*WARNING: This review contains spoilers and a synopsis of Arthur Machen’s “The Great God Pan”
“Contrary to rumours of her death, Helen Vaughan is alive and well and living in Shoreditch. Some readers might have met Helen in Arthur Machen’s classic novella “The Great God Pan”. Now she gets to tell her side of the story.”
So says the rear cover of this immaculate hardcover from PS Publishing, and I was immediately intrigued. Machen’s story is a great blend of primordial horror and mystery, full of intensity and haunting evocation. But like many tales from this late Victorian period, the gender attitudes can be jarring to the modern sensibility – full of entitled male egos wounded by the evils of female sexuality – so it’s a fantastic choice of mythos for a thorough reworking.
For those not mindful of Arthur Machen’s piece, the novella introduces a Dr Raymond who conducts an alarming neurological experiment upon Mary, an orphan girl. She enters a strange dimension and meets “The Great God Pan” and after her experience with this sensual figure of forbidden experience, Mary is left a gibbering wreck. She gives birth to a child 9 months later, Helen, but the terrible stress of the delivery kills her.
20 years later, a London gentleman named Villiers stumbles upon an old friend who has been “corrupted body and soul” by his wife. Villiers discovers that some kind of siren by the name of Helen Vaughan has blazed a trail of destruction, from causing madness and death as a child to a string of male post-coital suicides as an adult. He eventually confronts her and rather than face the law, she agrees to hang herself and transforms into her true beastly nature at the point of death.
And so on to “Helen’s Story” in which our modern day heroine is far from dead, as the blurb declares, and living as a hipster artist. She wants to use her paintings and pagan powers to take the art world by the throat, and the tale begins by switching between her childhood with Dr Raymond and the present. This brings fresh suppositions regarding her upbringing and development, but although much of the plot is new, “Helen’s Story” is carefully crafted with the Machen’s world in mind. Rosanne Rabinowitz paints the otherworldly moments with vivid strokes and effortlessly transports us between Victorian and contemporary London. She captures the character and nuances of both periods and proves herself a great evocator in the Machen tradition.
As for Helen herself, it’s great to meet this shape-shifting, seductive half-deity as a fully fleshed being. She received very little characterisation in Machen’s work, the point of view being from the important male players, obviously. But here, rather than us knowing Helen only through austere opinions and a list of monstrous charges, we get the first person voice of a woman constantly struggling with – yet fascinated and empowered by – what she truly is. Respect goes to the author for not just playing her as a lonely and transient victim but emphasising her curiosity, sharp intelligence and humanity.
Another Machen tradition that is cast aside, along with the “male gaze”, is leaving everything off-camera. Too little or too much can be a fine line, but I think the author has gauged it right. Darker themes of need and otherness are tackled head on, both through Helen’s actions and the magic of her art, and scenes of sexual awakening and physical transformation are detailed but never lurid. The author also revisits Helen’s coming of age in a rural town and bravely explores her teenage relationship with Rachel, a friendship that led to the girl’s fate. In Machen’s piece, this relationship was regarded as impure; a nymph and victim. Here, it is presented as erotic, troubled and poignant.
I also like that “Helen’s Story” acknowledges the actual existence of Arthur Machen and his “The Great God Pan” publication. It gives a mischievous warmth to the proceedings as Helen recalls meeting both the “characters” from the book and even Machen himself. Dr Raymond and his serious-mindedness are perfectly captured, as is Villiers’ pomposity, fondness for booze and general self-righteousness. Helen occasionally pans the latter with such humour and razor wit that its impossible not to cheer her on, and although purists may bristle, there are no unnecessary cheap shots. The 21st century characters - such as socialite Nao and the punky Rory for whom Helen has feelings - are also believable and realised by great dialogue. And as for the enigmatic Great God Pan himself, I wouldn’t dream of spoiling what happens when he turns up.
The story builds with an understated intensity as Helen pieces together her past and the scene is set for a powerful conclusion at an art show in which she plans to showcase her sexually-charged talents. The ethereal finale is dark and dreamlike, rewriting the world as we know it and riffing on Machen’s ultimate question. How do you live a normal existence once you’ve seen?
I found “Helen’s Story” unpredictable and emotionally satisfying. Rosanne Rabinowitz writes muscular but succinct prose, injecting flair when required, and pleasingly fills in some of the more frustrating gaps of “The Great God Pan” yet still leaves plenty to ponder. Helen’s perspective brings thoughtful contrasts, particularly the lush sensuality to Machen’s turn-of-the-century patriarchy, and while the author does not disrespect his milieu, she doesn’t excuse his gender politics either. I like it when books set out to tell the story of an underdeveloped “villain” from a horror classic. This one very much succeeds as both a speculative homage and an enlightened update of Machen’s original vision.