The complacency of Victorian England was shaken by a host of taboo-violating researchers
who overturned traditional belief systems during the second half of the 19th century. Of
these Charles Darwin had the most lasting impact on our worldview with
The Origin of
(1959) and The Descent of Man (1971). But a close second place prize goes to Karl
Marx, who labored away on
Das Kapital and other revolutionary works at the British Library
during this same period. And let’s not forget Sir James Frazer’s
The Golden Bough, which
placed the Christian story of the resurrection in the context of ancient fertility rites and
legends of dying-and-rising deities. Or Thomas Huxley, who invented the term
in 1869.

What was the result of this intellectual ferment? Faith
in Christian dogma clearly declined. But if you say that
this spurred a rise of scientific thinking you only get half
credit on the exam question. The very same generation
of Brits that wrestled with these new theories at the close
of the nineteenth century also embraced paganism and
superstition with unprecedented fervor. Put another way:
as theology got downgraded, a wide range of worldviews
emerged to fill the gap. Scientism was just one part of the

Thus we find Thomas Hardy flirting with paganism, even
setting the key scene in
Tess of the D'Urbervilles at
Stonehenge. Thus we encounter the neo-pagan poetry
of Algernon Charles Swinburne, in which Pan and
Proserpine dislodge Jesus and Mary. Thus we find
Arthur Conan Doyle professing his belief in fairies and
ghosts. Thus we watch as W.B. Yeats promotes the
Celtic revival. And when Yeats’s friend William Sharp
launched a cutting-edge periodical in the closing years
of the Victorian era, he signaled his seriousness by naming it
The Pagan Review.

This is the context in which we should approach Arthur Machen's horror classic The Great
God Pan
(1890). Indeed, the story makes little sense in almost any other context. Could
you imagine a modern novel in which a brain operation is designed with the goal of giving
the patient a glimpse of the pagan deity Pan? That wouldn’t get out of the editor’s slush pile
nowadays, but in 1890 the concept of pagan brain surgery was just the ticket.

In the opening pages of this story, Dr. Raymond
invites his friend Clarke to witness this break-
through operation.  He plans to make a "slight
lesion in the grey matter, that is all," he explains,
"a trifling rearrangement of certain cells, a
microscopical alteration that would escape the
attention of ninety-nine brain specialists out of one

His subject is his loyal servant Mary. As a result of the procedure, she gets a look at the
pagan deity Pan. And what exactly did she see? Don’t expect an explanation of that in
the course of this book—those details are never provided, merely hinted at. Instead,
Machen serves up the usual hyperbole of such tales, referring to the "most awful , most
secret forces which lie at the heart of all things; forces before which the souls of men
must wither and die and blacken." Unlike
Lovecraft and Poe, who will at least give us a
few particulars of the terrors from beyond, Machen forces readers to make do with vague,
over-heated words of scare-mongering—indeed, he finds opportunity to do so every few

Mary survives the ordeal, but with the loss of her wits. She spends the rest of her days
in an incoherent state, incapable of relating what she observed beyond the veil of everyday
reality. "It is a great pity; she is a hopeless idiot," Raymond is forced to admit. "However,
it could not be helped; and, after all, she has seen the Great God Pan."

During the course of this short novel, many other victims will get a look at Pan—and
always with disastrous results. London newspapers soon start covering a series of
unexplained suicides among the upper class. What is the cause? Call it
Pan-i-cide, if
you must. But if you are looking for something more specific, you won't find it in these

A handful of amateur investigators are intrigued by these mysterious cases, but the
'detectives' change almost as often as the ‘victims’ in this story. The narrative feels
rushed and disjointed. Dr. Raymond and Mary are soon abandoned for a new plot about
an orphan named Helen who is involved in a disappearance in a Welsh village. This tale
is dropped a few pages later for another story about Villiers and his impoverished former
schoolmate Herbert. This is soon supplemented with a disconnected story about a painter
named Arthur Meyrick, who dies while traveling in South America. This is quickly followed
by a new plot dealing with the suicide in London of Lord Argentine, and the subsequent
copycat deaths of other members of the West Side upper crust.

On and on, Machen goes, never developing any of these
characters, who all come across as even less substantial
than a stereotype—at least a stereotype gives you some
sense of what to expect. How can reader care about a
victim, for example Lord Argentine, when the character
is already dead when first encountered? Machen dispenses
with even the most token efforts to establish an emotional
connection between reader and the personages of
The Great
God Pan
. As in the slasher movies of a hundred years later,
these folks seem introduced merely to add to the body count.

This story was shocking in its day. The vague descriptions
of unmentioned vices and horrors hint at practices that
couldn't be described in Victorian literature, and Machen
tries to get as much mileage out of these passages as possible.
"It’s no use my going into details," a character says at one
juncture, when describing the private life of a woman
suspected of involvement in the suicides. Elsewhere her
deeds are called "nameless infamies." When given a written
account of these forbidden practices, one character declares
"I will not read it"; another flings it to the ground. I’m sure
this was scandalous stuff for a 19th century British reader,
but I must frankly admit that I have absolutely no idea what it is implied by most of
these scurrilous allusions. I don’t think Machen did either—he just wanted to seem

Although the story didn't shock me, I must admit that I am amazed by the frequency
with which it has been described as a horror fiction classic. Both H.P. Lovecraft and
Stephen King have praised the work, although I note that the former also called it
"absurd" and the latter lamented its "clumsy prose."  I tend to side with an early reviewer
of the story, critic Harry Quilter, who wrote:
The Great God Pan  "is, I have no hesitation
in saying, a perfectly abominable story."

The novella is comprised of eight short chapters. That would be sufficient for a compact
story with a small number of characters. But this book packs too many plots into too
few words.  If Machen had given his characters a bit more life, before dealing them death,
I might be more engaged. If he had offered more specifics about the "nameless infamies"
and "most secret forces" at the heart of his story, I might have actually felt some of the
terror he hoped to rouse. If he let me take a peek, ever so brief, at the formidable Pan, I
might have had more patience for the many withheld details in his narrative.  But Machen
fails on all these counts.

Our modern word
panic comes from the God Pan, and I don’t dismiss the possibility that
the pagan deity could inspire a scary story. In fact, he already has. Check out
The Bacchae
by Euripides, which tells a similar story to the one Machen constructs. But in this instance,
the pagan author handles pagan horror with much more credibility than the refined
Victorian gentleman. Maybe Machen picked the right subject, but was just 2,300 years
too late to make it plausible.    

Ted Gioia writes about music, literature and popular culture. His latest book is How to Listen to Jazz from
Basic Books.

Publication Date: October 23, 2016
This is my year of horrible reading.
I am reading the classics of horror fiction
during the course of 2016, and each week will
write about a significant work in the genre.
You are invited to join me in my
. During the course of the year—if
we survive—we will have tackled zombies,
serial killers, ghosts, demons, vampires, and
monsters of all denominations. Check back
each week for a new title...but remember to
bring along garlic, silver bullets and a
protective amulet.  
Ted Gioia
My Year of Horrible Reading

Week 1:
By Bram Stoker

Week 2:
The Haunting of Hill House
By Shirley Jackson

Week 3:
Tales of Mystery & Imagination
By Edgar Allan Poe

Week 4:
By Stephen King

Week 5:
The Passion According to G.H.
By Clarice Lispector

Week 6:
By H.P. Lovecraft

Week 7:
The Exorcist
By William Peter Blatty

Week 8:
The Woman in Black
By Susan Hill

Week 9:
By Jean-Paul Sartre

Week 10:
I Am Legend
By Richard Matheson

Week 11:
Ghost Stories of Henry James
By Henry James

Week 12:
Interview with the Vampire
By Anne Rice

Week 13:
American Psycho
By Bret Easton Ellis

Week 14:
Last Stories and Other Stories
By William T. Vollmann

Week 15:
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary
By M.R. James

Week 16:
Rosemary's Baby
By Ira Levin

Week 17:
The King in Yellow
By Robert W. Chambers

Week 18:
By Daphne Du Maurier

Week 19
The Woman in the Dunes
by Kōbō Abe

Week 20
The Dark Eidolon
by Clark Ashton Smith

Week 21
Off Season
by Jack Ketchum

Week 22
Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3
by Clive Barker

Week 23
The Silence of the Lambs
by Thomas Harris

Week 24
The Orange Eats Creeps
by Grace Krilanovich

Week 25
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde
by Robert Louis Stevenson

Week 26
by Robert Bloch

Week 27
by Octavia E. Butler

Week 28
Demons by Daylight
by Ramsey Campbell

Week 29
The Complete Short Stories
by Ambrose Bierce

Week 30
Pet Sematary
by Stephen King

Week 31
Our Lady of Darkness
by Fritz Leiber

Week 32
by John Gardner

Week 33
White is for Witching
by Helen Oyeyemi

Week 34
The Wasp Factory
by Iain Banks

Week 35
King Kong
by Edgar Wallace

Week 36
The Castle of Otranto
by Horace Walpole

Week 37
The John Silence Stories
by Algernon Blackwood

Week 38
The Magic Toyshop
by Angela Carter

Week 39
The Other
by Thomas Tryon

Week 40
Never Let Me Go
by Kazuo Ishiguro

Week 41
Ghost Story
by Peter Straub

Week 42
John Dies at the End
by David Wong

Week 43
The Great God Pan
by Arthur Machen
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction

Arthur Machen's The Great God Pan
Essay by Ted Gioia
To purchase, click on image
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Blind Assassin

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barker, Clive
Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Bierce, Ambrose
The Complete Short Stories

Blackwood, Algernon
The Complete John Silence Stories

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Butler, Octavia E.

Campbell, Ramsey
Demons by Daylight

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chambers, Robert W.
The King in Yellow

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fowles, John
A Maggot

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gardner, John

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hill, Susan
The Woman in Black

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Houellebecq, Michel

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Ishiguro, Kazuo
Never Let Me Go

Jackson, Shirley
The Haunting of Hill House

James, Henry
The Turn of the Screw

James, M.R.
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Ketchum, Jack
Off Season

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

King, Stephen

King, Stephen
Pet Sematary

Krilanovich, Grace
The Orange Eats Creeps

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Our Lady of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Levin, Ira
Rosemary's Baby

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Lovecraft, H.P.

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mandel, Emily St. John
Station Eleven

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
I Am Legend

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Oyeyemi, Helen
White is for Witching

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Poe, Edgar Allan
Tales of Mystery & Imagination

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Rice, Anne
Interview with the Vampire

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Clark Ashton
The Dark Eidolon

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stevenson, Robert Louis
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde

Stoker, Bram

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Tryon, Thomas
The Other

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
The Dragon Masters

Vance, Jack

Vance, Jack
The Languages of Pao

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vollmann, William T
Last Stories and Other Stories

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Wallace, Edgar
King Kong

Walpole, Horace
The Castle of Otranto

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features

Notes on Conceptual Fiction
My Year of Horrible Reading
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
The Most Secretive Sci-Fi Author
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

Links to related sites

The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter


SF Site
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
Big Dumb Object
SF Novelists
More Words, Deeper Hole
The Misread City
Reviews and Responses
SF Signal
True Science Fiction
Tor blog

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All rights reserved.
Arthur Machen
In 1890, the concept
of pagan brain surgery
was just the ticket.