Caught by the River

In Search of Machen’s Grave

Adam Scovell | 31st October 2018

Adam Scovell hunts down the final resting place of gothic revivalist and mystic Arthur Machen.

Arthur Machen is one of the key exponents of weird fiction from these isles. Born in Monmouthshire, he eventually travelled to London where he failed to enter medical school before embarking on a slow career as a journalist and writer. His groundbreaking stories possess strange, heady atmospheres that seep into the bones like a chilly fog on autumn evenings. Reason falls apart as Machen’s tales unfold, conclusions being of things beyond comprehension. Perhaps uniquely, Machen’s writing straddled both urban and rural climes with equal dexterity, finding much in both that allowed his unusual eye to seek out menace and intrigue. As in The Great God Pan (1894), one of his most unnerving and adept stories, the urban and the rural are equally apt places for the macabre and the weird. His stories often explore such divides, finding as much phantasmagoria in Welsh woods as in London streets. It was a pleasing surprise then to find, on searching out the writer’s grave, that Machen was buried in an equally unusual place; one that earnestly mixes a sense of city and meadow.

Led by the fiction writer, Gary Budden, we ventured in search of the man’s final resting place. The grave is situated in Old Amersham, just south of Amersham itself and its station leading to London. The day was muggy like a Robert Aickman story; overcast yet stifling. It felt odd to be wandering around somewhere still technically a part of London and yet so clearly tipping over into some definition of countryside. A minute’s walk from the official designation of Zone 9 and a deep forest engulfed the sky. As quickly as the trees had swallowed the light, however, a bright yellow meadow shone through an arch of branches, revealing the old town, the church spire and the surrounding hills.

Old Amersham is a typical chocolate box village, coloured by the affluence of outer London and clearly a dwelling place of city commuters and bankers. It is not unlike the village Machen’s characters imagine in The Secret Glory (1900) where “they savoured of the long, bending, broad village street, the gable ends, the grave fronts of old mellow brickwork, the thatched roofs here and there, the bulging window of the ‘village shop,’ the old church…” Aptly, this place is a projected memory in the segment it appears in, a hopeful, fantastical vision of escape from the reality of the city encountered by rural inhabitants. Fantasy often plays a role in the construction of such places.

The graveyard sat beside a small stream that trickled noisily past the old walls, a perfect place for faeries and “Little People” to cause mischief. It took little time to find the grave, housed in the furthermost part of the graveyard and looking older and more battered than most of its marble counterparts. The rain came to meet us as we stepped over the grass to try and confirm if it was in fact his grave. Lichen and moss had grown in and over the words, resembling liver spots climbing upon aged skin. The lettering had already been smoothened and obscured by the seventy or so years of weather. From anywhere but intensely close up, it could have been a blank stone, only vaguely commemorative in shape and more akin to a thin standing stone protector of the fellow dead. We felt for letters, finally making out his name. The typography was unusual, filled with unnecessary curves as if possessed of some hidden, geometric meaning. Running a finger along the “H” of his surname felt unwise but pleasurable, with an unusual hoop joining the letter’s two pillars.

We wandered on afterwards, through dead farmland, A-roads and country lanes, finding the house where John Milton wrote Paradise Lost and the curry house opposite which eponymously shares Milton’s name. The region is unusual, mixed and eerie; an appropriate spot for the final resting place of one of weird fiction’s most important writers. But Machen’s grave stayed in my mind’s eye, and I found myself often looking towards the photograph I had taken. It slowly developed in my pocket and deepened with hues of green and grey. The grave found its final darkness whilst on the Metropolitan Line as the tube trundled back into the city. I half expected some lingering presence to be captured in its grain. The train’s view turned once again to mesh and steel as the photograph locked in its colours and our unusual memories of the day. “We have just begun to navigate a strange region;” Machen writes poignantly in The Terror (1917), “we must expect to encounter strange adventures, strange perils.”