Thursday, April 21, 2011

Revisiting the Public Domain: The Inmost Light by Arthur Machen

The Inmost Light by Arthur Machen

It's not a book in and of itself, but it is a story that you'll find in several old books that collect and anthologize Machen's stories. Maybe you've already read or have heard of this story. Arthur Machen doesn't get anywhere the respect that say H. P. Lovecraft has gotten, nor that Edgar Allen Poe has regained from his sordid trashing by people who should have known better. Instead, Machen remains fairly obscure outside of the usual horror enthusiasts and Mythos-fans. Yes, you can quibble about this author's literary merits or his overall grammatical or structural strengths and/or weaknesses, but who really cares? In an age when the worst grammar and least editorial input seems to be the order of the day for popular best-sellers, arguing about that seems like dusty virgins having a pillow fight in a crumbling Victorian brothel that's on fire, while collapsing into a deep, dark lake. Pointless. In truth, much as The Rock would say: "It doesn't really matter."

What matters about Machen, and most of his contemporaries are their stories. Like Shakespeare said: "The play's the thing." In this case the tales and the ideas and the legacy of their wit, their words, and their writing -- and the weird worlds that they opened up a path for us to go explore after them.

Arthur Machen has many stories well worth examining, and we'll get to a few more before we're through, but for now, we're taking a look at Just One Story in order to see what it holds for us, where it leads onwards, and what hidden things await us within these mostly overlooked and obscure words from very different time...

You can download your own copy of The Inmost Light at Horrormasters, Project Gutenberg (as part of the collection House of Souls), Arthur's Classic Novels, Neotake, Feedbooks, and if you need more options just Google it. You'll find The Inmost Light in several collections. You can also find some music inspired by the story here, if you're in the mood for some sort of accompanying soundtrack.

A Description of the Jewel illuminated by The Inmost Light...
"He hailed the first hansom he could see and drove home, and when he had lit his hanging lamp, and laid his parcel on the table, he paused for a moment, wondering on what strange thing the lamplight would soon shine. He locked his door, and cut the strings, and unfolded the paper layer after layer, and came at last to a small wooden box, simply but solidly made. There was no lock, and Dyson had simply to raise the lid, and as he did so he drew a long breath and started back. The lamp seemed to glimmer feebly like a single candle, but the whole room blazed with light--and not with light alone, but with a thousand colours, with all the glories of some painted window; and upon the walls of his room and on the familiar furniture, the glow flamed back and seemed to flow again to its source, the little wooden box. For there upon a bed of soft wool lay the most splendid jewel, a jewel such as Dyson had never dreamed of, and within it shone the blue of far skies, and the green of the sea by the shore, and the red of the ruby, and deep violet rays, and in the middle of all it seemed aflame as if a fountain of fire rose up, and fell, and rose again with sparks like stars for drops. Dyson gave a long deep sigh, and dropped into his chair, and put his hands over his eyes to think. The jewel was like an opal, but from a long experience of the shop-windows he knew there was no such thing as an opal one-quarter or one-eighth of its size. He looked at the stone again, with a feeling that was almost awe, and placed it gently on the table under the lamp, and watched the wonderful flame that shone and sparkled in its centre, and then turned to the box, curious to know whether it might contain other marvels."
Of course in the story...
"He lifted the bed of wool on which the opal had reclined, and saw beneath, no more jewels, but a little old pocket-book, worn and shabby with use. Dyson opened it at the first leaf, and dropped the book again appalled. He had read the name of the owner, neatly written in blue ink..."
It seems that in these sorts of stories, someone is always finding handy diaries, journals, scrawled notes--that approach is so very common in these sorts of stories that it becomes a parody of itself in The Diary of Alonso Typer where the narrator actually transcribes their screams into the diary in a moment of Monty Python surreality. Thankfully Machen keeps things a bit more sound and reasonable--the journal in question is being offered as a sort of sordid confession, sort of a brutal challenge. Not a spurious, cliched trope that even Monty Python couldn't take seriously any longer...

(We'll be coming back to Alonso Typer another day, and not just to mock his diary...)
Back to Machen and The Inmost Light. The Journal and the Jewel were both contents of a mysterious parcel recovered through a bit of smooth, even bald-faced serendipity that few modern authors would dare to attempt. As the narrator examines the shabby old pocket note-book it reveals some lurid details surrounding the work of its author. Troublesome Things indeed...
"In that work, from which even I doubted to escape with life, life itself must enter; from some human being there must be drawn that essence which men call the soul, and in its place (for in the scheme of the world there is no vacant chamber)--in its place would enter in what the lips can hardly utter, what the mind cannot conceive without a horror more awful than the horror of death itself."
This madman is meddling with the very essence of human souls. He's literally extracting the soul-essence from living human beings and has discovered -- surprise -- that something more awful than the horror of death itself enters the vacated body in its place.

Yeah. Didn't see that one coming. Right. Something about vacuums and abhorrence and nature. Duh.

But hey, this explorer of the arcane secrets of life and death, who works diligently, obsessively and even arduously in his cobbled-together 'laboratory' or work-space is a man of science, not some hare-brained alchymist or some half-literate mumbo-jumbo artist with pretensions of being a sorcerer. He's not even an inbred congenital wizard like one of those Whateleys from America. Nope. He's conducting experiments into the nature and chemical composition of the soul, extracting it, weighing it, analyzing it and seeing how it can be stored within a stable vessel outside the human body. But it's not black magic. It's independent scientific inquiry.

But somehow, after reading tons of books and poring over scribbled manuscripts from the children's section of the local library, and after blowing wads of cash on glassware, exotic herbs, more peculiar books (all collectible First Editions to preserve their scientific potency no doubt), the dabbler with things best left untampered with decides he's missing one essential thing in order to really, really go on with his ultra important and incredibly scientific work.

He needs a volunteer from the audience, ahem, a human victim accomplice experimental test subject.

So, like any good Victorian man of his station, he brow-beats his wife into obliging him in participating in his 'experiments' as though he were demanding some variation in their sex life.

She breaks down in the obligatory 'weak and overly emotional female' sort of tears and eventual resolution to do what she must for her husband, no matter how half-baked, crack-pot or dangerously demented his 'work' really and truly appears to be.

He removes her soul.

He places it into a synthetic Jewel--the very one that the narrator is fondling even as he reads the shabby journal.

The Inmost Light is the idiotic pseudo-Faust's own wife's soul trapped in a Jewel.


But of course you saw it coming, didn't you.

Sure you did. Or maybe you thought he was some sort of perv? Well, he pretty much was, when you think about it. Extracting your wife's soul? Putting it into a box Jewel. Just to see if you can do it. And then finding out that something else has entered into her body. Talk about an anti-feminist reverse-Galatea. Wow. That is perverse, in a chilling pre-Stepford kind of way.

To make a short story shorter, something unnatural and weird comes into the wife's body. We don't actually see much of that though, as it mostly takes place off-stage. If you've read Machen's The Great God Pan, then you have a pretty good idea of what was going on. The wife's body and its new occupant take to the streets and start doing all sorts of unspeakably horrific things like holding opinions of their own, speaking bluntly and openly, eschewing the trembling school-girl routine, and generally getting all uppity and difficult and powerful. What a terrifying thing that turned out to be for the wonderful, sensitive husband who only wanted to extract his wife's soul in the name of science.

Like most such stories, it sort of works out in the end. The Jewel gets crushed and the world is made safe from the unspeakable feminist threat once again. But that's the least interesting part of it all.

What would you do with a Jewel containing the extracted essence of another human being? What could you do with such a thing?


  1. Well as the story is written it only seems to be a problem if you leave a living body around without a soul. It seems to me that such a gem could be a good storage medium if someone is dying. My only concern would be how aware a soul is in those gems.

    Lazarus Lupin
    art and review

  2. One could use it humanitarianly by housing wicked souls bound for hell. Just be sure to kill the bodies.

    Lazarus Lupin
    art and review

  3. This sort of reminds me of the B5 episodes Soul Hunter.

    Pity the husband is already dead or I could have used the jewel to brain him. I'm always incredibly annoyed by the 'weak and overly emotional female', as you so nicely put it, and this is one of the worst examples I have ever come across.She totally deserves to be shut in a jewel.

    But I still love Machen's stories.

  4. @Lazarus Lupin: A vacant body is a terrible thing to waste, especially in terms of bringing-in a touch of horror to things. Of course, the entity attracted could be something less malevolent, or even benevolent--think Ruth Montgomery's Walk Ins (Whiche we'll cover for W).

    In the case of using the Jewel of the Inmost Light for storing a soul, that has some intriguing opportunities to it that could easily get slipped into a fantasy rpg scenario--the party has this artifact that will save one of their fallen comrades, but do they dare use it? Excellent moral dilemma stuff.

    How aware a soul is inside the Jewel is open to speculation and adaptation--a simple table of possible options would do nicely. Maybe we'll draft one up as a supplement to this post.

    Housing wicked souls did occur to us as a weird thing to put into the hands of clerics or palidons--it could as easily be used to capture and confine the souls of heretics and non-believers...making it into a fearsome weapon. This is something that might make it into Triestemon, and some of our other settings, both as a set of spells, rites and magic items.

    Glad you found us!

  5. @Jedediah: We were thinking along very similar lines--the B5 Soul Hunter does seem very close in conception to Machen's Inmost Light, and in a good way.

    The whole 'weak, whining, overly emotional' crap has just been done way too often by weak, whining, overly emotional male writers who were either intimidated or afraid of women. Machen almost satirizes this sort of thing in The Inmost Light, meting out a horrible fate to the vacillating wife in a sort of reversal of the way things went in The Great God Pan. But even then, a woman who stands up for herself, expresses herself and acts like a full human being is seen as a terrifying, unnatural, horrifying aberration that must be the spawn of something monstrous and evil.


    Reverse the roles and you get a superhero or Mister Hyde, or a Hyde-hero. Like when you reverse the roles in Beauty and the Beast--it just doesn't really work, not without some major alterations. Which is weird in a wrong way.

    But then the scariest mythological monsters have usually been female, like Grendel's Mama, Medusa & her Gorgon sisters, etc.

    A lot of guys want to make their readers scared of women. What's up with that?


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