Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Hill of Dreams by Arthur Machen

The Hill of Dreams (serialized in 1904 as "The Garden of Avallaunius") is a supernatural/decadent novel by the Welsh writer Arthur Machen. Machen was a native of the Welsh town of Caerleon-on-Usk (now Gwent), which has strong Arthurian associations and a history going back to the Roman occupation. Machen, a prolific author who died at a ripe old age in 1947, retains a reputation as a master of supernatural fiction, although he wrote in several different genres. In circumstances of poverty such as described in the semi-autobiographical The Hill of Dreams, he translated Casanova and prepared an extended essay on The Anatomy of Tobacco. He also subsequently authored several volumes of autobiography. His pagan and occultic preoccupations make him a fascinating writer to encounter, as does the richness of his prose in describing (as Huysmans does so well in Against the Grain and, for me, Walter Pater does less successfully in Marius the Epicurean) the world of sensation.

This strange novel is one of the handful of things by Machen that I've read. It involves a sensitive youth, Lucian Taylor, who has a strange mystico-sexual experience in the ruins of a Roman fort, and who has a brief affair with a local girl. When Lucian later moves to London to pursue, as did Machen himself, a writing career, he falls into a life of poverty, squalor, and opium addiction. His mystical fantasies (if they are indeed fantasies) of the Celtic-Roman past occupy his mind during his opium dreams. In his increasingly rare lucid moments, he rails against the barbarous, dehumanizing metropolis (In his A Baedeker of Decadence, George Schoolfield notes the resemblances between Machen's London and that portrayed in Thomson's influential long poem The City of Dreadful Night). Poor Lucian spirals further and further into a madness driven by deprivation, opium, and his search for "new and exquisite experiences". He is as much a decadent touchstone as Huysman's Des Essientes and Wilde's Dorian Grey.

Machen continues to have a following among aficionados of supernatural fiction. The Hill of Dreams is a rather different work than, for instance, The Great God Pan, a creepy tale of sexual and demonic atavism induced by modern science, but certainly bears testimony to Machen's interest in the occult (he was, like Crowley, Yeats, and Algernon Blackwood, an active member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn). l would recommend this novel to anyone interested in the history of decadent literature in Britain.

The Hill of Dreams is available in a variety of edition and formats, including some shoddy modern reprints. The Dover edition is worth seeking out. My edition is the yellow-covered Machen series published by Knopf in 1922.

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