Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Guest Post: False Memory Syndrome in Arthur Machen’s “The Children of the Pool” by Dale Nelson

Published by Hutchinson in 1936, “The Children of the Pool” is the title story in Machen’s late six-tale collection.  Vacationing in Wales, the story’s narrator (hereafter “Machen”) unexpectedly finds himself the guest of an old friend, James Roberts, who is staying in a cottage somewhere “on the Welsh border.” 

Their first conversation is a cheerful one. However, when they meet again, “Machen” finds Roberts looking wretched and dismayed.  Roberts soon explains that he’d visited the “ugly” pool, and later had taken a walk in the woods, when he heard a nasty, accusing, though feminine voice call to him. 

It spoke to him of wickedness he’d committed many years before.  Roberts remembered his iniquitous conduct as something “‘done with very soon after it was begun.  It was no more than a bad dream.’”  But now “‘it all flashed back on me like deadly lightning,’” with plenty of circumstantial detail.  Moreover, that same night, after he went to bed, Roberts again heard the voice, which promised that Roberts would be compelled to confess his vile behavior to all his friends.  He heard the voice yet again the following night.  However, when “Machen” stays at the cottage with him, Roberts sleeps peacefully.  “Machen” convinces Roberts to continue his holiday in a resort at the other end of England, and Roberts is no longer troubled.

The narrator, in the story's penultimate paragraph, finds the key in something said by the psychologist Koffka (a real person, 1886-1941), as expressed by a reviewer of his Principles of Gestalt Psychology (1935).  Kurt Koffka, the reviewer observed, insisted "that the 'sadness' which we attribute to a particular landscape is really and efficiently in the landscape and not merely in ourselves; and consequently that the landscape can affect us and produce results in us.” 

“Machen” adds that “Poe, who knew many secrets, knew this.”  One recalls Poe’s "Fall of the House of Usher."  In its long first paragraph, we read: "beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of...affecting us" -- although it's beyond us to analyze this power.

So it isn't that people project onto things some notions that they bring to the act of perception, but that the objects may project into us some influence that, combining with our memories and imaginations, produces emotional and imaginative effects.  The housekeeper, Mrs. Morgan, knows that other people have had some sort of bad experiences associated with the pool.  This underscores the reality of its malign influence.

“Machen” comes to believe that his old friend received from the unpleasant-looking pool and its immediate surroundings an "effect" that worked upon his memory of an entanglement that occurred many years ago, when Roberts was a naïve young man living in London for the first time.  He learns that Roberts was staying with a family named Watts, which included two sisters -- Justine, who was his own age (and evidently attracted to Roberts), and Helen, who was a few years older. 

Roberts was detected, by the younger sister, behaving with Helen in a way that got him into trouble with Helen's father when Justine told him about it.  I suppose Roberts was kissing and cuddling with Helen, or perhaps had proceeded to more intimate relations, and that he had been led on to this by Helen herself ("there were extenuating circumstances in his offence, and excuses for his wrongdoing").**   Whatever happened, Mr. Watts was enraged at first and expelled Roberts, but did not end up telling Roberts’s employer about it, apparently because his daughter was much at fault.

What Roberts suffered at the time was intense embarrassment, likely enough a sense that he had known better than to get involved with the older sister all along, and perhaps guilt, if he actually had had sexual relations with her – and expulsion from his lodgings. 

Many years later, then, after Roberts saw the unpleasant pool, its configuration of objects, of light and shadow, etc., evoked in him false memories -- i.e., real memories entangled with imagination – so that he felt a terrible sense of guilt over wicked acts that had, in fact, never occurred, but seemed to Roberts really to have happened – even “a sin before which the sun hid his face.”

The voice that seemed to speak to him was, presumably, that of Justine.  We are told that she had a voice like a peacock’s, and Roberts says that the accusing voice he heard was “‘shrill, piercing,’” a “‘scream,’” and certainly that of a girl.

The story’s narrator associates this bizarre experience with de Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium-Eater.  In that book, a favorite of Machen's, there are reflections on dreams, distorted memories, etc.  For example, under the influence of the drug, the "Eater" has dreadful impressions of crowding faces, which were derived from the daily encounter with London's multitudes, but made dreadful by the agency of the drug. 

The pool acts on Roberts somewhat as opium acted upon the Eater.  Consider the Eater's suffering abysmal guilt: "I fled from the wrath of Brama through all the forests of Asia: Vishnu hated me: Seeva laid wait for me. I came suddenly upon Isis and Osiris: I had done a deed, they said, which the ibis and the crocodile trembled at” (my italics).  In both cases, we have someone's guilty hallucinations.

“Machen” thinks of an unnamed author who described how Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” came to be written, the poet “unconsciously” drawing on his “vast reading.”  This author is assuredly John Livingston Lowes, in The Road to Xanadu (1927).  Since Poe, de Quincey, Coleridge, Lowes, and Koffka worked together, with other elements, in Machen’s imagination, “The Children of the Pool” is akin to “The Rime” in Lowes’s account, as a literary work whose author is indebted to earlier writings, but who has made something new.
Unlike Coleridge, “Machen” says (or like the fantasist Machen himself), Roberts lacked poetic imagination and hadn’t made a poem or a story of his experience.  Instead, it had gone on living in his mind, getting uglier and uglier till it was brought suddenly into startling consciousness.  Like the “‘rank-looking [plant by the pool], covered with dull crimson blossoms, all bloated out and speckled like a toad,’” it grew and swelled “in the darkness” of his mind till it burst into light.

By the way, while I don't agree with all that Julia Shaw says in her recent book The Memory Illusion (indeed, I've read only parts of it), there are things in it pertinent for Machen's story of memory here.***  Julia Shaw argues that “there are hundreds of books, TV shows and movies that portray hypnosis as a key that can allow access to hidden memories.  Unfortunately, this is completely untrue” (The Memory Illusion, p. 128).  She finds that “if used during therapy, suggestive and probing questions combined with hypnosis have the potential to generate complex and vivid false memories of trauma” (p. 129).  As Machen's story suggests, "recovered memories" are likely to be false. 

Machen's story, I suppose, is not a story of the "supernatural" but of the preternatural -- and it can be, for us, a cautionary tale about the use of "memories" in legal contexts.  Machen's narrator acts basically as an attorney who gathers evidence to defend his client from the prosecution – only, in the story, it was Roberts's "memory," his response to the pool, and his conscience that together had become the prosecution!


*It seems that the name "Helen"  was still one that Machen's imagination associated with an attractive, dangerous woman -- cf. "The Great God Pan," written many years earlier.

**See the similar predicament of Johnny Eames, in Victorian author Anthony Trollope's popular novel The Small House at Allington.  Country-bred Eames gets entangled with Amelia Roper, who lives in the same London lodgings and leads him to compromise himself.

***Shaw is worth reading indeed given our culture's fascination over the past several decades with so-called "recovered memories."  If one remembers the "satanic ritual abuse" panic, or the fat book of "recovered memories" of UFO experiences by John Mack called Abduction, etc. – to say nothing of some more recent high-profile news stories -- one will find parts of her book intriguing. 

© Dale Nelson, 2019.  This article is based on a comment posted to the Eldritch Dark Forums on 12 August 2019.


  1. The overhead voice, accusing the listener of sexual transgressions, also occurs in "The Secret Glory." Horbury never sees anybody, but we are led to believe it was the voice of Nellie, whom he had apparently abused sexually. Also, in The Exalted Omega, the protagonist overhears voices discussing what seems to be a murder, one that hasn't in fact occurred--at that time. Could this recurrent motif be autobiographical, perhaps part of that period after Amy's death when Machen lived in a semi-hallucinatory state. Might it have something to do with The Shepherdess, the woman he was in love with before he met Purefoy and who was later murdered by Maundy Gregory. Just wondering aloud. . . so to speak.--md

  2. *It seems that the name "Helen" was still one that Machen's imagination associated with an attractive, dangerous woman"
    -not just Machen - Helen of Troy!

    We don't know just what happened between Helen and Roberts, but could the reference to "children" in the title be meant to imply that she was pregnant or had a child, perhaps? Add the symbolism of a pool surrounded by woods...

  3. I liked the denunciation of Fraudianism in that story. But also the power of place. I have seen places that were creepy, for various reasons, though they did not evoke past debacles. A drainage pool, near a pit used to get rid of rubble, particularly--it was next to the road, startlingly deep, and unfenced, which is unusual for one that close to a road in town, and it at least in the earlier days of my time there was quite dark, with big lumps of not duckweed but algae extending down quite far. Even later, the water was always an odd color. I was reminded of the Machen story, and hoped that no one would be traumatized (or drowned.)
    Just today I got hold of "The Secret Ceremonies" and it looks interesting.