12 thoughts on “The Three Impostors – Arthur Machen

  1. I vaguely recall that I first read the Corgi ‘Black Crusade’ version of this book in the late 1960s. So this is possibly the first time I will have read the whole unabridged version…

    Prologue / Adventure of the Gold Tiberius

    These seem separate key passages that linked preternaturally into me without my rationalising why…

    There, above green and oily scum instead of lilies, stood a rusting Triton on the rocks, sounding a dirge through a shattered horn; and beyond, beyond the sunk fence and the far meadows; the sun slid down and shone red through the bars of the elm trees.

    Indeed, the highest skill is shown in taking matter apparently commonplace and transmuting it by the high alchemy of style into the pure gold of art.

    …one has no business to make use of the wonderful, the improbable, the odd coincidence in literature, and you took the ground that it was wrong to do so, because, as a matter of fact, the wonderful and the improbable don’t happen, and men’s lives are not really shaped by odd coincidence.

    I went out and wandered rather aimlessly about the streets; my head was full of my tale, and I didn’t much notice where I was going.

    It has not been heard of since 1727, when Sir Joshua Byrde, a Turkey merchant, brought it home from Aleppo,..

    Not that I shall need to seek; rather adventure will seek me; I shall be like a spider in the midst of his web, responsive to every movement, and ever on the alert.


    Aleppo is certainly significant to us in our present age today. It was as if I was utilising Machen’s own Art of Wandering (as gestalt real-time reviewing or dreamcatching (being the Fourth Impostor?)) in the text itself which also happens to be about the Art of Wandering, characters in pursuit or pursued by paranoia or a need to find a young man ‘with’ rather than ‘in’ spectacles, cross currents of random or predestined characters amid mystical Fragments of Life that steep London, and a gold coin balanced on the bars of a drain, something taken from a hand, fear of criminals with knives, and the befriending of two men, Dyson and Phillipps, in a shop, over some Samuelsian tobacco.

  2. The Encounter of the Pavement

    The waiter was summoned, and descended through a trap-door in the floor of the dark apartment, and brought up the wine. Mr. Wilkins lit a cigarette, and Dyson pulled out his pipe.

    ; I migrated to a shy quarter, and my meals became mere observances.

    It was getting dusk, and we seemed to be passing through a shy portion of the town, there were few people about in the ill-lighted streets, and these few were men of the most unprepossessing pattern.

    But at the moment, the utter, dreadful loneliness rushed upon me, and the thought of the great plain and the great sea that parted me from the world I knew, caught me by the throat, and I wondered if I should die there in that mountain hollow.

    A man stepped out and raised one hand, and with the other flung a bright lump of something into the pan of the scales, which clanged down, and Smith muttered something in his ear.

    But I understood that there was one sentence of execration; I heard scraps of stories that seemed strange and improbable.

    Those ‘scraps of stories’ are here, I anticipate, called ‘novels’, with which we need to form this real-time review’s gestalt. Here we read NOVEL OF THE DARK VALLEY, as told by a stranger in London to Dyson, this stranger seemingly pursuing the man with, not in, spectacles amid the traffic, but pursuing someone pursuing him? And the backstory, this ‘novel’ tells of intriguing travel across America from New York to a rough secluded place far west called Reading (‘reading’ stories or novels?) and that scene quoted above with gold from the hand like that earlier gold coin? … Plus vigilantes, lynch mobs, mistaken hatred, mistaken identity….
    But shy in London (where Dyson’s storyteller is made to live in poverty before travelling to America accompanying as ‘secretary’, he tells Dyson, the spectacled one) as shy in Reading, we hear of a ‘shy’ portion of town…
    Why encounter ‘of’ the pavement, and not ‘on’?

  3. Adventure of the Missing Brother – read up to about halfway…

    corrupt cuneiform

    I walked on, turning to right and left in utter haphazard, without caring to look up at the names of the streets, and all that I remember of my walk on that Sunday afternoon seems but the broken fragments of an evil dream.

    a buried city

    ; yet I saw in the contents of the drawer but the materials of fantasy, and vainly tried to conceive what theory could be founded on the fragments that had been placed before me.

    ; I may have been misled by the play of coincidence;

    ‘The wonders of the people that inhabit the parts of Libya, and of the stone called Sixtystone.’

    It seems significant that the black seal is compared to a ‘tobacco-stopper’. This section contains NOVEL OF THE BLACK SEAL, spoken by a lady to the Phillipps (double l, double p) half who makes a whole with Dyson. The ‘novel’ is a stylised work depicting supremely mystic countryside and another excursion (less far-ranging geographically than that of Smith and Wilkins in Reading’s Dark Valley) but it feels like a one-sided conversation on a park bench, somehow. How does that work? She has lost her brother in darkly mysterious circumstances, a young man now ‘wearing’ spectacles, but she goes back further than that and tells of her poverty-stricken days when she was employed by Professor Gregg, a rational hero to rational Phillipps. But her enthralling story seems to imply Gregg also depended on the preternatural, in his mission to solve the secret of humanity, as well as on rationalism. As I do, too, with my dreamcatching of books, to plumb their secrets.

    • With Libya and Aleppo so far, perhaps it was foreordained that I would first read this work under the title ‘Black Crusade’ (in 1966). I gather now it wasn’t an abridgement.

  4. Adventure of the Missing Brother – second half

    We want some extra help about the house; a boy of fifteen or sixteen, you know. There are a lot of little odd jobs that take up the maids’ time, which a boy could do much better.

    A lot of what he said I couldn’t make out, but one word, struck me distinctly. It was such an odd sound; half-sibilant, half-guttural, and as quaint as those double ll’s you have been demonstrating. I do not know whether I can give you an idea of the sound. “Ishakshar” is perhaps as near as I can get;


    …so, is it a coincidence that the lady telling Phillipps this story is called Lally?!

    This is an obsessively paced, normally spaced text, until heading into a lengthy and even more obsessive and crammed document (in tiny print) where Gregg expounds on the reptilian and the slimy legends underlying the Foundlings and Changelings of his ill-spiritual theories…
    But what of Lally’s missing brother wearing spectacles? What of the stylus-tracking hissing of the ‘mentally weak’ boy hired for odd jobs?

  5. Incident of the Private Bar
    Dyson meets another stranger called Burton (or Robbins (double b)?) who overhears Dyson in a bar expounding to himself on the symbiotic conundrum of the young man with spectacles…. Something that haunts this book, too, as well as Dyson. I am an old man with spectacles, but I was a young one once. There is talk between Dyson and Burton-Robbins of the Khan opal as well as a valuable gem in Italy, of the questionable ethics of business, of a confidence trick (like this book itself? or this review?), of the ends justifying the means of happiness, of the Paschal Cycle to calculate the timing of Easter, of another Cycle (an invented folklore one), of tobacco as shag, of a London through a mystic prism of picturesqueness in comparison to a dowdier Paris… I don’t think we have seen the last of Robbins. Or Burton?

  6. The Decorative Imagination

    Yet we have our advantages. Before us is unfolded the greatest spectacle the world has ever seen,—the mystery of the innumerable unending streets, the strange adventures that must infallibly arise from so complicated a press of interests. Nay, I will say that he who has stood in the ways of a suburb and has seen them stretch before him all shining, void, and desolate at noonday, has not lived in vain. Such a sight is in reality more wonderful than any perspective of Bagdad or Grand Cairo.

    …and as I walked, street after street branched off to right and left,—some far reaching to distances that seemed endless, communicating with, other sysjtems of thoroughfare; and some mere protoplasmic streets, beginning in orderly fashion with serried two-storied houses, and ending suddenly in waste, and pits, and rubbish heaps, and fields whence the magic had departed. I have spoken of systems of thoroughfare, and I assure you that, walking alone through these silent places, I felt phantasy growing on me, and some glamour of the infinite.


    Matchless Machen to depict London and its wandering spirit through the words. This depiction unfolds during Dyson’s further encounter with the Burton character, as the latter tells NOVEL OF THE IRON MAID. It seems strange that ‘Novel’ never attracts the definite article. In his own telling of NOVEL, Burton-Robbins embraces or is embraced by a single identity as non-entity in the guise of a new Iron Maiden torture equipment in his fictional-by-one-remove torture collection worthy of a story by Sir Charles Birkin (this collection being the subject of the ‘Novel’ told to Dyson). One wonders if ‘Decorative’ implies to excise or de-core Burton’s false ‘heart’ (‘cor’) rather than the more common interpretation, I guess, of his merely posing as an ingredient in his namesake’s Anatomy of Melancholy…?

  7. The Recluse of Bayswater
    I am amazed at the nature of this man Dyson as a listener or hooverer-up of the troubled tales of those strangers who accost him to listen to such tales. Here, he is visiting a writer friend struggling with writing, but on the way out down the stairs, how many of us have been asked, like Dyson is, to surreptitiously slip into an unknown young lady’s flat to hear her woes?!
    She is another lady with a tale of her brother, this one missing in very melodramatic but genuinely classic Horror Story circumstances called NOVEL OF THE WHITE POWDER. There are some amazing immaculately, if flesh-meltingly, Machen-machined purple passages in this enclosed tale about someone being mis-dispensed a mysterious concoction instead of a pick-me-up medicine, a white powder that has been steeped for centuries in our world’s unhooverable darknesses of ritual and graal, affecting a number of lives, not only the lady’s brother, in the theosophical clutter that underlies sanity. Even to the extent of the reader being persuaded, by artful narrative means, that the clutter we understand as our apparent life effectively hides a coherent, uncluttered reality that, although we should fear it, we should also honestly believe it. Knowing what one unavoidably faces, however inimical, is one step towards optimising it – and by optimising it, hopefully neutralising it. This seems to me similar to the ostensibly preternatural results I have found by my own hoovering-up (over the last seven years) by gestalt real-time reviews of dreamcatchable works of so-called fiction, like this book.
    The chemist who is asked subsequently to investigate the powder is named Chambers… And a young man ‘adopting’ spectacles seems to be the lady’s persecutor… And Dyson’s writer friend is called Russell (double s, double l)…

  8. Strange Occurrence In Clerkenwell
    Adventure of the Deserted Residence

    Clerking Double l, Miss Lally again, and others come together, bracketing the beginning and ending of this slowly emerging gestalt of a book, reflecting much of what I swept ‘adust’ above (see quotes from these two sections below)…Impostors or not. Firstly in a public house, gorgeously mystic descriptions of plain and ornate parts of London, its verge edging onto greenness, the Chaucerian working-man pub talk, and I have been clerking well and working myself, sweating over the ‘Cf’ in many of my reviews, with Pencilled annotations, even in expensive books: Ex Occidente. Bagdad, Libya, Mecca, morocco notebook et al. The British Museum in Great Russell Street. A black crusade, indeed. Possibly one of the most frightening books ever written, and the most mystical one distilled from city landscape.
    And so, back to the Tiberius coin, cf the Khan opal and the Italian gem, and the Triton statue, and now the young man WITHOUT spectacles enacting another confidence trick by being conned himself? And the ending of the whole book was a shock for me. I had not remembered it. Perhaps its text, like bones cracking in a butcher’s shop at night, has changed over the many years since I read it. Or it is the book’s way to warn my bespectacled self (no longer young) to resist looking too deeply into it. But too late.
    PS: Remember that a Dyson in Britain is a form of vacuum or carpet cleaner (cf Nemonymous Night).
    His rooms, which had been originally “furnished apartments,” he had gradually purged of their more peccant parts; and though one would not find here the glowing splendors of his old chambers in the street off the Strand, there was something of severe grace about the appointments which did credit to his taste. The rugs were old, and of the true faded beauty;

    the chase of the phrase

    These surprises and discoveries began to exhaust Dyson, and he hailed with delight the blazing windows of a public-house, and went in with the intention of testing the beverage provided for the dwellers in this region, as remote as Libya and Pamphylia and the parts about Mesopotamia. The babble of voices from within warned him that he was about to assist at the true parliament of the London workman,

    it was a senseless argument, alternately furious and maudlin, with appeals to Bill and Tom, and mediæval survivals of speech, words that Chaucer wrote belched out with zeal and relish, and the din of pots jerked down and coppers rapped smartly on the zinc counter made a thorough bass for it all. Dyson was calmly smoking his pipe between the sips of beer,

    He seemed to be on wires, controlled by some electric machine,

    the spectacles indeed were missing,

    notebook, bound in faded green morocco.

    befouling the fair margins of the fairest books with idle and superfluous annotation, and doing their utmost to give a lasting disgust of all that is beautiful. An abbey church turned to the base use of a stable or a bake-house is a sorry sight; but more pitiable still is a masterpiece spluttered over with the commentator’s pen, and his hideous mark “cf.”

    and I was therefore forced to betake myself to the Reading-Room of the British Museum. / O dim, far-lifted and mighty dome, Mecca of many minds, mausoleum of many hopes, sad house where all desires fail.

    the brain burns adust;

    ; and it was by such insidious arguments, line upon line, here a little and there a little,

    ; the man was a chapter in the Irritability of Authors.

    But, look, we are drawing near to the verge of London; there are gaps, you see, in the serried ranks of brick, and a vision of green fields beyond.

    The floor was thick with the dust of decay;

    and the fairy blood had boiled with the germs of foul disease;

    Phillipps, we are in another age. I wish I had some snuff to offer you, but failing that, I beg to offer you a seat, and we will sit and smoke tobacco. A horrid practice, but I am no pedant.

    Perhaps each novel lives as a singularity within a gestalt of stories?


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