The House of Souls (1906) is a collection of four near novellas of the supernatural by the Welsh fantasist and sometimes horror writer Arthur Machen. These stories are set in an England beset by hidden worlds and pagan cultists and gently mad upper-class scientists.
“A Fragment of Life” – More like A Fragment of Novel. By that, I mean, it very much reads like a novel Machen was trying to write but more or less gave up on. It pretty much stops out of nowhere, reaching only the most generous reader’s definition of any kind of conclusion. However, what is here is a really intriguing mix of naturalism and mystic yearning in this tale of a tender married couple and the emotional and spiritual journey of the husband who hears the call of a far off land.
“The White People” – A very weird fantasy, playing on fairy tales and witch myth and paganism, that is not quite a horror story although there are several horrific elements. An unreliable narrator writes of an almost psychedelic dark fantasy. In some ways it feels like another novel cast-off like “A Fragment of Life” but this one exists much more satisfactorily as a short story.
“The Great God Pan” – The first true horror story in the book. It plays with many of the same elements as the previous two: ancient paganism and hidden worlds and such but takes a decidedly more sinister approach. A story of stories within stories and discovered documents in the grand turn of the century horror fiction tradition. An experiment reaps bad. Machen describes a monster here that is mostly off-screen yet terrifying. Ends with a burst of vivid body horror. The only downside is how driven by coincidence this story seems. Machen is very good but his stories are somewhat haphazard and seemingly cobbled together – – – there is nothing tight here plot-wise. It’s all in the mood and hints and flourish of the prose.
“The Inmost Light” A final tale of esoteric knowledge and upper-class occultists, with an even more vivid off screen monster. There’s a very mysterious circle of pagan conspirators who dance at the corners of this tale but much of their purpose is left obscured. The little brother of “Great God Pan”, especially with its rogue scientist and female test subject.
The House of Souls is throughout very interesting, and pleasant to read, if rarely actually horror, as Machen’s reputation seemed to me. Line by line, Machen moves with a beautiful eye for landscape, a fine attention to characterization, and a throbbing heart of wild weirdness.