Book – “The Great God Pan” (1894)
Author – Arthur Machen
“The Great God Pan” is a novella by Welsh writer Arthur Machen. A version of the story was published in the magazine The Whirlwind in 1890, and Machen revised and extended it for its book publication (together with another story, “The Inmost Light”) in 1894. On publication it was widely denounced by the press as degenerate and horrific because of its decadent style and sexual content, although it has since garnered a reputation as a classic of horror. Machen’s story was only one of many at the time to focus on the Greek God Pan as a useful symbol for the power of nature and paganism. The title was possibly inspired by the poem “A Musical Instrument” published in 1862 by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, in which the first line of every stanza ends “… the great god Pan.”
Clarke agrees, somewhat unwillingly, to bear witness to a strange experiment performed by his friend, Dr. Raymond. The ultimate goal of the doctor is to open the mind of man so that he may experience the spiritual world, an experience he calls “seeing the great god Pan”. He performs the experiment, which involves minor brain surgery, on a young woman named Mary. She awakens from the operation awed and terrified but quickly becomes “a hopeless idiot”.
Years later, Clarke learns of a beautiful but sinister girl named Helen Vaughan, who is reported to have caused a series of mysterious happenings in her town. She spends much of her time in the woods near her house, where a young boy stumbles across her talking to a strange man one day; the boy becomes hysterical and later, after seeing a Roman statue of a satyr’s head, becomes permanently feeble-minded. Helen also befriends a neighbour girl, Rachel, whom she leads several times into the woods. On one occasion Rachel returns home distraught; afterward, she returns to the woods and disappears forever.
Years later, Villiers happens across his old friend Herbert, who has become a vagrant since they last met. When asked how he has fallen so low, Herbert replies that he has been “corrupted body and soul” by his wife, who is later revealed to be Helen. Soon after, Herbert is found dead.
Helen disappears for some time, supposedly taking part in disturbing orgies somewhere in the Americas. She eventually returns to London under the pseudonym Mrs. Beaumont, her appearance followed by a series of suicides. Villiers and Clarke, each learning of Mrs. Beaumont’s true identity, band together and confront Helen in her house. They persuade her to hang herself, and Helen has a very abnormal death, transforming between human and beast before finally dying.
It is finally revealed that Helen is the child of Mary and the great god Pan, who was let in when Dr. Raymond opened her mind up to him.