Jim's Reviews > The Three Impostors

The Three Impostors by Arthur Machen
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's review
Oct 28, 10

bookshelves: fantasy-horror
Read from October 27 to 28, 2010

Every October, just before Halloween, I scan my shelves for some good fantasy/horror -- usually something from Dover Publications, who seem to have a lock on the field. This year, I read Three Impostors by the Welsh writer Arthur Machen. Although I finished the book just minutes ago, my mind is still reeling with what must be one of the most subtle and insidiously terrifying works of the genre I have ever read.

Picture to yourself a mysterious prologue, in which we are introduced to two men and a woman who are leaving a mysterious house in the suburbs of London. They discuss some act which was performed and move on. From another direction come the two main protagonists, Dyson and Phillipps, who take over from this point.

What follows are a number of chapters titled as if they were independent short stories; yet they are all interlinked. Two of the chapters contain substories, which Machen for some reason calls "novels," which have been frequently anthologized, namely, "The Novel of the Black Seal" and "The Novel of the White Powder." If these tales remind one of H. P. Lovecraft, it is no accident. In his essay "Supernatural Horror in Literature," Lovecraft comments that they represent "perhaps the highwater mark of Machen's skill as a terror-weaver."

It is only at the end that we find out what has happened in the series of interlinked tales; and the reader, if he is diligent, winds up paging a second time through the book to see whether it all plays out. It does. Rarely have I encountered such a short novel with so many interwoven skeins.

I have remarked in other reviews about the moral landscape of G. K. Chesterton's tales, in which the sinister qualities of the landscape reflect in some way the moral flaws in the characters (usually of the villains). In Machen's work, on the other hand, the scenes where the action takes place vary widely and sometimes strangely inappropriately, considering what takes place. Machen's point seems to be that great mysteries underlie our lives:
I stand in a world that seems as strange and awful to me as the endless waves of ocean seen for the first time, shining, from a peak in Darien. Now I know that the walls of sense that seem so impenetrable, that seem to loom up above the heavens and to be founded below the depths, and to shut us in for evermore, are no such everlasting impassable barriers as we fancied, but thinnest and most airy veils that melt away before the seeker, and dissolve as the early mist of the morning about the brooks.
At one moment, the sun may be shining; at another, one is lost in evil, with the faerie folk and witches and ogres bending our idea of what is real and proper into a cocked hat.

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10/27/2010 page 86
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Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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message 1: by Justeenetta (new)

Justeenetta I'm readind crossings a novel by philip caputo, about the border wars between the us & mexico. the protagonist is reading seneca, which also seems like a good idea. Have you read this roman author? His "letters"?

message 2: by Jim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jim Yes, I've read his Letters of a Stoic plus, years ago, two of his plays.

message 3: by Justeenetta (new)

Justeenetta more comments about his letters? do you remember who they're to, what about?

message 4: by Jim (last edited Oct 28, 2010 02:17PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jim The letters in the Penguin edition, which is the one I read, were addressed to no one in particular -- or perhaps, generically, to his disciples. They were in effect philosophical essays. See the intro on Google Books:


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