Autodidact: self-taught



by V. L. Craven

Arthur Machen

The Terror: A Mystery

001. But we have grown of late to such a reverence for the printed word and such a reliance on it, that the old faculty of disseminating news by word of mouth has become atrophied. Forbid the Press to mention the fact that Jones has been murdered, and it is marvelous how few people will hear of it, and of those who hear how few will credit the story that they have heard.
002. He pointed up, and we saw what looked like a black cloud coming from the south at a tremendous rate. I saw at once it wasn’t a cloud; it came with a swirl and a rush quite different from any cloud I’ve ever seen. But for a second I couldn’t make out exactly what it was. It altered its shape and turned into a great crescent, and wheeled and veered about as if it was looking for something. The man who had called out had got his glasses, and was staring for all he was worth. Then he shouted that it was a tremendous flight of birds, ‘thousands of them.’ They went on wheeling and beating about high up in the air, and we were watching them, thinking it was interesting,
003. [Regarding the new technologies of planes and tanks] We have just begun to navigate a strange region; we must expect to encounter strange adventures, strange perils.
004. it was the secret light that at last guided me through a somber grove of enigmas.
005. The district in question is in the far west of Wales; I shall call it, for convenience, Meirion. In it there is one seaside town of some repute with holiday-makers for five or six weeks in the summer, and dotted about the county there are three or four small old towns that seem drooping in a slow decay, sleepy and gray with age and forgetfulness. They remind me of what I have read of towns in the west of Ireland. Grass grows between the uneven stones of the pavements, the signs above the shop windows decline, half the letters of these signs are missing, here and there a house has been pulled down, or has been allowed to slide into ruin, and wild greenery springs up through the fallen stones, and there is silence in all the streets. And, it is to be noted, these are not places that were once magnificent. The Celts have never had the art of building, and so far as I can see, such towns as Towy and Merthyr Tegveth and Meiros must have been always much as they are now, clusters of poorish, meanly-built houses, ill-kept and down at heel.
And these few towns are thinly scattered over a wild country where north is divided from south by a wilder mountain range. One of these places is sixteen miles from any station; the others are doubtfully and deviously connected by single-line railways served by rare trains that pause and stagger and hesitate on their slow journey up mountain passes, or stop for half an hour or more at lonely sheds called stations, situated in the midst of desolate marshes. A few years ago I traveled with an Irishman on one of these queer lines, and he looked to right and saw the bog with its yellow and blue grasses and stagnant pools, and he looked to left and saw a ragged hillside, set with gray stone walls. “I can hardly believe,” he said, “that I’m not still in the wilds of Ireland.”
006. People seized on this theory largely because it offered at least the comfort of an explanation, and any explanation, even the poorest, is better than an intolerable and terrible mystery.
007. Mr. Remnant was a middle-aged man, who, having nothing particular to do, read a great many books by way of conquering the hours. He talked to the club—doctors, retired colonels, parsons, lawyers—about “personality,” quoted various psychological textbooks in support of his contention that personality was sometimes fluid and unstable, went back to “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” as good evidence of this proposition, and laid stress on Dr. Jekyll’s speculation that the human soul, so far from being one and indivisible, might, possibly turn out to be a mere polity, a state in which dwelt many strange and incongruous citizens, whose characters were not merely unknown but altogether unsurmised by that form of consciousness which so rashly assumed that it was not only the president of the republic but also its sole citizen.
007. Mr. Llewelyn would most certainly never have dreamed of employing his leisure in peering into the cupboards where the family skeletons were hidden. Supposing such cupboards to have existed, Mr. Payne Llewelyn would have risked large out-of-pocket expenses to furnish them with double, triple, impregnable locks.
008. But I think it’s extremely improbable. Probability is the guide of life, you know, Mr Remnant. Dr. Lewis, smiling at that gentleman, as if to say that he also had done a little reading in his day. “And it follows” therefore, that improbability is also the guide of life. When you get a very high degree of probability, that is, you are justified in taking it as a certainty; and on the other hand, if a supposition is highly improbable, you are justified in treating it as an impossible one. That is, in nine hundred and ninety-nine cases out of a thousand.” “How about the thousandth case?” said Remnant. “Supposing these extraordinary crimes constitute the thousandth case?”
009. Germany had by this time perpetrated so many horrors and had so excelled in devilish ingenuities that no abomination seemed too abominable to be probable, or too ingeniously wicked to be beyond the tortuous malice of the Hun. [this was written in 1917]
010. “My theory,” said that ingenious person, “is that human progress is simply a long march from one inconceivable to another. Look at that airship of ours that came over Porth yesterday: ten years ago that would have been an inconceivable sight. Take the steam engine, stake printing, take the theory of gravitation: they were all inconceivable till somebody thought of them. So it is, no doubt, with this infernal dodgery that we’re talking about: the Huns have found it out, and we haven’t; and there you are. We can’t conceive how these poor people have been murdered, because the method’s inconceivable to us.”
The club listened with some awe to this high argument. After Remnant had gone, one member said: “Wonderful man, that.” “Yes,” said Dr. Lewis. “He was asked whether he knew something. And his reply really amounted to ‘No, I don’t,’ But I have never heard it better put.”
011. And then may come on either side of such a field territories glistening with the deep growth of bracken, and rough with gorse and rugged with thickets of blackthorn, green lichen hanging strangely from the branches; such are the lands on either side of the Highway.
012. set himself out to potter amiably through the world. He had pottered all over Europe, he had looked at Africa, and had even put his head in at the door of the East, on a trip which included the Greek isles and Constantinople.
013. The doctor’s house, though it was only a ten minutes’ walk from the center of the town, seemed remote from all other habitations. The drive to it from the road came through a deep grove of trees and a dense shrubbery, trees were about the house on either side, mingling with neighboring groves, and below, the garden fell down, terrace by green terrace, to wild growth, a twisted path amongst red rocks, and at last to the yellow sand of a little cove. The room to which the doctor took Remnant looked over these terraces and across the water to the dim boundaries of the bay. It had French windows that were thrown wide open, and the two men sat in the soft light of the lamp—this was before the days of severe lighting regulations in the Far West—and enjoyed the sweet odors and the sweet vision of the summer evening.
014. “Very good,” said Mr. Remnant. He spoke now with an italic impressiveness. “Don’t you see the link between all this and the horrible things that have been happening about here for the last month?”
015. “Great burning!” he exclaimed. “What on earth are you getting at now?”
016. Remnant seemed to hesitate, partly from a sense of the portentous nature of what he was about to say, partly from a sort of half-unwillingness to part with so profound a secret.
017. We do not go mad, because, by special grace, we are certified that, in the final: court of appeal, all science is a lie, even the highest science of all; and so we simply grin at Achilles and the Tortoise, as we grin at Darwin, deride Huxley, and laugh at Herbert Spencer.
018. “It is a question of idiosyncrasy,” said the doctor.
“Is idiosyncrasy Greek for ‘I don’t know’?”
019. “And so you believe in the German theory?”
“If I do, it’s because one must believe in something.”
020. Oddly enough, Professor Huvelius wrote the most cynical book in the world—Hobbes preaches rosy sentimentalism in comparison—with the very highest motives. He held that a very large part of human misery, misadventure, and sorrow was due to the false convention that the heart of man was naturally and in the main well disposed and kindly, if not exactly righteous.
“War,” he declares, “which is one of the worst of evils, will always continue to exist. But a wise king will desire a brief war rather than a lengthy one, a short evil rather than a long evil. And this not from the benignity of his heart towards his enemies, for we have seen that the human heart is naturally malignant, but because he desires to conquer, and to conquer easily, without a great expenditure of men or of treasure, knowing that if he can accomplish this feat his people will love him and his crown will be secure. So he will wage brief victorious wars, and not only spare his own nation, but the nation of the enemy, since in a short war the loss is less on both sides than in a long war. And so from evil will come good.”
And how, asks Huvelius, are such wars to be waged? The wise prince, he replies, will begin by assuming the enemy to be infinitely corruptible and infinitely stupid, since stupidity and corruption are the chief characteristics of man. So the prince will make himself friends in the very councils of his enemy, and also amongst the populace, bribing the wealthy by proffering to them the opportunity of still greater wealth, and winning the poor by swelling words. “For, contrary to the common opinion, it is the wealthy who are greedy of wealth; while the populace are to be gained by talking to them about liberty, their unknown god. And so much are they enchanted by the words liberty, freedom, and such like, that the wise can go to the poor, rob them of what little they have, dismiss them with a hearty kick, and win their hearts and their votes for ever, if only they will assure them that the treatment which they have received is called liberty.”
Merritt knew nothing of the real Huvelius, who was all but a saint; he thought of the Swedish professor as a monster of iniquity, “worse,” as he said, “than Neech”—meaning, no doubt, Nietzsche.
021. So things went on very well. Merritt began to stroll about the garden, which was full of the comfortable spaces, groves, and surprises that only country gardens know. To the right of one of the terraces he found an arbor or summer-house covered with white roses, and he was as pleased as if he had discovered the Pole.
022. “Well, what’s the point of forbidding the public to go on the cliff, then? I can quite understand putting a sentry on the top to keep a look-out for the enemy. What I don’t understand is a sentry at the bottom who can’t keep a look-out for anything, as he can’t see the sea. And why warn the public off the cliffs? I couldn’t facilitate a German landing by standing on Pengareg, even if I wanted to.”
023. …here Merritt had been accustomed to botanize mildly.
024. “A terrible thing, sir, to be sure, and a sad pity; and I am sure this is not the sort of sight you have come to see down in Meirion this beautiful summer. So don’t you think, sir, that it would be more pleasant like, if you would leave us to this sad business of ours? I have heard many gentlemen staying in Porth say that there is nothing to beat the view from the hill over there, not in the whole of Wales.” Every one is polite in Meirion, but somehow Merritt understood that, in English, this speech meant “move on.”
025. scrag-end of a minute.”
026. Lewis thought that he had said, “Oh, shut up!” in a somewhat elegant manner. And, in fact Merritt looked dignified, remained silent, and helped himself to port.
027. “Indeed to goodness, you are all of you more trouble than you are worth.”
028. It might have been a piece of work by Burke and Hare, the doctor reflected; a pitch plaster might have been clapped over the man’s mouth and nostrils and held there.
029. The corporal snapped out an order over his shoulder, and there was a rattling metallic noise as the men fixed their bayonets and became in an instant dreadful dealers out of death, in place of harmless fellows with a feeling for beer.
030. “Do you remember that talk we had about two months ago when I dined with you? We got on, somehow or other, to space and time, and I think we agreed that as soon as one tried to reason about space and time one was landed in a maze of contradictions. You said something to the effect that it was very curious but this was just like a dream. ‘A man will sometimes wake himself from his crazy dream,’ you said, ‘by realizing that he is thinking nonsense.’ And we both wondered whether these contradictions that one can’t avoid if one begins to think of time and space may not really be proofs that the whole of life is a dream, and the moon and the stars bits of nightmare.
031. I knew Treff Loyne was a lonely place—that was why I had gone there, to have a long rest from all the jangle and rattle and turmoil of London, that makes a man alive and kills him too.
032. “Incipit liber iræ Domini Dei nostri. (Here beginneth The Book of the Wrath of the Lord our God.)
033. Dr. Lewis maintained that we should never begin to understand the real significance of life until we began to study just those aspects of it which we now dismiss and overlook as utterly inexplicable, and therefore, unimportant.
034. They won’t believe in anything that isn’t there at the particular moment when you are talking to them. As with the Plague [possibly returning] , so with the Terror. We could not believe that such a thing could ever happen. Remnant said, truly enough, that whatever it was, it was outside theory, outside our theory. Flatland cannot believe in the cube or the sphere.
035. I agreed with all this. I added that sometimes the world was incapable of seeing, much less believing, that which was before its own eyes. “Look,” I said, “at any eighteenth century print of a Gothic cathedral. You will find that the trained artistic eye even could not behold in any true sense the building that was before it. I have seen an old print of Peterborough Cathedral that looks as if the artist had drawn it from a clumsy model, constructed of bent wire and children’s bricks. “Exactly; because Gothic was outside the aesthetic theory (and therefore vision) of the time. You can’t believe what you don’t see: rather, you can’t see what you don’t believe. It was so during the time of the Terror. All this bears out what Coleridge said as to the necessity of having the idea before the facts could be of any service to one.
036. Delirium is often a sort of cloud-castle, a sort of magnified and distorted shadow of actualities,
037. science only deals with surfaces; it has nothing to do with realities
038. It is a most difficult and obscure question. I give what explanation I have to give with very great diffidence, and an eminent disposition to be corrected, if a clearer light can be found.
039. Spiritual does not mean respectable, it does not even mean moral, it does not mean “good” in the ordinary acceptation of the word. It signifies the royal prerogative of man, differentiating him from the beasts.
040. For long ages he has been putting off this royal robe, he has been wiping the balm of consecration from his own breast. He has declared, again and again, that he is not spiritual, but rational, that is, the equal of the beasts over whom he was once sovereign. He has vowed that he is not Orpheus but Caliban.


The Three Impostors (or The Transmutations)

001 The three friends moved away from the door, and began to walk slowly up and down what had been a gravel path, but now lay green and pulpy with damp mosses. It was a fine autumn evening, and a faint sunlight shone on the yellow walls of the old deserted house, and showed the patches of gangrenous decay, and all the stains, the black drift of rain from the broken pipes, the scabrous blots where the bare bricks were exposed, the green weeping of a gaunt laburnum that stood beside the porch, and ragged marks near the ground where the reeking clay was gaining on the worn foundations. It was a queer rambling old place, the centre perhaps two hundred years old, with dormer windows sloping from the tiled roof, and on each side there were Georgian wings; bow windows had been carried up to the first floor, and two dome-like cupolas that had once been painted a bright green were now gray and neutral. Broken urns lay upon the path, and a heavy mist seemed to rise from the unctuous clay; the neglected shrubberies, grown all tangled and unshapen, smelt dank and evil, and there was an atmosphere all about the deserted mansion that proposed thoughts of an opened grave.
002 The three friends looked dismally at the rough grasses and the nettles that grew thick over lawn and flower-beds; and at the sad water-pool in the midst of the weeds. There, above green and oily scum instead of lilies, stood a rusting Triton on the rocks, sounding a dirge through a shattered horn;
003 “My dear sir,” said Dyson, “I will give you the task of the literary man in a phrase. He has got to do simply this: to invent a wonderful story, and to tell it in a wonderful manner.”
… “I will grant you that,” said Mr. Phillipps, “but you will allow me to insist that in the hands of the true artist in words all stories are marvellous, and every circumstance has its peculiar wonder. The matter is of little consequence, the manner is everything. Indeed, the highest skill is shown in taking matter apparently commonplace and transmuting it by the high alchemy of style into the pure gold of art.” “That is indeed a proof of great skill, but it is great skill exerted foolishly, or at least unadvisedly. It is as if a great violinist were to show us what marvellous harmonies he could draw from a child’s banjo.” …”No, no, you are really wrong. I see you take a radically mistaken view of life….” … It was thus that Mr. Dyson became the associate of Mr. Charles Phillipps, who lived in a quiet square not far from Holborn. Thenceforth they haunted each other’s rooms at intervals,
004 It was thus that Mr. Dyson became the associate of Mr. Charles Phillipps, who lived in a quiet square not far from Holborn. Thenceforth they haunted each other’s rooms at intervals,
005 There was a constant jarring of literary formulas, Dyson exalting the claims of the pure imagination, while Phillipps, who was a student of physical science and something of an ethnologist, insisted that all literature ought to have a scientific basis. By the mistaken benevolence of deceased relatives both young men were placed out of reach of hunger, and so, meditating high achievements, idled their time pleasantly away, and revelled in the careless joys of a Bohemianism devoid of the sharp seasoning of adversity.
006 The man was dressed in quiet taste, and the most scrupulous observer could find nothing amiss with the fashion or make of his clothes, yet, from his hat to his boots, everything seemed inappropriate.
007. I could see a sickness and dismay in the faces of these men as they looked at the ugly brush or at the desolate expanse of the prairie, dotted here and there with frame-houses, devoid of garden, or flowers or trees, standing all alone in what might have been a great gray sea frozen into stillness.
008. I tell you, sir, that an awful being stalks through the streets, a being before whom the sunlight itself should blacken, and the summer air grow chill and dank.

[Adventure of the Missing Brother]
009. In his early days he had devoted himself with fond enthusiasm to the agreeable study of biology, … Later, he had somewhat relaxed the severity of his pursuits, and had dabbled in the more frivolous subjects of palæontology and ethnology;
010. the wildest dreams took solid shape to him if only the nomenclature were severe and irreproachable;
011. he laughed at the witch, but quailed before the powers of the hypnotist, lifting his eyebrows when Christianity was mentioned, but adoring protyle and the ether.
012. For the rest, he prided himself on a boundless scepticism; the average tale of wonder he heard with nothing but contempt,
013. The want of means deprived him of the advantages of a University education; and lacking the stamp of a degree, he could not hope for that position which his scholarship and his talents entitled him to claim.
014. “Madam,” replied Mr. Phillipps, “no one shall make me deny my faith. I will never believe, nor will I pretend to believe, that two and two make five, nor will I on any pretences admit the existence of two-sided triangles.”
015. “You interest me intensely,” said Phillips. “Would you mind continuing your story? The circumstance you have mentioned seems to me of the most inexplicable character, and I thirst for an elucidation.”

[Novel of the Black Seal]
016. I see you have self-education, the only education which is not infinitely pernicious,
017. in the company of scientific men like myself, men who knew the course of discovery, and were aware that the gas that blazes and flares in the gin-palace was once a wild hypothesis;

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