Wednesday, 24 October 2018

The Three Impostors

The Three Imposters by Arthur Machen
Arthur Machen

The Three Impostors is an episodic novel by British horror fiction writer Arthur Machen. The novel incorporates several inset weird tales and culminates in a final denouement of deadly horror, connected with a secret society devoted to debauched pagan rites. The three impostors of the title are members of this society who weave a web of deception in the streets of London-retailing the aforementioned weird tales in the process-as they search for a missing Roman coin commemorating an infamous orgy by the Emperor Tiberius and close in on their prey: "the young man with spectacles".

Over the last few years I've been slowly amassing a small (but perfectly formed) collection of Machen books having become slightly besotted after reading 'The White People'.  I've discovered in that time that I generally prefer his short work to the long but this is often the case for me with writers of the outre.  The long stuff is fine - 'The Hill of Dreams' was a hell of a read but an exhausting one as I felt no love for the central character - but I like the short, sharp, shock of the smaller tales.  With that in mind 'The Three Imposters' offered up the best of both worlds being a novel made up of several interconnected shorts; a portmanteau novel.

The story concerns Dyson and his friend Phillips who find themselves unknowingly at the centre of a scheme after Dyson finds a rare coin.  The coin itself is a bit of a MacGuffin but as the story unfolds the two begin to experience a series of bizarre encounters with strangers who each relate a macabre and twisted tale.

A couple of these tales are ones that even the most casual Machen reader will likely have come across as they are regularly anthologised - 'The Novel of the Black Seal' and 'The Novel of the White Powder' - the first a dark slice of rural horror of the true face of the fair folk of this land and the second a proto-sci-fi tale with distinct echoes of 'Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde'.

These two tales are by far the stand out moments of the book, of the remaining stories all are, at worst, readable but neither the novel of '...the Dark Valley' or '... the Iron Maid' reach the heights of the other two.  Dyson and Phillips are odd characters and their insular natures make them somewhat nonchalant to the plight of the young man with spectacles but, for the reader at least, his fate is sealed from the off.

'The Three Impostors' was a particularly early work for Machen (published a year after 'The Great God Pan' and predating 'The Hill of Dreams' by some 12 years) and it shows a writer reconciling his own imagination with that of his literary heroes and while there are definite flaws it all adds up to a most enjoyable whole. 

Buy it here - The Three Impostors


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