Two reviews that original appeared in Black Static #36:-
THE HELEN VAUGHAN FILES
For those not in the know, Helen Vaughan is the main protagonist in Arthur Machen’s 1893 novella THE GREAT GOD PAN/XELUCHA (Creation Oneiros pb, 127pp, £9.99), here published with M. P. Shiel’s short hallucinatory story Xelucha from 1896.
There’s a lot of subsidiary material on offer, perhaps to entice in those who already have this genre classic taking pride of place on their shelves, including a Foreword by H. P. Lovecraft (actually comments taken from HPL’s oft quoted 1927 essay on Supernatural Horror in Literature – no mediums were employed in the publication of this book), an Introduction by Iain S. Smith of The Arthur Machen Society and a note on the occult artist Austin Osman Spare (1888 – 1956), whose ‘automatic’ drawings accompany the text.
In the opening section Dr Raymond performs experiments on Mary, a young girl in his care, with the intention of opening her up to natural experiences, to see the Great God Pan. Years later, Raymond’s friend Clarke reads an account of mysterious happenings in the community where the experiment was conducted, including the disappearance of a young girl. Skip forward again, and man about town Villiers encounters an old school friend who has been ruined by marriage to the beauty Helen Vaughan. This lady now appears to be running a salon which has become the talk of polite society, only many of the aristocrats who visit end up committing suicide. Villiers and his friend manage to fit the pieces together, reaching the conclusion that this Helen Vaughan is an unnatural creature, the offspring of Mary and Pan, and take the appropriate steps to deal with her menace.
I suspect that this story reads very differently to modern readers than it did with Machen’s contemporaries, as with the person of Dr Raymond, who in the context of the story seems positioned as a well-meaning but hubristic scientist, horrified by what he has brought into the world, but whose sheer arrogance and willingness to experiment on a child seem offensive and immoral from a twenty first century perspective. Such contextual matters are outside the scope of this review however. Machen is at his best in his appreciation of the wildness of nature, the way in which the landscape suggests untold possibilities and hints of inhuman revels. He carefully constructs a schemata in which the ineffable seems just a heartbeat distant from the everyday, with the wonders of the natural world shining through the story, but all the same at the calm centre of the tale is the idea that the mysteries will forever be beyond our grasp, and to attempt to penetrate the veil is to invite disaster. Helen Vaughan is the agent of that disaster, the result of tampering with the unknown, a femme fatale who uses men, causing the death of all who cannot help but aspire to love her. And yes, whether intended or not (and I’d argue not), it is possible to find a streak of something akin to misogyny in this story, the way in which the feminine principle is seen as representative of nature red in tooth and claw, antithetical to scientific reason, an aspect of the work another writer has picked up on in the present day, but more of that in a paragraph or so.
Machen’s powerful story is complemented by the dreamlike ‘Xelucha’ by M. P. Shiel, detailing a man’s nocturnal rambles and an encounter with a woman thought long dead, the story a borderline stream of consciousness piece, a torrent of words seeded with suitably lurid and funereal imagery to justify HPL’s description of it (in Supernatural Literature) as ‘a hideously noxious fragment’.
One could, at a pinch, theorise that the monstrous Xelucha is how Helen Vaughan might have turned out had Machen allowed her to escape the attentions of the heroic Villiers, but writer Rosanne Rabinowitz gives the material a different interpretation in her novella HELEN’S STORY (PS Publishing hb, 146pp, £11.99), allowing the character to tell her side of the story.
Long lived thanks to the circumstances of her birth, Helen eluded Villiers easily enough and has travelled the world for many years under a variety of pseudonyms. In the present day she is once again using the Vaughan moniker and living in Shoreditch, working as an artist and making a name for herself with erotically charged paintings, but back of it all is the desire to reach beyond ‘the vanishing point’ where childhood friend Rachel disappeared and remake the acquaintance of her woodland mentor.
Accounts of her present mingle with memories of the past, the true story behind ‘The Great God Pan’ (Helen admits to being aware of the book and once met the author), how Dr Raymond feared her, as did the other men who came into her orbit, such as Villiers, all with little or no reason for doing so, a picture emerging of abuse and neglect, cruelty and rejection, of people vilifying the thing they are scared of simply as a way to justify their own behaviour. Like her fictional counterpart, this Helen is the epicentre of a salon of sorts, gathering creative types under her wing and indulging her sexuality free from constraints of guilt and ego. Her desire, the thing that dictates all her actions, is to break through the barriers of reality and reach that other dimension where Pan and Rachel will be waiting for her. She wishes to explore this new world, to engage with a universe that is unsullied and forever beyond the ravishments of our unnatural, technology driven world, and she finds echoes of that distant greatness in the potential lying latent in art and sexuality, the keys to a new form of comprehension. If she has a flaw, then it lies in her difficulty in recognising that not all are ready for the possibilities of the marvellous, an impatience with those who are held back by everyday concerns and the straitjackets of convention.
Rabinowitz has created a work that remains true to but at the same time reinterprets its source material, showing that prototype to have been very much a product of its time, inspired and driven by attitudes that are alien to the sensibilities of many modern readers. Her Helen remains an outsider, the archetypal stranger in a strange land, but at the same time she is somebody more feared than she is fearsome, a victim of others’ terror of the unknown, often codified simply as the desire to avoid scandal. At the end her story marks the power of creativity, the fecundity of both nature and the human mind, while at the same embodying those things in the figure of the shape shifter Pan and the abilities with which his children are endowed.
The book is also available in a signed jacketed hardcover edition limited to 100 copies and costing £24.99.