Sunday, May 15, 2011

Arthur Machen’s The Hill of Dreams

Arthur Machen is known (insofar as he is known at all) as a writer of supernatural fiction, and is sometimes considered to be a representative of Late Victorian Gothic. Whether his novel The Hill of Dreams is really a novel of the supernatural is hard to say.

The hero is Lucian Taylor, the son of an impoverished English country clergyman. In adolescence Lucian has a mystical, visionary experience in the remains of an old Roman fort. Whether he has really come into contact with occult forces that linger there, or whether the visionary experience comes entirely from within, is never specified and in the end it really doesn’t matter. What matters is that Lucian, who is already obsessed with “useless reading and unlikely knowledge”, feels himself from this point on to be set apart from the rest of humanity. He dreams of becoming a writer.

The Hill of Dreams is a book about books, and the writing of books. It’s a book about visionary experiences. It’s also a book about a young man whose entire life is taken over by such experiences. He becomes more and more cut off from the general run of humanity, and from what ordinary people consider to be reality.

This is also very much a decadent book, and can be considered to be one of the finest flowerings of the English Decadence, even though that movement is generally considered to have run its course by the time it was published in 1907. The writing is gorgeous, highly charged and subtly erotic. The whole book has an intensely visionary quality. There’s a sense of another reality intersecting our everyday reality. This other reality cannot be perceived by everyone, but for those attuned to such things it may be more real than everyday reality.

This is an absolutely superb book. One of the most exciting books I’ve read in a long time. Very highly recommended.

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