The Hill of Dreams by Arthur Machen

Jon Gower continues his journey into the Library of Wales series as he looks at The Hill of Dreams by celebrated author and mystic Arthur Machen.

In this novel, written in 1907, the Caerleon-born writer and fabulist Arthur Machen adds to the his personal and misty mythopoeia with a tale of a young man, a rector’s son called Lucian Taylor, who wanders though the world questing for beauty, within the pages of books, among dreamscapes, via drugs and of course, the greatest conduit, love. But this is Machen, so beauty is soon sullied and transports of delight are soon subverted, becoming reveries of terror, nightmare rides, as the lucidity of vision is replaced by the disconnects of Lucian’s inescapable mental breakdown. It’s little wonder, then that The Hill of Dreams was once describes as ‘the most decadent book in the English language’ where the seductive, clear prose hides a dark undergrowth, a silken wrap hiding terrible thorns.

The Hill of Dreams by Arthur Machen Library of Wales, No. 26
The Hill of Dreams
by Arthur Machen
Library of Wales, No. 26

It is a book in seven sections and has been likened to a symphony in its structure and as the poet Catherine Fisher avers in her sterling introduction, quite one of the best in the series, its central character is:

Sensitive and self-absorbed, he despises the commonplace society around him as only the young can despise, and wanders the land obsessively. In the ancient Roman fort inside its circle of dark trees he falls asleep one hot afternoon and undergoes an occult experience that marks him indelibly. This experience haunts the book and Lucian finally comes to think of it with terror, as his ‘sin against the earth.

So, expect the usual, but always thoroughly unusual Machen cocktail of natural, and, indeed, Pagan mysticism, internal mystery and complexity, coupled with disarmingly casual echoes of a Roman past complete with oodles and ladles of old fashioned magic. It is seductive stuff, like a freshly dried crop of magic mushrooms, not least in its dramatic transitions from pastoral description to visionary hallucination:

The wind blew wildly, and it came through the woods with a noise like a scream, and a great oak by the roadside ground its bought together with a dismal grating jar. As the red gained in the sky, the earth and all upon it glowed, even the grey winter fields and the bare hillsides crimsoned, the waterpools were cisterns of molten brass and the very road glittered… The old Roman fort was invested with fire; flames from heaven were smitten about its walls, and above there was a dark floating cloud, like a fume of smoke, and every haggard writhing tree showed as black as midnight against the black of the furnace.

Throughout this book, shot through as it is with vivid, lysergic passages, Arthur Machen seems to underline how thin are the partitions between one world, or indeed pur many worlds and the next. Blood rains down from the skies, as if there has been a sacrifice in the heavens, huge cities rise and fall, women walk past with jets of flame issuing from their breasts. And there are ‘Sabbath marriages’ between mortals and witches. As Catherine Fisher beautifully puts it, ‘In the heady, hothouse era of Wilde and Beardsley, Machen’s work was another blazing orchid, but has its own scent.’ The smell of a black orchid, putrescent and appealing at one and the same time, perhaps.

The Hill of Dreams is a steadily darkening and darkly scented account of a journey through those liminal spaces and dreamscapes, through those porous borders, between the physical and the metaphysical, the (Roman) past and the present, the outer landscape and the spiritual lands within. As Clive Barker put it ‘Arthur Machen… is a mystic, who knew that there exists a threshold which, if it stepped over, will show us a subtly altered reality.’ This novel easily crosses such a threshold, showing how madness lies just the other side of lucidity, opening a heavy oaken door of perception and leaving it hauntingly ajar.