It’s interesting and useful to talk to not just the people who have inspired you, but their heroes and role models as well. When it comes to writers, of course, the people whose style you enjoy may not have a living person as their influence, but thankfully books can outlive their creators.
I’m a fan of both Stephen King and H. P. Lovecraft, and a book that both have cited as being an excellent read is Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan. So, away to Amazon I flew, and thankfully it was available for a very reasonable price. It’s not a long book, only about 128 pages, but it’s a mark of Machen’s skill that he takes the plunge into creepiness right from the get-go, with two intelligent, educated young men talking cheerfully about the drugging and forced lobotomization of a young lady one of them adopted years before for just such a purpose.
The story jumps forward chronologically from there, as one of the aforementioned medical men begins to take note of strange goings-on, educated by an old school friend who is now living penniless on the street. This section has a similar feel to the middle of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde where the central horror of the story is revealed. The terror next door is of course present in both, and it’s here onwards that the relationship to Lovecraft can be seen.
Machen couches everything in mystery and vague hints as to what we don’t see, using it to build up a sense of wrongness in the antagonist of the piece, a seemingly beautiful woman named Helen Vaughan , who entertains respectable men at her home and who kill themselves a few days later. Why they die, and indeed how, is central to the story; implications are that what happened in her house was something beyond a scandalous meeting (for Victorian times, anyway) and indeed entirely other.
The film Jaws is of course famous for the killer shark it introduced as a menace (an idea that gave us, many years later, Sharknado, which is more frightening than anything Machen, Lovecraft or King ever wrote), but it’s also well-known for how rarely the titular shark is shown on camera until the end of the movie. The same holds true of Alien, the original trailer of Texas Chainsaw Massacre and hundreds of other films, books and even TV shows where the horror builds the suspense by allowing our imaginations to fill in the blanks.
The Great God Pan follows the same lines and, as I mentioned, clearly influenced Lovecraft, by allowing the reader to play a scene in their mind of Helen’s crimes and the unnameable disgust that fills anyone who sees her, without providing too many details. It’s part and parcel of this approach that it’s almost impossible to spoil this book, as so much in inferred as opposed to being stated outright.
Without sounding too much like an “old codger” the book is slower and more subtle than a lot of the movies and TV that are popular these days, so if you’re expecting visceral, gory terror this may not be your first choice, but for slowly creeping unease Machen’s your man.
As with all of my other reviews, this one is also featured on Cannonball Read, a race to review a certain number of books in a year, all in a good cause. There’s a lot of other good stuff over there: please feel free to take a look.