’s Weekly, issue dated Dec 3, 1927)
Born Arthur Llewelyn Jones in 1863 in Caerleon, Gwent, Machen was one of the most influential writers of the 1890s and early 20th century and is also well known for his leading role in creating the legend of the Angels of Mons, the group of angels who protected members of the British Army in the Battle of Mons at the outset of WWI.
Machen was baptised under his mother’s maiden name, and later used it as a pen name. He spent a solitary childhood in the Monmouthshire countryside, exploring the Black Mountains, the ancient forest of Wentwood and the Severn Valley. He drew on his childhood among these dark and mysterious landscapes full of Celtic, Roman and medieval history and long-buried pagan remains, interweaving it with his adult life in bohemian fin-de-siècle London, to create magical and often deeply disturbing tales.
When his father became vicar of the parish of Llanddewi Fach in 1864, he was brought up at their rectory, and since the age of eight he was interested in the occult, reading, amongst others, an article on alchemy in a volume of Household Words found in its library. At the age of eleven, Machen boarded at Hereford Cathedral School, where he received an excellent classical education, but, unable to complete his education due to his family’s poor finances, he moved to London with hopes of a medical career first, and a literary one then, when he published his first long poem, Eleusinia, in 1881. After a number of writing commissions, which included translating The Memoirs of Jacques Casanova, and his attempts to work as a journalist and as a children’s tutor, he published his first book, The Anatomy of Tobacco, in 1884.
However, it was in the 1890s that Machen achieved literary success and a reputation as a leading author of gothic texts, contemporary of Arthur Conan Doyle, Oscar Wilde and William Butler Yeats all of whom admired his work tremendously. In 1890 he published his classic horror novel The Great God Pan (1890), which was widely denounced for its sexual and horrific content but sold well, going into a second edition. He then wrote ‘The Shining Pyramid’ (1895) and The Three Impostors (1895), a novel composed of a number of interwoven tales, that were eventually to be regarded as among Machen's best works. Many of his works bear the imprint of the Welsh border country of his upbringing. Other stories were published much later, including The Hill of Dreams (1907), after the Oscar Wilde scandal, that made difficult for decadent writers to find a publisher for new works.
After his wife’s death, Machen became an actor and a member of Frank Benson's company of travelling players, a profession which took him round the country, and that led in 1903 to a second marriage. In 1906 though, Machen's literary career began once more to flourish as the book The House of Souls, a collection of his most notable works of the nineties, brought them to a new audience. In those years Machen was also investigating Celtic Christianity, the Holy Grail and King Arthur, concluding that the legends of the Grail were based on rites of the Celtic Church and that the Grail survived into modern times.
But it was the WWI that saw Machen return to public prominence due to the publicity surrounding the Angels of Mons episode and a series of stories on morale-boosting propaganda, and after the War he became a star on both sides of the Atlantic, and his great literary significance was recognized by H. P. Lovecraft, who described him as one of the four ‘modern masters of the horror story’.
In 1923 Machen completed his second volume of autobiography, Things Near and Far—the final volume, and in the late 1920s, facing financial hardship, he became a manuscript reader for the publisher Ernest Benn. His financial difficulties were only finally ended by the literary appeal launched in 1943 for Machen’s eightieth birthday, where the names included were Max Beerbohm, T. S. Eliot, Bernard Shaw, Walter de la Mare, Algernon Blackwood, and John Masefield. The success of the appeal allowed Machen to live the last few years of his life, until 1947, in relative comfort.
His fans today include Stephen King, Clive Barker, Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman, who have all emphasised their debt to Machen as ‘the forgotten father of weird fiction’ (The Guardian).
You can download the story in PDF format here. (If download does not start, then right click the link and select 'Save link as'.)
The Great God Pan (Library of Wales, 2010)
The Hill of Dreams (Library of Wales, 2010)
Story I (anthology) (Library of Wales, 2014)