Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Stephen King's "N." and Arthur Machen's "N." and The Great God Pan

Stephen King's Just After Sunset a collection of stories just published features a previously unpublished story "N." the only new story in the collection, which King says was inspired by The Great God Pan.

King paid tribute to Machen saying of "N." on his website: "it’s a riff on Arthur Machen’s “The Great God Pan,” which is one of the best horror stories ever written. Maybe the best in the English language. Mine isn’t anywhere near that good, but I loved the chance to put neurotic behavior—obsessive/compulsive disorder—together with the idea of a monster-filled macroverse. That was a good combination. As for Machen vs. Lovecraft: sure, Lovecraft was ultimately better, because he did more with those concepts, but “The Great God Pan” is more reader-friendly. And Machen was there first. He wrote “Pan” in 1895, when HPL was five years

King made a minor mistake on the date - published in 1894, Pan was written in 1890-1. One can only agree with such fulsome praise, though his comments on the relative merits of the Lovecraft vs Machen touches on an ongoing debate. It seems difficult to argue that Machen's prose style was not better than Lovecraft's. In terms of their horror works though Lovecraft produced far more tales of horror than Machen and developed a more complex structure around them thus creating many more followers, any direct comparison is unfair as Machen lost interest in the genre. Machen was also far more multi faceted in that he was a successful translator, journalist and essayist in his day. At the last Friends AGM featured a major debate on the subject which Machen won I think though as a lot of drinking was involved it is difficult to be sure.

Although reviews of the book have mentioned Machen rather a lot giving him good publicity none have noted that even the title is a tribute to Machen's story "N." of the same name.
The curiously titled "N.", which Machen wrote as an old man towards the end of his fiction writing life in December 1935. It is a strange tale even for Machen concerning the unearthing of some kind of an alternate reality in Stoke Newington in North London. I guessed that King’s N. was a reference to Machen when I first heard about it. I noted too there are a few similarities between the plot line of the stories both forms of "N." both dealing with places where reality is different to the norm. King is a long-standing Machen admirer.

I enjoyed King's N. and thought it was a fascinating character study, using modern psychological concerns in a similar way to how Machen played off contemporary medical ideas about the brain, sex, and degeneracy in the 1890s. Marvel Comics released a graphic version of it online some time ago which I can recommend. You can watch the online version here as well as an interview with King in which discusses the origin of the story:

M. John Harrison [another man who wrote a Pan inspired story called “The Great God Pan” which I can recommend] has reviewed the book : “Existential emptiness lurks, and behind that, inevitably, something unspeakable, as in "N", a curious collision between HP Lovecraft, Arthur Machen and Alfred Bester's "The Pi Man". Here, one individual's obsessive-compulsive counting of a circle of stones — are there seven, or eight? — is the only thing that keeps humanity safe from the things it doesn't know.” 2008/nov/ 15/just-after- sunset-stephen- king


LSR said...

Do you know if Machen's "N" is collected in any modern anthology? I've been so curious to read it.

c210344 said...

@Biblioteca I read it in The collected Arthur Machen, ed. Palmer, published in 1988 - not sure if that counts as modern but might be buyable on Abebooks etc.