Forbidden Tomes: THE GREAT GOD PAN by ARTHUR MACHEN

We all know and bow down to Lovecraft and his pal Cthulhu. But where did that horror master find his inspiration? This early tale of cosmic terror is hard to find in print, which is a dreadful shame, because its evocation of what would become Lovecraft’s themes is soul-shaking. I’m talking about it today, though, because Valentine’s Day is coming up – and this is possibly one of the least romantic stories I’ve ever read. This cosmic warning is called THE GREAT GOD PAN.

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Now, by today’s standards, this story is pretty sexist in its setup and conclusion. This must be taken into account when analyzing it by the standards of its time. It begins with two doctors preparing a woman (willingly, sort of) for a strange procedure: they will open a part of her brain that will allow her to see the massive truth of the universe, the Great God Pan. Naturally it goes about as badly as it could. But it doesn’t end there – years later, one of the doctors hears uncanny tales of a woman who has the power to ruin the lives of those she touches by driving them insane. And the test subject happened to get pregnant after seeing the Great God himself. Is the child of Pan roaming the earth, and if so, what does that mean for humanity?

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Arthur Machen poses this story as just that, a series of stories told by secondary sources. Our main character witnesses nothing but the procedure – everything else comes to him through rumors and tales. This is confusing for the reader at first, but as the pieces fit into place, it creates an atmosphere of deadly mystery and paranoia. We can’t see the Great God or the evil woman, but we know she’s out there. And her intentions could not be more evil. As we hear of her deeds – ruining men with her sexual power, holding dark rituals, driving children insane with fear – we come to fear her, too.

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The cosmic elements elevate the story from mildly intriguing to terrifying, a terror that lingers. Machen’s opening idea, of this entity that exists in a nether region of space, is eerie – but giving this entity agency is nightmarish. And because of the format, we never get close enough to reconcile this force, put a face or size to it. That is the genius of this story, and the reason it still holds power. If we saw the Great God, we would know its limitations; instead, we are left with only second-hand accounts, all of which are too rattled to give a full image. As Lovecraft said, the greatest fear is the fear of the unknown.

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I love this type of story for its atmosphere and implications, the sense of overwhelming dread inherent in the events. Forcing characters to face an irreconcilable monster, when done right, makes for fascinating insights. And it also happens to be a perfect anti-Valentine’s Day statement. We witness marriages imploding, demonic births, and sexual manipulation, all under the sway of a massive evil force from beyond the veil. What a better way to comfort oneself about a lack of significant other? I’d much rather be single forever than date the Great God. So stick it, Hallmark.

That, of course, is a secondary concern – manufactured holidays aside, THE GREAT GOD PAN is an astoundingly influential work. Like “The King in Yellow” and “The Willows,” it set the stage for Lovecraft, Ligotti, Barker, and so many others. Read it and tremble in the face of Pan himself.

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