Review: ‘The Horned God: Weird Tales of the Great God Pan’

Published (and review copy supplied) courtesy of Horrified magazine.

Weird tale anthologies are enjoying a boom – their contents being dug out of dark nooks and crannies, dusted off and presented to a curious public – and the British Library’s Tales of the Weird series, now approaching its fortieth title, has company. Several of the stories in this highly enjoyable collection appeared in last year’s Wildwood, (which I reviewed for Horrified magazine).

The Horned God differs from others in the series which I’ve read in that the stories are not grouped chronologically. This makes for a better, more thematic flow, and editor Michael Wheatley (who has done a superb job) intersperses them with poems from such luminaries as Oscar Wilde and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The poems are short and almost uniformly excellent, and add a touch of seasoning to the collection.

The use of Pan in these stories takes two forms. Kicking off the collection, almost inevitably, is Arthur Machen’s ‘The Great God Pan’, which demonstrates the idea of Pan as a source of, or symbol for, cosmic horror. One of the high-water marks of weird fiction, ‘The Great God Pan’ lifts any anthology, and doesn’t need me to recommend it. It’s one of the original stories of cosmic terror, and therefore isn’t really about Pan himself: indeed the story wouldn’t be as successful if there were a literal evocation of Pan (horns and hooves and hair). Instead, as happens elsewhere in the collection, Pan is a symbol for what humanity will be confronted by if William Blake’s ‘doors of perception’ are cleansed, and Machen imagines this as a transcendent nightmare that would drive us mad. There is, however, just as much horror in the fate of young Mary being used as a guinea pig by Raymond and Clarke, the male protagonists.

Some readers may balk at an extract from a children’s book, but Kenneth Grahame’s ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ (from The Wind in the Willows, 1907) fully merits its inclusion. Wheatley draws attention to what he calls the ‘sublime fear’ that overcomes Rat and Mole as they search for the missing baby otter Portly; and while the book – and this scene in particular – has its detractors I’ve always found it a visionary episode (and that proto-Lovecraftian title is the best in the anthology). The two animals find themselves ‘rapt, transported’ by the appearance, in that liminal hour, of Pan. A feeling of awe – in the original sense, which borders on terror – threatens to overwhelm them, and oblivion is merciful because it prevents that awe-full memory from overshadowing everyday life.

In many of the stories Pan is only ever glimpsed, and rarely described (after all, we know what he looks like). In Saki’s ‘The Music on the Hill’ Pan once more leaves just an untraceable echo, existing at the limit of the senses. Here, Sylvie pays for stealing grapes which have been left as an offering to him, and we see the vengeful side of the god. Pan is also vengeful in ‘The Golden Bough’ by David H. Keller, where his music, as Rat and Mole could testify, encompasses ‘every dread and exultation’.

This brings us to the other view of Pan, which is perhaps the more familiar: that of a primal – often sexual – force of nature, whose appearance is an irruption into the everyday, and which threatens to rip apart societal bonds.

George Egerton’s ‘Pan’ is set in a French Basque country described in hyper-realistic detail behind which lies ‘a brooding stillness’ (nature, as with Machen, is just a screen). Young Tienette ends up pregnant at the hands of Sebastian who, after he’s had his fun, is forced unwillingly to marry her. Pan’s music unleashes Tienette’s sexual awakening, and it’s a music which inhabits every aspect of the natural world: ‘the cadence of his music had sung in her; she heard it in the sea, and in the trees…[and] in the wood.’

There’s an unhappy marriage, too, in Barry Pain’s excellent ‘The Moon-Slave’. Princess Viola flees the ‘mechanical’ formal dances of her wedding day and finds herself, by contrast, in an old ruined maze. Viola flippantly bargains with the moon and, with its power over tides and sexuality, it provides her with music of such intensity that every full moon she becomes possessed, but the ‘rhythmic madness in the blood’ gives her no pleasure. This superb story flows with the inevitability of a fairy tale.

In some stories the sense of wild, primal terror and cosmic horror are intertwined. In ‘Touched by Pan’ by one of the other great pioneers of the weird tale, Algernon Blackwood, lovers Heben and Elspeth transgress societal norms, and Pan’s arrival amidst orgiastic scenes lifts a veil from their eyes.

By contrast, ‘How Pan came to Little Ingleton’ by Margery Lawrence is a droll, almost comic, folk horror (whose plot bears similarities to both The Witches (UK, Cyril Frankel, 1966), and The Wicker Man (UK, Robin Hardy, 1973). An English vicar searches for his missing flock one Sunday, only to find they are indulging in pagan rituals honouring Pan, whom he unwittingly meets in the form of a charismatic and virile young man. Unusually, this enjoyable story has a happy (or at least epiphanic) ending.

In his introduction Michael Wheatley argues that Pan is a figure missing from contemporary fiction and reminds us of Oscar Wildes’s refrain from ‘Pan: A Double Villanelle’: ‘This modern world hath need of thee!’ But the summer of 2022, full of floods, droughts and wildfires, suggested that we needn’t look too far to find the vengeful side of nature: Pan is everywhere, and it’s all our fault.

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