“Literature,” declares Machen’s protagonist Lucian Taylor at one point in the novel, “is the sensuous art of causing exquisite impressions by means of words.” But it’s not “exquisite impressions” Machen himself is after in The Hill of Dreams. Here, he traces the alchemical inner life of Lucian Taylor, and while he does achieve what Lucian himself strives for in his writing — “that indefinite something which is scarcely so much style as manner, or atmosphere” — it’s the oscillation between the extremes of agony and ecstasy that gives Machen’s book its life.
Beautifully written, The Hill of Dreams is never merely beautiful (as that harking after the “exquisite” might imply), for Machen’s “manner, or atmosphere” is tussling with very active, very dangerous, psychological forces, and the lyrical flow of the prose is shot through with moments of fiery vivacity — a storm of image and feeling, full of flame, light, wonder and horror, rather than anything so passive as the simply “exquisite”:
“The wind blew wildly, and it came up through the woods with a noise like a scream, and a great oak by the roadside ground its boughs 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. He was wonder-struck, almost aghast, before the scarlet magic of the afterglow. 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 blast of the furnace.”
There’s a reverie-like quality to the flow of the narrative, as Machen slips from one image or experience to the next, always harking back, again and again, to certain primal moments. Lucian’s story could, in fact, be described as a series of brief but deeply-felt encounters with female figures — imaginary, real or, in Lucian’s superheated inner world, the imaginary written over the real — after which he rebounds so deeply into his own inner realms, to deal with his ambivalent feelings of horror and desire, that he loses touch with reality altogether. The first is when, as a youth, he lies down in an old Roman fort and either dreams, or daydreams, or actually experiences a visitation from what may be a supernatural creature, or may be “the symbol of the Beloved in hill and wood and stream, and every flower and every dark pool”, whose presence is only described as an after-impression of “the dark eyes that had shone over him, and the scarlet lips that had kissed him”. Lucian feels a “panic fear”, and runs away, but all his life, afterwards, he’s drawn back, a helpless moth to the alchemical flame of this archetypal female. (Just as the landscape, as described in the quote above, is so lit up with images of fire and molten metal, Lucian’s women are, too: one has a “red flame” in her cheek and “bronze” hair.)
The least dangerous of these women is the entirely un-supernatural local girl, Annie, who takes pity on Lucian as he wanders, distraught, one night. Lucian falls in love with her, but in typical fashion prefers it when she has to go away, so he can set about devising rituals for worshipping her as an ideal, rather than a real woman. He creates a book of poetry “written all in symbols, and in the same spirit of symbolism he decorated it, causing wonderful foliage to creep about the text, and showing the blossom of certain mystical flowers, with emblems of strange creatures, caught and bound in rose thickets” (like the “matted boughs” into which that initial female creature disappeared), reciting it while lacerating himself with thorns and briars. (“A practice that seemed to me unwholesome”, Lord Dunsany says, with a certain understatement, in his introduction.) Meantime, Lucian begins another practice, that of imagining himself into another realm, a fantasised Roman past, “the garden of Avallaunius”, which he endeavours to make more real to himself than the village he lives in, whose people are (to his eyes) cruel, scornful and gossipy, or simply unable to understand his sensitive, imaginative nature. When he learns Annie has married someone else, Lucian doesn’t seem to mind; it’s as if it takes away the necessity of having to compromise his very exacting ideals: “he had feared lest love itself should destroy love.”
Coming into a small inheritance, he moves to London, finds himself a garrett, and engages in “the great adventure of letters”. Despite being set in the same city and the same era, Machen bypasses the world of Gissing’s New Grub Street, and on both sides — not for him the wearing-down drudgery of commercial realities, Lucian’s world is entirely composed of the extremes of agony and ecstasy, that even Gissing’s most idealistic and downtrodden writers, Edwin Reardon and Harold Biffen, with their Sunday-afternoon discussions of “a line or two of Euripides”, miss by miles. Lucian is not trying to earn a living, but to achieve something far more occult:
“He had fallen into the habit of always using this phrase “the work” to denote the adventure of literature; it had grown in his mind to all the austere and grave significance of “the great work” on the lips of the alchemists…”
It’s amazing to see how Machen can pull off an entire chapter about the agonies, futilities, and desperations of the entirely internal battle of making art — “an infernal passion, a species of madness” — as Lucian strives to capture his literary ideal on paper and fails again and again and again, till “he had bought, by a long experience and by countless hours of misery, a knowledge of his limitations, of the vast gulf that yawned between the conception and the work…” Locked in his own inner struggles for too long, he realises too late that:
“…he could not gain the art of letters and he had lost the art of humanity.”
Yet Machen makes this relentlessly downward tale readable. The Hill of Dreams is, above all, a book that survives on its style, its “manner, or atmosphere”. Sometimes, reading it, I was unsure exactly what was happening — were we in a new experience, or revisiting an old memory? — but, in a sense, this is the point of the book, as Lucian’s preference for imagination over reality, and the way every encounter with any woman pulls him back to that primal, supernatural incident, casts echoes throughout all his subsequent experience. So, in a way, all his experiences are both new and the same, re-encounters with his primal, inner archetype — “the symbol of the Beloved” — never with anything real, but always with something unreal, though dangerous, and desirous, enough, to him.
The end, for Lucian, is inevitable — he has come to rely a little too much on the contents of a certain bottle of “dark blue glass”, and he’s found, at last, having taken “a drop too much”, by his landlady, a woman with “splendid bronze hair”, the final female he must retreat from. But The Hill of Dreams isn’t a tragedy. It’s the story of one highly sensitive, highly imaginative man’s internal transformation of a reality he can’t face, into something wild, dangerous, ecstatic and terrible, an alchemical working whose focus was only accidentally literature — it’s far more in Lucian’s head, in his entire sensory experience, that finds wonders and horrors alike in both country and city. Most of all, it is Machen’s prose that defies any tragic reading. Always alive, always seeking the bright and fiery, the energetic and, if necessary, the dangerous, it carries you along like an enchantment.
For an epilogue, Machen could well have used his own words from “The White People”:
“Yes… magic is justified of her children. There are many, I think, eat dry crusts and drink water, with a joy infinitely sharper than anything within the experience of the “practical” epicure.”
Replace “magic” with “literature”, or perhaps just “imagination”, and that statement applies to Lucian’s “taking of heaven by storm” (the “essence of sin”, according to Ambrose in “The White People”): “an attempt to penetrate into another and higher sphere in a forbidden manner.” Like Lovecraft’s, Machen’s strongest writing defies being read simply as horror. Rather, it’s a striving to capture the terrifying and ecstatic clash between a strongly-felt imagination and an unignorable reality. In such a clash, it’s always reality that wins out, but those aesthetic souls like Lucian can have their private victories at least — on the printed page, if nowhere else.