“The Terror” (1917) stands out as Arthur Machen’s longest horror story, but its plot is simple. During the cataclysm that was the Great War, a series of bizarre killings besets the “Northern District” and “Meirion” in west Wales. It turns out that the perpetrators are not human beings, but animals, even moths, who attack people without warning, leaving no witnesses alive.
First-person narrator Machen declines to state definitively why the animals made these dreadful attacks, but he offers as an “opinion” the hypothesis that they rose up against their natural lord, man, because he had denied his own spiritual nature and his sovereignty; for centuries, he has, as it were, been “wiping the balm of consecration from his breast.”
American readers, and perhaps many British readers now, too, are likely to miss the significance of this phrase.
Start with this: when Elizabeth was crowned queen of Great Britain in 1953, the event was televised – except for a portion of the ceremony that was deemed especially sacred, and therefore not fit for broadcast by the mass media. This was her anointing by the Archbishop of Canterbury.
This ceremony – the prayers and the anointing – set apart the monarch, not so much for special privileges vis-à-vis her subjects, but for unique responsibilities under God.
The archbishop’s application of chrism to Elizabeth may have stirred the imaginations and memories of some of the witnesses. They might have recalled the old story of how the prophet Samuel anointed Saul, Israel’s first king: “Samuel took a vial of oil, and poured it upon his head, and kissed him, and said, Is it not because the Lord hath anointed thee to be captain over his inheritance?” (1 Samuel 10:1).
They may have recollected that the Hebrew priests were also anointed (Leviticus 21). They were set apart as intermediaries between God and the Israelites.
Many of those present in 1953 would have known a lot of Shakespeare. The occasion being a happy, though solemn one, they probably didn’t think of the Bard’s black magic play. In it, when Macduff learns that King Duncan has been murdered, he is appalled:
“Confusion now hath made his masterpiece:Most sacrilegious murder hath broke opeThe Lord’s anointed temple and stole thenceThe life o’ th’ building!”(Macbeth Act II, Scene 3, lines 65-68)
Like “sacrilege,” that word “confusion” has come down in the world. In Shakespeare, “confusion” may be the catastrophe that accompanies, or follows as the effect of, “ruin”:
"'Tis much when sceptres are in children’s hands,But more when envy breed unkind [i.e. “unnatural”] division:There comes the ruin, there begins confusion."(Henry VI, Part One, Act IV, Scene 1, lines192-194)
I hope the 1953 coronation wasn’t spoiled for anyone by the thought of such passages in Shakespeare, though their gravity might have been salutary if anyone were inclined to be impatient with, or amused by, the pomp.
But – a reader may object – how is any of this material relevant to “The Terror”? There you have nobody killing a king.
The Shakespearean material deals with anointing and the concept of sacrilege. What Machen’s narrator proposes is that the violence that happened was the result of what amounts to being auto-sacrilege.
In his theory, the animals did not rise up because (as is often sadly the case) man had abused them. They attacked him because of his offense against himself as the one consecrated for a unique role in nature. “The king abdicated” – and he had no right to do that. He became “self-deposed.”
The theory of man as mediator between God and the brute creation, of man’s viceroyalty, is something that was once familiar but is now hardly part of the cultural imagination. Our understanding of Machen’s fiction, and our imaginative engagement with it, may be compromised.
Machen’s narrator leaves to the reader whether or not to accept his strange hypothesis about why the animals attacked people – and, since the story, after all, is fiction, the stakes are low.
Or rather, the stakes today are high – if not for us, for the animals. Shall human beings consider ourselves responsible for the domestic and wild creatures that are, whether we like it or not, our subjects?
Animals can’t be stewards of us; we can’t not be stewards of them. We can only be good stewards or bad stewards.
I referred to “The Terror” as Machen’s “longest horror story,” since I see The Three Impostors as a collection of linked stories rather than as a novel.
A good book about human sovereignty and stewardship is Matthew Scully’s Dominion: The Power of Man, theSuffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy.
Admirers of The Lord of the Rings should read Evans and Dickerson’s Ents, Elves, and Eriador: The Environmental Vision of J. R. R. Tolkien, which is a much better book than its cheesy main title would lead one to expect.
The present article is a sequel to my earlier Wormwoodiana posting, “Arthur Machen’s Secret HistoryTale ‘The Terror.’” That article expounded the traditional ontological hierarchy of “levels of being.”
It’s curious to note, by the way, that Machen’s story seems to have been written just before the abdication of the anointed Russian emperor, Tsar Nicholas II, in early 1917.