Written in 1894, Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan is a short novel which was highly influential to H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King. King, in fact, said The Great God Pan is “…one of the best horror stories ever written. Maybe the best in the English language. Mine isn’t anywhere near that good…” The Great God Pan used to be hard to find, but is now available free on the Kindle (and at other public domain e-book outlets) and is easily read in one dark and rainy evening.
The first few pages of The Great God Pan describe Mr. Clarke’s visit to his friend Dr. Raymond. After many years of study, Dr. Raymond has theorized that the spirit world is all around us, but that humans are unable to perceive it because of the particular set-up of our sensory systems. Thus, he hypothesizes that a small lesion in the cortex of the brain — a slight adjustment of our normal functioning — will “lift the veil” so that we can perceive the supernatural. The Greeks called this “seeing the Great God Pan.” Dr. Raymond invites Mr. Clarke into his laboratory where he is ready to perform this operation on Mary, a beautiful teenage girl who he saved from the streets years before and who, in his thinking, owes him her life. The operation appears to be unsuccessful… or at least Mary turns out to be incapable of describing her perceptions, because she has become “an idiot.”
The rest of the story is Mr. Clarke’s collection of accounts of unexplained suicides and strange deaths (apparently from shock and terror) in London society and his gradual suspicion that there is some connection between these deaths and Dr. Raymond’s failed experiment. The horrible things he hears about happen in private (many appear to be sexual in nature), so he can’t report the specifics for any of them. Eerie tension and a creeping horror arise as the reader fills in the unknown with fears from his or her own imagination.
It’s disappointing that the writing style of The Great God Pan isn’t as exquisite as the terror is, but it’s pleasant enough and completely readable over 100 years later. The Great God Pan is a must-read for any fan of horror fiction — not the bloody gruesome type of horror, but the brain-bending, soul-scaring type.