A Fragment of Life, by Arthur Machen


(From “House of Souls”, 1922.)

It was somewhere, I think, towards the autumn of the year 1889 that the thought occurred to me that I might perhaps try to write a little in the modern way. For, hitherto, I had been, as it were, wearing costume in literature. The rich, figured English of the earlier part of the seventeenth century had always had a peculiar attraction for me. I accustomed myself to write in it, to think in it; I kept a diary in that manner, and half-unconsciously dressed up my every day thoughts and common experiences in the habit of the Cavalier or of the Caroline Divine. Thus, when in 1884 I got a commission to translate the Heptameron, I wrote quite naturally in the language of my favourite period, and, as some critics declare, made my English version somewhat more antique and stiff than the original. And so “The Anatomy of Tobacco” was an exercise in the antique of a different kind; and “The Chronicle of Clemendy” was a volume of tales that tried their hardest to be mediæval; and the translation of the “Moyen de Parvenir” was still a thing in the ancient mode.

It seemed, in fine, to be settled that in literature I was to be a hanger on of the past ages; and I don’t quite know how I managed to get away from them. I had finished translating “Casanova”— more modern, but not thoroughly up to date — and I had nothing particular on hand, and, somehow or other, it struck me that I might try a little writing for the papers. I began with a “turnover” as it was called, for the old vanished Globe, a harmless little article on old English proverbs; and I shall never forget my pride and delight when one day, being at Dover, with a fresh autumn wind blowing from the sea, I bought a chance copy of the paper and saw my essay on the front page. Naturally, I was encouraged to persevere, and I wrote more turnovers for the Globe and then tried the St. James’s Gazette and found that they paid two pounds instead of the guinea of the Globe, and again, naturally enough, devoted most of my attention to the St. James’s Gazette. From the essay or literary paper, I somehow got into the habit of the short story, and did a good many of these, still for the St. James’s, till in the autumn of 1890, I wrote a tale called “The Double Return.” Well, Oscar Wilde asked: “Are you the author of that story that fluttered the dovecotes? I thought it was very good.” But: it did flutter the dovecotes, and the St. James’s Gazette and I parted.

But I still wrote short stories, now chiefly for what were called “society” papers, which have become extinct. And one of these appeared in a paper, the name of which I have long forgotten. I had called the tale “Resurrectio Mortuorum,” and the editor had very sensibly rendered the title into “The Resurrection of the Dead.“

I do not clearly remember how the story began. I am inclined to think something in this way:

“Old Mr. Llewellyn, the Welsh antiquary, threw his copy of the morning paper on the floor and banged the breakfast-table, exclaiming: ‘Good God! Here’s the last of the Caradocs of the Garth, has been married in a Baptist Chapel by a dissenting preacher; somewhere in Peckham.’” Or, did I take up the tale a few years after this happy event and shew the perfectly cheerful contented young commercial clerk running somewhat too fast to catch the bus one morning, and feeling dazed all day long over the office work, and going home in a sort of dimness, and then at his very doorstep, recovering as it were, his ancestral consciousness. I think it was the sight of his wife and the tones of her voice that suddenly announced to him with the sound of a trumpet that he had nothing to do with this woman with the Cockney accent, or the pastor who was coming to supper, or the red brick villa, or Peckham or the City of London. Though the old place on the banks of the Usk had been sold fifty years before, still, he was Caradoc of the Garth. I forget how I ended the story: but here was one of the sources of “A Fragment of Life.“

And somehow, though the tale was written and printed and paid for; it stayed with me as a tale half told in the years from 1890 to 1899. I was in love with the notion: this contrast between the raw London suburb and its mean limited life and its daily journeys to the City; its utter banality and lack of significance; between all this and the old, grey mullioned house under the forest near the river, the armorial bearings on the Jacobean porch, and noble old traditions: all this captivated me and I thought of my mistold tale at intervals, while I was writing “The Great God Pan,” “The Red Hand,” “The Three Impostors,” “The Hill of Dreams,” “The White People,” and “Hieroglyphics.” It was at the back of my head, I suppose, all the time, and at last in ‘99 I began to write it all over again from a somewhat different standpoint.

The fact was that one grey Sunday afternoon in the March of that year, I went for a long walk with a friend. I was living in Gray’s Inn in those days, and we stravaged up Gray’s Inn Road on one of those queer, unscientific explorations of the odd corners of London in which I have always delighted. I don’t think that there was any definite scheme laid down; but we resisted manifold temptations. For on the right of Gray’s Inn Road is one of the oddest quarters of London — to those, that is, with the unsealed eyes. Here are streets of 1800–1820 that go down into a valley — Flora in “Little Dorrit” lived in one of them — and then crossing King’s Cross Road climb very steeply up to heights which always suggest to me that I am in the hinder and poorer quarter of some big seaside place, and that there is a fine view of the sea from the attic windows. This place was once called Spa Fields, and has very properly an old meeting house of the Countess of Huntingdon’s Connection as one of its attractions. It is one of the parts of London which would attract me if I wished to hide; not to escape arrest, perhaps, but rather to escape the possibility of ever meeting anybody who had ever seen me before.

But: my friend and I resisted it all. We strolled along to the parting of many ways at King’s Cross Station, and struck boldly up Pentonville. Again: on our left was Barnsbury, which is like Africa. In Barnsbury semper aliquid novi, but our course was laid for us by some occult influence, and we came to Islington and chose the right hand side of the way. So far, we were tolerably in the region of the known, since every year there is the great Cattle Show at Islington, and many men go there. But, trending to the right, we got into Canonbury, of which there are only Travellers’ Tales. Now and then, perhaps, as one sits about the winter fire, while the storm howls without and the snow falls fast, the silent man in the corner has told how he had a great aunt who lived in Canonbury in 1860; so in the fourteenth century you might meet men who had talked with those who had been in Cathay and had seen the splendours of the Grand Cham. Such is Canonbury; I hardly dare speak of its dim squares, of the deep, leafy back-gardens behind the houses, running down into obscure alleyways with discreet, mysterious postern doors: as I say, “Travellers’ Tales”; things not much credited.

But, he who adventures in London has a foretaste of infinity. There is a region beyond Ultima Thule. I know not how it was, but on this famous Sunday afternoon, my friend and I, passing through Canonbury came into something called the Balls Pond Road — Mr. Perch, the messenger of Dombey & Son, lived somewhere in this region — and so I think by Dalston down into Hackney where caravans, or trams, or, as I think you say in America, trolley cars set out at stated intervals to the limits of the western world.

But in the course of that walk which had become an exploration of the unknown, I had seen two common things which had made a profound impression upon me. One of these things was a street, the other a small family party. The street was somewhere in that vague, uncharted, Balls Pond–Dalston region. It was a long street and a grey street. Each house was exactly like every other house. Each house had a basement, the sort of story which house-agents have grown to call of late a “lower ground floor.” The front windows of these basements were half above the patch of black, soot-smeared soil and coarse grass that named itself a garden, and so, passing along at the hour of four o’clock or four-thirty, I could see that in everyone of these “breakfast rooms”— their technical name — the tea tray and the tea cups were set out in readiness. I received from this trivial and natural circumstance an impression of a dull life, laid out in dreadful lines of patterned uniformity, of a life without adventure of body or soul.

Then, the family party. It got into the tram down Hackney way. There were father, mother and baby; and I should think that they came from a small shop, probably from a small draper’s shop. The parents were young people of twenty-five to thirty-five. He wore a black shiny frock coat — an “Albert” in America? — a high hat, little side whiskers and dark moustache and a look of amiable vacuity. His wife was oddly bedizened in black satin, with a wide spreading hat, not ill-looking, simply unmeaning. I fancy that she had at times, not too often, “a temper of her own.” And the very small baby sat upon her knee. The party was probably going forth to spend the Sunday evening with relations or friends.

And yet, I said to myself, these two have partaken together of the great mystery, of the great sacrament of nature, of the source of all that is magical in the wide world. But have they discerned the mysteries? Do they know that they have been in that place which is called Syon and Jerusalem? — I am quoting from an old book and a strange book.

It was thus that, remembering the old story of the “Resurrection of the Dead,” I was furnished with the source of “A Fragment of Life.” I was writing “Hieroglyphics” at the time, having just finished “The White People”; or rather, having just decided that what now appears in print under that heading was all that would ever be written, that the Great Romance that should have been written — in manifestation of the idea — would never be written at all. And so, when Hieroglyphics was finished, somewhere about May 1899, I set about “A Fragment of Life” and wrote the first chapter with the greatest relish and the utmost ease. And then my own life was dashed into fragments. I ceased to write. I travelled. I saw Syon and Bagdad and other strange places — see “Things Near and Far” for an explanation of this obscure passage — and found myself in the lighted world of floats and battens, entering L. U. E., crossing R and exiting R 3; and doing all sorts of queer things.

But still, in spite of all these shocks and changes, the “notion” would not leave me. I went at it again, I suppose in 1904; consumed with a bitter determination to finish what I had begun. Everything now had become difficult. I tried this way and that way and the other way. They all failed and I broke down on every one of them; and I tried and tried again. At last I cobbled up some sort of an end, an utterly bad one, as I realized as I wrote every single line and word of it, and the story appeared, in 1904 or 1905, in Horlick’s Magazine under the editorship of my old and dear friend, A. E. Waite.

Still; I was not satisfied. That end was intolerable and I knew it. Again, I sat down to the work, night after night I wrestled with it. And I remember an odd circumstance which may or may not be of some physiological interest. I was then living in a circumscribed “upper part” of a house in Cosway Street, Marylebone Road. That I might struggle by myself, I wrote in the little kitchen; and night after night as I fought grimly, savagely, all but hopelessly for some fit close for “A Fragment of Life,” I was astonished and almost alarmed to find that my feet developed a sensation of most deadly cold. The room was not cold; I had lit the oven burners of the little gas cooking stove. I was not cold; but my feet were chilled in a quite extraordinary manner, as if they had been packed in ice. At last I took off my slippers with a view of poking my toes into the oven of the stove, and feeling my feet with my hand, I perceived that, in fact, they were not cold at all! But the sensation remained; there, I suppose, you have an odd case of a transference of something that was happening in the brain to the extremities. My feet were quite warm to the palm of my hand, but to my sense they were frozen. But what a testimony to the fitness of the American idiom, “cold feet,” as signifying a depressed and desponding mood! But, somehow or other, the tale was finished and the “notion” was at last out of my head. I have gone into all this detail about “A Fragment of Life” because I have been assured in many quarters that it is the best thing that I have ever done, and students of the crooked ways of literature may be interested to hear of the abominable labours of doing it.


“The White People” belongs to the same year as the first chapter of “A Fragment of Life,” 1899, which was also the year of “Hieroglyphics.” The fact was I was in high literary spirits, just then. I had been harassed and worried for a whole year in the office of Literature, a weekly paper published by The Times, and getting free again, I felt like a prisoner released from chains; ready to dance in letters to any extent. Forthwith I thought of “A Great Romance,” a highly elaborate and elaborated piece of work, full of the strangest and rarest things. I have forgotten how it was that this design broke down; but I found by experiment that the great romance was to go on that brave shelf of the unwritten books, the shelf where all the splendid books are to be found in their golden bindings. “The White People” is a small piece of salvage from the wreck. Oddly enough, as is insinuated in the Prologue, the mainspring of the story is to be sought in a medical textbook. In the Prologue reference is made to a review article by Dr. Coryn. But I have since found out that Dr. Coryn was merely quoting from a scientific treatise that case of the lady whose fingers became violently inflamed because she saw a heavy window sash descend on the fingers of her child. With this instance, of course, are to be considered all cases of stigmata, both ancient and modern: and then the question is obvious enough: what limits can we place to the powers of the imagination? Has not the imagination the potentiality at least of performing any miracle, however marvelous, however incredible, according to our ordinary standards? As to the decoration of the story, that is a mingling which I venture to think somewhat ingenious of odds and ends of folk lore and witch lore with pure inventions of my own. Some years later I was amused to receive a letter from a gentleman who was, if I remember, a schoolmaster somewhere in Malaya. This gentleman, an earnest student of folklore, was writing an article on some singular things he had observed amongst the Malayans, and chiefly a kind of were-wolf state into which some of them were able to conjure themselves. He had found, as he said, startling resemblances between the magic ritual of Malaya and some of the ceremonies and practices hinted at in “The White People.” He presumed that all this was not fancy but fact; that is that I was describing practices actually in use among superstitious people on the Welsh border; he was going to quote from me in the article for the Journal of the Folk Lore Society, or whatever it was called, and he just wanted to let me know. I wrote in a hurry to the folklore journal to bid them beware: for the instances selected by the student were all fictions of my own brain!

“The Great God Pan” and “The Inmost Light” are tales of an earlier date, going back to 1890, ‘91, ‘92. I have written a good deal about them in “Far Off Things,” and in a preface to an edition of “The Great God Pan,” published by Messrs. Simpkin, Marshall in 1916, I have described at length the origins of the book. But I must quote anew some extracts from the reviews which welcomed “The Great God Pan” to my extraordinary entertainment, hilarity and refreshment. Here are a few of the best:

“It is not Mr. Machen’s fault but his misfortune, that one shakes with laughter rather than with dread over the contemplation of his psychological bogey.”— Observer.

“His horror, we regret to say, leaves us quite cold . . . and our flesh obstinately refuses to creep.”— Chronicle.

“His bogies don’t scare.”— Sketch.

“We are afraid he only succeeds in being ridiculous.”— Manchester Guardian.

“Gruesome, ghastly and dull.”— Lady’s Pictorial.

“Incoherent nightmare of sex . . . which would soon lead to insanity if unrestrained . . . innocuous from its absurdity.”— Westminster Gazette.

And so on, and so on. Several papers, I remember, declared that “The Great God Pan” was simply a stupid and incompetent rehash of Huysmans’ “Là-Bas” and “À Rebours.” I had not read these books so I got them both. Thereon, I perceived that my critics had not read them either.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58